"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

Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Got any Firewater?" or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Indian Humor

Question: How does an Indian tell which way is south?

Answer: He looks at his satellite dish.

Question: When do Indians know it is safe to go out on the ice.

Answer: When the white guys quit falling through.

Question: Why is America called the land of the free?

Answer: Because they never paid the original inhabitants for it.

-Jim Northrup

On Wednesday, September 29th I had the great pleasure to meet the award-winning Ojibwe author and poet Jim Northrup. He is the man behind the works Walking the Rez Road and Rez Road Follies. He also writes the long-running syndicated column Fond du Lac Follies.

Jim is best known for his dry wit, warm humor, and hilarious insights into life on the Rez. His writing pokes fun at both Indians and American society at large. Jim also speaks openly about his experience fighting in Vietnam and his struggles to overcome post traumatic stress disorder. No matter the topic however, a evening with Jim Northrup is sure to be two things: hilarious and insightful.

Jim reciting his poem "weegwas"

While listening to Jim speak, I was reminded of my own experience with Native humor.  It was the summer of 2008 and I was working at Grand Portage National Monument tucked away in the far northeast corner of Minnesota.  I both lived and worked on the Grand Portage Chippewa Reservation giving me a crash course in life on the Rez.

It was maybe my third week on the job.  I was fresh and new, still learning my way around the site.  I was stationed in the historic kitchen inside the trading post.  I had dressed in my usual period outfit of baggy front-flap pants, loose fitting shirt, sash, and moccasins.  Visitors would walk in the back door, I'd explain how the kitchen worked, and they would depart through the front door.  Standard operating procedure.

Kitchen (left) & Great Hall (right)

A few visitors had just left the kitchen when all of a sudden this young tall skinny Native guy comes strolling in the back door like he owns the place.  He gives me a little flick of the head and with a big smirk on his face he asks me "Hey man, got any firewater?"

I freeze.  My mind immediately fills with, "You're not supposed to say that."  I check to see if there are any visitors around.  There aren't any.  The guy walks up to me.  We're now face to face.  I'm standing motionless.  He exclaims, "Hey man, you gotta loosen up.  Geez look at you!"  He laughs.

Ha ha ha, I get it.  It's pick on the new guy day.  He was just having his fun and I don't blame him.  We actually get to talking and he tells me he's on leave from the army.  He was fighting in Afghanistan.  He's spending his time off with the family on the Rez.  Now I know why he's such a kidder.  With a life like his, I don't blame him for laughing a little.

Every time I see this guy the whole rest of the summer, the same question comes out of his mouth.  "Hey man, you loosened up yet?"  He will never let me live it down.

So I learned my lesson that day.  Sometimes you just gotta laugh.  It's like what another one of my co-workers once told me, "you're laughin' to keep from cryin'."  Humor is a very powerful force and if you can't laugh about life then life ain't truly worth living.

For more tales from Grand Portage check out my previous post:

Tales from Grand Portage: The Great Hall Spirits

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Onion Parodies Amazon "Civilization"

The satirical magazine The Onion, which bills itself as "America's Finest News Source," has just come out with a new article about the "lousiest civilization ever."  Here is a brief snippet:

Archaeologists Unearth Lousiest Civilization Ever

Archaeologists working in a remote section of the Amazon Rainforest announced Tuesday that they have discovered the ancient remnants of what they claimed may be the lousiest civilization in human history.

According to Dr. Ronald Farber, a professor from the University of Minnesota who is leading the excavation, the "half-assed" culture existed from about 450 B.C. until 220 B.C., when it abruptly disappeared—an event he said was "honestly no big loss" for our understanding of human culture.

"From what we've unearthed so far, it appears this pre-Columbian civilization was pretty much just copying what other, more superior groups nearby were doing—albeit to a much shittier degree," Farber said. "They sucked. You should see the useless mess of a calendar these dumbasses came up with."

The article goes on to reference all manner of "half-assed" attempts at copying other Pre-Colombian civilizations.  It references "inefficient" aqueduct systems, "piece of shit" pipes, "asinine" agricultural methods, and a massive sun temple whose alignment with the Summer solstice was off by two feet.  Apparently, they all "went blind" from staring into the solar eclipses they predicted.

