Unsettled Accounts of Indians and Others

Unsettled Accounts of Indians and Others

Myth hides nothing and flaunts nothing: it distorts; myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it is an inflexion… it transforms history into nature.

Roland Barthes

The story of the white man’s invention of the Indian and how this image sustained America’s myth of civilization has been ably documented.2 In order for the myth to be realized, the Red Body was to be drained of its life blood and transformed into a pale shadow of the colonizer, while providing the transfusion that would revitalize this alien. Native America was to be no more than a punctuation mark at an erased site of difference: a vampirized body, neither living nor dead, haunting the domain of the unspeakable. The unspeakable has, nevertheless, been retranslating itself through the colonial discourse imposed upon it, and another voice has come about. It speaks, not for a revision of ‘history’, but for a denaturing of dominant myths from within their own representations; it speaks, not as a ‘return of the repressed’ (what once was), but as a resonance born of the duplicitous effects of colonialism. The following notes and accounts circulate around the discourse of the other, addressing those configurations that map the place assigned by white culture to Native American peoples.


The problem of reinventing subjectivity within conflicting cultural orders is outlined in a film text, Harold of Orange,4 scripted by Anishinabe writer Gerald Vizenor. The storyteller in the film introduces us to the satirical tale of Harold Sinseer and his Warriors of Orange, ‘tribal tricksters’ who, ‘word-driven’ from the land, are now returning in ‘mythic time to reclaim their estate from the white man.’

The Warriors’ School of Social Acupuncture is wise to those venous pressure points likely to elicit the liberal sympathies of the white fathers of the Foundation whose grants aid the reservation. Seeking imaginative ways to tap into grant money, the Warriors are proposing a fictitious scheme to grow ‘pinch’ beans and set up reservation coffee houses in a feint of white gentility. Their trump cad=rd is that coffee will assist in the ‘sober revolution’ to eradicate alcoholism, a goal close to the vampiric puritan heart. In a presentation of the project to the grants committee, Harold initiates a play of parodic decoys designed to disrupt the cultural order of things. Vizenor’s ‘word arrows,5 forged on the forked tongue of white man’s history, and aimed by the Oneida comedian/actor Charlie Hill, pierce the rhetoric of prejudice and stereotype, telling how Native Americans were talked out of their proper names, their language, and their land, thereafter infantilized and romanticized into the white man’s fictions. But in mythic time an accounting takes place irrespective of histories, and it is here that the Indian is other-wise. Trickster, the polymorphous disseminator of confusion, plays a game no one can win, least of all Trickster (a most perplexing strategy from the point of view of the anaemic eye). Committee member Fanny is owed money by Harold (although he had earlier assisted with her Indian literature research), but she threatens to withhold her support for the Warriors’ project should the loan not be repaid. Harold elicits a cheque from the Foundation Director claiming, as before, that he needs money to bury his grandmother. This apparent deception is set against another official’s smug account of the ‘acquisition’ of tribal artefacts. Typically, Trickster is obliged to relinquish his cheque to Fanny.

Emerging at the core of this exchange of properties is the transference of a debt that repeatedly turns on the unburied grandmother (a question of tradition.) The vampirized – and colonized – body likewise arises as a debt (a depletion of blood, of identity) that cannot be discharged since it always creates a further demand. Vizenor’s obtuse use of ‘estate’ therefore suggests more than landed property as understood by white culture; rather, Trickster means to reclaim his ‘e-state’: his right to cultural difference (speech and self-determination) embodied in the absent figure of the grandmother. Thus, Vizenor establishes for us the rhetorical space within which, in pursuance of a persistent demand, we may approach the coming-into-being of the other and the coming-about-of-being-other as both an effect and a measure of the untranslatability of language in its movement of exchange between differing cultures.


Ironically cultural difference would not be a matter for current reflection if monolithic and ethnocentric societies did not perceive themselves as threatened from both within and without. Thus among the challenges posed to dominant cultures are, on the one hand, a breakdown of the illusion of the coherent subject at the centre of knowledge and power and a deterritorialization of the body; and, on the other, liberation movements and their modes of expression by neo-colonized or disenfranchised peoples. The apprehension of white societies is that such movements represent a different socio-political organization and set of ethical values that can no longer be contained by the old colonial model.

