• Robert Birnbaum

The Only Good Indian...

Canyon de Chelly (photo: Edward Curtis)

If you grew up in the fantasy idyll known historically as the Eisenhower Years, all was right with the world, except for the threat of nuclear annihilation, the lynching of Negros, the bombing of black churches, US support of vicious authoritarian regimes, the despoiling of the natural world by our mighty industries and a consumer market that reveled in the brilliant capitalist notion of planned obsolescence (which has been perfected in early 21st century with the disposability of new technologies). Native Americans barely registered in that reality. Well there was the Lone Ranger's side kick Tonto, who with Silver, the masked hero's horse, fought evil doers in the American West. I can't recall any good Indians in the the movies where the regnant, frequently expressed attitude was that "the only good Indian was a dead Indian" (attributed to Gen. Philip Sheridan, who prosecuted the Indian War, "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.") Sheridan was also responsible for the astute observation "an Indian reservation “a worthless piece of land surrounded by scoundrels.”

Then came the raucous fun filled years commonly (and mistakenly) referred to as the '60's which brought a sympathetic awareness of Native American culture and ritual, not the least of which was the use of hallucinogenics (also known as psychedelics or entheogen)— ayahuasca, psilocybin, mescaline) and cannabis, And for those who discovered Edward Curtis' magnificent ethnographic photographs* there was a meaningful counterbalance to the racist cigar store Indian imagery that dominated pop culture through the 70's.

Portraits from North American Indian Life by Edward S. Curtis

Interesting that at a time when industrial pollution and other ecological issues were a rising concern, some clever ad man produced an unforgettable public service announcement — for a Keep America Beautiful campaign using a Native American (Iron Eyes Cody in that infamous Crying Indian PSA) as an icon for the sanctity of the natural world .

Though there are numerous Native American writers , there is a notion (floated by Tommy Orange ) that only one Native American author is recognized at a time (Louise Erdich apparently falls in the female writer category) ‚which for a long time was Sherman Alexie:We, the community of Indigenous writers coming up behind him could not rise with him on top. Alexie had grown into an Indigenous super-ego—an authorial autocrat who set the stylistic standards and shaped the careers of the Native writers who toiled, often in obscurity, below him. And as the years wore on, his ironic laugh-and-burn style seemed to settle into a formulaic shtick. Today, Alexie’s portraits of reservation life read more like simulations of rez-y-ness than windows into what our relatives are actually going through. Apparently there is a the New Native Renaissance*...There's tons of authors that are just emerging at the same time as me. And I think it's a really exciting time. And I just want to help keep the momentum going and help usher in more voices.

There There: A novel by Tommy Orange

There There: A novel by Tommy Orange

Colm Toibin opines on Tommy Orange's debut novel:The novel, then, is their [12 characters] picaresque journey, allowing for moments of pure soaring beauty to hit against the most mundane, for a sense of timelessness to be placed right beside a cleareyed version of the here and now, for a sense of vast dispossession to live beside day-to-day misery and poverty. Nothing in Orange’s world is simple, least of all his characters and his sense of the relationship between history and the present. Instead, a great deal is subtle and uncertain in this original and complex novel.

Where the Dead Sit Talking Brandon Hobson

Where the Dead Sit Talking Brandon Hobson

Consistent with Tommy Orange'sWhere the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon HobsonConsistent with Tommy Orange's indictment of the literary establishment's myopic take on Native American literature,try to find a major critical venue that took notice of National Book Award finalist Brandon Hobson's Where the Dead Sit Talking. I couldn't. From the publisher:Set in rural Oklahoma during the late 1980s, Where the Dead Sit Talkingis a startling, authentically voiced and lyrically written Native American coming-of-age story.With his single mother in jail, Sequoyah, a fifteen-year-old Cherokee boy, is placed in foster care with the Troutt family. Literally and figuratively scarred by his mother’s years of substance abuse, Sequoyah keeps mostly to himself, living with his emotions pressed deep below the surface. At least until he meets seventeen-year-old Rosemary, another youth staying with the Troutts.Sequoyah and Rosemary bond over their shared Native American background and tumultuous paths through the foster care system, but as Sequoyah’s feelings toward Rosemary deepen, the precariousness of their lives and the scars of their pasts threaten to undo them both.

New Poets of Native Nations by Heid E. Erdrich

New Poets of Native Nations by Heid E. Erdrich

New Poets of Native Nations gathers poets of diverse ages, styles, languages, and tribal affiliations to present the extraordinary range and power of new Native poetry. Heid E. Erdrich has selected twenty-one poets whose first books were published after the year 2000 to highlight the exciting works coming up after Joy Harjo and Sherman Alexie. Collected here are poems of great breadth―long narratives, political outcries, experimental works, and traditional lyrics―and the result is an essential anthology of some of the best poets writing now.Poets included are Tacey M. Atsitty, Trevino L. Brings Plenty, Julian Talamantez Brolaski, Laura Da’, Natalie Diaz, Jennifer Elise Foerster, Eric Gansworth, Gordon Henry, Jr., Sy Hoahwah, LeAnne Howe, Layli Long Soldier, Janet McAdams, Brandy Nalani McDougall, Margaret Noodin, dg okpik, Craig Santos Perez, Tommy Pico, Cedar Sigo, M. L. Smoker, Gwen Westerman, and Karenne Wood.

