Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Book Review: Indians Are Us

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Indians Are Us
Author: Ward Churchill

Author's web page:
Date: 1994
Publisher: Common Courage Press
ISBN: 1-56751-020-5
Length: 357 pages
Illustrations: black-and-white reprints of graphics from various sources
Quote: “[S]uggestions that Indians should actually be referred to as composing nations rather than tribes are often met with rather flippant (or vociferous) dismissal as being ‘rhetori­cal,’ ‘polemical’ or...‘politically cor­rect.’”
In 1994 Ward Churchill was an angry young man who’d done a lot of homework. He didn’t just sit around saying, as some Cherokee people had been saying for years, that the Van Buren administration’s policy toward Native Americans could have been the inspiration for Hitler’s policy toward German Jews. He dug up the documentation that it really was.

I don't agree with Churchill about a lot of things--he's often introduced in news media by phrases like "radical Leftist professor"--but I do give him credit for putting that documentation together. He's done substantial research, and he is a talented and witty writer, even if he's been known to put wittiness ahead of accuracy...prior to the nineteenth century, did any Cherokee ever use godagewi to refer to a carrot?
The articles collected in Indians Are Us address many legitimate grievances, some of them recent and some of them ongoing, that have never been fully addressed. Although they are research papers whose greatest value is bringing hundreds of references together in one place, and the whole stories are usually told in the primary documents referenced here, this book does index a whole historical reference library in one convenient-sized volume.
It suffers, nevertheless, from two flaws. One is that, since Churchill begins with the rather absurd argument that misappropriating a group’s collective name is genocide, it’s downright ludicrous that he consistently refers to the descendants of pre-Columbian Americans as “Indians.” Even when he quotes a tongue-in-cheek public statement by the artist Jimmie Durham (who claimed Cherokee ancestry but was not registered as a member of the Cherokee Nation), “I am not an American Indian, nor have I ever seen or sworn loyalty to India,” Churchill persists in referring to himself and other Cherokee, Creek, Dakota, Iroquois, Navaho, and similar ethnic types as Indians.
The other is that, although he offers readers an excellent understanding of the problem, he doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions. Not for the United States as a whole, and not for private individuals like Jimmie Durham, or like me, who have distant Cherokee ancestors, but feel that after our more recent ancestors enjoyed all the benefits of Whiteness during the years of blatant official racism, it would be on the tacky side to claim that Cherokee was still our primary identity.
Pages 65-72 of Indians Are Us make the case that the existence of sports teams with names like “Illini” and “Redskins” amounts to genocide. There’s no historical parallel for this argument. (The Nazi version of the Anglo-Israelite theory claimed that Jews were Edomites not Israelites—there’s no parallel here.) I've never read that any Nazis  “lowered” themselves or their children by organizing sports teams known as “Jews” or “Romany” or even “Teutonic French.” In fact the sports Nazi Germany had to offer young men were, at first, track and fighting (which don’t require expensive equipment), and, later, competitive shooting, against grown-up soldiers, in trenches. Germany became dangerous because Nazionalsozialism bankrupted Germany so much faster than other brands of socialism did other countries.
The contemporary point that illustrates the flaws in Churchill’s argument, here, is that Irish-Americans don’t perceive the existence of a team called the “Fighting Irish” as “genocide.” (If they weren’t a good team, maybe...) Nor do New Englanders moan and carry on about the fact that most of the “Yankees”  are neither real descendants of New England colonists, nor yet even residents of New England. Churchill identifies “Redskins” as hate speech, and proposes a few other obnoxious team names, like “Drunken Irish.” Which puts the flaw in this whole chapter clearly in view. The Washington team is not “The Drunken Redskins,” or “The Dirty Redskins,” or “The Thieving Redskins,” or any other phrase that really was used in the hate speech of the years between 1800 and 1950. “The Redskins,” all by itself, could just as reasonably be heard as a way of describing what happened to light-complexioned athletes who started practicing intensively in time for the national football season, in Washington, before sunblock was invented. (I've heard jokes about it describing what other teams have done to the Washington team in games...although I think the federal government has no business regulating the nicknames of football teams, I also think Dan Snyder might want to consider other names that would go with burgundy-gold-black-and-white.)
More than that: some of the fighting that has occurred in Ireland was as bad, for the collective image of Irish people and for the individual people of Ireland, as drunkenness was for Irish or Native American or any other kind of people. However, Irish-Americans don’t perceive “The Fighting Irish” as a defamation of anyone's character; we perceive it as a sort of salute to the facts that (a) when Irish people have decided to fight, they’ve been brave and tough about it; and (b) a lot of Irish boys have played on the team.
But suppose the owners of the Washington team decide that (a) puritanism is back in style, and the nation’s capital shouldn’t be associated with the practice of paying grown men to play childish games, or (b) if Washington has a football team, that team should have a nickname that reminds people of something about Washington. Anyone can think of a few dozen possibilities: Federals; G-Men; T-Men; Commanders, or Chiefs; Monuments, or Monumentals; Attractions; Tourists and Commuters; Keys, as in the Key Bridge; Peregrines (around the turn of the century the city started publicizing its pride in having attracted a family of urbanized peregrine falcons, but “Falcons” is taken); Bald Eagles (as distinct from the other team called Eagles)...I have no problem cheering for a Washington home team with a real Washington name, e.g. “Nationals.”  And the beerier and less inhibited team boosters could have a good time working out a half-time routine that is (a) suggestive of the team’s name, in some way that’s obvious even to fans who have drunk a whole six-pack, and (b) silly. And exactly what is this going to do for some Navaho family who aren’t getting decent prices for their wool rugs and turquoise bracelets, and have to depend on strip mining to buy food?
Churchill goes on to ridicule Robert Bly (a cartoon of the paunchy poet appears on the front of the book) and other New Age types who wish to incorporate some sort of Native American flavor into their religious rituals. By and large his judgment on the authenticity of the real and alleged Native American spiritual teachers of the 1990s is reliable. Wallace Black Elk, Archie Fire Lamedeer, and Ed Eagleman McGaa: real members of the traditions they’ve marketed, although their commercial exploitation of the traditions has been denounced by others in their groups.