In colonial discourses, the cultures of others are typically relegated to the margins of mainstream life as having little to do with its essential progress except as a convenient labour force. In the official history of the United States, Native America has the status of an epiphenomenon, peripheral to the legitimating narratives of colonization. During the recent 1986 Liberty celebrations there was a marked silence concerning the debt to indigenous American peoples. In the narratives of the United States this debt must be elided, for to acknowledge it would be to concede the contradictions inherent in colonial enterprise. In its continued erosion and erasure of the land and its indigenous cultures white America cannot be said to be truly ‘American’, but the residue of a colonizing European consciousness whose vast vampiric machine of corporate and political power is heir to Renaissance expansionism.

The ‘discovery of America’ is not synonymous with a discovery of its lands and peoples. On the contrary, concealed under the masquerade of a grand romantic adventure, ‘discovery’ marks the limits to European civilization as it emerged from the socio-political and religious conflicts of the late Renaissance. Before indigenous peoples discovered the intruders, America, whether dreamt as El Dorado or the Promised Land, was a phantasm already forming in European consciousness. Indigenous peoples were never discovered since, for conquest to take place, they could not exist as such. What emerged was a representation, the Indian: a phantasm constructed from cacophony of signifiers isolated from their legitimate place in native schemata, motivated towards proving the inherent inferiority of native peoples, and destined to justify white claims to their lands. Indeed, the image of the Indian as already in place before white settlement seriously got under way. Bernadette Bucher’s analysis of the Flemish de Bry’s illustrations to the Great Voyages6 the first compilation of early expeditions, published between 1590 and 1634, shows that the Protestant engravers had already transformed first-hand accounts of the American peoples into northern Renaissance iconographic conventions – demons, grotesques, or classical ideals – that can be correlated with the shifts in Europe’s prevailing religious and nationalistic disputes. As North American settlement gave way to the less benign aim of conquest, favourable attitudes towards native cultures were suppressed under the discourse of savagism. It later remained for rhetoric, first theological and then scientific, to argue whether indigenous cultures represented a degenerate or a prior state of civilization. But in any case, the pronounced sentence was that the Indian was a morally and intellectually human being who, if he could not be civilized, as best – in his role as Noble Savage – was to be mourned, but nevertheless sacrificed to the higher ideals of progress. As became apparent, it was not possible to transport alien desires and ideals from one place to another, from ne body to another, without perversion of those ideals or violation of the host body. In order for the myth of civilization to be realized, reality had to be adjusted to accommodate it. As amongst the first peoples to be colonized by Renaissance expansionism, Native America is at the core of European colonial discourse and the way it subsequently shaped itself in the political psyche of the United States.

Despite its claims to democracy, colonial America had to legitimize its own history at another’s expense using many of the terms developed by the monarchical state. A rationalist view of the world, imbricated with Judaic-Christian moralism and the classical ideal of the hierarchical state, had gradually institutionalized knowledge into discrete disciplines or partitions forming frontiers and enclosures in place of more labile fields of territorial organization. Knowledge itself was ordered according to dualistic principles – good/evil, mind/body, culture/nature, identity/difference – in which the second term was ipso facto inferior because it was conceived as the ‘is-not’ of the first term. The identity of the self was likewise implicated in this web of divisive duplicity. Thus if western subjectivity was formulated on the premises of an idealized self in reality it was not, it stood in antagonistic relation to the self it dreaded itself to be. Formed between illusion and reality, it was a self not at one with itself. In this dualistic system there could be a subject, the transcendental ‘I’, and its object, an ‘other’, but not another equal subject. Hence the other arose as an effect of a disavowal. Cultural difference could not be acknowledged as such for to do so would be to accept an untenable equality. What was aimed for, therefore, was the apparent eradication of difference and the creation of homogeneity according to the dominant model. Paradoxically, however, it was by appropriating the signs of difference that the image and power of the selfsame could be secured. The tendency of colonialism to privilege homogeneity through assimilation is symptomatic of western philosophy’s desire for equivalence between signified and signifier – a transcendental truth.

By the time America emerged as an independent nation during the eighteenth century, European history had sedimented into a master narrative written from the point of view of this transcendental subject: another form of private property under which all other possible histories were subsumed – a story very different to the consensus that transmitted communal tribal experience. Time was appropriated by the history of this one as surely as space, and territory and the colonized body were claimed in its name. Within this naturalizing movement, the colonized were rendered anonymous and speechless: ‘Since whites primarily understood the Indian as an antithesis to themselves, then civilization and Indianness as they defined them would be forever opposites. Only civilization had history and dynamics in this view, so therefore, Indianness must be conceived as ahistorical and static.’7 For the colonizer to acknowledge an Indian past would be to accept his own position as usurper, and to relinquish his role as the Author of History. We might say that there could be no pre-Columbian history because the ‘Indian’ was an invention of Columbus: a name born of a fantasy and a navigational error, of a condensation in time and space, and of a transference of meaning on to an alien body which was to be permanently de-faced.


