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University of Minnesota Press
Pub. Date:
University of Minnesota Press
Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong

Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong

by Paul Chaat Smith Paul Chaat Smith
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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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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780816656011
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Publication date: 04/14/2009
Series: Indigenous Americas
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 215,912
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.00(d)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong

By Paul Chaat Smith

University of Minnesota Press

Copyright © 2009 Paul Chaat Smith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8166-7402-2


Lost in Translation

The following comments were delivered as a presentation titled "Lost in Translation: Why the News Media Has So Much Trouble with Indians," Boswell Symposium, DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana, March 15, 2004.

I work at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian, and although I speak here as an independent critic and curator, I draw on that experience to look at why Indians, and Indian issues, are so often overlooked, misunderstood, misrepresented: in short, why the international community and the news media have so much trouble with us.

The answer to that question, as with so many others, is best provided by one person. He's one of the twentieth century's greatest philosophers, a man who speaks truth to power and who commands the attention of millions. As I'm sure you've guessed, I am, of course, speaking of legendary television producer Don Hewitt. The genius behind 60 Minutes once explained how he managed to keep the show at the top of the ratings decade after decade, and why others who copy this apparently simple format always fail: he had rules. One of them was to avoid, at all costs, doing stories about Indians. Why? Because Indians talk too much, too slowly, and what they say is always complicated. With Indians it's never just "water"; it has to be "springs of life bestowed on us by our grandmothers." Why did Hewitt avoid Indian stories? Because we're lousy television.

He's completely right on all counts, and when I first came across that quote years ago it blew me away. Hewitt somehow understood one of the deepest truths about us, which I am sharing with you: although we are imagined as primitive and simple, we're actually anything but. He realized the Indian experience is an ocean of terrifying complexity. We are reputed to be stoic, but in reality it's hard to get us to shut up.

Even a talent as oversized as Don Hewitt (whose stock in trade was to make complex stories work on the unforgiving format of commercial television) says it's almost impossible. I propose, however, that Indians who won't shut up, and whose lives and political situations are bewilderingly complex, are only the tip of the iceberg.

The iceberg itself is the problem. And the iceberg is this: the Indian experience, imagined to be largely in the past and in any case at the margins, is in fact central to world history. Contact five centuries ago that for the first time connected the world was the profoundest event in human history, and it changed life everywhere. It was the first truly modern moment: continents and worlds that had been separated for millions of years became just weeks, then days, and now only hours away.

But how can the Indian experience be central when it is largely ignored and for most Americans encountered through cartoonish movies and in the names of rivers, cities, and sports teams? We are not marginal, and in the twenty-first century we are everywhere and nowhere, invisible and standing right next to you. Hardly any Indians live in Washington, D.C., unless you count all those Mayan Indians who clean offices and landscape gardens.

It all seems to suggest that everything most people know about Indians is wrong. Well, it is. That's the other profound truth I am sharing with you.

In February 1973, Indians in South Dakota took over the hamlet of Wounded Knee and were soon surrounded by hundreds of heavily armed federal troops. This won the Indian movement widespread international attention, including the most glittering of prize of all, the front page of the New York Times. Above the fold. Lots occurred over the next two and a half months, including a curious incident in which some of the hungry, blockaded Indians attempted to slaughter a cow. Reporters and photographers gathered to watch. Nothing happened. None of the Indians — some urban activists, some from Sioux reservations — actually knew how to butcher cattle. Fortunately, a few of the journalists did know, and they took over, ensuring dinner for the starving rebels.

That was a much discussed event during and after Wounded Knee. The most common reading of this was that basically we were fakes. Indians clueless about butchering livestock were not really Indians.

In a funny and tragic way, this one incident had more resonance than the fact that the United States deployed Phantom jets and Vietnam-era weapons against a few hundred ragtag rebels armed mostly with shotguns and hunting rifles, or the subsequent criminal prosecutions of hundreds of activists that lasted for years and constituted one of the largest mass political trials in American history.

Sure, the illegal use of the military in the poorest jurisdiction in the United States is kind of interesting, but it was the cow-slaughtering deal that kept coming up. The Lakota patriots at Wounded Knee lost points for this. (I myself know nothing about butchering cattle, and would hope that doesn't invalidate my remarks about the global news media and human rights.)

That would be the last time in the twentieth century we ever made page A1 of the New York Times as a breaking news story.

Four years later, in September 1977, hundreds of Indians from throughout the Americas assembled in Geneva for a non-governmental organization conference. It was led by many of the same activists who were part of the American Indian Movement. The conference was a huge success. The U.S. State Department alerted embassies throughout the world to anticipate lots of tough questions about sterilization of Indian women and other human rights violations, and in the official documentation the United States issued a formal response, quoting the UN ambassador, Andrew Young.

Well, you know the punch line here. The Geneva Conference got virtually no coverage in the United States.

Yes, the news media always want the most dramatic story. But I would argue there is an overlay with Indian stories that makes it especially difficult, and that explains not only why an unprecedented international conference gets no ink but even why, when our actions meet their criteria, our incompetence in butchering livestock always overshadows the story of Phantom jets against.22s and shotguns.

