March 21, 2015

Review of Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong

Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong (Indigenous Americas Series)In this sweeping work of memoir and commentary, leading cultural critic Paul Chaat Smith illustrates with dry wit and brutal honesty the contradictions of life in “the Indian business.”

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.”
Some glowing reviews:

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:Found this weeding the library's collection and its title cried out to be read. Another hidden gem. A collection of disparate essays on being Indian and about their place in the world. I enjoyed the first third of the book more than the remainder which discussed art and Indian artists. Smith is witty, cheeky and is all over issues, debunking stereotypes, endorsing stereotypes. You never quite know what he's thinking or where he stands as his views have evolved over time. We have the Indian as: drunk, noble savage, victim, etc. Great writing and insight from a guy who never graduated from college. A really witty essay on irony. Smith grew up as a suburban Indian, was involved with AIM, and then becomes a curator at the NMAI. Go figure.

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.
Comment:  I agree that Everything You Know is too much about the art world to be of general interest. The ideal reader is probably a museum-going, art-loving Indian like Smith.

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