Raised in suburban Maryland and Oklahoma, Smith dove head first into the political radicalism of the 1970s, working with the American Indian Movement until it dissolved into dysfunction and infighting. Afterward he lived in New York, the city of choice for political exiles, and eventually arrived in Washington, D.C., at the newly minted National Museum of the American Indian (“a bad idea whose time has come”) as a curator. In his journey from fighting activist to federal employee, Smith tells us he has discovered at least two things: there is no one true representation of the American Indian experience, and even the best of intentions sometimes ends in catastrophe. Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong is a highly entertaining and, at times, searing critique of the deeply disputed role of American Indians in the United States. In “A Place Called Irony,” Smith whizzes through his early life, showing us the ironic pop culture signposts that marked this Native American’s coming of age in suburbia: “We would order Chinese food and slap a favorite video into the machine—the Grammy Awards or a Reagan press conference—and argue about Cyndi Lauper or who should coach the Knicks.” In “Lost in Translation,” Smith explores why American Indians are so often misunderstood and misrepresented in today’s media: “We’re lousy television.” In “Every Picture Tells a Story,” Smith remembers his Comanche grandfather as he muses on the images of American Indians as “a half-remembered presence, both comforting and dangerous, lurking just below the surface.”
Smith walks this tightrope between comforting and dangerous, offering unrepentant skepticism and, ultimately, empathy. “This book is called Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong, but it’s a book title, folks, not to be taken literally. Of course I don’t mean everything, just most things. And ‘you’ really means we, as in all of us.”
Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong, by Paul Chaat Smith
Paul Chaat Smith and His Pal Irony Offer a Dose of Indian Reality
A Review of Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong by Paul Chaat Smith
Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong (review)
Comments echo my thoughts
Some Goodreads comments give a more realistic picture of the book:
I didn't have my mind blown by this book, but it was an interesting look into the mind and identity conflict of modern Native Americans. I especially liked the parts where they talk about within the Indian community, classification by tribe enrollment and blood percentage.
Parts I wanted to enlarge and hang on the wall or send to friends and family, they were so spot-on and funny and provocative. Others I found myself skimming. Maybe because it's a collection of previously released essays so there was some repetition, and also because some were written for museum exhibits. The great parts made it worth it, though.
Unfortunately, this book turned out to be a series of essays and lectures from the curator of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Indians. Although parts of it were indeed about the incorrect portrayal of American Indians in history books and movies, much of it was about current Indian artists. I was hoping to be educated about real American Indians but was not.
I was least compelled by the middle of the book, where each chapter was clearly originally written as an introduction to an art show with which Smith was connected (as writer or curator). There's a fair bit of repetition between the essay, and the words would be stronger if they ran alongside more examples of the art Smith's referencing. Still, there are some wonderful gems of insight, mockery, and politics in these essays too--very well worth the read.