What can one person do?

Not much.

So, I urge everyone, Indians included, to start with the assumption that everything you know about Indians is wrong. Begin not by reading about South Dakota but by looking for the Indian history beneath your own feet.


On Romanticism

Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: A Message from Chief Seattle is a beautifully illustrated children's book by Susan Jeffers. This publication spent more than nineteen weeks on the best-seller lists and was chosen by members of the American Booksellers Association as "the book we most enjoyed selling in 1991." Here's a passage from the text:

How can you buy the sky?
How can you own the rain and wind?
My mother told me every part of this earth is sacred to our people.
Every pine needle, every sandy shore.
Every mist in the dark woods.
Every meadow and humming insect.
All are holy in the memory of our people.
My father said to me,
I know the sap that courses through the trees as I know the blood
that flows in my veins
We are part of the earth and it is part of us.
The perfumed flowers are our sisters.
We love this earth as a newborn loves its mother's heartbeat.
If we sell you our land, care for it as we have cared for it.
Hold in your mind the memory of the land as it is when you receive it.
Preserve the land and the air and the rivers for your children's children
and love it as we have loved it.

It's a great book with only one problem: it's a fabrication. Brother Eagle, Sister Sky is pretty much made up from start to finish. Who wrote these pretty words? Not the Suquamish leader Seattle. Not even Susan Jeffers, though she did some rewriting.

This speech, by now probably the most famous single piece of Indian oratory, was actually written in 1970 by a University of Texas instructor named Ted Perry. Perry was hired by the Southern Baptist Convention to write a documentary film on the environment. He came across a disputed (and probably fraudulent) version of a speech Seattle may or may not have given and rewrote it to express 1970s environmental ideas. At most Perry used a few lines of what Seattle may have said. At Expo '74 in Spokane, Washington, portions of the Perry–Seattle speech were plastered across the wall at the U.S. pavilion. This worked out well, since Expo '74's theme was the environment. The rest, as they say, is history.

The controversy concerning the origins of the speech began just as Brother Eagle, Sister Sky started its long tenure at the top of the best-seller lists. The fact that this book was written by and for white environmentalists was awkward, but the publisher handled the matter expeditiously. The best-seller lists simply reclassified the book from nonfiction to another category: advice, how-to, and miscellaneous. (That's where they put the cat books.) And they did more. The publisher brought out new advertisements featuring an endorsement from Jewell Praying Wolf James, said to be Seattle's great-grandnephew, who offered congratulations and thanks to the publisher for "taking our famous chief's words and transforming them into an experience all can use to stimulate an awareness of a natural world that is rapidly losing its beauty." Brother Eagle, Sister Sky continued to sell and sell and sell. But one reason the book's authenticity became a point of challenge can be found in another story. This one concerns The Education of Little Tree: A True Story, by Forrest Carter, the autobiography of a Cherokee Indian's boyhood in Tennessee. Published by Delacorte Press in 1976 with virtually no promotion, the book slowly found a mass audience. It was re-released by the University of New Mexico Press and by the spring of 1991 had soared to the top of the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list. Reviewers and the public at large loved the story's strong environmental message, and the book proved especially popular with younger readers.

So now you're thinking, ha, Ted Perry again, right? Well, not this time. The Education of Little Tree was in fact written by Forrest Carter. The problem was that Forrest Carter turned out to be Asa Carter. And Asa Carter turned out, number one, not to be Cherokee, and, number two, to have been a legendary white supremacist. In the 1960s he led a Ku Klux Klan fringe group. In those days he was living large as a speechwriter for Alabama governor George Wallace. It was Asa Carter who wrote the electrifying battle cry: "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever."

When all this was revealed in devastating detail by Emory University professor Dan Carter (no relation) in October 1991, there was mumbling about how Forrest must have mellowed over the years; that when he wrote Little Tree he was a different guy altogether. Yet a close reading of Little Tree, and his novel The Rebel Outlaw Josey Wales, which later became a Clint Eastwood movie about Comanches, shows a consistent worldview obsessed with the racial purity of family and kin. In all of Carter's writing, including the speeches he wrote for George Wallace, it's us against the world. Trust no one. So what happened? Little Tree was reclassified from nonfiction to fiction, and, like Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, continues to sell. Finally, it didn't really matter that the first Indian autobiography to win a mass audience of young people in the United States was both fake and written by a committed racist. It seems the penalty for fraudulent Indian books these days is getting moved from one best-seller list to another. Later editions of Little Tree include an introduction by Osage Indian academic Dr. Rennard Strickland, who discusses the controversy, agrees that Asa Carter is the author, but still endorses the book as an accurate portrait of Cherokee life.

I've written about these two books at some length because to me they're perfect examples of the ideological swamp Indian people find ourselves in these days. We are witnessing a new age in the objectification of American Indian history and culture, one that doesn't even need Indians except as endorsers. Our past is turning into pieces of clever screenplay. And even the exposure of an Indian book as a total fake turns out to be little more than a slight embarrassment, easily remedied. The Indian intellectual community responded to this scandal with a deafening silence. Kurt Cobain, the late prince of grunge, appropriately from the city that bears the name of the Suquamish leader who so captivated Ted Perry and Susan Jeffers, wrote a lyric that described pretty well our reaction: "I found it hard / it was hard to find / Oh well, whatever, nevermind."

