"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Blue Monkey Indians!

Avatar... where do I even start.  In many ways, seeing this movie was a prime motivation for starting this blog.  I walked into this film with a more or less open mind.  I had read about the general plot and themes.  I read about the glorious special effects and the $300 million budget.  I even read about how they constructed a whole new alien language for this film!  (and don't get me started on how those resources could have been better used to save one of the hundreds of disappearing real languages!)  So after all that, I donned my 3D glasses, sat down, and awed in the glory of James Cameron's 162 minute master opus.    Or not.

It didn't take long before I started noticing things.  The way the plot was developing, the specific dialogue, the overall themes.  Something didn't seem right.  It seemed just all too familiar.  I finally realized what was happening.  I had seen this movie before!!!

I present to you Exhibit A:

CFV 426 - Avatar/Pocahontas Mashup FINAL VERSION from Randy Szuch on Vimeo.

That's right- Avatar is Pocahontas.  It's not even a metaphor- the plots are literally the same thing.  Young soldier lands in strange new world.  Goes off to make peace with the “natives.”  Falls in love with the impeccably beautiful native princess.  The indigenous population lives in absolute 100% perfect harmony with the natural world around them (unlike those greedy, polluting, capitalist invaders!).  All hell breaks loose and the poor native people tragically suffer.

In many ways, Avatar simply re-imagines the classic stereotype of the noble, primitive Indian- the sons and daughters of the forest living in complete harmony with the natural world around them.  This stereotype has been around for centuries but took on a new meaning in mid-twentieth century America.  With the new age counterculture of the 1960s embracing Indian primitivism as a form of rebellion against modern society combining with the burgeoning environmental movement of the 1970s, you get America's new love affair with the tree-hugging Indian.  Essentially, two popular movements combined  and in the process co-opted the American Indian as its symbol.  Hence the classic TV commercial of the crying Indian and the malicious littering.  Exhibit B:

Popular notions about American Indians tell us that of course they “have a deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country”!  The reason this type of “Indian” is so pernicious is that it once again traps native people in the cage of primitivism.  It doesn't allow for any complexity of thought, feeling, or action towards the environment.  The historic relationship between native people and the land is just as complicated as the one between settlers and the land.  The relationship between modern native communities and the land is also just as complicated at times.  But then again, when Hollywood drops such a wide-spread cultural phenomenon in your lap, why not take advantage.

Presenting Exhibit C:

Just a few months ago, this appeared in the Oscar edition of Variety magazine. Whatever your stand on the issue of tar sands development in Canada, you can't help but notice the trend that continues today.

Monday, March 29, 2010

a little introduction...

Hello and welcome to my blog that is not about Native Americans. That's right, this blog is not about Native Americans.

Instead, this blog is more about an idea, an idea has existed in the world for over 500 years. An idea born from a seed of misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and outright fabrication. This idea grew into a tree of mixed beliefs and mixed emotions. While some of the branches have been rightfully trimmed, others remain dangling in the wind, waiting to be seen by all.

This idea of course, is the Indian. Now before I get any angry emails, let me explain. When I say Indian or better yet “Indianness” what I am referring to is the collective constructed natures of the indigenous peoples of North America. I say collective because there are many variations of Indianness or Indians. I say constructed because they are built from elements of truth, fiction, and myth. I say natures because they go beyond physical characteristics to describe thoughts, actions, and beliefs.

This Indianness takes on different forms. Indian depictions in popular culture range from tasteless to priceless, mildly amusing to mostly racist, innocent to arrogant, informed to ill-advised, fearless to careless, and just plain weird! You have your proud warriors, your bloody savages, your loyal sidekicks, your skulking adversaries, your beautiful princesses, your disappearing races, and your harmonious nature dwellers. They are used in television, movies, literature, comic books, music, video games, holidays, sports teams, advertising, consumer products, clothing, and social organizations. With this blog, I intend to catalog many of the different permutations of Indianness both from the past and the present and explore how and why people used them. In doing so, I hope to create a valuable resource to bring awareness to this always fascinating, sometimes frightening, and often puzzling topic.

Finally, as a general disclaimer, I feel compelled to say that no, I am not American Indian myself. I would not even be so bold as to say something silly like, “some of my closest friends happen to be Native American” cause that isn't true. I'm simply someone who has been lucky enough to study this topic in an academic setting and lived and worked with two different inspiring native communities. I'm not quite sure where this experiment may lead but I'm willing to find out. I truly believe that knowledge is power and awareness is the key to change.

I'm open to all suggestions and comments so let me know what you think.