If, as Pearce maintains, Protestantism formed the image of the Indian from its interpretation of civilization and savagism, what were among its organizing principles? From our perspective, puritanical Protestantism appears as an interdictory theology, superstitious and singularly humourless, preoccupied with distinctions between good and evil, and with redemption from original sin. Since any appeal to sensory pleasure was redolent of popish corruption, Protestantism gave a moralistic priority to the written Word, and by invoking the Hebraic interdiction against graven images, performed an iconoclastic operation on visionary imagination corresponding to its physical destruction of Catholic iconography.8 Protestantism suppressed much of the alchemical-mystical thought of Renaissance humanism whose heliocentric models of an holistic universe, incorporating occult knowledges from Hermetic and Cabbalistic traditions, may have found more compatibility with the multidimensional cpsmos of Native American thought. Puritans, identifying themselves with the Israelites in the Wilderness, interpreted the world through the Scriptures as they revealed God’s purpose, not through an interactive engagement with it; moving west facing east, they translated what they saw through the limited vision of Protestant rhetoric. Thus Indian hospitality was sent by God’s grace to his Chosen, while Indian hostility was Satan’s scourge to test their faith, and a justification for the eradication of the indigenous populations from their lands. It could be argued that Protestant cleansing of souls was effected, not through an internal responsibility but through a transference of guilt and sin on to the body of Native America. Once the people were removed, a virgin land would be free for their own inscription (and exploitation.)

The ‘civilized’ signs apparently lacking in Native American cultures circulate around the interpretation of inscription: the peoples were lacking Scripture (a recognizable writing and the biblical Word of God) and private property (the physical demarcation of territory.) Native American traditions of oral and pictographic transmission of history, their principles of communalism against individualism and private property, of absolute equivalence between the body and the land which rendered the latter unthinkable as a marketable commodity, were incomprehensible to the European. For them, the Indian was outside Scripture and the law, and hence illegible and illegal. Because they could perceive no prior text, they could see no grounds for translatability. Without written title to his name, his history and his territory, the Native American body and its extension, the land, was to be the blank page upon which the colonizer could trace his own master narrative. Armed with the gun and the plough, the pen and eventually the camera, the colonizer was author of his own myth, outside nature, outside the scene he inscribed and recorded.

Throughout succeeding centuries, Scripture would be invoked to justify dispossession and the natural and divine right of he who worked or made his mark upon the land: ‘Those who labour the earth are the chosen people of God’;9 ‘Treaties were expedients by which ignorant, intractable, and savage people were induced without bloodshed to yield up what civilised people had the right to possess by virtue of that command of the Creator delivered to man upon his formation’;10 ‘But as regards taking the land, at last for the Western Indians, the simple truth is that the latter never had any real ownership in it at all… and let him… who will not work perish from the face of the earth which he cumbers.’11 Any possibility of exchange between white and Native cultures was foreclosed by blindness and prejudice. Incapable of perceiving any common ground for translatability, whites presumed indigenous peoples to have no culture, and when they resisted acculturation they were displaced or erased and the land-body occupied. Until the mid-twentieth century it was impossible to consider that the Indian may be ‘uncivilizable’ because, in his wisdom, he could perceive few advantages in white interpretations of civilization, and learned quickly to recognize the moral turpitude too often at work between the Christian word and deed.


To a significant extent, white rhetoric was a disavowal of reality. Whilst the earliest explorers in the Americas enthusiastically reported cities, towns and agriculture, these civilized signs of American life were quickly elided in favour of an emphasis on non-Christian practices.12 Any positive signs of culture were incompatible with the desire to see the people as backward and savage. That this fantasy was used to support the political rationale for dispossession is illustrated by the 1830 Removal policy towards the Cherokee Nation in Georgia, a people who had long been organized according to principles fully compatible with the Constitution and American commerce. Moreover, Sequoyah, a distinguished Cherokee intellectual, recognizing the power of the written word, had invented a syllabary for the Cherokee language, which subsequently formed the basis of an independent newspaper. We might also add here that it is seldom remembered that the Iroquois League of Peace had been a model of government central to the formation of the United States Constitution.13

From the liberalist point of view, removal to territory west of the Mississippi – as yet unsettled by whites – was to protect the tribes and allow acculturation to proceed away from the more deleterious effects of white contact. For those who believed the Indian to be uncivilizable, removal was an effective apartheid that would halt miscegenation, ensure the integrity of white American culture, and enable its westward expansion. With typical rhetorical duplicity, it was argued that Cherokee civilization was the product of mixed-bloods who did not represent the interests of the whole tribe.14 As a result of the Removal Bill, the Cherokee were to be forcibly transported to where they ‘properly’ belonged – in the ‘wilderness’ beyond the ‘frontier’: a process of deculturation in contradiction to the stated ideals of Removal.