In the context of these publications and their checkered past I can't help thinking of Vine Deloria Jr., a Lakota and one of our best intellectuals. In 1969 he wrote Custer Died for Your Sins, a tough, funny book with the subtitle An Indian Manifesto. Fortunate timing helped make it a best seller. It was at the crest of the original Red Power movement of the 1960s: there were huntins, fish-ins, and the occupation of Alcatraz Island. The Unjust Society, by Harold Cardinal, a Canadian Indian, and Stan Steiner's The New Indians seemed certain to be the first of a new wave of books about our current situation. But something else happened. Americans became fascinated with Indians all right, but not the ones still here. Instead, Americans turned to Touch the Earth, a sepia-toned volume of famous chiefs' greatest rhetorical hits. They read The Memoirs of Chief Red Fox, by a living Sioux chief no living Sioux had ever heard of. Chief Red Fox claimed to have personally witnessed the Battle of Little Big Horn. (This book was quickly revealed to be fake, but only after it sold more than any serious book about Indians ever had.) And, of course, the mother of all Indian books, Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, an entirely reasonable history of Indians that ends in 1890, without even a hint that some of us survived.

Well, all of this blew Deloria's mind, and in 1973 he drew this analogy. Imagine it's 1955, right after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling on desegregation, in the midst of the Montgomery bus boycott. Martin Luther King Jr. holds a press conference, but it's a disaster; all the reporters ask about are the old days on the plantation and the origin of Negro spirituals. The freedom struggle pushes on, undaunted. Americans are transfixed by these dramatic events and rush out to buy new books on the cultural achievements of Africa in the year 1300. Two new Black writers, James Baldwin and LeRoi Jones, publish important books, but they're ignored in favor of a new history called Bury My Heart at Jamestown. People are terribly moved. Deloria continues, "People reading the book vow never again to buy or sell slaves."

Considering that recent decades have seen the most significant Indian political movement in a century, including much new sensitivity and education, we might have thought things had improved. But the familiarity of the situation around these recent publications leaves me feeling that things haven't gotten any better, only more subtle. The discourse on Indian art or politics or culture, even among people of goodwill, is consistently frustrated by the distinctive type of racism that confronts Indians today: romanticism. Simply put, romanticism is a highly developed, deeply ideological system of racism toward Indians that encompasses language, culture, and history. From the beginning of this history the specialized vocabulary created by Europeans for "Indians" ensured our status as strange and primitive. Our political leaders might have been called kings or lords; instead, they were chiefs. Indian religious leaders could have just as accurately been called bishop or minister; instead, they were medicine men. Instead of soldier or fighter, warrior. And, perhaps, most significant, tribe instead of nation. (For a more recent example of this, note how press accounts often talk about ethnic troubles in Europe, but tribal conflicts in southern Africa, Iraq, and Afghanistan.) Language became and remains a tool by which we are made the "Other"; the Lakota name Tatanka Iyotanka becomes Sitting Bull.

This is not to say that "bishop" was necessarily more accurate than "medicine man," or that we have not made a term like "warrior" our own, or that translated Indian names aren't beautiful. It is to recognize that there are political implications to those decisions, and it is not one of multicultural understanding. The language exoticizes, and this exoticization has encompassed and permitted a range of historical responses from destruction to idealization.

Because our numbers are so few, the battle for a more realistic and positive treatment in the mass media has always been a necessary component of our struggle. The new traditionalism that does exist in Indian Country was won at great expense and effort. After all, it wasn't so long ago that Indian languages and ceremonies were discouraged and in many cases outlawed

In the 1970s it was enough to denounce silly books and movies about Indians, but today that reaction almost misses the point. What's different about our present situation is that it's become clear that we as Indian people love these books and the images they present as much as anyone else. In fact, both Little Tree and Brother Eagle, Sister Sky will probably find their way under many Indian Christmas trees and the fact of their authorship will not greatly affect their promising future with Indian readers any more than it will with non-Indian readers.


Excerpted from Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong by Paul Chaat Smith. Copyright © 2009 Paul Chaat Smith. Excerpted by permission of University of Minnesota Press.
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Table of Contents


Every Picture Tells a Story,
Part I. States of Amnesia,
Lost in Translation,
On Romanticism,
After the Gold Rush,
Land of a Thousand Dances,
The Big Movie,
The Ground beneath Our Feet,
Homeland Insecurity,
Part II. Everything We Make Is Art,
Americans without Tears,
Delta 150,
Luna Remembers,
Standoff in Lethbridge,
Struck by Lightning,
Meaning of Life,
States of Amnesia,
Part III. Jukebox Spiritualism,
A Place Called Irony,
Life during Peacetime,
Last Gang in Town,
From Lake Geneva to the Finland Station,
Ghost in the Machine,
Afterword: End of the Line,
Publication History,

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