"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

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Penobscot Building

In Minnesota, a Penobscot is a canoe

In Maine, the Penobscot are a tribe

In Michigan, the Penobscot is a building

Constructed in 1928, the Penobscot Building in downtown Detroit, Michigan is an architectural and artistic masterpiece.  It also serves as another fine example in the long history of our nation's cultural obsession with the Indian.

First a few statistics (skyscraperpage.com):

  • Started in 1927 and completed in 1928
  • Rises over 202 meters (662 feet) for a total of 47 floors
  • Built in an Art Deco style with granite and limestone facing
  • Eighth tallest building in the world when finished
  • Served as Detroit's tallest skyscraper until 1977
  • Architect Wirt C. Rowland

An expression of the wealth and opulence of 1920s Detroit, the Penobscot building was a potent symbol of Detroit's industrial might.  The entire structure has Art Deco influences throughout but its main motif is American Indian.

(note: click on any photo to make it big!)

When you approach the building, you first notice the flag poles on the outside.  Notice the strong geometric themes playing off the very angular Native face with a stylized Plains Indian headdress.

This theme continues with the absolutely stunning sculpture of Corrado Parducci located above the main entrance.  The geometric design is reminiscent of southwest Indian art in particular.

Some of the Native symbolism present on the building (and yes those are swastikas which perfectly fit the theme).

The side of the main entrance:

Closeup of a side panel:

Above the main entrance doors.  Notice the Eagle at the top.

Closeup above the entrance doors.

The Native theme continues inside the lobby.

The ceiling above the lobby.

A stoic carved Indian figure holding a stylized staff.

A second carved Indian figure situated opposite the first figure stands guard over the lobby, this time holding a stylized spear.

A relief on the side of the main figure.

Finally, the absolutely stunning elevator doors.  There were six of these identical brass doors in the side hallway off the main lobby.

Closeup of the elevator door.

My thoughts:

The Penobscot Building is an absolute gem in downtown Detroit.  From the stunning stonework of the entrance to the beautiful brass interior, it's truly one of a kind.

The history is a different matter however.  While I do not have a definitive source for the design choices- I'm willing to go with Wikipedia on this one:

The building is named for the Penobscot, a Native American tribe from Maine. The following version of the choice of the name of the building is found in an undated publication believed to have been published concurrent with the buildings dedication in 1928 contains the following:
An intimation of the Murphy family's early history, together with the expression of genuine sentiment regarding the beginnings of the Murphy fortune, is contained in the name of the Greater Penobscot Building...... Long before the Civil War days, Simon J. Murphy and his partner, then two lads who had grown up in the Maine woods obtained their first employment in one of the logging camps along the Penobscot River - a stream named for the powerful tribe of Penobscot Indians.
The explanation also explains the choice of Native American styled art deco ornamentation used on the exterior and in the interior.

Once again, we have a prominent example of non-Native individuals appropriating an Indian style or motif to express their nostalgia for a long ago time (in this case, for the logging camps of northern Maine).  Why  couldn't they have used a Northwoods or lumberjack theme?  Wouldn't that have been more appropriate considering their history?

It's unique that they specifically decided to go with the Penobscot name (based on the river, named after the tribe).  But once again, the Indian designs come out as a complete grab bag of styles, designs, and symbolism very little of which has to do with the actual Penobscot people of northern Maine (who were certainly around in the 1920s to serve as design consultants!)

Why would the "Penobscot Building" include sculptures of Plains Indian style headdresses, southwest Indian geometric patterns, and animals ranging from foxes to turtles to eagles?

The answer is simple.  The designers weren't actually going for a Penobscot theme but rather a generic "Indian" theme in which the most visually striking but culturally divergent elements are pulled together to fulfill the designers' notions of Indianness.

In so many ways, the Indian figures throughout the Penobscot Building represent America's thoughts and feelings about Native people in the early 20th century.  The cold stone bodies represent a people immobile, stuck in place and unable to change.  The stoic expressions represent a people devoid of emotion and sentiment, yet somehow appear both proud and sad.  They are forever linked to both Nature and the primitive ways of the past.  Like classical Greek columns or Gothic spires, they are rich with meaning and symbolism, put on display for all the world to see.

