"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, August 31, 2010

Tim the Fur Trade Reenactment Indian

We all have our unique hobbies. Some people are bird watchers. Others collect stamps. Still others restore classic cars.

And some get dressed up and pretend they are living in the 1700s.

This past weekend I visited the annual Voyageur Encampment at Metro Beach Metropark in metropolitan Detroit, Michigan. I have attended these events before but this was the first one here in my home state of Michigan.

The Living History Encampment

For those of you who are not familiar with Fur Trade reenactors or even reenacting in general, I'll let Wikipedia do the talking:  “Historical reenactment is a type of roleplay in which participants attempt to recreate some aspects of a historical event or period.”  In this case, the Great Lakes Fur Trade of the 1700s.

There are as many reasons for participating in reenactments as there are reenactors. It is usually some combination of love of history, love of the reenactment community, and love of dressing up and getting away from it all. I met several fascinating individuals this weekend but there is one in particular who fits right in here at Drawing on Indians.

Tim is just your average midwestern blue collar worker pulling down his 40 hours and a steady paycheck as a pipefitter for General Motors. It's only on the occasional weekend during the summer that you realize Tim is somehow different.

Here's Tim:

(click to enlarge)

Tim immediately caught my attention because of the hair.  I jokingly asked him if he had cut it especially for the event or if this was a permanent style choice.  He told me this was a summer ritual where he would cut it into the Mohawk style when the reenactments started.

I then asked what type of individual he was portraying.  He told me he dressed to represent a Great Lakes Fur Trade era Indian.  He said he didn't know his history as well as others and was representing a more generic Great Lakes Indian and not a specific tribe.  I then of course had to ask politely if he was indeed Native himself.  The answer was both expected and unexpected.  (and I paraphrase)

"Yeah, well I'm French and Native, maybe like 1/32nd Indian but mostly French."

Tim explained how he first became interested in primitive living skills and Indian material culture back in the day which eventually led to his involvement in Fur Trade reenacting.  He actively participates in the group Great Lakes Primitives whose facebook page explains:

Primitive skills teachers and participants gather to share knowledge of our ancestors’ ancient art forms and survival technologies to preserve and pass on these traditions with new friends and renew old friendships.

The group sounds like many of the other survival schools I profiled in my post Cody Lundin and Surviving like an Indian.  These groups draw upon indigenous cultures including American Indians to teach primitive living skills.  Something new I spotted on the Great Lakes Primitives page which surprised me was the following line:

We respect all religious beliefs and practices. Due to the diversity of participants’ spiritual beliefs and the nature of this event, we ask that attendees be respectful of differences as we share our time together.

Between the line "our ancestors’ ancient art form" and the note on religious diversity, I'm wondering if there aren't active Indian members in this group.  Then again, the group could swing the other direction and simply idealize a primitive Indian lifestyle to which it makes false attachments.  All I know is that Tim did refer to some of its members as "those natural people" which made me chuckle.

Now, before anyone starts condemning Tim as a wannabe or shameless hack consider this.  One of the main goals of the Fur Trade reenactment community is to faithfully recreate the look, feel, sights, sounds, smells, and even tastes of the era.  Reenactors put hundreds of hours and hundreds of dollars into their tents, gear, and clothing so that you the visitor can walk into the encampment and literally walk back in time.

From my experience, the Indian presence in the Fur Trade reenactment community is quite small and even non-existent in some places.  How then does one faithfully reenact and represent this era of exploration, trade, and cultural interaction without one half of the equation?

When talking to reenactors or listening to presentations a common phrase was "The Native Americans wore this" or "The Indians traded those" or "The Natives believed in that."  The combined effect was to reinforce the fact that there were no Indians at the event to answer these questions for themselves!

A Group of Reenactors

In an ideal world, every historic reenactment would have reenactors represent their own ethnicity or culture  (a group of French-Canadians as voyageurs, English and Scotsmen as traders, Métis as Métis, and Indians as Indians).  But such restrictions limit the openness and inclusivity of these groups.  After all, it's a hobby not a movie set!

Which brings me back to Tim.

After talking with him briefly, he seemed to have a well rounded view of historic and modern Native Americans.  He readily acknowledged the centuries of injustice against Indian people and expressed genuine concern for the loss of Indian culture, language, and traditions.  He even mentioned several acquaintances who actively work with native communities to preserve their language and culture.  Furthermore, he didn't assume a first person identity as an Indian or started lecturing me on native culture as if he'd just walked off the rez, which is always a good thing.

Then again, my conversation with him was rather short and I will never know the truth behind his claim of Indian heritage.  Therefore the question remains...

Can you or should you ever faithfully recreate the look and material culture of American Indians by dressing as an Indian?

My thoughts:

As with most issues of native appropriation, it all depends on the context.  In this particular case, I'm just not sure.

Is Tim's motivation for dressing as an Indian primarily educational to teach others about primitive skills and Indian material culture or is he simply dressing up to "be" an Indian, a human prop on display in the living history encampment.

He certainly has the authentic clothes and gear to represent a Great Lakes Indian of the 1700s (expect for the bow which he acknowledged was not quite period authentic).  Sure is a refreshing change from the stereotypical Plains Indian with full warbonnet and face paint!

I honestly see both sides on this...

What do you think?

Is this a harmless hobby or questionable cultural appropriation?

or something completely different altogether?

<Let me know!>


  1. I come down on the harmless hobby side, and here's for why

    Due to the genocide there doesn't appear to be an unbroken link to the past. He feels the call, and sets out to explore the peoples of the past. It's a hobby. A sad waste of time to some, and a fascinating passion to others.

    Personally I might go for 'Indian' myself as they probably had better gear for the environment which would make the days afield more comfortable, and i like archery. Then again maybe I'd go for 'trapper who'd spent time with the indians' for a best of both worlds effect.

    Would it be fair to tell someone with more indian DNA that he couldn't play at being a Scottish trapper if he wanted to? Of course not. In order not to be racist it gotta be the same rules for everyone, no?

    Which brings me to the cultural appropriation part.

    On the border of scotland and england the roman invaders built a wall, part defensive position part trading post. One of the first legions to guard Hadrian's wall was from ethiopia - so many northern english and southern scottish people are the descendants of Ethiopians. If i joined a re enactment society in the border country would I only be allowed to be scottish as I don't have any Ethiopian or Italian heritage?

    As I understand some of what we now call 'indian' DNA originates from France, does that give him a pass?

    Interesting blog - I've really enjoyed reading it this morning

  2. "In an ideal world, every historic reenactment would have reenactors represent their own ethnicity or culture. . ."

    I disagree with your statement since I think the *effort* to role-play a member of another culture can be very educational in and of itself. Yes, it is an etic perspective but I think that can still be a huge step forward from ignorant stereotyping!