March 21, 2007

Indians replaced by cartoons

Home of the BraveAmerica pre-Columbus was a riot of vastly different cultures, who occasionally fought each other, no doubt sometimes viciously and for stupid reasons. If some Indian societies were ecological utopias with that perfect, elusive blend of democracy and individual freedom, some also practiced slavery, both before and after contact. And if things were complicated before the Admiral showed up, they got even more so later. For centuries North America was perhaps the most intricate geopolitical puzzle on earth, with constantly shifting alliances between, with and among Indians and Europeans. As Chuck Berry would say many years later, anything you want we got it right here. Yet the amazing variety of human civilization that existed five centuries ago has been replaced in the popular imagination by one image above all: the Plains Indians of the mid-19th century. Most Indians weren't anything like the Sioux or the Comanche, either the real ones or the Hollywood invention. The true story is simply too messy and complicated. And too threatening. The myth of noble savages, completely unable to cope with modern times goes down much easier. No matter that Indian societies consistently valued technology and when useful made it their own. The glory days of the Comanches, for example, were built on the European imports of horses and guns. (We mastered both and delayed the settlement of Texas a hundred and fifty years, a public service we're proud of to this day.)

I have avoided here the usual recitation of broken treaties, massacres, genocide and other atrocities. It's what we're supposed to talk about it, but business as usual has been a dismal failure as far as dialogue goes, and I find guilt trips incredibly boring and useless. So when I say, for example, that the Americas are built on the invasion and destruction of a populated land with hundreds of distinct, complex societies, and a centuries long slave trade involving millions of Africans I offer this as an observation that is the minimum requirement for making sense of the history of our countries. This unpleasant truth is why Indians have been erased from the Master Narrative of this country, and replaced by the cartoon images that all of us know and most of us believe. At different times the narrative has said we didn't exist and the land was empty, then it was mostly empty and populated by fearsome savages, then populated by noble savages who couldn't get with the program, and on and on. Today the equation is Indian equals spiritualism and environmentalism. In twenty years it will probably be something else.


Rob said...

I've posted multiple excerpts from a single article before. Especially an article as long as this one.

I plan to post one more excerpt. I urge creative types to read part 4 of the original article, since it deals with Natives making art in the modern world.

Rob said...

Since I link to the original article, you can read the whole thing at any time.

Rob said...

If you must know, I went to Indianapolis for the express purpose of participating in the Native comics program. The Eiteljorg Museum was solely responsible for sponsoring and paying for my trip. There was no corporate payoff or quid pro quo.