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Challenging received American history and forging a new path for Native American studies
Addressing Native American Studies' past, present, and future, the essays in New Indians, Old Wars tackle the discipline head-on, presenting a radical revision of the popular view of the American West in the process. Instead of luxuriating in its past glories or accepting the widespread historians' view of the West as a shared place, Elizabeth ...
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Challenging received American history and forging a new path for Native American studies
Addressing Native American Studies' past, present, and future, the essays in New Indians, Old Wars tackle the discipline head-on, presenting a radical revision of the popular view of the American West in the process. Instead of luxuriating in its past glories or accepting the widespread historians' view of the West as a shared place, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn argues that it should be fundamentally understood as stolen.
Firmly grounded in the reality of a painful past, Cook-Lynn understands the story of the American West as teaching the political language of land theft and tyranny. She argues that to remedy this situation, Native American studies must be considered and pursued as its own discipline, rather than as a subset of history or anthropology. She makes an impassioned claim that such a shift, not merely an institutional or theoretical change, could allow Native American studies to play an important role in defending the sovereignty of indigenous nations today.
A LEARNED PROFESSION
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the atmosphere in the academy toward indigenous studies seems to be varied, often seemingly lackluster, coated with a veneer of Cartesian blandishment of logic and rationalism but very little passion, a far different scene from that of the decades of the 1960s and 1970s. That is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on what you expect as you remember, observe, and record the stories, secrets, and scandals of the past. It is a good thing because it is time for the passionate rhetoric to be cooled and the general agreement of our past struggles for our place in the sun to be, by common consent, intellectually and verbally conveyed into positive ideas and consequences in all ways. This is one of the significant pathways to American Indian Studies as an academic discipline. It is a bad thing because the discipline risks losing its evocative dialogue so important to an almost legendary time known in the vernacular as "the sixties" when American Indians told a callous and greedy America that we are not vanished and our lands our not for sale or trade.
It is almost impossiblein this early decade of the 2000s to get anyone in the mainstream to talk about the things that aging American Indian scholars like the writer of this text want to talk about as participants in those fabulous years of origin. The average American does not want to talk about how to improve tribal governments or the schools, as Indians of the past century have wanted. The average American does not want to talk anymore about ongoing and radical racism in America, only the end of racism, according to Dinesh D'Souza, and nothing about the work of a contemporary Indian intellectual like Dr. David Wilkins, whose study of the U.S. Supreme Court and American Indians is perhaps the most important book of the past decade, which indicates that Indians are at great risk in U.S. law. When those subjects are brought up, silence falls upon the room and the speaker is looked at as though he or she has some contagious disease or has just brought up the subject of herpes or some other unmentionable horror.
In 2004, a public event illustrated the point that what America wants to talk to Indians about, if they want to talk at all, is distant and irrelevant; thus, this event caught the eye of mainstream folks and the media. I bring it up here to illustrate that the real issues of finding solutions to a better life for contemporary Indians in the region known for its racist atmosphere were once again put on the back burner so that that the public could look away from the actual troubling matters of the people and, instead, address the latest sensation. In the early winter, people flocked to the federal courthouse to witness a contrived/staged murder trial in Rapid City, South Dakota, of a hapless Oglala, Arlo Looking Cloud, who had spent most of the past few decades on the streets of Denver, Colorado, and was now caught in a dragnet for old American Indian Movement (AIM) personages and troublemakers. The trial was about who killed Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash, a Micmac Indian from Canada who joined AIM in those fabulous years of the 1970s; Looking Cloud, some thirty years later, was charged with her murder, found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison. The issue of that trial was whether Pictou-Aquash was murdered by Looking Cloud at the behest of some unnamed and unnamable participants in the discredited American Indian Movement because it was thought she was an FBI informant.
The trial drew in all of the old suspects and bystanders. Participants and news organizations from around the region were in attendance, notebooks and cameras in hand. Among the witnesses was Darlene Nichols (formerly known as Kamook), the ex-wife of AIM generalissimo Dennis Banks, who testified for a substantial time recounting the fear in her friend Pictou-Aquash who, it was said, was terrified of AIM. The truth is, Pictou-Aquash was probably scared of the FBI, too, as we all were during that period. At the time I was a professor in Indian Studies at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Washington, and was casually visited and rigorously interrogated by the FBI a couple of times because of my acquaintance with the issues and some of the people involved in the movement. It was a frightening time and we were all afraid, not of movement leaders, but of the federal government and what it could do to us in terms of U.S. law and justice. We trusted no one. The belated trial itself was an astonishing event, not because the U.S. prosecutors had prevailed throughout the thirty years of investigation and court procedures, but rather because no one expected that luminaries of the movement would be found testifying against themselves and for the prosecution years later.
