Philip Deloria, a Native American studies professor at the University of Michigan, claims in a 1999 book titled "Playing Indian" (Yale University Press) that white Americans throughout history have appropriated symbols and customs from American Indians in working out their own identity in a new nation settled by European colonists. It raises complicated, troubling issues. On the one hand, these appropriations are an time-honored part of what sets us apart from Europeans. On the other, they can be humiliating or infuriating to the people whose cultural symbols we appropriate.
"Whether the focus is on the Boston colonists whooping it up, or on new age, counterculture types setting up tepees in back-to-nature settings," says reviewer Dianne Zuckerman in the Denver Post, "Deloria makes a convincing case for ways in which Americans have used Indian symbols and items for their own purposes and identities."
We won't have time to read the book, but today we will look at several reviews. (I recommend the book, by the way, if you're looking for something to read over the summer.) It is thought-provoking.
The publisher's blurb, quoted in the Barnes & Noble summary of the book, says:
The Boston Tea Party, the Order of Red Men, Camp Fire Girls, Boy Scouts, Grateful Dead concerts are just a few examples of the American tendency to appropriate Indian dress and act out Indian roles. This provocative book explores how white Americans have used their ideas about Indians to shape national identity in different eras - and how Indian people have reacted to these imitations of their native dress, language, and ritual. Deloria points out that throughout American history the creative uses of Indianness have been interwoven with conquest and dispossession of the Indians. Indian play has thus been fraught with ambivalence - for white Americans who idealized and villainized the Indian, and for Indians who were both humiliated and empowered by these cultural exercisesA review in Library Journal by Mary B. Davis, Huntington Free Library in the Bronx, New York City, (as quoted on the Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com websites:
Americans need Indians in order to define themselves as Americans, asserts Deloria (history, Univ. of Colorado). Beginning before the Boston Tea Party, and continuing into the present, Americans have adopted Indian attire, images, and traditions for both political and individual needs. These acts separated us from our European forebears while creating a unique American identity with which we are only partially comfortable, declares the author. As the country evolves, the ways in which Americans identify with Indians also change. ... [Deloria] demonstrates how "Indian play" has always taken on new shape and focus to engage the most pressing issues of a particular historical moment, and he notes that American views of Indians tell us much more about Americans than they do about Indians.From Kirkus Review, also quoted on the Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com pages, an unsigned reviewer says:
A provocative study of the role of American Indians in forming the character of the US. Following D.H. Lawrences observation that the American character is essentially paradoxical (wanting to savor both civilized order and savage freedom), Deloria (History/Univ. of Colorado) traces the tendency, apparent since the arrival of the first colonists, of Anglo-Americans to appropriate Native American dress, customs, and habits. It was no accident, Deloria writes, that the perpetrators of the Boston Tea Party donned Indian headdresses before sending British cargo into the drink; they at once wanted to disguise themselves and proclaim a kind of solidarity with the continents first inhabitants. It allowed the restrained New Englanders to enjoy freedoms, and even a certain licentiousness, that wouldn't have been possible in plain clothes. Indian societies were deconstructed and imagined in American literature, in secret societies like the Tammany and Cayuga Wolf all-white tribes, and in more open organizations like the Boy Scouts, whose American founder, Ernest Thompson Seton, suspected real Indians of harboring unpatriotic sentiments. Deloria turns up fascinating oddments, including the story of one Colorado Boy Scout troop that went native to the point that the national organization tried to reeducate them, but the scouts managed to reconstruct the secret Shalako ceremony of the Zuni Indians so convincingly that Zuni elders built a special kiva for the masks the young men had made. Deloria notes that although the Boy Scouts of La Junta were not Indians, they were also more than simple, straightforward white boys. He is less admiring of the hippies, Deadheads, and modern New Agers who continue to appropriate elements of Native American religion and culture today. But in the end, he concludes, Indianness was the bedrock for creative American identities, but it was also one of the foundations . . . for imagining and performing domination and power in America.All of this stuff can be very tricky and deeply controversial, as University of Illinois sports fans discovered several years ago when "Chief Illiniwek" was found to be a "hostile and abusive" stereotype that stereotyped and misappropriated Sioux (Lakota) Indian traditions. As we discuss these issues of cultural appropriation in class, we won't settle them. I doubt any of us will change anybody else's mind. But what we can do is to gain a better understanding of how people on all sides of the issue(s) feel about the issues and why they feel that way.