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This book is about Indians, particularly the Oglala Sioux who live on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota, in the plains and badlands in the middle of the United States. People want to know what a book is about right up front, I have found. They feel this way even if the book does not yet exist, if it is only planned. When I describe the subject to non-Indians, they often reply that it sounds bleak. "Bleak" is the word attached in many people's minds to the idea of certain Indian reservations, of which the Oglala's reservation is perhaps the best example. Oddly, it is a word I have never heard used by Indians themselves. Many thousands of people-not just Americans, but Ger- man and French and English people, and more-visit the reservations every year, and the prevailing opinion among the Indians is not that they come for the bleakness. The Indians understand that the visitors are there out of curiosity and out of an admiration which sometimes even reaches such a point that the visitors wish they could be Indians, too. I am a middle-aged non-Indian who wears his hair in a thinning ponytail copied originally from the traditional-style long hair of the leaders of the American Indian Movement of the 1970s, because I thought it looked cool. When I'm driving across a field near the town of Oglala on the Pine Ridge Reservation and I see my friend Floyd John walking across it the other way, I stop, and he comes over to the car and leans in the window and smiles a big-tooth grin and says, "How ya' doin', wannabe?"
I kind of resent the term "wannabe"-what's wrong with wanting to be something, anyway? - but in my case there's some truth to it. I don't want to participate in traditional Indian religious ceremonies, dance in a sun dance or pray in a sweat lodge or go on a vision quest with the help of a medicine man. The power of these ceremonies has an appeal, but I'm content with what little religion I already have. I think Indians dress better than anyone, but I don't want to imitate more than a detail or two; I prefer my clothes humdrum and inconspicuous, and a cowboy hat just doesn't work for me. I don't want to collect Indian art, though pots and beadwork and blankets made by Indians remain the most beautiful art objects in the American West, in my opinion. I don't want to be adopted into a tribe, be wrapped in a star quilt and given a new name, honor though that would be. I don't want to stand in the dimness under the shelter at the powwow grounds in the group around the circle of men beating the drums and singing ancient songs and lose myself in that moment when all the breaths and all the heartbeats become one. What I want is just as "Indian," just as traditional, but harder to pin down.
In 1608, the newly arrived Englishmen at Jamestown colony in Virginia proposed to give the most powerful Indian in the vicinity, Chief Powhatan, a crown. Their idea was to coronate him a sub-emperor of Indians, and vassal to the English King. Powhatan found the offer insulting. "I also am a King," he said, "and this is my land." Joseph Brant, a Mohawk of the Iroquois Confederacy between eastern New York and the Great Lakes, was received as a celebrity when he went to England with a delegation from his tribe in 1785. Taken to St. James's Palace for a royal audience, he refused to kneel and kiss the hand of George III; he told the King that he would, however, gladly kiss the hand of the Queen. Almost a century later, the U.S. government gave Red Cloud, victorious war leader of the Oglala, the fanciest reception it knew how, with a dinner party at the White House featuring lighted chandeliers and wine and a dessert of strawberries and ice cream. The next day Red Cloud parleyed with the government officials just as he was accustomed to on the prairie-sitting on the floor. To a member of a Senate select committee who had delivered a tirade against Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Sioux leader carelessly replied, "I have grown to be a very independent man, and consider myself a very great man."
That self-possessed sense of freedom is closer to what I want; I want to be an uncaught Indian like them.
Another remark which non-Indians often make on the subject of Indians is "Why can't they get with the program?" Anyone who talks about Indians in public will be asked that question, or variations on it; over and over: Why don't Indians forget all this tribal nonsense and become ordinary Americans like the rest of us? Why do they insist on living in the past? Why don't they accept the fact that we won and they lost? Why won't they stop, finally, being Indians and join the modern world? I have a variety of answers handy. Sometimes I say that in former days "the program" called for the eradication of Indian languages, and children in Indian boarding schools were beaten for speaking them and forced to speak English, so they would fit in; time passed, cultural fashions changed, and Hollywood made a feature film about Indians in which for the sake of authenticity the Sioux characters spoke Sioux (with English subtitles), and the movie became a hit, and lots of people decided they wanted to learn Sioux, and those who still knew the language, those who had somehow managed to avoid "the program" in the first place, were suddenly the ones in demand. Now, I think it's better not to answer the question but to ask a question in return: What program, exactly, do you have in mind?
