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Playing Indian.

Playing Indian by Philip J. Deloria Yale University Press. 249 pages. $25.00.

Philip Deloria makes the extremely disturbing argument that appropriation of Native American customs is embedded in the white American psyche. Not since the 1970s bombshell Custer Died for Your Sins by the revered scholar Vine Deloria Jr., Philip's father, has there been a more compelling and startling work on Indian and white relations. Custer shattered longstanding stereotypes about Indians and ripped into federal policies designed to wipe out Native Americans through cultural assimilation. Now Philip Deloria brings his own critique of racial relations to the fore.

Though he lacks his father's literary flair, humor, and caustic tone, Deloria delivers--proving himself to be a serious and relentless researcher. Unlike other Indian Studies authors who offer a voyeuristic glimpse into another culture, Deloria engages white readers in an inclusive discussion on race and identity. That is very rare.

Americans have always looked to the Indians to help define a national identity, he argues. But this quest has proved elusive. What it means to be American is still in question. The reason, he argues, is because white America has never known how to deal with real Native Americans. Many colonists admired Native Americans for their freedom and their connection to the land. Yet American Indians also stood in the way of frontier expansion and land acquisition. The reality that colonization neither wiped Native Americans off the continent nor fully assimilated them into the Euro-American culture largely explains this identity dilemma.

"There was, quite simply, no way to conceive an American identity without Indians," writes Deloria. "At the same time, there was no way to make a complete identity while they remained."

This contradiction explains some of the suffering Native Americans have experienced since white people came to this continent. Deloria writes, "Indianness was the bedrock for creative American identities, but it was also one of the foundations (slavery and gender relations being two others) for imagining and performing domination and power in America."

Playing Indian is a scrutinizing historical study of America's bizarre fascination with Indians. Deloria discusses D.H. Lawrence's 1924 work of literary criticism, Studies in Classic American Literature, where Lawrence observed that the American identity was "unfinished." Because Americans insisted on retaining their civilized selves while embracing a sense of "savage freedom," Lawrence argued, they were unable to achieve a complete sense of self.

It is with this observation in mind that Deloria sets out to deconstruct white America's Indian play, as he calls it. Beginning with the Boston Tea Party, Deloria looks behind the crude Indian dress-up show that the colonists staged. When colonial rebels wearing mock headdresses and war paint dumped crates of tea into Boston Harbor, their Indian play was more than mere theatrics. It was an attempt to create an aboriginal identity apart from the Old World. While history books may describe this event as a patriotic rebellion, Deloria suggests the colonists dressed up like Indians in order to stake an indigenous claim to this land.

"White Indians were metaphors come to life, and they allowed colonists to imagine themselves as both British citizens and legitimate Americans protecting aboriginal custom," Deloria writes. "As conflict between the Crown and the colonists intensified, Indian images began to represent America as vulnerable, abused, enslaved.... Indians appeared on military flags, newspaper mastheads, and numerous handbills."

In the years after the Revolution, the game changed. Fraternal societies coopted Native American customs in an attempt to discover what it meant to be a new nation. At various halls, these political societies met in secret to initiate their converts. Wearing Indian dress, they revealed to their new recruits "the historical mysteries of Indianness and patriotism."

The influence of these fraternal societies extended into the arts and literature, in time molding writers like Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain. Their writings created a literary voice that was uniquely American.

At the turn of the twentieth century, when industrialization began to wedge its way between white Americans and the land, playing Indian helped people to reclaim aboriginal "roots." Deloria points out that the newly formed Boy Scouts and the Campfire Girls were appealing to urban, upper-class Americans who feared that the harshness of modernity was eroding their children's connection to the natural world.

But playing Indian at camp (building fires, sleeping in tepees, learning to canoe, and participating in Indian ceremonies) also served to instill and perpetuate patriotism among the youth. By acting out as Indians, non-Indian young Americans became indigenous.

Deloria's findings about how Indian role-playing has changed throughout history are most apparent in his examination of "Indian lore hobbyists" of the mid-twentieth century.

These hobbyists (forerunners of today's New Age seekers of Indian spirituality) sought authenticity through Indian pow wows and other ceremonies. Feeling the alienation of the Cold War years, they were often brazen in their zeal for Indian culture. Publications like The American Indian Hobbyist were catalogues for "replicated authentic materials," Deloria notes. One could order beads, bison skins, cloth, and bones. But, for the most part, an interest in Indianness did not mean an awareness of living Native Americans. Like previous Indian-seekers, the hobbyists were looking only to fill that lingering void in their identities.

The counterculture used Indianness as part of the free and disruptive spirit of the 1960s. While the country erupted into a social war, playing Indian seemed to offer meaning. "On the one hand, Indianness--in the form of a communal tepee or a speech by Chief Seattle--seemed as open and unfixed as a sign could be. It could mean whatever one wanted it to mean. On the other hand, and almost alone among a shifting vocabulary of images, Indianness could also be a sign of something unchanging, a first principle."

A new wave of Indianness occurred during each crucial social crisis throughout American history. Despite the overwhelming indifference white Americans exhibit toward Indian people, they have played out Indianness in order to affirm their sense of their nation. They would like to believe that the original inhabitants have afforded them a national identity.

However, as Deloria persuasively argues, the borrowing of aboriginal dress and ritual, though convenient, was hardly sufficient. By playing Indian, the colonists made an aboriginal proclamation, even while they cherished the Old World's manners and customs. But indigenous cultures are at odds with Western values in almost every detail. By striving to merge both worlds, Americans have created an identity plagued with confusion, contradiction, and a dreadful realization of unfulfilled "self."

Mark Anthony Rolo, a member of the Bad River Band of Ojibwe, is the former editor of the Native-American newspaper The Circle.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Rolo, Mark Anthony
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1999
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