December 10, 2011

Americans = wandering strangers

Where Myths Are Made: Bobby Bridger’s New Book Showcases Reinvention

By Carol BerryUsing a deft touch and some sly humor, Bridger entertains his readers with a shrewd analysis of the underlying themes played out in the American West. The book’s title refers to the Trans-Missouri area “where Americans will always go to reinvent themselves—and America is about reinvention, if nothing else,” Bridger writes. “The heart and soul of the people live in this region.”

But it’s also a region that’s frightening to immigrants who are accustomed to plenty of water, wood and land, who found the Great Plains arid and treeless. Deeper still, as Bridger quotes the late, iconic Vine Deloria Jr.: “Although non-Indians are born in North America, they are not indigenous to North America, and they remain strangers in a land they do not understand…. Where we (Indian people) have consecrated the land with our lives and blood; we have truly become native to this land.”

In fact, Bridger contends, the archetypal American is a nameless, dislocated traveler, a wanderer—often a cowboy. The archetype fits the requisite core plot of fiction: “a man goes on a quest,” or “a stranger comes to town,” or both, he says, quoting playwright Dale Wasserman. Another piece of American identity came from “playing Indian,” as rebellious colonialists donned “Indian” garb at the Boston Tea Party; in fact, Philip Deloria suggests that the American personality was largely created by non-Indians role-playing as Indians.

One kind of American to be reinvented in the West by “going Native” was the mountain man, because “inhabiting the indigenous culture of North America to become a mythmaker is what would eventually distinguish the very fine line between “playing Indian” and “going native,” Bridger says.

“Because of their absolute immersion into Indian culture, the mountain men would thus become recognized as the very first collective manifestation of American freedom and individuality in the heart of the ‘wilderness’ of the New World,” he says. “Since they were totally immersed in the Indian culture in order to survive, the greatest compliment one could pay a mountain man was, ‘I took you fer an Injun.’”

Taking it a step further, the transformative “playing Indian” and “going Native” are transcended by “becoming indigenous,” which has a redemptive quality; in Bridger’s analysis, Dunbar in Dances with Wolves “becomes human” in Lakota perception, and, Bridger says, “becoming human, he has become indigenous” as he renounces the brutality of the society and culture for which he once fought.

A similar transformation occurs in Avatar, which Bridger describes as American Western, when Sully, departing his avatar body to engage Quaritch in combat, becomes indigenous through a fusion of nature, technology and spirituality. Those movies and others “suggest that both Indian and non-Indian Americans continue seeking mythological transcendence in the Trans-Missouri by means of our national narrative, the Western.”
Comment:  This analysis relates to the historical phenomenon of "playing Indian," of which the Boston Tea Party is the most famous example. The interesting point is that it's still going on today.

This is what mascot lovers are trying to say: "We're not newcomers or wannabes. We're as noble and virtuous as the land's original inhabitants." And hipsters in headdresses: "We're not bland white people without a clue about our roots. We're tribal, which means we're authentic and tied to this place."

Deep down, Americans know they're foreigners, immigrants, strangers to the land. They know cheated the Indians and stole the land. This is their way of denying these uncomfortable truths. It's their way of saying, "We can't be illegal occupiers. We're Indians too."

In short, the message is: "We're real. We belong here. Everyone else is a wandering stranger compared to us."

For more on the subject, see Indian Wannabes = Celebrity Wannabes and Tribalism Is Trendy.

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