Here is another line that rips on the archaeologists:

An ancient ceremonial headdress, believed to belong to the ruler of the civilization, is reportedly the only artifact from the site that has captured the interest of the scientific community. However, the find was only deemed worthwhile after one of the archaeologists donned the feather diadem while prancing around and shouting, "Duh! Look at me, I'm King Fuckstick, Leader of the Numbskulls!"

The article is clearly meant to be parody.  It satirizes the traditional stereotype that the Amazon was full of backwards savages and cannibals incapable of creating or sustaining any hint of civilization.  The article references all the great achievements of the Pre-Columbian Americans such as advanced knowledge of astronomy, massive public works, written languages, and the fine arts.

I suspect this parody was written in direct response to this recent article in The Washington Post about new discoveries of Amazon civilization:

Scientists find evidence discrediting theory Amazon was virtually unlivable
By Juan Forero

To the untrained eye, all evidence here in the heart of the Amazon signals virgin forest, untouched by man for time immemorial - from the ubiquitous fruit palms to the cry of howler monkeys, from the air thick with mosquitoes to the unruly tangle of jungle vines.

Archaeologists, many of them Americans, say the opposite is true: This patch of forest, and many others across the Amazon, was instead home to an advanced, even spectacular civilization that managed the forest and enriched infertile soil to feed thousands.

The findings are discrediting a once-bedrock theory of archaeology that long held that the Amazon, unlike much of the Americas, was a historical black hole, its environment too hostile and its earth too poor to have ever sustained big, sedentary societies. Only small and primitive hunter-gatherer tribes, the assumption went, could ever have eked out a living in an unforgiving environment.

But scientists now believe that instead of stone-age tribes, like the groups that occasionally emerge from the forest today, the Indians who inhabited the Amazon centuries ago numbered as many as 20 million, far more people than live here today...

It is the following paragraph in particular that led me to believe the authors of The Onion article had read this one:

"I think we're humanizing the history of the Amazon," said Neves, 44, a professor at the University of Sao Paulo. "We're not looking at the Amazon anymore as a black box. We're seeing that these people were just like anywhere else in the world. We're giving them a sense of history."

Hence, The Onion article absurdly "de-humanizes" the indigenous Amazon people with its foul mouthed archaeologists, all while substantially reinforcing the very real advances of their civilization!

This certainly is one of the more humorous examples of "drawing on Indians" that I have encountered recently.  Essentially, The Onion draws upon the advances of Native civilizations in order to point out the traditional prejudices of non-Native people against the so-called "primitive" Indians.  It demonstrates the hypocrisy of continuing to think of Indians as backwards people when for thousands of years Native civilizations were just as advanced or even more advanced than those in Europe!

I was also keenly aware of the fact that the article did not once use the words Native, Indian, or indigenous.  "Civilization" and "society" make much better satire anyway when paired with the archaeologist's scholarly choice of "half-assed".

What do you think?  Effective satire or just not funny?

For another take on The Washington Post article check out this write-up from the Newspaper Rock blog:

Amazon Indians weren't savages

Friday, September 10, 2010

Indians and Knights T-Shirt

Sometimes I don't have to look very far to find interesting examples of "drawing on Indians".  Case in point is the following t-shirt my brother was wearing last week:

(Click to enlarge)

The full text on the shirt reads:

"Nature is at work. Character and destiny are her handiwork.
She gives us love and hate, jealousy and reverence. All that is ours is
the power to choose which impulse we shall follow.

The analogy between Indians and Knights is a new one for me but not at all surprising.  In the popular American imagination, both are highly romanticized chivalrous warriors of some distant long ago past.  But apparently we have to choose between the two.

I'm going to channel the fashion designer to figure this one out.  I'm guessing the "Knight" represents "strength" since he is covered in heavy armor.  That means the "Indian" represents "Honor" since he is wearing only his skin.

So then we have to choose between the two.  Will we choose the protection of the Knight or fight honorably like the Indian?   But what, I don't get any other choices?  Can't I be a ninja or a pirate or a cowboy?

This shirt stands as another fine example demonstrating how people envision and understand Native peoples.  The classic image of the Plains warrior on horseback is the go to symbol for "honor".  It reinforces the false notion that somehow honor is inherent to the "Nature" of Native Americans.  It's noble savagery through and through.