The Penobscot Building is above all an artifact.  It is an item from the past whose elements can reveal the secrets of a time long ago.

It is a truly remarkable building and worth the visit if you ever come to Detroit.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Cody Lundin and Surviving like an Indian

First there was Les Stroud, Canadian survival expert and filmmaker whose perilous solo journeys into the wild recesses of the world captivated audiences in the hit show Survivorman.  Then came British special forces vet and high-flying stuntman Bear Grylls who impressed us with his own entertaining brand of survival on Man vs. Wild.  Since these humble beginnings, a whole slew of wilderness survival imitators have sprouted up across the cable television landscape.

The newest entry in this wilderness survival genre is Dual Survivor.  This Discovery Channel show features two wilderness survival instructors, primitive skills expert Cody Lundin and army trained hunter and scout Dave Canterbury.

Here is a clip from the first episode which pits our two intrepid survivors on an isolated island off the coast of Nova Scotia:

The whole gist of the show is simple: put two completely different survival experts with diametrically opposed survival philosophies together in the wilderness and see what happens.

If you watch the clip and read the bios online, one clearly gets the impression that each survivor fills a particular niche.

Cory Lundin is the New Age hippie who combines Native inspired primitive living skills, new age spiritualism, and a sprinkling of solid science to live in harmony with the natural world.

Dave Canterbury is the hardened, military vet who combines strict discipline with practical survival skills to overcome his sworn enemy- the savage, unforgiving wilderness.

In many ways, the first show both reinforces and breaks down these two stereotypes.  Cody Lundin definitely gets into the pseudo-science when he talks about training his mitochondria to adapt to the cold, which the narrator quickly points out happened only after many generations in Arctic people.  Cody references a digging stick and hunter/gatherer societies when he digs up clams.  The most awkward thing is that the show's music always shifts to Native American style flute music whenever the action centers on Cody.

Dave Canterbury criticizes Cody and his "bush hippie logic" and refuses to eat the clams.  Instead, he insists on catching a "red-blooded 4-legged furry critter" as he calls them.  In fact, he succeeds in killing a porcupine which he proceeds to cut up and consume.  Interestingly, Dave (and not Cody) eats the heart first saying "the spirit of the animal is in its heart" so he eats it "to be close to the animal."  Dave also refers to the survival shelter Cody constructs as being as "warm as a Lakota sweat lodge."

In case you have any lingering doubts as to the direction the producers were going with the show, this 30 second spot should clear them up:

As a fan of both Survivorman and Man vs. Wild, I have seen both Les Stroud and Bear Grylls reference and utilize indigenous inspired survival strategies.  Both of them learn from the local indigenous communities and practice specific learned skills.

Cody Lundin takes this trend to the next level, helped in part by the direction of the show.  His Native inspired, New Age philosophy is more abstract than the practical skills both Bear and Les practice in their shows.  It also doesn't help that his philosophy (or lifestyle as he calls it) serves as the foil to Dave's hardened, military ways.

I decided to do a little more investigating and stumbled upon his survival training school:

Aboriginal Living Skills School

First, let's analyze the outward appearance of Cody Lundin.

His look is clearly Native inspired with the long cloth-ended braids, Apache headband, and turquoise jewelry.  It's almost as if you crossed some California surfer dude with a Woodstock Hippie with a Hollywood Indian:

His philosophy is also Native inspired.  First, there is the name "Aboriginal Living Skills School."  He refers to a difficult period in his life as "my warrior training."  His life changed forever when "he experienced a transformation in the Red Rock wilderness" and after deciding to share Nature with others "consciously entered a multi-year journey of hard choices, deprivation, and self-correction."

