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Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong

Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong

Paul Chaat Smith
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 192
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    Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong
    Book Description:

    In this sweeping work of memoir and commentary, leading cultural critic Paul Chaat Smith illustrates with dry wit and brutal honesty the contradictions of life in "the Indian business."Raised in suburban Maryland and Oklahoma, Smith dove head first into the political radicalism of the 1970s, working with the American Indian Movement until it dissolved into dysfunction and infighting. Afterward he lived in New York, the city of choice for political exiles, and eventually arrived in Washington, D.C., at the newly minted National Museum of the American Indian ("a bad idea whose time has come") as a curator. In his journey from fighting activist to federal employee, Smith tells us he has discovered at least two things: there is no one true representation of the American Indian experience, and even the best of intentions sometimes ends in catastrophe.Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrongis a highly entertaining and, at times, searing critique of the deeply disputed role of American Indians in the United States. In "A Place Called Irony," Smith whizzes through his early life, showing us the ironic pop culture signposts that marked this Native American's coming of age in suburbia: "We would order Chinese food and slap a favorite video into the machine-the Grammy Awards or a Reagan press conference-and argue about Cyndi Lauper or who should coach the Knicks." In "Lost in Translation," Smith explores why American Indians are so often misunderstood and misrepresented in today's media: "We're lousy television." In "Every Picture Tells a Story," Smith remembers his Comanche grandfather as he muses on the images of American Indians as "a half-remembered presence, both comforting and dangerous, lurking just below the surface."Smith walks this tightrope between comforting and dangerous, offering unrepentant skepticism and, ultimately, empathy. "This book is calledEverything You Know about Indians Is Wrong, but it's a book title, folks, not to be taken literally. Of course I don't mean everything, just most things. And 'you' really means we, as in all of us."

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-6810-6
    Subjects: Art & Art History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Every Picture Tells a Story
    (pp. 1-6)

    History records that Ishi, a.k.a. the Last Yahi, the Stone Age Ishi Between Two Worlds, was captured by northern Californians in 1911 and dutifully turned over to anthropologists. He spent the rest of his life in a museum in San Francisco. (And you think your life is boring.)

    They said Ishi was the last North American Indian untouched by civilization. I don’t know about that, but it’s clear he was really country and seriously out of touch with recent developments. We’re talking major hayseed.

    His keepers turned down all vaudeville, circus, and theatrical offers for the living caveman, but they...

  4. Part I. States of Amnesia

    • Lost in Translation
      (pp. 9-12)

      I work at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, and although I speak here as an independent critic and curator, I draw on that experience to look at why Indians, and Indian issues, are so often overlooked, misunderstood, misrepresented: in short, why the international community and the news media have so much trouble with us.

      The answer to that question, as with so many others, is best provided by one person. He’s one of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers, a man who speaks truth to power and who commands the attention of millions. As I’m sure you’ve...

    • On Romanticism
      (pp. 13-27)

      Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: A Message from Chief Seattleis a beautifully illustrated children’s book by Susan Jeffers. This publication spent more than nineteen weeks on the best-seller lists and was chosen by members of the American Booksellers Association as “the book we most enjoyed selling in 1991.” Here’s a passage from the text:

      How can you buy the sky?

      How can you own the rain and wind?

      My mother told me

      every part of this earth is sacred to our people.

      Every pine needle, every sandy shore.

      Every mist in the dark woods.

      Every meadow and humming insect.


    • After the Gold Rush
      (pp. 28-36)

      People say life is about all kinds of things, but don’t listen to them. Life is mostly about taking names and keeping score. And halfway through the first decade of the twenty-first century, here’s what my scorecard says: nobody rules the Red Nation’s aesthetic high ground like Zacharias Kunuk.

      Here are some of the reasons why. Because in 2001 he gave us the bracing, spooky snowscapes ofAtanarjuat (The Fast Runner).Because he turned Igloolikians into movie stars and best boys and sound engineers and production designers. Because he imagined that an indigenous film made by indigenous people could win...

    • Land of a Thousand Dances
      (pp. 37-42)

      As a people, there can be little doubt that Indians care too much about the movies. It’s embarrassing sometimes, well, actually a lot of the time. We follow casting, production, shooting schedules of each new Hollywood feature about us with the anxiousness of European investors. (We kept each other posted on those ever-changing release dates forThe Dark Windfor the better part of the first Bush administration.) We debate the merits of each new Indian film with passion and at great length, like film students in Upper West Side coffee shops. We critique plot, clothes, hair, history, horses, horse...

