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Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong

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Overview


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.”

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

From Publishers Weekly
In this acerbic collection of essays, Comanche cultural critic and art curator Smith (Like a Hurricane) riffs on the romantic stereotypes of Indian as “spiritual masters and first environmentalists,” as tragic victims of technology and civilization, as primal beings brimming with nomad authenticity, their every artifact a gem of folk art. Such tropes, he complains, hide the riotous complexity of the modern Indian experience, which he visits in pieces that explore his grandfather's Christian church, Sitting Bull's savvy manipulation of his media image (he had an agent) and the author's own Comanche forebears, who were both “world-class barbarians” and avid adopters of the white man's gadgetry. These loose-limbed essays range all over the landscape, from Hollywood westerns to the 1973 siege of Wounded Knee to (somewhat obscurely) the contemporary Indian art scene. Smith doesn't entirely square his view of Indians as “just plain folks” with his advancing of a unique Indian cultural perspective, but his keen, skeptical eye makes such ironies both amusing and enlightening.
Publishers Weekly

In this acerbic collection of essays, Comanche cultural critic and art curator Smith (Like a Hurricane) riffs on the romantic stereotypes of Indian as "spiritual masters and first environmentalists," as tragic victims of technology and civilization, as primal beings brimming with nomad authenticity, their every artifact a gem of folk art. Such tropes, he complains, hide the riotous complexity of the modern Indian experience, which he visits in pieces that explore his grandfather's Christian church, Sitting Bull's savvy manipulation of his media image (he had an agent) and the author's own Comanche forebears, who were both "world-class barbarians" and avid adopters of the white man's gadgetry. These loose-limbed essays range all over the landscape, from Hollywood westerns to the 1973 siege of Wounded Knee to (somewhat obscurely) the contemporary Indian art scene. Smith doesn't entirely square his view of Indians as "just plain folks" with his advancing of a unique Indian cultural perspective, but his keen, skeptical eye makes such ironies both amusing and enlightening. Photos. (May)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

With acerbic wit and unflinching honesty, social critic Smith (associate curator, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution; coauthor, with Robert Warrior, Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee) offers a collection of essays that were written over approximately a 15-year period. It is an eclectic collection that chronicles the evolution of his views on the politics of being a Native American, beginning with his obvious naA¯vetA© as a committed activist within the American Indian Movement to his present employment with the federal government. No target is safe from his pointed barbs, not even himself. The explanation of how quickly his views toward the creation of the National Museum of the American Indian changed when the practicality of needing employment entered the equation is alone worth the price of the book. In addition to being an entertaining read, this book gives one much to consider as Smith challenges many of the tropes that too many authors utilize when writing about native peoples. Highly recommended.
—John Burch

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780816656011
  • Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
  • Publication date: 4/14/2009
  • Series: Indigenous Americas
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 796,968
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author


Paul Chaat Smith is associate curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. He is the coauthor, with Robert Warrior, of Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee.
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 14, 2010

    It takes one to know one

    The most provocative thing about Paul Chaat Smith's book, "Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong," is the title. And even the title is wrong, considering that many people, not just Native Americans, object to the mischaracterization "Indian."

    Philosophically, Smith argues that you have to be Indian to know Indian. In fact, since he himself is half-white, was raised in a rich suburb of Cleveland, and went to Antioch College, he admits that he doesn't know much about Indians either. He went to Wounded Knee after the standoff to have at least some contact with "real" Indians, the American Indian Movement Activists.

    Still, the associate director of the Museum of the American Indian in Washington writes very engagingly and offers many interesting facts and insights. I did not know that the movie, "Dancing With Wolves," was based on a Commanche story (Smith's tribe), but filmed on the Sioux reservation using that tribe because, how can you have an Indian movie without bison? That's like using Poilus to make "All Quiet On the Western Front."

    Since we have sent our warriors halfway around the world to battle savages on the frontiers of Afghanistan and Pakistan, this might be a good time to reflect on the methods we used to pacify the Wild West, with what success we tried to civilize its surviving Native inhabitants, and whether a way of life that seeks harmony with Nature might be a good thing for us too.

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