Dhyani Ywahoo, Gary Eagle-Walking-Turtle McClain, some others not familiar to me: probably of Native American descent, but actually commercializing something different from the traditions of their alleged ancestors. (Ywahoo, whose name and face are obviously multiethnic, admits that her “Etowah Band” was not really recognized by the Cherokee Nation, nor were their crystal and chanting rituals of Cherokee origin. In her book the phrasing is that she has “not divulged any secrets.” The facts that “Dhyani” is an Indian, not Cherokee, name and that much of the philosophy in Voices of Our Ancestors is also Asian are fairly obvious clues.) Brooke Medicine Eagle is incorrectly described by Churchill as “a bogus Cherokee”; by 1994 he should have been able to get some clues to her real identity and ethnic origin, and the real origins of her school of New Age psychotherapy, from Buffalo Woman Comes Singing. (The book has merit when read as a story of how a multiethnic American patched together, out of family tradition, her own formal and informal studies, and the traditions of people she knew, an approach to emotional healing and personal growth that can actually help people. “Medicine Eagle” is not a Cherokee name, and if Churchill has any evidence that Medicine Eagle ever claimed that it was, he needs to present that evidence. She says she's from the Plains.)

Carlos Castaneda, Mary Summer Rain, and Lynn Andrews are best read, if you enjoy reading them, as novelists who have blurred and fictionalized the identities, origins, and teachings of any Native American teachers they ever had out of all recognition. Medicine Woman is not about the Dakota tradition but it is a lively, romance-free, feminist novel, which I enjoy as such. Castaneda’s “don Juan” may have been, like Zorba the Greek, a celebration of a memorable individual friend but can hardly be read by adults as a study of the friend’s whole culture.
The question of whether people without verifiable lineal descent from the founder of a tradition should be allowed to learn, practice, and pass on the tradition is hard to resolve. That the question arises is tragic. Perhaps descendants of immigrants can best understand the tragedy by imagining this scenario: You are suddenly invited to a special dinner at the embassy of a country from which one or more of your ancestors immigrated to the United States. At the dinner you are told that, due to a bizarre combination of murders, mysterious diseases, and disappearances having stripped your ancestral country of two thousand members of its extended royal family, you have been invited here on the grounds of your distant kinship to the country's aristocracy, in the hope that you can found the next royal family. Is this scenario flattering? Can you imagine this situation without horror? Indians Are Us is one long outburst of that kind of horror. 
Churchill makes what I believe to be his point—that most of the pre-Columbian cultures of North America are not dead, and deserve to be respectfully heard as a cultural, even political, influence, rather than “channelled” as dead spirits into a mishmash of imprecise “spiritual” scholarship—with more clarity when he writes about the dispute over which artists qualify for any special benefits as being “Native American.”
Even when he accuses people of calling groups like the Cherokee “tribes” rather than “peoples” or “nations,” however, he’s off the mark. He goes back into remote history to claim that “tribes” is normally used of animals. (It is not, and never was, except in scientific jargon.) The real difference between a tribe and a nation is the difference between a large extended family and an organized political entity. Tribes may exist within a national organization, or subsist as hunters and gatherers; either way, what makes them “tribes” is that, if called on to make a decision as a group, they’re lucky if they can agree on who should represent the group in negotiation or how the decision should be made. Some small disorganized groups, like the Nacostchunk on the Anacostia River, or the Melungeons in Tennessee, can only be described as tribes. It would not be