After watching Dual Survival and seeing Cory Lundin's website I wondered: Is he alone in this Native inspired survivalism or is he part of a larger trend?  I decided to google "survival school" and "primitive living" and stumbled upon some interesting websites:

I want you to pay attention to these three things when perusing the following sites:

1. Name of the School

2. Visual imagery and themes

3. Word choices, tone, and program philosophy

Also, remember the difference between primitive living skills and survival skills.  Brain tanning a deer hide and knapping a flint spear will probably not help you in a survival situation.  Then again some primitive skills such as snares or dead falls for catching food are effective survival skills.  But notice how these two distinct skill sets are taught at the same schools, blurring the lines between the two.

I have included a little commentary and direct quotations from the websites:

Boulder Outdoor Survival School

"BOSS instructors bring to their courses a diverse background of personal experiences with traditional culture... BOSS staff have lived and learned from the Native peoples, not to mention the knowledge gained from North America's heritage of native tribes and nations."

Notice the pictograph artwork on the main page.

Midwest Native Skills Institute

"You will feel empowered as you learn to make fire by rubbing 2 sticks together, make a meal from the plants you find, and how to set snares or traps for food."

Anake Outdoor School

"Our wilderness education courses draw on traditions from indigenous cultures world-wide, emphasizing nature as teacher, routines to enhance awareness, storytelling, self-motivated learning, and tracking as an interpretive tool."

"The Anake Outdoor School helps people develop a deep and intimate relationship with the natural world. This life changing wilderness experience is grounded in a powerful, community-oriented philosophy of learning that is informed by the legacy of indigenous cultures from around the world, and a cutting-edge understanding of our natural heritage as human beings."

Notice how the four core values are assigned to the four cardinal directions, not unlike a medicine wheel.

In a unique African twist, this school was founded by Ingwe, otherwise known as M. Norman Powell.  He was "raised on a colonial plantation in Kenya, Africa, where he grew up under the tutelage of an older boy, Ndaka, a member of the local Akamba community. He was eventually initiated into Akamba society, and carried those traditions with him through all his life."

Ancient Pathways, LLC

"It has been said that the best way to remain "civilized" is to get away from civilization for a while."

Course offerings include: Braintan Buckskin Intensive, Bushcraft Course, and Walkabout

Notice the Sun, Moon, and Wildlife imagery.

The website also emphasizes the Native presence in its Northern Arizona location saying: "Northern Arizona is also the home of the Hopi, Navajo, Supai, Hualapai, Apache, and Paiute, and has the largest concentration of Native American languages anywhere in North America."  This line is completely unrelated to the actual survival courses but instead serves to tie the courses to the local Native groups.

Bearclaw Bushcraft

For a survival school founded by two guys from Essex and Kent in merry old England, they sure lode up on the Native imagery and spirituality.

"Bushcraft or Wilderness Living skills are not new, they are as old as mankind itself. They were the living skills of our ancestors and forebears, just as they are the living skills of native peoples and outdoors folk all over the world today because they really work."

"Skills which enabled our ancestors and forebears to make fire, find shelter, water and food in an often unfriendly world, skills which made their lives not only bearable but comfortable and which taught them a deep respect for the nature around them, skills which can be learnt and used by you just as they did."

Survival in the Bush, Inc.

"Presently working with a number of aboriginal bands to teach individuals a series of wilderness living skills."

"Gino has traveled extensively in the Canadian northlands, and has taught survival techniques to the Inuit, Metis, and Native people." (as far as I can tell, Gino is not Inuit, Metis, or Native himself)

Tom Brown Jr's Tracker School

"The Tracker School was founded in 1978 by Tom Brown Jr, Americas most renowned Tracker, and Wilderness Survival expert. Based on the teachings of Stalking Wolf, the Apache elder from whom Tom began teaching, when he was seven years old, the school has expanded to include over 75 classes, divided into eight course tracks, of the teachings that Grandfather passed to tom."

Notice the skull, feathers, and mud-covered people on the home page.

Course offering example: Food- sacred hunting and fishing:

"Native people believe that when we take a life for our nourishment it becomes part of us, one with our being. Thus, it is absolutely necessary that we show the Creator honest and humble gratitude in prayer, and that we properly honor our brothers and sisters of the rivers, oceans, and seas, as they sustain and nourish us in this life. Every skill has its own myths, prayers, legends and traditions, and in this course Tom will share with students many of Grandfather’s beautifully preserved skills of what he considered Sacred Fishing."

