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Going Native: Indians in the American Cultural Imagination

By Shari M. Huhndorf

Cornell University Press, 2001 (Paperback)

ISBN: 0 8014 8695 5

Native Americans figure heavily in the European American cultural imagination and Going Native: Indians in the American Cultural Imagination is a detailed examination of the Euro-American predilection for scopophilia -- taking other people as objects and subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze. Author Shari Huhndorf's thesis is that popular culture -- movies, books, world expositions, etc. -- serves as a means by which subordinated classes accept and support their own domination by others. Through a myriad of interesting, often heart-wrenching examples, the author describes how the conquest of Native America is repeatedly enacted in "rites of conquest" that confirm and continue to shape contemporary American life. But this book is only partially about "going native." Its central focus is the eradication of an old, and the birth of a new, nation. It is about the origins and significance of manifest destiny -- perhaps the most original analysis of that process I have seen.

Going Native is a work of textual analysis. The author has made a selection of "texts" -- museum and exposition exhibits dating back more than 100 years, books and films, etc. -- to highlight her main point: long after the military conquest of Native America, the reenactment of colonization through "going native" remains an important ritual of European-American national identity. The author argues that going native recasts the terrible history of genocide by creating the illusion of white society's innocence and conceals European America's hegemonic intentions. Following the last of the Indian Wars (Wounded Knee, 1890), European Americans became the so-called rightful heirs to the Native American heritage -- their power, possessions, and "Indian-ness" -- and began identifying with them on a grand scale. They re-wrote Native American history as part of their own past and appropriated Native American symbols and myths to create for themselves a sense of historical authenticity. Conquest was viewed as part of the universal law of progress, Huhndorf says, and to this day, the denial of the dispossession and slaughter of millions of Native Americans characterizes both academic and popular understandings of history. (Consider, for example, the Masonic fraternal lodge, the "Improved Order of Red Men," Boy Scouts in their "wilderness" teepees recreating the survival strategies of their frontier-dwelling antecedents, or the many North American sporting teams and high schools with Indian names or mascots.)

Huhndorf cites fascinating examples of people going native, like Gontran de Poncins, who went to the Arctic in search of a nobler way of life and a means of saving a fallen Western world; and the extraordinary Cherokee "native," Ku Klux Klan member Forrest Carter, author of the acclaimed "The Education of Little Tree," who defined southern whites as contemporary victims of progress and identified them with progress' earlier victims, the Indians. But these case studies portray going native in a profoundly negative light -- as a means of re-enacting colonization. At no point in the book is there discussion of the ways in which Native Americans might be tolerant of this process, or even actively adopting Americans into their communities for their own purposes. This is a serious omission.

Huhndorf presumes that going native is a totally pernicious undertaking and this simply is not true. I had expected that a book with this title would discuss the motives of the great "natives" of the 20(th) century, people like English world-traveler and adventurer Archie Belaney who early in his life "went native" and lived a traditional indigenous lifestyle in the Canadian wilderness until his death in 1938. Known to the world and to his Aboriginal brethren as Grey Owl, he was an advocate of the rights of Canadian aboriginals and was accepted, by and large, as a "native" by the indigenous community in which he dwelt. In more recent times, Bruno Manser, the Swiss environmental activist, went native in the 1980s in the back-blocks of Malaysia as a prelude to his establishment of a foundation in Europe to fight for the rights of Borneo's Penan people, with whom he had lived -- people who were waging a battle against, and suffering severely at the hands of, international logging companies.

This is a fascinating book and the opening quotation by Vine Deloria on how Indians haunt the collective unconscious of the white man sets the tone for a lively read. While the text fades somewhat near the end and lacks a solid conclusion, it is an important contribution to the literature on a topic that deserves much more public debate.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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