    • The Big Movie
      (pp. 43-52)

      About five years ago I realized that I had no memories of seeing Indians at the movies or on television while I was growing up.

      Even now I recall nothing of the thousands of hours of Hollywood westerns I must have watched during the late 1950 s and 1960 s, in Oklahoma and the suburbs of Washington, D.C. It certainly wasn’t because I found the medium lacking. I love television and always have. To this day I learn from it constantly, but somehow the thousands of flickering Indians that must have entered my consciousness disappeared without a trace.

      There was...

    • The Ground beneath Our Feet
      (pp. 53-63)

      All histories have a history, and one is incomplete without the other.

      History promises to explain why things are and how they came to be this way, and it teases us by suggesting that if only we possessed the secret knowledge, the hidden insight, the relevant lessons drawn from yesterday’s events, we could perhaps master the present. A history is always about who is telling the stories and to whom the storyteller is speaking, and how both understand their present circumstances.

      The preposterous, wonderful, and breathtakingly ambitious project known officially as the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) seeks...

    • Homeland Insecurity
      (pp. 64-66)

      I spent the summer of 2005 visiting two art markets and thinking about two T-shirts. The art markets were in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Venice, Italy. Like a running commentary on both, the T-shirts were everywhere. One shows Winchestered Apache warriors, including Geronimo, looking into the camera. They’re not smiling. The text reads: “Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.”

      This shirt is famous, you’ve probably seen it, and since you’re reading this book, you might even own one. “Homeland Security” had already established itself as a cultural icon, and you see it everywhere in Indian Country. It was that...

  5. Part II. Everything We Make Is Art

    • Americans without Tears
      (pp. 69-78)

      I have this theory about Indians.

      I don’t really think about it very much, because it is so much a part of my worldview that I take it completely for granted, like breathing. Over the past two decades, this theory informs nearly every word I’ve written, every exhibition I’ve curated, and every political project I’ve undertaken.

      I have never shared this theory before, except with a few close friends, usually in a tavern, but I feel the time has come to present my theory to the world at large. It seems like the right thing to do, and the catalogue...

    • Delta 150
      (pp. 79-87)

      Welcome. My name is Paul Chaat Smith, I’m Comanche, I live in Washington, D.C., and I am associate curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Gerald McMaster (Plains Cree and member of the Siksika Nation) is the chair of the symposium, so he bears most of the responsibility for this event, but I’m also implicated because I am the second most responsible person. Complaints should go to him, compliments to me.

      The title of my presentation is “Delta 150,” and I’m going to talk about airplanes, genocide, and rainbows.

      Which I’ll get to right away, after...

    • Luna Remembers
      (pp. 88-102)

      James Luna is a visionary, a truth teller, a romantic, and a hanging judge. For these reasons, I wish he lived someplace other than up in the clouds on a mountain located on the extreme western edge of North America. Or at least that his mountain looked over a nondescript valley of crows and cows instead of the Pacific Ocean. And I really wish his mountain wasn’t next to the one named Palomar, in the state called California.

      The truth is, he does live up there in the clouds, on Indian land, sharing the sky with the Palomar Observatory, for...

    • Standoff in Lethbridge
      (pp. 103-112)

      About seventy-five million years ago much of North America was underwater. The water that covered everything from Texas to the Arctic was called the Bearpaw Sea. Not then, of course—that’s the name that scientists gave it much later. The Canadian province of Alberta, where the HeavyShield family lives, was underneath the shallow waves of the Bearpaw Sea. All the usual dinosaurs lived there, and also extinct mollusks called ammonites. They were preyed upon by mosasaurs, who ate them for lunch. Sharks lived there, too.

      Time passes. A huge comet hits the earth and wipes out the dinosaurs and the...

    • Struck by Lightning
      (pp. 113-122)

      The thing is, Baco Ohama didn’t even know there was a Miyoshi, Japan.

      The word — miyoshi — came to her, she claims, in a dream. And from the word and the dream came the vision, and the vision was of hundreds and hundreds offuzzyred cats, in boats, in trouble. During the past few months those cats have entered my dreams, uninvited, and there seems to be little I can do about it. We travel through space and time, across storm-tossed seas, dreamers exploring a dreamlike land dotted with interesting places.

      As I write it’s very late on a warm...