American Apartheid Native American Struggle for Self-Determination and Inclusion by Stephanie Woodard

American Apartheid Native American Struggle for Self-Determination and Inclusion by Stephanie Woodard

In recent years, events such as the siege at Standing Rock and the Dakota Access pipeline have thrust the plight of Native Americans into the public consciousness. Taking us beyond the headlines, American Apartheid offers the most comprehensive and compelling account of the issues and threats that Native Americans face today, as well as their heroic battle to overcome them. Author Stephanie Woodard details the ways in which the federal government, states and counties curtail Native voting rights, which, in turn, keeps tribal members from participating in policy-making surrounding education, employment, rural transportation, infrastructure projects and other critical issues affecting their communities. This system of apartheid has staggering consequences, as Natives are, per capita, the population group that is most likely to be shot by police, suffer violent victimization by outsiders, be incarcerated, and have their children taken away. On top of this, indigenous people must also fight constantly to protect the sacred sites and landscapes that hold their cultural memories and connect their spirituality to the nation’s mountains, plains, waterways and coastlines. Despite these many obstacles, American Apartheid offers vivid pictures of diverse Native American communities that embody resilience, integrity, and the survival of ancient cultures.

Mass Grave, The Wounded Knee Massacre, December 29, 1890, Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation South Dakota.

American cinema, the singular driving force of American Wild West mythology (consistent with validating the war on Native Americans via the uhr myth, Manifest Destiny) and hence the disseminator of racist stereotypes of indigenous peoples has for the most part, as one would expect, abandoned its historic insensitivity (well, there is the controversial Adam Sandler attempt at comedy, Ridiculous 6, )* Two recent films present a more balanced view of Federal expansion into Native American territory

Hostiles tells the story US Army Indian fighter/hunter/killer Captain Joe Blocker, who participated in the infamous Wounded Knee slaughter, and his last mission as a soldier.

That mission is to escort a dying Cheyenne war chief, Yellow Hawk, and four members of his family back to their tribal lands in Montana. Blocker and his party come across a burned out ranch cabin where they find Rosalee Quaid, whose husband and three children have been slaughtered by a band of marauding Comanches (called by Yellow Hawk "snake people).The mission continues and the the troop of 4 soldiers and the 4 members of Yellow Hawk's party and the distraught Quaid are attacked by the same Comanches— deaths and mayhem ensue. Needless to say, the journey from Fort Berringer, New Mexico to Montana is picturesque , filled with gorgeous vistas and fraught with dangers. By the end, Indian killer Blocker exhibits a change of heart, in no small part inspired by Chief Yellow Hawk's dignity and Rosalee Quaid's hopeful strength, which allows her to avoid falling into hateful despair. Fine performances by Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi (and an amusing cameo by the ubiquitous Bill Camp) with photogenic scenery and a plausible narrative arc .

Sitting Bull by Catherine Weldon

The notion of historical accuracy seems to preoccupy the reviews of Woman Walks Ahead . As it is 'based on a true story' the misdirected negations come from a misguided presumption that the film fails as a documentary.Which it is, of course not. One often encounters this silly view in reviews of novels having some basis in history (which are plainly identified as novels )—that is, they are f-i-c-t-i-o-n.

The fine acting by Jessica Chastain, Edward Greyeyes, Sam Rockwell and (would you believe) Bill Camp, spendid cinematography doesn't get wrong the another treaty signed with First Peoples 'amended". No surprise, as the 400 or so treaties arranged between Indians and the US government 'disregarded' by the USA. And the murder of Sitting Bull ids also factually accurate. Not to forget the events that take place at Standing Rock led to the massacre at Wounded Knee.

Edward Greyeyes as Sitting Bull

PBS offers a four part series entitled Native America which fills in the huge gap in American pedagogy regarding this hemisphere's indigenous peoples. It "reaches back 15,000 years to reveal massive cities aligned to the stars, unique systems of science and spirituality, and 100 million people connected by social networks spanning two continents."

So, Columbus Day (more and more municipalities are opting to celebrate First Peoples Day) and Thanksgiving continue to be thoughtlessly observed. Conditions on reservations are pretty much as they were when Gen. Sheridan made his astute observation. Horrors perpetrated on Native Americans continued to be revealed*****...

So it goes


*Edward Sheriff Curtis was an American photographer and ethnologist whose work focused on the American West and on Native American people

**the New Native Renaissance"

*** A Brief Film discussing American Apartheid

**** Little Big Man (1970),Windwalker (1980),Powwow Highway (1989), Dances With Wolves (1990) ,Dead Man (1995),Smoke Signals(1998), Geronimo: An American Legend (1993),Skins (2002), Imprint (2007), Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001,)Reel Injun (2009), On the Ice 2011), Winter in the Blood (2013)

***** Amá is a documentary by Lorna Tucker about the sterilization abuses of Native American women across the United States during the last sixty years.

© 2018 by Robert Birnbaum. Proudly created with Wix.com