There appears to be more to this contradiction than the State f Georgia’s claim to sovereignty over Cherokee lands. An excess of meaning had erupted at the margins of the colonial discourse that seemed to threaten its core. In so efficiently translating the terms of white culture into those of its own, the Cherokees had accomplished what was inconceivable to the colonizing mind: and integration of cultural difference without loss of identity. However, the Cherokees had not closed a cultural gap but exposed an abyssal difference; a rewriting had taken place which not only transgressed the mythic text but also white claims to authorship.

How was this Indianness, unaccounted for in the colonial text, to be resolved except by transporting tribal America to a remove – and, within a few decades, to reservations – and by inscribing in its place a phantom other it was not? When it was perceived, by the end of the century, that this not-other persisted despite efforts at assimilation, further erasure was attempted by forbidding the use of indigenous languages and ceremonies, by forcing white education, and, through the General Allotment Act of 1887, by breaking up the reservations. The Native American proper name, the sign of an unspeakable and unintelligible difference, did not attract official censure until the dispossession of land was all but accomplished and the body itself confined to reservations. In a ceremony offering US citizenship, Indian identity was to be relinquished by renouncing the tribal name and assuming a given white name.15

The erasure of the proper name signifies more than a symbolic eradication of Indian culture since the Name was and is profoundly associated with the identity of its owner. Speaking of this N. Scott Momaday tells us that ‘A man’s name is his own; he can keep it or give it away as he likes. Until recent times, the Kiowas would not speak the name of a dead man. To do so would be disrespectful and dishonest. The dead take their names with them out of the world.’16 The Kiowa writer reminds us of Jacques Derrida’s point that the proper name is untranslatable and hence is outside language.17 Clearly, in the white mind, assimilation could not be effected until this sign of Indian untranslatability could be removed. The name as sign, dissociated from its tribal origins, could then be displaced into the white man’s fantasies: ‘A mockery is made of us by reducing our tribal names and images to the level of insulting sports team mascots, brand-name automobiles, camping equipment, city and state names, and various other commercial products produced by the dominant white culture. This strange white custom is particularly insulting when one considers the great lack of attention that is given to real Indian concerns.’18

By these strategies, Native America was transferred, not only from one physical place to another, but also from one linguistic place to another where notions of ‘savagism’ could be safely recycled in the form of a nostalgic ‘primitivism’ and used as art or commodity exchange. The means by which white society physically demarked and deterritorialized the Native body may be seen as an actualization of the metaphors inscribing white rhetoric as it circled around the problems of cultural difference and the nuances of translation. If the land-body was the original text whose unfathomable meaning had to be transcribed into white terms, it was also the site of a psychic transference upon which was sedimented those unconscious fantasies characteristic of the colonial discourse of the other. The ‘frontier’, and subsequently the boundary of the reservation, appear as lines of resistance where the inadequation between the two cultural terms becomes apparent. Relocation and Removal, the placing ‘in reserve’ (in the ‘reservation’) under conditions of poverty, dependency and neglect, that which carries the sign of an absolute untranslatability, are strategies tracing the failure of white translation. These are configurations that bear witness to Derrida’s contention that ‘we will never have, and in fact never had, to do with some “transport” of pure signifieds from one language to another, or within one and the same language, that the signifying instrument would leave virgin and untouched.’19


Native America has had the awesome task of renegotiating its subjectivity through the absence of itself, and the presence of another it feels itself not to be, using the once-alien instrument of its eviction. As Harold of Orange discloses, what emerges in this reinscription of an ‘original’ text through a fantasized other is the unburiable residue of difference, the absent grandmother whose account cannot be settled. Nonetheless, it is the very unresolvability of this debt that holds the capacity for a potentially inexhaustible exchange. It is by way of this elusive demand that the self carries the possibility of transforming itself to meet changing circumstances. According to Paula Gunn Allen:

‘A contemporary American Indian is always faced with a dual perception of the world: that which is particular to American Indian life and that which exists ignorant of that life. Each is largely irrelevant to the other except where they meet – in the experience and the consciousness of the Indian. Because the divergent realities must meet and form comprehensible patterns within Indian life, an Indian poet must develop metaphors that will not only reflect the dual perceptions of Indian/non-Indian but that will reconcile them. The ideal metaphor will harmonize the contradictions and balance them so that internal equilibrium can be achieved, so that each perspective is meaningful and in their joining, psychic unity rather than fragmentation occurs.’20

This complex doubling movement is suggested in a deceptively simple photograph by Yuchi/Pawnee artist and poet Richard Ray (Whitman). Gina One-Star, Rosebud Sioux (1972) presents the image of a young girl reflected in a mirror. The ‘two’ girls appear to be identical; but while the mirroring effect creates an effect of difference, one cannot tell which is the ‘original’ and which is the reflection. But in any case, as a photographic image, both girls are at a remove from the real.

The print works of Paiute/Pit River artist Jean LaMarr echo Allen’s sentiments, proposing renewal and wholeness by harmonizing contradictory cultural perceptions. Lena 1922 and Now (1983) is a poignant dual portrait of a woman in youth and in old age. The border design encompassing her combines roses with a traditional abstract mountain symbol, suggesting the temporal and cultural changes that have affected her life. Vuarneted Indian Cowboy (1984) is decked out as a rodeo rider wearing, as do many of LaMarr’s figures, the clothes of western mythology, but invested with Native American symbols referring to ancestry and contemporary life. The reflective designer sunglasses – a recurrent motif in the artist’s work – are indicators of the dual perception of Native American experience; but by masking the wearer’s face, his real identity is obscured – they express, as Allen says, white ignorance of Native American life beyond the outward signs of ‘Indianness’.

The spirit of Jean LaMarr’s work seems close to that of the paintings of Maidu artist Harry Fonseca. Like Vizenor, Fonseca takes the polymorphous and satirical figure of Coyote as Trickster (not the only persona in Native American literature, but one that has emerged as symbolic of Indian relations with dominant culture), dresses ‘him’ in contemporary costumes, and sets him loose in the scenarios of white society. When Coyote Leaves the Res (1983) finds Coyote wearing jeans, a heavily zippered jacket and sneakers, swaggering by an urban wall with an expression of roguish humour. The ‘cool’ punk style is his reply to the appropriation of Indian signs by white hippies, and is a perfect masquerade by which he may mingle with the stereotypical identities of the street. But with his ubiquitous sneakers, Fonseca’s Coyote comes softly. In more recent paintings, Fonseca has expanded ‘his’ territory to invade the white man’s own icons. A double masquerade takes place in Once Upon A Time 1 as he assumes the place of Wolf-Grandmother in the tale of Red Riding Hood; while in Rousseau Revisited (1985), he appropriates the persona of the French artist from the latter’s self-portrait. Fonseca’s Trickster, like Vizenor’s, takes up the language of the white man’s game but reverses the direction of play.

The game, on one level, has been a war of words; a rhetoric of misrepresentations and double talk against a belief in the sanctity and truth of the spoken contract. ‘A word has power in and of itself. It comes from nothing into sound and, meaning; it gives origin to all things. By means of words can a man deal with the world on equal terms. And the word is sacred.’21

Cheyenne/Arapaho artist Edgar Heap of Birds engages in this battle using epigrammatical language installations that invade the rhetorical space of media publicity and advertising slogans. However, the tone of his address is neither accusative nor imperative but, speaking across time and space, is inscribed with a compassionate understanding of the relationships between the world and its peoples. His work often combines Tsistsistas (‘Cheyenne’) words with English words, or mirror reversals – a ‘talking in tongues’ and disruption of our habitual modes of reading that question our presumed mastery through language. A predominant theme is the non-place assigned to Native American peoples. Don’t Want Indians (1982) refers us to social exclusion and the relegation of tribal peoples to the realm of commodity fantasies; while Possible Lives (1984) is a reminder of the real people conveniently forgotten behind white myths. In Our Language (1982) made elegant use of the public address function of the computerized Spectacolor board in Times Square, sending ‘messages to New York’ of the mistaken identity imposed on his people by the designation ‘Cheyenne’ (a white corruption of a Lakota word), and of the identity given by his people to the white man, ‘Vehoe’: an identity based not on racial typologies but on the perceived similarity of his behaviour to Spider in his tribal myth (see Note 3). In Our Language, as many of Heap of Birds’ projects, was a collaboration , emphasizing a bond between the self and its community that is antithetical to western aesthetics’ privileging of individualized creativity.


