April 09, 2011

Whites "play Indian" in Swamplandia!

Educator Debbie Reese writes about another Native-themed book with problems. Here's the book's description:

Swamplandia!From Booklist

*Starred Review*

Russell’s lavishly imagined and spectacularly crafted first novel sprang from a story in her highly praised collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006). Swamplandia! is a shabby tourist attraction deep in the Everglades, owned by the Bigtree clan of alligator wrestlers. When Hilola, their star performer, dies, her husband and children lose their moorings, and Swamplandia! itself is endangered as audiences dwindle. The Chief leaves. Brother Kiwi, 17, sneaks off to work at the World of Darkness, a new mainland amusement park featuring the “rings of hell.” Otherworldly sister Osceola, 16, vanishes after falling in love with the ghost of a young man who died while working for the ill-fated Dredge and Fill Campaign in the 1930s. It’s up to Ava, 13, to find her sister, and her odyssey to the Underworld is mythic, spellbinding, and terrifying. Russell’s powers reside in her profound knowledge of the great imperiled swamp, from its alligators and insects, floating orchids and invasive “strangler” melaleuca trees to the tragic history of its massacred indigenous people and wildlife. Ravishing, elegiac, funny, and brilliantly inquisitive, Russell’s archetypal swamp saga tells a mystical yet rooted tale of three innocents who come of age through trials of water, fire, and air. --Donna Seaman
And Reese's take on it:

Unexpected intersections:  Thanksgiving and Karen Russell's SWAMPLANDIA!Earlier this week a reader wrote to ask me about Karen Russell's Swamplandia! Not familiar with it, I read reviews and learned that it is the story of a not-Native family who uses Native names to pass as Native people who run an alligator-wrestling theme park.Reese notes a key passage in the text:We are wearing Indian costumes on loan from our Bigtree Gift Shop: buckskin vests, cloth headbands, great blue heron feathers, great white heron feathers, chubby beads hanging off our foreheads and our hair in braids, gator "fang" necklaces.

Although there was not a drop of Seminole or Miccosukee blood in us, the Chief always costumed us in tribal apparel for the photographs he took. He said we were "our own Indians." Our mother had a toast-brown complexion that a tourist could maybe squint and call Indian--and Kiwi, Grandpa Sawtooth, and I could hold our sun.
She continues:I wonder if there are any Seminole characters in the book? I'll let you know when I get the book. It got rave reviews. RAVE reviews. At the Amazon page, there are blurbs from everyone from Stephen King to the reviewer for Oprah's magazine. I don't see any comments at all about the fact that the family is playing Indian. If they were playing Black, would that be noted?(Excerpted from Debbie Reese's American Indians in Children's Literature, 4/6/11.)

Comment:  I searched the text the same way Reese did. As far as I can tell, there were no references to live Seminole or Miccosukee Indians. Just one mention of the Miccosukee Indian Reservation and one of a Seminole "gambling hall."

Indeed, the word "Indian" appears only 15 times, "Seminole" 11 times, and "Miccosukee" four times. This in a book whose central premise is white people pretending to be Indians.

I also didn't find any instances of the words "cheat," "fraud," or "deception." So a white family with conveniently dark skin dresses up as Indians. They defraud countless tourists with a con game. They present a distorted, stereotypical version of Seminole and Miccosukee culture. And apparently get away with it for most or all of the book.

If the problem isn't glaringly obvious yet, let's use my favorite teaching technique: a black/Indian comparison. Imagine a white family donning black shoe polish; pretending to be slaves, sharecroppers, or residents of a segregated town; and charging admission for it. See the quaint, colorful folks of Ghettopia, a "genuine" black community--only $10 a head.

Unthinkable? Yes. But this book's scenario is the same freakin' thing.

Indians MIA in Swamplandia!

Swamplandia! does tell the "tragic history of its massacred indigenous people." But it has little or nothing to say about today's Indians. Despite a couple of references, Swamplandia! treats them as invisible or nonexistent. It's as if they vanished long ago and the Bigtree family took over their lives. The Bigtrees maintain the Seminole and Miccosukee traditions because the Indians aren't around to do it.

Worse, not a single living Indian appears to chastise them or correct their mistakes. Not a single character in the book comments on this fraudulent "redface" scheme. And not a single reader or reviewer has commented on it either.

The Bigtrees are "our own Indians," says one character. So they can adopt Indian identities, "become" Indians, because it's their white right. They don't care what the local Indians, or 5 million other American Indians, might think about this pretense. The Indians' beliefs and desires are immaterial compared to theirs.

Thanks for another clearcut example of why Indians win the Oppression Olympics. Would a book about whites in blackface deceiving people go over well with fans and critics? Has anyone written such a book in the last half century?

I don't think so. But "playing Indian" is perfectly acceptable in our culture. So is portraying Indians as relics of the past. It's so normal and unremarkable that no one thinks twice about it.

For some of the modern Indian life that should be in Swamplandia! but isn't, see:

Seminoles compared to al Qaeda
13th Annual Big Cypress celebration
Andrew Jackson Institute fights Seminoles
Swamp Men on National Geographic Wild
Seminoles want pro alligator wrestling


Jaine said...

"They present a distorted, stereotypical version of Seminole and Miccosukee culture. And apparently get away with it for most or all of the book"

pretty disgusting, also what's with Brother Kiwi - how is there a NZ connection in it, ew.

kevin said...

An old phenomenon.what's strange is howw successive generations of writers, film makers, etc. Pick up the theme and are praised for their originality. The necessary condition for playing Indian is that no actual Indians be present. Our existence is most inconvenient to the makers of fantasy Indians.