Apparently, he is not without controversy and has been labeled by some as a fraud: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Brown_%28naturalist%29#Controversies

And: "I've attended this school, multiple times, Im not going back. He has alot of credit and has a HUGE following, criticize me if you want, but i know hes full of s**t. This guy needs to be proven a fake." (source)

Woodsmoke: Bushcraft and Wilderness Survival

Another UK school heavy on the Native imagery and philosophy that invites you to "join our tribe."

"Wilderness living skills have been developed and refined, not only by native peoples in foreign climes, but also much closer to home: by woodsmen, hunters, trappers, naturalists, research teams, contemporary explorers, and the pioneers who opened up the frontiers of the New World."

An interesting piece on the "Bushcraft Paradox?"

"Wilderness bushcraft, as a modern western concept, began as a set of rudimentary survival skills that were gradually added to from a global repository of indigenous knowledge."

"How do we explain our endless fascination with native peoples and their intimate understanding of the land? Their apparent happiness and being at ease with themselves, especially when they have so little? Perhaps it is because we have confused our value structure and lost sense of meaning - having been pre-conditioned to try to generate our happiness through possessions, purchasing new ‘feel-good’ toys and trinkets."

In other words, they want to escape from the modern world through the conduit of indigenous cultures.

Earthwalk Northwest

"At Earthwalk Northwest, our mission is to guide participants in bridging the past with the present to benefit the future. We recognize that the work of mastering traditional skills is a vehicle for reconnecting people with the earth, enabling them to become effective caretakers."

Another unique twist- one of the two founders, Karen, "is a Northwest native who grew up studying the flora of the Pacific Northwest"

Courses include: arrow making, primitive fishing, and flint knapping.

They also serve wild food dinners where "each meal reflects the traditional wild foods gathered and prepared by indigenous peoples from this region."

Nunavik Arctic Survival Training Center

"expert Inuit instructors teach critical survival skills... led by our experienced Inuit instructors, NASTC travel packages offer visitors a truly authentic Arctic experience"

"The cheerful and friendly manner of the region’s inhabitants, the Inuit, will quickly put you at ease. Nunavik Inuit will welcome you warmly to their corner of the world, introducing you to the distinctive characteristics of their cultural and linguistic heritage, art and history, as well as traditional clothing and tools."

The school name also appears in the Inuit language.

Hollowtop Outdoor Primitive School

"Primitive living is a metaphor we participate in and act out. Life is simplified down to the bare essentials: physical and mental well-being, shelter, warmth, clothing, water, and food. We go on an expedition to meet those needs with little more than our bare hands."

He writes a long reflective essay about primitive living entitled Quest for Freedom.  Here we have an insider, a primitive skills instructor himself, making the point better than I can:

"As an instructor of primitive wilderness survival skills, I meet all kinds of people who seek to rediscover the ways of our ancestors. I have noticed that many and perhaps most of these individuals are driven by a great thirst--almost a desperation--for freedom. They often feel they are held in bondage by civilization, stuck in jobs they don't want, paying meaningless bills while unable to get ahead, and forced to be accomplices in the destruction of the natural world. They feel as if civilization has them locked in chains and stuck in a box, against which they rattle and wail in desperation to get free. They are part of a counter-culture of people who see civilization as a dead end.... They want to break free from the chains of civilization to live as our ancestors did in supposed harmony with nature. Perhaps you are one of these individuals. If so, then this article is written for you."

"As a teenager I got caught up in the romantic notion of living a Stone Age existence in harmony with nature. However, I finally acknowledged that 1) it wasn't sustainable, 2) even if it was sustainable, it would be impossible to convince the rest of the world to join me, and 3) with thousands of hours Stone Age skills experience, I found that living in the Stone Age is immensely satisfying for insightful and recreational purposes, but I wouldn't want to live that way every day. Pretty much anyone who spends enough time living Stone Age skills comes to the same conclusion--that it is a hard way to live. Thus, the dream of returning to the Stone Age is a 'non-goal' three times over."