Contemporary Native American art does not give us access to the innermost secrets of its peoples; cultural difference, like Trickster, is elusive and not appropriable except in the most superficial way, as evidenced by the primitivist trends in European art. Rather, contemporary work tends to reveal more about white attitudes. Through the insights of those who have passed through the white looking-glass, we may perceive the movements by which our rhetoric betrays us all, and works to efface the biographical self, turning it into an institutionalized other. Cherokee poet and artist Jimmie Durham, in referring to the Noble Savage stereotype, perhaps echoes the thoughts of those who feel alienated from the sources of their own representations: “One of the most terrible aspects f our situation today is that none of us feel that we are authentic. We do not feel that we are real Indians… For the most part we feel guilty, and try to measure up to the white man’s definition of ourselves.’22

A laconic commentary on the stereotype of the Indian is presented in the photographs of Richard Ray (Whitman). The artist confronts the turn-of-the-century photography of Edward S. Curtis, whose aestheticized subjects consolidated the myth of the Noble Savage. In accord with prevailing assumptions that the Indian was a ‘vanishing race’, Curtis set about documenting the authentic Indian uncontaminated by white contact. The absence of such a pure Indian signifier nevertheless compelled him, like other contemporary photographers seduced by their fantasies of the ‘exotic’ other, 23 to synthesize his fantasy by cropping or retouching signs incompatible with those of ‘Indianness’, or by adding studio props and costumes bearing little relation to the life of the portrait sitter.24 To the extent that the sitter has no identity except that donated by the photographer, Curtis manifested an unconscious but nonetheless arrogant lack of respect for cultural integrity typical of white attitudes couched in liberalist sentiments.

In Edward S. Curtis Rip-off (Vanishing Americans)… Hardly… (1972), Richard Ray steals back a studio appropriation and doubles it to expose Curtis’s imaginary Indian surrogate as a pale shadow revealing nothing of the ‘real’ behind the white image of the ‘red’. Real Not Red (1985) is the title of one of the artist’s ‘Street Chiefs’ series, his contemporary reply to Curtis and to the stereotypical ethnographic portrait where the sitter is presented in a frontal pose, stoical and humourless, evoking the notion of the harsh conditions of ‘savagism’. Although Richard Ray’s Street Chiefs are poverty-stricken, they are nonetheless relaxed human beings whose dignity is not dependent on the false trappings of Indianness. The photographs express the warmth and compassion of shared experience, not the idealized preconceptions of anthropological scrutiny.

Like Richard Ray, Jimmie Durham works to dismantle the stereotypes of Indianness that turn living cultures into mortician’s specimens. On Loan from the Museum of the American Indian (1985) presents an archaeology of white misrepresentations and assumptions in which Native America is presumed to have long since fossilized into a miscellany of falsely identified artefacts, ‘legitimating’ the theft of its remaining land and water life-support systems. Durham’s parodic facsimiles of the ethnological museum exhibit cut swiftly through the voyeuristic colonizer’s gaze as it attempts to dispossess the colonized of its identity and replace it with clichés of savagery (Whose Hair Is This?), or backwardness (Types of Arrows). Within the multiple facets of Durham’s work, however, there is another body that stalks what we have imperfectly called the domain of the unspeakable – of those who cannot be laid to rest because the debt has not been discharged, or the proper words have not been spoken. Durham assembles the discarded remains of nature and consumer society – animal skulls and car parts, feathers and beads, turquoise and plastic baubles. Thonged, beaded, painted, the resurrected skeletal body breathes out an iridescent difference that profoundly unsettles the stereotypic signs of Indianness. Another space takes place where Tlunh Datsi (1984) and Doya (1986) slowly reveal their silent grimaces. They are ‘sound’ sculptures – resonances from the dark reaches of an alien body, and if we do not hear its speech it is because we cannot enter its domain.

Making manifest what is elided from dominant culture is characteristic of the work of Cattaraugus Seneca artist G. Peter Jemison. Little could be more evocative of the waste and neglect of consumer society than the plain brown paper bag. It is a commodity that has little identity except as a transient container for other goods: a boundary that reveals nothing of the nature of its contents. Originating from the pummelled remains of trees, its destination is the garbage can. Jemison reclaims the dignity of this frail remainder, honours its qualities as if it were a Seneca beaded bag or Lakota parfleche container. Painting and collage breathe life back into its surface, telling stories of the tragic conflict between nature and contemporary culture (Night Deer, 1983); of the destructive avarice marking the history of white-Indian contact in the north (Fur Trade, 1983); and of the clichéd values propagated through the media (The Good Guy Rides A White Horse, 1986). Jemison gives back to the surface – the boundary between inside and outside – an identity in difference, connecting the local and the specific with the universal, infusing meaning into emptiness. Cattaraugus Coho (1985) is more than a beautifully realised image of a fish slipping through water; it is the flow of life, and one imagines that, contained within its body, are stories that, for the people, need no written text.