We live in a craven time. I am not the first to point out that capitalism, having defeated Communism, now seems to be about to do the same to democracy. The market is doing splendidly, yet we are not, somehow. Americans today no longer work mostly in manufacturing or agriculture but in the newly risen service economy. That means that most of us make our living by being nice. And if we can't be nice, we'd better at least be neutral. In the service economy, anyone who sat where he pleased in the presence of power or who expatiated on his own greatness would soon be out the door. "Who does he think he is?" is how the dismissal is usually framed. The dream of many of us is that someday we might miraculously have enough money that we could quit being nice, and everybody would then have to be nice to us, and niceness would surround us like a warm dome. Certain speeches we would love to make accompany this dream, glorious, blistering tellings-off of those to whom we usually hold our tongue. The eleven people who actually have enough money to do that are icons to us. What we read in newsprint and see on television always reminds us how great they are, and we can't disagree. Unlike the rest of us, they can deliver those speeches with no fear. The freedom that inhered in Powhatan, that Red Cloud carried with him from the plains to Washington as easily as air - freedom to be and to say, whenever, regardless of disapproval - has become a luxury most of us can't afford.
From a historical perspective, this looks a lot like where America came in. When Columbus landed, there were about eleven people in Europe who could do whatever they felt like doing. Part of the exhilaration of the age was the rumored freedom explorers like Columbus found. Suddenly imagination was given a whole continent full of people who had never heard of Charlemagne, or Pope Leo X, or quitrents, or the laws of entail, and who were doing fine. Amerigo Vespucci, the explorer whose name and the continent's would he the same, brought back news that in this land "every one is his own master." If this land new to Europeans was the setting, the lives of these untrammeled people suggested the plot: we could drop anchor in the bay, paddle up the river, wade up the creek, meet a band of Indians, and with them disappear forever into the country's deepest green. No tyranny could hold us; if Indians could live as they liked, so could we.
The popular refrain about Indians nowadays is that they and their culture were cruelly destroyed. It's a breast-beatingly comfortable idea, from the destroyers' point of view. In the nineteenth century, with white people firmly established on the continent, common wisdom had it that the Indian must eventually die out. That meant die, literally, and give way in a Darwinian sense to the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon. "Adieu, red brother! You are going to join the Mastodon and the Scthysaurus," wrote humorist Bill Nye in 1891, shortly after the massacre at Wounded Knee. In the twentieth century, stories of the Indians' destruction, set mostly in the past tense, made a follow-up to this comfortable idea. From one century to the next, the destruction of the Indians was such a common theme that if they did not die out in by the sound of it they might as well have. But beyond the sphere rhetoric, the Indians as a people did not die out, awful though the suffering was. Killing people is one thing, killing them off is another. The Sand Creek Massacre, one of the bloodiest episodes on the Western frontier and a permanent scar on the history of the state of Colorado, killed at least two hundred, mostly women and children, of Chief Black Kettle's band of Southern Cheyenne in 1864. Today there are more than four thousand descendants of Sand Creek Massacre survivors; they hope for restitution and a reservation of their own. New England's Pequots, a tribe "extinct as the ancient Medes," according to Herman Melville, rebounded from a recent time when just two members were still living on the reservation and now run a gambling casino which takes in x billion dollars a year. The Mohicans, of whom we were supposed to have seen the last in the 1750s, recently prevented Wal-Mart from building a rnultiacre discount store on land they consider sacred in upstate New York. In 1900, there were fewer than a quarter of a million Indians in the United States. Today there are two million or more. The population of those claiming Indian descent on the census forms has been growing four times as fast as the population as a whole, making Native Americans the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country.
Like many comfortable stories, the story of the Indians' destruction hides other stories that are less so. For starters, it leaves out that the destruction was and is actually worse than can be easily described. A well-informed person probably knows of the bigger and more famous massacres, but big and small massacres took place in many states over the years. Killing Indians was once the official policy of the state of California, which spent a million dollars reimbursing Indian-hunters for the ammunition they used. Helen Hunt Jackson's history of Indian-white relations, A Century of Dishonor, published in 1881, recounted episodes of killing and mistreatment which have long faded into the past. Its modern reader can weep at descriptions of massacres he has never heard of - does anyone besides those who live in the town of Gnadenhutten, Ohio, know of the slaughter in 1780 of the peaceful Indians at the Moravian mission there? Jackson's book could be revised and reissued today, with another hundred years added to the title. After the frontier gunfire died down, violence and untimely death found other means. The Indian was supposed to be heading off to join his ancestors in the Happy Hunting Ground, and the path he might take to get there (alcoholism? pneumonia? car wreck? the flu epidemic of 1918?) apparently did not need to be too closely explained. The violence continued, and continues today. Among the Navajo, the largest tribe in the United States, car accidents are the leading cause of death. Especially in Western towns that border big reservations, stabbings and fights and car wrecks are a depressingly regular part of life.