In the intervening years, as we all know, life has a tendency to just go on. Dennis Banks's ex-wife, a major witness for the prosecution in the Looking Cloud murder case, has become for a brief time a casting director for a movie studio in Hollywood, which means that we can probably expect some third-rate movies at our theaters soon, as well as some poorly written books about the subject of justice in Indian Country. Indeed, there is a book published by the University of Oklahoma Press about Dennis Banks entitled Ojibwa Warrior, written by Dennis Banks and Richard Erdoes. Does this sound familiar? It should. Erdoes, the European photographer who made a star of a half-breed teenager named Mary Moore (aka Mary Crow Dog), who bore a child during the 1974 seventy-one-day siege or takeover at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. In the heat of the battle, she was portrayed as a brave-hearted woman bearing a child in the midst of a warrior cult during a mythic time. At that same moment, without any press notices of any kind, matrons on the Lakota/Dakota homelands were objecting to her celebrity, saying, "No. No. Mary Moore is NOT a role model for our young daughters.... She is like the young girls caught up in the concubinage of women expressed by the male leadership of the movement, and we do not want our daughters to think this is the model for traditional Lakota womanhood." In spite of those objections, Erdoes's work on Mary Moore became a classic in feminist studies. In many cases, it was the only book on Indian affairs read in women's studies enclaves for decades and it is still on the shelves of bookstores everywhere.
It is safe to predict that Erdoes's work on Dennis Banks will also be taught as history in many of the comparative academic venues because there is a deeply sympathetic portrait of the writer and the subject. In all honesty, it is a good thing to remember the stars of the period for their unique qualities. People like Banks were at the forefront of a political revolution that, in the views of many, including this writer, changed forever the Indian world from despair to a profound understanding of Indian political affairs and history. Banks is an essential figure and deserves better.
Yes, there is something quaint about this attempt at as-told-to life story. The awfulness of Erdoes's prose demeans everyone involved. Here is an example of the banality of the narrative, stated, apparently, in the words of Banks himself: "Machiko and I had been together for two years when she became pregnant. It was inevitable. After our little baby girl was born I felt wonderful. We decided to get married in the old Japanese way and went to a Shinto Priest. Machiko looked so beautiful in her wedding kimono. We drank to our mutual happiness from tiny cups of sake."
There is little that one can say in a straightforward way about finding any speck of the analytical intelligence one might ordinarily expect from Banks in the retelling of events of this important historical era. It is almost as if Erdoes has deliberately and mercilessly satirized the life and times of an Indian leader who deserves to be taken seriously. For what reasons this seeming satiric abuse and trivialization occurs, one can only surmise. Perhaps it is the genre itself that requires the theological flavor. These kinds of histories always have about them a giving-back quality, and outsiders like Erdoes seem more anxious about spiritual commitment and pacifism than they do about the political realities that face the takini Indian nations, the barely surviving.
To get a clear and concise reading of those moments in 1973-74, there are several texts. One of the outstanding is Wounded Knee II, written by Rolland Dewing, who claims he used 25,000 pages from FBI files as source material; however, even that text fails to examine the federal Indian policy of the period, namely the relocation/termination laws promulgated by the U.S. Congress in 1954 along with the destruction of hundreds of thousands of acres of tribal lands for hydropower dams put in the Missouri River, which caused massive flooding and dislocation. These events, among others, were the essential causes for the uprising in the part of the country I come from.
The killing of Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash happened more than thirty years ago! The AIM occupation in South Dakota happened in 1973. Poems have been written. Books. Scholarly papers. Films. This narration has become essential to the American story because it is a civil rights matter, a national obsession. Americans go about the globe crying about civil rights, yet refuse to return treaty rights and lands stolen from tribal nations and refuse to lift the stigma of colonial oppression in native enclaves and the law. The irony is that the treaty rights matters indicative of the same conflict belong in the courts and in our dialogues as much as murder does, but as long as we continue to focus on civil rights and sensation, we can ignore treaty matters. To take up treaty rights would require an honest look at colonial law, not just criminal law, as it affects the indigenes.