Then again, if recent examples have proven anything, many fashion designers don't actually put too much thought into the meanings of images but rather just go for the "look."  I imagine the weekly meeting at the design studio went something like this:

"Haven't you heard, the tribal look is totally selling with our young hipster clientele so we better put some Indians on t-shirts stat!  I don't care if it doesn't make any sense!  If it's savage it sells!"

How do I know?

Check out their website: http://www.tankfarmclothing.com/

And their latest design:

My brother's t-shirt is a great example for one other reason: I bought it for him!  It was the Christmas holiday maybe three or four years ago.  I knew my brother needed t-shirts so I bought a few he might like at the local T.J. Maxx.

At the time, I thought absolutely nothing of the image on the shirt.  Like the fashion designer behind it, I thought it looked "cool."  Just goes to show how much I've learned in the interim.  Remember, if you don't stop to look around every once in a while and ask critical questions, you might just find yourself wearing a t-shirt with an "Indian" on it!

For more on "Indians" and clothing check out my post:
Selling Blue Jeans with Indians

For more on "Indians" as a hip fashion trend check out my posts:
Hipster Indians
Glastonbury "Indians"

Some more "Indian" t-shirts from the newspaper rock blog:

Lucky Brand sells "White Lightning" t-shirt
Indian skulls in headdresses
T-shirt shows skull in headdress
"Ur-A-Nole" t-shirt

And for real Native fashion check out the wonderful:
Beyond Buckskin blog

Monday, September 6, 2010

1930 Newsreel Mocks Indians

Check out this black and white newsreel from 1930.  The description from the website seems innocent enough...

"A 1930 newsreel of Calvin Coolidge at the dedication ceremony for the dam named after him and he smokes a peace pipe with a Pima chief and an Apache chief after a meal on top of the dam."

But go ahead and watch the video yourself:


Here are the highlights from Patrick Bateman (I mean the narrator):

"by irrigating a million acres of land, it will save hundreds of Indians from poverty and suffering."

"See the Indians there.  They're from the Pima and Apache tribes who used to be fighting each other all the time."

"After dinner is always a good time for a puff so Mr. Coolidge smoked the pipe of peace and then handed it to the chief of the Pimas.  After he had a puff, he gave it to the Apache chief who came in his best Sunday feathers.  Looks like an old cigar store sign."

Anyone else want to strangle the narrator?

The narration effectively belittles the Indians into mere stereotypes.  It positions President Coolidge as the great leader of the American people, bringing civilization to those poor backward Indians.

And worst of all, despite the claims in the video, the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation on whose land the dam and reservoir now stand, remains one of the poorest in the country.

I imagine this newsreel was created as post-presidential propaganda for Mr. Coolidge.  It effectively draws on Indians to boost up his image and solidify his legacy as friend to the Indian.  But why it had to be so condescending is more a sign of the times than anything else.

Even more interesting is the keywords section on the website.  Click on "Search Related Keywords" and see how this video was classified.  Thankfully, Thought Equity Motion who hosts this video for educational and commercial purposes correctly chose these three keywords: sadness, propaganda, and spin.  Why sneaky is on there I will never know.

Bonus Video:

Here's President Coolidge presiding over a Sioux powwow.  Coolidge claimed Indian heritage and was actually given the Indian title "Chief Leading Eagle."  Hence, the one line in the video:


And yes, he's wearing a headdress.  (which considering the context and the groups involved, actually makes sense for a change!)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Forget Avatar: 10 Compelling Films of Real-Life Indigenous Struggles

One of the main reasons I started this blog almost six months ago was my experience with a little film by the name of AvatarIt proved so influential that my very first real blog post was all about Avatar:

Blue Monkey Indians!

Since then my experience with native cinema has expanded considerably.  There are tons of great films out there about real life indigenous struggles yet Avatar gets all the hype!  Not fair.  With that in mind I put together the following list:

Forget Avatar: 10 Compelling Films of Real-Life Indigenous Struggles

I chose films that both fit the theme and were high quality. I also picked more obscure but noteworthy films and tried to get a good geographic spread.

What do you think?  Do any of them not belong on the list?  Is the list missing any crucial films?

It is posted over at videohound's movieretriever.com

Special thanks to Mike T. for hosting the list!