Skip to main content

Fantasies of the Master Race

As a professor of American Indian Studies and Communications, Ward Churchill is in his element assessing the portrayal of Native Americans in film and literature. In Fantasies of the Master Race he does so scathingly, covering topics ranging from the expropriation of Native American spirituality, to scholarship concerning the Sand Creek massacre, to Carlos Castaneda's Don Juan trilogy, which he repeatedly refers to as the "greatest hoax since Piltdown man." Beginning with a catalog of human rights abuses inflicted on Native Americans over the past two centuries, Churchill demonstrates how portrayals of Native Americans contribute to their further colonization, assimilation, and ostensible elimination by "Euroamerica." His writing style though is at times obtuse, containing statements such as:

"To be confronted with the proposition that their ostensible heritage of staunch anticolonialism embodies instead as virulent a strain of colonialism as has ever been perfected is more than the average Joe can be expected to reconcile with any degree of psychological grace."

His analysis, on the other hand, varies according to the material dealt with, which is considerable in its range and sheer volume. Some of the 12 essays that make up the book cover authors who Churchill asserts have an agenda to "debunk" widespread "myths" concerning Native Americans, such as their claim to the Mother Earth concept, and the democratic nature of indigenous societies. Other essays discuss seemingly benign and even sympathetic authors, such as the Navajo Nation-based novels of Tony Hillerman. Churchill is equally caustic with all of these authors, suggesting that the subtle racism of the latter is perhaps more dangerous than the overt racial agendas of the former. To prove this point, however, Churchill must depart from his usual rigidly logical approach, and utilize a literary rather than a literal method for deconstructing the arguments of the "sympathetic" authors.

In the case of Hillerman, Churchill first presents an elaborate description of the Mickey Spillane novels of the 1940s and 1950s, to show that the genre is a medium for preservation of the status quo, through the perpetuation of violent Euroamerican male tendencies. Next, he posits that the countercultural revolution made necessary the use of non-mainstream actors (women, minorities and "sensitive white men") and more subtle methods of indoctrination, a prescription filled in this case by the Western-educated Navajo police officers who are the protagonists in Hillerman's work. Finally, Churchill concludes that as the Indian police forces traditionally represent traitorous elements, and that these particular characters continually correct and rescue the native residents from their own "silly" superstitions, they therefore act as a subtle assimilationist strategy, which in mm accounts for the unanimous praise Hillerman receives from the mainstream media.

Churchill's treatment of the work of Carlos Castaneda is much more direct. Using the work of Richard de Mille, Churchill points out numerous instances of plagiarism from sources as diverse as Psychedelic Review and the dissertation of a fellow Doctoral candidate. His final analysis is that in capitalizing on the drag and counter cultures. Castaneda's work delayed progress on indigenous issues by relegating an indigenous group to an "ahistorical" status, thus preventing an "anti-colonial praxis." Similarly, Churchill's review of University of Colorado colleague Sam Gill's Mother Earth: An American Story is a precise, logical dismantling of an essay which Gill appears hardly to have defended.

While he makes some connections regarding the motivations of (usually non-native) authors and filmmakers that are hard to substantiate, Churchill's precise dissection of the portrayal of Native Americans in literature and film is powerful. This is intended, as Churchill does battle in these pages. It remains to be seen if his opposition can utilize as rational a response (or more accurately, a counter attack), or if they will be relegated to the usual dismissal, a tactic that would only add to Churchill's persuasiveness.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.