He finishes the essay describing how this return to primitivism is a transformative journey and not a destination.  In other words, living the primitive/indigenous lifestyle is not only romanticized it's impractical.  He encourages us all to embrace sustainability through modern technology and look more holistically at our problems in order to solve them.


All of the above schools use Native inspired designs, imagery, names, and philosophy.  But they are also not all alike.  I can split them into three distinct categories based on the individuals involved.

1. Non-Natives with no association or questionable associations with Native people.

2. Non-Natives who have trained with or learned from native people.

3. Native individuals who draw upon their own cultures and traditions.

The problem is that it is impossible to accurately know the motivations of each person in creating their philosophy, programs, and website.  Do individuals like Cory Lundin or the Woodsmoke school have a true affinity for indigenous cultures and survival techniques or are they just sucked into the cult of the Natural-Primitive Indian?  Are they simply using these images and terms to tap into our own cultural feelings toward the Natural-Primitive Indian?

In other words, are the Native images and philosophy just suggestive marketing to get an already sympathetic and interested crowd (outdoor enthusiasts, survivalists, New Age types) one step closer to playing Indian and fulfilling their ultimate fantasy?

One of the most telling things is from the websites and programs run by Native people.  They all make a strong point of emphasizing their authenticity and their own traditions.  Is this possibly a direct reaction to these non-Native experts using Native imagery, techniques, and philosophy?  Or are they just taking advantage of the same cultural trends to tap into some deep-seated love of everything Native among non-Natives in the United States and abroad?

My thoughts:  I think that everyone above truly appreciates indigenous cultures.  I'm just not sure about their motivations or even what "indigenous" means to them.  The websites range from respectful and informative to those filled with generic "Indian" tipis and New Age nature imagery.

Some seem to have an honest affinity for real Native skills and culture and respectfully incorporate that into their programs.  Others show a love and appreciation for an idealized primitive Native lifestyle that is based more on New Age escapism and traditional stereotypes that make for powerful marketing.

And some are in between.

This whole trend is nothing new and extends all the way back to the preeminent outdoors group, the Boy Scouts who have appropriated Native imagery and philosophy for well over a century.

Regardless, it is a fascinating trend worth noting and investigating.  I want to lastly thank my friend Jen D. whose original research into this topic inspired my own, so Thank You!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Electronic Handheld Island Indians

Imagine you are sailing across the Caribbean.  Suddenly a terrible storm with 20 foot swells batters your small boat.  The vessel creaks and moans before it finally breaks apart, leaving you adrift in the wide open sea.

But wait... you see a small tropical island and you start paddling.  Your mind is going through all the scenarios.  Is there any food?  Is there any water?  And most importantly...

Are there any Natives?

Something inside you has you worried.  Could there be Indians living on that island?  Could they be savages, cannibals even?  Even in these remote parts there could be lost tribes who have never seen a white person before.  Maybe they'll think you're a god and you can impress them with your magical technology.  You laugh away all the silliness but somehow that doesn't put your mind at rest...

Have you ever stopped and wondered: Why would you ever think such things?  You didn't just dream up these stereotypes.  You probably learned them somewhere.  But where?

If there is one group of people who love to draw upon our native neighbors, its advertisers.  They take the most potent symbols in our culture and use them to sell their products, the Indian being no exception.

Whether it's a chief in a war bonnet selling Natural American Spirit tobacco (cause Indians have a long and sacred tradition with tobacco)...

an awkward Amazon Indian making us laugh for Bud Light (cause Indians are primitive people unable to adapt to modern ways)...

or a crying Indian shaming us into cleaning up our environment (cause Indians have a special, sacred bond with Mother Earth)...

...advertisers rely on our limited cultural presumptions about native people to sell their stuff.

The RadioShack commercial plays on the classic stereotype of the tropical island savage.  This stereotype says that people living on isolated tropical islands are primitive, unsophisticated natives ready to either cook and eat or worship the first white guy who washes ashore.