    • Meaning of Life
      (pp. 123-137)

      They were anxious and bored, for all the right reasons. Nothing was happening anywhere, and most days it seemed likely that nothing ever would. Indian kids of North America—angst-ridden, their moods swinging in a heartbeat from dreamy to despairing—waited with dramatic impatience, wondering if time had actually stopped, or if it just seemed that way. They weren’t even sure exactly what they were waiting for, or how they would recognize it if it ever showed up.

      On that score, at least, they had nothing to worry about. You could see the issue ofLifefrom two blocks away,...

    • States of Amnesia
      (pp. 138-142)

      Anyone who doubts the Creator has a killer sense of humor obviously hasn’t spent much time in Oklahoma.

      Welcome to the Sooner State, America’s national park of the absurd. You can ditch that Foucault guidebook at the Kansas border; you won’t be needing it here. Forget your coded symbols, the frayed maps leading to buried evidence of stolen history and conquest, and secrets hidden in names of streets and mountains. This is the Land That Irony Forgot, a place where the locals never bothered to put up facades: no deconstruction necessary.

      Who better to show us around than Richard Ray...

  6. Part III. Jukebox Spiritualism

    • A Place Called Irony
      (pp. 145-150)

      It is hard to say when we first met, because I cannot remember not knowing him, or feeling his presence. It’s sort of like asking when do you first remember meeting your older sister. But if you want a starting point, maybe it was 1960 at Cherokee Lane Elementary School. I have vivid memories of hanging out with Irony during recess in the first grade. At first I guess I thought he was just another imaginary friend (okay, like you didn’t have any, right?), but there was something about the way he critiqued the other kids’ performances in dodge ball,...

    • Life during Peacetime
      (pp. 151-157)

      Things weren’t supposed to end up like this.

      Failure, yes, we were ready for a thousand kinds of defeat. We even looked forward to it in dark, private moments, believing it would offer opportunities for last-minute redemptions to make up for dubious and misguided strategies, absurd tactics, and blind faith. Obliteration no doubt had its drawbacks, but the endless wait for revolution to fail or succeed was hell.

      I showed up late for the party, as usual. I participated in the sixties in the most authentic way possible, through television. Later, in the seventies, when I was old enough to...

    • Last Gang in Town
      (pp. 158-162)

      I used to live in Cleveland. My family moved there in the mid-1970s. I had enrolled in Antioch College, a few hours south and west in Yellow Springs. Antioch is famous for requiring its students to work, not just study, in a program called “co-ops.” In fact, half the time you would be somewhere else. When I saw a listing for the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, I signed up immediately.

      For reasons I can’t quite remember, I spent the summer of 1975 living at my parents’ house in Shaker Heights, working as a dishwasher...

    • From Lake Geneva to the Finland Station
      (pp. 163-171)

      If you are Indian and live in the city you basically are screwed. This is because a large flashing neon asterisk floats above your head, which turns into a question mark, before again becoming an asterisk. You are in the wrong place and you know it and everyone else knows it too. Perhaps you have an explanation, but it doesn’t really matter because even if you are here just for the afternoon, visiting Aunt Daisy, who has taken ill and requires the advanced services of an urban medical center, or you have to work as an architect or a dishwasher...

    • Ghost in the Machine
      (pp. 172-180)

      They called my great-uncle Cavayo “Name Giver.” He was the one who decided what to call the marvelous toys and dazzling inventions modern times brought to the Comanche in the last half of the nineteenth century.

      He looks out at me from a framed picture taken at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in November 1907. Cavayo and three dozen other well-known Kiowas, Apaches, and Comanches are arranged in the style of a high school class picture. Some wear ties, some wear bandannas, and most have braids. Each is numbered and then identified on the photograph: Maximum Leader Quanah Parker (“Chief of the...

  7. Afterword: End of the Line
    (pp. 181-188)

    This book, as you’ve figured out, is a collection of essays. The oldest was written in 1992, at the end of the first Bush administration; the newest (this one) is being written in the final months of the third. My obsessions haven’t changed much: I continue to find buried history, pop music, failed revolution, television, and futures that never quite arrived subjects of endless interest. But the truth is, I’m not really the same guy who wrote these essays. Are you the same person you were in 1992? I hope not, especially if you’re nineteen.

    My career in the Indian...

  8. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 189-190)
  9. Publication History
    (pp. 191-194)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 195-195)
  11. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)