It is worth noting that the record of history is almost barren of authentically novel responses to novel circumstances; at least that is what a favorite historian of mine, Richard Drinnon, says in his remarkable book Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building. Without analyzing the reasons, then, for historical impoverishment as well as for the outpourings concerning these old AIM cases (the decades-old civil rights case of Leonard Peltier comes to mind), one might ask, What has been the consequence of this civil rights focus for education and politics in Indian affairs? What does all of this have to do with the development of the discipline of Indian Studies as a strategy of hope for native nationalism? It is my contention that it has very little to do with Indian Studies; in fact, it is irrelevant to the discourse needed in Indian Studies, which is described by many important scholars as an ethno-empowerment model of education and a strategy for problem solving in Indian affairs.
This irrelevance is in direct proportion to the concentration of civil rights focus. As we follow American historians and their static, fixed view of American practices concerning their precious myths, we are still asking who killed Billy the Kid and what ever happened to Jimmy Hoffa. Murder, though, is a civil matter and it is a criminal matter and it is a civil rights matter-what it is not is a treaty rights matter! This is not to suggest that civil rights matters are not important. But those matters are not essential to the function of Indian Studies. What we in Indigenous Studies must recognize in American history is that Manifest Destiny began on the eastern seaboard and it has been carried around the world as a colonial fantasy and it must be revised, if not defeated. Questions irrelevant to our cause have been the centerpiece of all of our histories for far too long.
The dissatisfaction I have felt over this kind of trivialization of events caused me in 1997 to publish an essay in the Wicazo Sa Review titled "Who Stole Native American Studies?" in which I discussed a number of issues that have been troubling all of us since the beginning of the development of the discipline: the issues of irrelevance, tokenism, marginalization, domination, and co-optation; the attempt to discredit tribal scholars and their work; the new historicism based in multiculturalism and diversity; and how the disciplinary work in Native Studies has been neglected and what must be done about it.
Today, as the new century begins, we are still complaining about many of the same issues and are asking the same questions. As just one example that illustrates the ubiquitousness of this complaint, Dr. Jack Utter, a former visiting professor of federal Indian law history at Northern Arizona University and Prescott College and consultant to the Navajo Nation's water code administration and natural resources management, has revised and enlarged his earlier text, American Indians: Answers to Today's Questions. He asks, literally, the same questions asked in his previous publication and, as a matter of historical fact, the questions that America has promulgated for the past 200 years as a way to obfuscate survival mechanisms and solutions: What defines an Indian tribe? Who is an Indian? Who is Native American? What is sovereignty?
Are we going to continue to ask what sovereignty is and never get around to finding ways to actually use the concept to better our lives and defend our lands?
We are still asking questions that have little relevance if land reform, economics, defense of treaty agreements, and survival as nation-to-nation entities are the salient directives of the discipline. What is the present inquiry about, then? Is it Dennis Banks? Is it AIM trials and sensation? Is it writing third-rate novels and staging film festivals in Utah? Is it telling personal stories of historical grief? I don't think so. Rather, it is a question of finding ways for forming decent governments; it is the development of appropriate health systems and economic systems for native populations; it is what Dr. Wilkins has told us about removing the "masks of justice" concerning land thefts and ridding the U.S. Congress of its claimed notion that it holds plenary power over Indian nations. Instead of tackling all of that important work, we are still asking ourselves, Who is an Indian? Every scholar in the discipline should consider this an outrage.
Who is an Indian? was not the essential question that we started with several decades ago, because we knew then who was an Indian and that the thrust of Indian Studies was the forming of an educational strategy to defend tribal nationhood, native lands, and native rights. We knew thirty years ago that as a discipline, this body of knowledge and inquiry possessed by American Indians for thousands of years on this continent had to be (1) internally organized (this means that native scholars must direct the disciplinary work); (2) it must be normatively regulated (this means that the native directors come to some agreement [consensus?] about the principles and methodologies); and (3) that this knowledge has to be consensually communicated (this means that a core curriculum must be taught to undergraduates as the gateway to further consensus as native peoples direct research and writing toward specific ends so that tribal nations can throw off colonialism and further their contributions to the knowledge base of the world).
What is very important to acknowledge here is that since we began decades ago, there has been the development of competing epistemologies as a way to diminish the power of Indian Studies, its faculties, and its research. That fact may have been a major focus of my "Who Stole Native American Studies" essay. The undue influence of multiculturalism, for example, or diversity, feminism, minority higher education, postmodernism, or cultural studies has led Indian Studies to accept the notion that it can be all things to all people in academia and society, and that an Americanization of the colonial thrust of history is to be sustained.
Excerpted from NEW INDIANS, OLD WARS by Elizabeth Cook-Lynn Copyright © 2007 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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