Mediating Indianness

Response from Mita Banerjee

Back to Book Overview

This is an amazing, far-reaching volume which dazzles the reader by giving us a sense of the complexity, the exuberance and the vitality of Native American cultures. The essays gathered in this book are an example par excellence of what Native American writer and theorist Gerald Vizenor has called the “survivance” of Native cultures: Faced with ever new simulations and flattened-out images of “Indians,” the Natives described in this volume stubbornly refuse to vanish. The book dazzles us through the sheer immensity of its Native subject material: From a license plate which commemorates the invention of an alternative Cherokee reading and writing system; from Pawnee-Seminole hip hop which celebrates the vivacity and contemporaneity of “urban Indians,” from Black/Native encounters as they are staged in autobiographical texts to a recuperation of Andy Warhol’s postmodern Indian and a reconstructive reading of the Native enigma in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. This volume is as crucial as it is timely, and it is so precisely in its fusion of historical research with astute descriptions of contemporary Native American life. Revisiting Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and recuperating the image of Tecumseh, the Shawnee diplomat who created the largest pan-Indian coalition in American history, these essays aptly demonstrate the functions which Native culture was made to serve in the interest of American nationalism and the myth of “Manifest Destiny.” This is a much-needed volume also because it demonstrates that Native American studies are necessarily an interdisciplinary endeavor: Bringing together scholars from history, literature, anthropology, rhetoric and communication, this book also resists an all-too-facile distinction between creative writing and academic analysis. Rather, it emphasizes how crucial the act of self-creation is for contemporary Native American cultures: It is only through creative writing, the writing of poetry, autobiography and prose, through creating new self-images in experimental photography and film that the stereotype of the “Indian” can adequately be countered. Finally, the work of Native American theorist Gerald Vizenor runs like a red thread to the essays gathered in this volume: His concepts of survivance, of postindian warriors and new stories in the cities are exemplified in essays which, in their depiction of contemporary Native American lives, insist only on one thing: that the only “essence” to Native life is the absence of closure, that the referent is only in the performance. Bringing together Native and non-Native scholars from various walks of academic and non-academic life, this volume insists that we can grasp Native cultures only through a variety of mediations: There can be no once-and-for-all verdict on Native representations or representations of Natives. Even those photographs which, like Edward Curtis’s “Indian” photography, were meant to record the vanishing Indian, also capture the resistance of the Native subjects in their fugitive pose: In the image of hair spilling out of the picture frame, these Native subjects refuse the pose in which the photographer tries to capture them. This refusal is also present in the act of Native Americans taking off the headdress they had to wear for the Wild West Show: Instead of “playing Indian,” these Natives choose to play ping pong. In this example as in many others, these essays drive home the manifold acts of Native resistance to what is, after all, a colonizing gaze. What we are left with is the image of a Native American playing ping pong – an image which is surprising only if we have not yet unlearned the stereotype of the stupid, the primitive and the vanishing Indian.

Mita Banerjee, Director of the Center for Comparative Native and Indigenous Studies, Johannes-Gutenberg-Universität Mainz / Germany