Also, the destruction story gives the flattering and wrong impression that European culture showed up in the Americas and simply mowed down whatever was in its way. In fact, the European arrivals were often hungry and stunned in their new settlements, and what they did to Indian culture was more than matched for years by what encounters with Indians did to theirs. Via the settlers, Indian crops previously unknown outside the Americas crossed the Atlantic and changed Europe. Indian fanners were the first to domesticate corn, peanuts, tomatoes, pumpkins, and many kinds of beans. Russia and Ireland grew no potatoes before travelers found the plant in Indian gardens in South America; throughout Europe, the introduction of the potato caused a rise in the standard of living and a population boom. Before Indians, no one in the world had ever smoked tobacco. No one in the Bible (or in any other pre-Columbian text, for that matter) ever has a cigarette, dips snuff, or smokes a pipe. The novelty of breathing in tobacco smoke or chewing the dried leaves caught on so fast in Europe that early colonists made fortunes growing tobacco; it was America's first cash crop. That the United States should now be so determined to stamp out all smoking seems historically revisionist and strange.
Surrounded as we are today by pavement, we assume that Indians have had to adapt to us. But for a long time much of the adapting went the other way. In the land of the free, Indians were the original "free"; early America was European culture reset in an Indian frame. Europeans who survived here became a mixture of identities in which the Indian part was what made them American and different than they had been before. Influence is harder to document than corn and beans, but as real. We know that Iroquois Indians attended meetings of the colonists in the years before the American Revolution and advised them to unite in a scheme for self-government based on the confederacy that ruled the six Iroquois nations; and that Benjamin Franklin said, at a gathering of delegates from the colonies in Albany in 1754, "It would be a strange thing if six nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted for ages and appears indissoluble, and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies." His use of the term "ignorant savages" is thought to have been ironical; he admired the Iroquois plan, and it formed one of the models for the U.S. Constitution. We know, too, that Thomas Jefferson thought that American government should follow what he imagined to be the Indian way. He wrote: ". . . were it made a question, whether no law, as among the savage Americans, or too much law, as among the civilized Europeans, submits man to the greatest evil, one who has seen both conditions of existence would pronounce it to be the last ... It will be said, that great societies cannot exist without government. The savages, therefore, break them into small ones."
Indian people today sometimes talk about the need to guard their culture carefully, so that it won't be stolen from them. But what is best (and worst) about any culture can be as contagious as a cold germ; the least contact passes it on. In colonial times, Indians were known for their disregard of titles and for a deep egalitarianism that made them not necessarily defer even to the leading men of their tribes. The route this trait took as it passed from Indian to white was invisible. Probably, contagion occurred during official gatherings, as when an exalted per- son arrived at a frontier place from the governor's palace or across the sea. The Indians spoke to the exalted person directly, equals addressing an equal, with no bowing or scraping or bending of the knee. Then, when their white neighbors got up to speak, perhaps ordinary self- consciousness made it hard to act any differently - to do the full routine of obeisance customary back in England-with the Indians looking on. Or maybe it was even simpler, a demonstration of the principle that informal behavior tends to drive out formal, given time. However the transfer happened, in a few generations it was complete; the American character had become thoroughly Indian in its outspokenness and all-around skepticism on the subject of who was and was not great.
We often hear that Indians traditionally believed in the Great Circle of Being, the connectedness of all creation, and the sacredness of every blade of grass. That the example of individual freedom among the Indians of the Americas inspired writers from Thomas More to Locke to Shakespeare to Voltaire is seldom mentioned these days. (None of those writers, for their part, seem to have heard of the Great Circle of Being.) The Indians' love of independence and freedom has dwindled in description in recent years to the lone adjective "proud." Any time the Apache, for example, or the Comanche, or a noted Indian leader is described, that adjective is likely to be someplace close by. We are told that the Comanche or the Apache were or are "a proud people," and we get used to hearing it, and we forget what it means: centuries of resistance to authority, intractability and independent-mindedness have won them only that brief epithet. The excitement of new discoveries in the Americas fired all sorts of fantasies about Indians in the minds of Europeans, and Indians remain the objects of fantasy today. The current fantasy might be summed up: American Indians were a proud people who believed in the Great Circle of Being and were cruelly destroyed.
Copyright © 2000 by Ian Frazier