unreasonable to describe the seven traditional sub-groupings in the Cherokee Nation as “tribes,” although “clans” is the word they use; no clan seems to have functioned as a political organization claiming sovereignty. The large group of all people whose primary identity is Cherokee has been an organized nation for a long time. To speak of “the Cherokee tribe” is not  disrespectful so much as it is inaccurate. An analogy might be speaking of “the county of Texas.” On the other hand, to speak of “the Powhatan nation” would be more like speaking of “the sovereign state of Dallas.” The claim that confusion about tribes and nations reflects hate, rather than lack of information, needs more evidence than Churchill has.
Indians Are Us is not a book to be easily condemned with faint praise. People who hoped that learning to pronounce “mitakuye oyasin” would solve all the problems of our “first nations” needed to be shown how much harder than that a real solution would be. I still imagine the sellouts who “began to trade blankets, beadwork, medicine bags—their younger sisters, if need be—for half-pints of rotgut whiskey” to have been considerably more degenerate than Dakotas like Wallace Black Elk, or “Plains” mixed breeds like Brooke Medicine Eagle. I still needed, and evidently some readers still do need, more insight into the kind of issues that have to be redressed before any real attempt to reconcile Native and immigrant American cultures can be made.
It’s worth reading Indians Are Us, if you’re up to the spiritual discipline of it, as an indictment of the greedhead tendencies within you, your family, the people with whom you work (regardless of your ethnicity) as they have conflicted with the natural, sustainable tendencies. Churchill anticipates a need to prevent those greedy for the prestige of “learning” from coming to pretend, or actually feel, that they know more about Native American culture than people actually living on “tribal” land. Some of us see similar things happening among the demographic groups that include us, even our demographic generations. In her first prose book, Dakota, Kathleen Norris wrote about the fear mostly Anglo-American family farmers expressed that they would “become the next Indians” driven off the land by greedhead corporations like Monsanto. The black-and-white moral conflict going on here is not the same thing as the Red-and-White ethnic conflict. For many of us the moral and ethical conflict may be of more immediate interest.
In the end I (predictably) find Indians Are Us disappointing. I don’t think Churchill is asking enough of readers. I think his haste to express the horror and indignation he was feeling weakened his book. The positive things he asks readers to do—boycott off-reservation sweat lodges, modify sloppy speech patterns, change the names of a few sports teams—are absurdly disproportionate to the existing problems. The book says very little about sustainable agriculture, ecologically sound industry, frugality, generosity, hospitality, respect for elders, or care for children, as areas in which all Americans can benefit from studying what was written about the first Americans; nor does it tackle the messy problems of overpopulation. Nor does it say much about addressing the economic needs of impoverished Native Americans in more helpful ways than buying a ticket to participate in some knock-off of some exotic cultural ritual. Indians Are Us seems meant to leave all readers holding a bunch of emotional loose ends. And politically...oh, why get me started on the many and inevitable failures of socialism?

Nevertheless: I've read it, and I recommend that others read it...partly because Indians Are Us can help you appreciate just how inadequate, as a response, carrying on about the names of football teams is. The book is easy to find online. You may find a better price than this site's minimum online price of $5 for the book, $5 for shipping. If you pay that price here, however, this web site will indeed send Ward Churchill or a charity of his choice a dollar, or one-tenth of the price of however many of his books you buy through our Fair Trade Books system.