Another voice resonates in the shadow of the stereotype, and we may hear something of its echo in the work of Tuscarora artist Jolene Rickard. Shuweeka and Fish (1985) makes use of the transparency of multiple negative photography, superimposing the image of a fish onto that of a young man. The work bears none of the conventional signs of Indianness reassuring to white observers yet it is ingrained with values specific to place and culture. Filling the picture with the delicate texture of its scales, the fish is not simply a fish but, lie all nature – organic and mineral – imbued with a spirit commensurate with that of man and intimately touches his life pulse. The grain of the fish is that of the man, and to diminish one is also to diminish the other. This connectedness transcends time and space as we understand them. Tuscarora Mimbres (1986) reflects the vision of the ancient Mimbres culture of the south-west that, like a wave, continues to carry meanings to the Iroquois peoples of the north. Likewise, the poignant figure of Lyle and the Stone – Lakota Trail (1985) draws us into a contemplation of contemporary Native American problems. In these works, the artist avoids ‘framing’ her subjects. In the triptychs, Giving Thanks 1 (1984) and Hodenausaunee (1984), images of people, of nature, and of man-made artefacts are both individualistic and a part of a collective whole: “It is important that I know the people and places and elements I photograph. I do not feel I am taking; I am sharing.’25


Contemporary Native American arts are as diverse as the cultures and circumstances from which they arise, ranging from tribal traditions to modern technologies. Many artists move freely among different practices, disregarding white disciplinary distinctions and modernist purism. It is a case of making connections not setting limits or boundaries; keeping open, as Durham says, the capacity to reinvest and to incorporate new ideas into traditional matrices.26 Lability and interconnectedness allow subjectivity to be negotiated across changing sets of representations.

The neo-colonial position of Native American peoples nevertheless remains a cause for concern; with limited political support or legal representation, relocation and land loss continue to threaten the wellbeing of many; the deliberate distribution of smallpox-infected blankets have been replaced by water and crop pollution from industrial effluents and radioactive waste, threatening life itself. Without access to the existing structures of power, strategies of survival and renegotiation are limited to manipulation of the rhetorical space of dominant society.

To speak through the tongue of another is not necessary to be subjugated to it ideological effects. Where a speaker speaks through a colonial discourse, the lacunae of untranslatability open on to the implications of parody and irony: to a Babelian laughter where puns, displacements, portmanteau words, and other transgressions make apparent language’s estrangement from the self and violate its claims to pure and original meaning. This is characteristic of the polyphonic Anglo-Irish writings of J. M. Synge and James Joyce who, like American Indians, are linked to an oral tradition. It s also the nature of the Anglo-French visual-verbal puns of Marccel Duchamp, whose enigmatic references to multidimensional energy flows are closer to the spirit of Native American arts and the alchemical tradition of the Renaissance than to the univocality of modernism. In his contemplation of parody, Mikhail Bakhtin speculates that its double-voiced character introduces into discourse ‘a semantic intention that is directly opposed to the original one. The second voice, having made its home in the other’s discourse, clashes hostilely with its primordial host and forces him to serve directly opposing aims.’27

It is here that we recognize the transgressive ploys of Trickster in Harold of Orange. Perceiving the demand yet recognizing the impossibility of a ‘transport of pure signifieds’ between disparate languages, Harold capitalizes on this paradox, orchestrating a game of parody and irony in which he is both trangressor and transgressed, translator and translated – always doubled, double-crossed, doubling back and doubled up with a double entendre. But he brings into play Trickster’s role as cultural transformer, enabling the transition from one state of being to another, and proposing the reinvention of Native American identities from within the colonial discourse.

In Native American stories, Trickster is a polymorphous persona as adaptable to change in adversity as the classical Western hero is fixed in his tragic search for the Absolute. Trickster’s contract with the world is, to use Bakhtin’s analogy, dialogical not monological; s/he does not own the world but inhabits it creatively, presenting a life model that, rather than attempting to resolve the contradictions of life into idealized abstractions, seeks to harmonize them within lived experience. Trickster recalls a property of humanness suppressed by absolutist rhetoric and its desire to eradicate difference and paradox. Trickster reopens the dialogue with those seriocomic and carnivalesque traditions discussed by Bakhtin; traditions that, in literature, present not the monological and authoritative voice that aims to suppress difference, but a polyphonic voice capable of maintaining several full and equal subjects in a kind of ‘transcribed speech’: ‘The author’s consciousness does not transform others’ consciousnesses… into objects, and does not give them second-hand and finalising definitions.’