It has been worked and reworked in literature, film, and television for centuries.  Ever since the first Europeans set foot in the Caribbean and the South Pacific, we have heard tales of half-naked, blood-thirsty, idol-worshiping savages that have lit our imaginations on fire.  These tales of encounters between civilization and savagery are so powerful, they will probably never go away.

These same tales also serve to reinforce stereotypes about native people.  While it is easy to laugh away these stereotypes as silly ideas about far away people from some long lost past, the truth is they still affect the way we deal with real people today.  Ask yourself, how much do you know about the native peoples of the Caribbean or South Pacific?  How many of your responses can be traced to something you saw in a movie or on TV?

Lastly, these advertisements once again demonstrate America's cultural obsession with the exotic Other.  Whether they be natural/spiritual Indians or cannibalistic savages, our culture can't help but keep drawing on those Indians.

Oh yeah... lest we forget one of America's favorite movie characters:

For more on the Cannibals of the Caribbean check out this informative page on the Newspaper Rock blog: http://www.bluecorncomics.com/pirates.htm

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Wild Boyz Indians

Life on the Pine Ridge Agency is hard. Located in southwest South Dakota in the badlands, this 3,500 sq. mi. tract of rugged prairie is larger than the state of Rhode Island. Home to over 50,000 members of the Oglala Lakota nation, it also contains some of the worst poverty in the entire nation.

Here are the facts:
  • Pine Ridge is located in the poorest county in America
  • Nearly half the population lives below the poverty line
  • Unemployment is close to 80%
  • Up to 10% of the Pine Ridge population are gang members
I learned these harrowing statistics watching one of the most compelling documentary television shows on the air today Gangland.  Each episode of the History Channel series profiles one of the most notorious gangs in America running from the Aryan Brotherhood, to the Latin Kings, to the Hells Angels, to this week's installment, the Wild Boyz of Pine Ridge.

Much of the gang activity on the Pine Ridge Reservation is imported from cities where tribal members get hooked up with urban gangs.  They often move back to the Reservation and bring their gangbanging ways with them.

The exception to the rule is the homegrown gang known as the Wild Boyz.  Its members were born and raised on the Pine Ridge Agency.  They are a native twist on the traditional gang model.

Having seen many episodes of this series, I noticed early on the same trends running through all the different gangs.  They all have their own territory, sport their own gang signs, symbols, and colors, and express an unbelievable sense of anger and frustration.  And they are all after one fundamental thing- RESPECT.  The Wild Boyz are no different.  They subvert native symbols to create gang tattoos- foremost among them being the bear claw.  For them, being a gang member is the modern equivalent of being a Lakota warrior.

Their violence and unique take on tribal history infuriates many in the community.  The Wild Boyz are appropriating their own culture and twisting it into a violent shadow of itself.  For so many disaffected youth on the rez, the Wild Boyz become their new family, their new Lakota brothers- a place for them that is still uniquely native but also provides an escape from all the pain of growing up on Pine Ridge.

(Source: flickr)

This episode profiling the Wild Boyz presents one of the most harrowing tales of modern native life- the crushing poverty that forces so many young men into a life of crime.

In a way, this episode of Gangland proves one thing- the Lakota youth of Pine Ridge are like so many other young men and women in the country.  They are scared, disaffected, and desperately searching for something to give their life meaning.  Sadly, instead of finding meaning in their families or traditions, they create an artificial family, one that breeds hate and violence through a culture of fear.

The Wild Boyz episode of Gangland is about as far as one can get from the classic Indian stereotypes of film and television.  The gang members are decked out in sports jerseys, hoodies, and baggy jeans.  Their speech is filled with the colorful words and phrases usually associated with black urban culture.

The Gangland series is also an extremely voyeuristic show.  It allows anyone to sit comfortably in their homes and watch a real life drama unfold before their very eyes.  It opens up windows into other cultures that are about as far as one can get from the white, middle-class, suburban lives many of us live.

While this episode may not fit the usual trend of Indian obsession or appropriation, it still proves that our majority American culture can't get enough of delving deep into the lives of the Other.