February 10, 2011

"Chiefing" among East Coast Indians

The Newest Indians

By Jack HittThis ethnic apprehension can be found even among the older tribes, where outmarriage, or exogamy, has created a contemporary population that doesn't look nearly as "Indian" as the characters of our movies and HBO westerns. What results from this can get funky. For example, among coastal Indian tribes, who depend upon tourism, it is not uncommon to see them dressed as Plains Indians with full feathered headdresses and other outfits that were never their custom. It is a practice known as "chiefing," and in some tribes it is as regulated as jewelry sales. This is the market force, ethnic-wise: coastal Indians know that they have to look like an outsider's vision of an Indian in order to be accepted by tourists as Indian.

Among the newer tribes, this anxiety can get especially intense. All weekend at the Jaycee Fairgrounds, the Cherokees of Northeast Alabama whom I spoke to were quite nervous that I might pronounce them, as some put it, "ethnic frauds." Hickman, the genealogist, insisted upon knowing if I was "going to make fun of them." In the days leading up to the powwow, he called me repeatedly, his voice filled with panic. Hardly an hour went by over the weekend that the event's spokeswoman, Karen Cooper, didn't sidle up to ask me if there was anything she could do.
Comment:  Even if Indians do it, dressing up as Plains chiefs is stereotypical, of course.

If you have to pretend you're something you're not for the tourists, you're not in the Indian "biz" for the right reason. If the choice is tourists + inauthentic culture or no tourists + authentic culture, the latter is infinitely preferable.

For more on the subject, see:

"3 Horses Sly Fox" teaches stereotypes
Half-naked "chief" in Mass. parade
The "honor" of a Plains chief
Debating Chief Zee

Below:  "3 Horses Sly Fox" in Rhode Island.

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