In orthodox terms, the seriocomic genres are inherently transgressive: accepting man’s inability to ‘know’, they do not seek to embody truth but to test it; motivated towards social change, their strategies include parodic attacks on socio-political hierarchies and prohibitions, and the use of dream, fantasy and humour. The role of humour as a mechanism to accommodate experienced conflict,death and renewal, is understood by Native American writers and artists. Vine Deloria Jr, one of the foremost spokespersons on indigenous legal affairs, comments that ‘laughter encompasses the limits of the soul. In humour life is redefined and accepted… Humour has come to occupy such a prominent place in national Indian affairs that any kind of movement is impossible without it.’28

Bakhtin’s worldview – ‘a collectivity of subjects who are themselves social in essence, not individuals in any usual sense of the word’29 – is perhaps the closest we may come to understanding the Weltenschauung of Native American peoples. Resistant to Western-style power hierarchies, they remain a collectivity of independent peoples who recognize certain shared truths and experiences, not least of which is the effect of difference as it has been defined and executed by white society. Within their worldview, where the renewal of the self is traditionally inextricably bound to the well-being pf the whole, cultural difference is not a cause for contempt but a source of creativity.

Published in The Myth of Primitivism, introduced and compiled by Susan Hiller, London and New York: Routledge, 1991, pp 292-313.

Author’s Note (1991)

Parts of this paper were published in ‘The Ground has been Covered’ (with Jimmie Durham) in Artforum International xxvi, 10 (Summer 1988), p 99; and in ‘Autres Cartographies’ in Les Cahiers du Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (1989), p 77.

Author’s Note (2013)

This text was originally written in 1989 drawing on the available writings by American Indian scholars at the time, together with reflections on the work by artists that Jimmie Durham and I had co-curated for the exhibition Ni Go Tlunh A Doh Ka, (We are always turning around on purpose), Amelie A Wallace Gallery, SUNY Old Westbury, Long Island, 1986. The text is based in my preoccupied with the uses and abuses of language, both visual and verbal. It is not unusual to find artists in the vanguard of intellectual transformations, and this was what I discerned in these artistic practices. Since the 1980s there has been a very welcome expansion of American Indian scholars in academia, especially in comparative philosophy, and some unforeseen changes in reservation life – the recognition of some peoples previously excluded from ‘official’ tribal lists, the economic effects of reservation casinos. However, whether there has been substantial improvement in terms of recognition of legal, economic and welfare circumstances remains to be seen. The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-644), which purported to safeguard genuine Indian work from foreign replicas, was, nonetheless, yet another exercise by the federal government to define American Indian identity. It protected only those Indians who were officially enrolled, virtually criminalising those artists and artisans from families who had refused to comply with the Dawes Act and register with the Dawes Rolls (1893, 1906).

1 Roland Barthes, Mythologies, (1957), London: Paladin,1973, p 129.

2 See Robert F. Berkhofer Jr, The White Man’s Indian, New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1978; Roy Harvey Pearce, Savagism and Civilization, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University press, 1971; Charles M. Segal and David S. Stineback, Puritans, Indians and Manifest Destiny, New York: Putnam, 1977.

3 Coyote and Spider: Coyote, one of several trickster figures in Native American oral traditions, has become emblematic of Native American difference. In this text, Spider refers to the white man, following Edgar Heap of Birds’ Cheyenne example. In addition, Black Elk tells of a Lakota holy man, Drinks Water, who dreamed that the ‘four-leggeds were going back into the earth and that a strange race had woven a spider’s web all around the Lakotas’ (as told through John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks, New York: Washington Square Press Pocket Books, 1972, p 8). I too was thinking of the way that spiders rapidly cocoon prey caught in their webs. However, it should be noted that for the Cherokee, and perhaps other Nations, Grandmother Spider is a positive world-forming symbol.

4 Harold of Orange, 1984; 16mm colour film, 30mins duration. Directed by Richard Weise, scripted by Gerald Vizenor, and starring Charlie Hill. Distributed by Film in the Cities.

5 Gerald Vizenor, Wordarrows: Indians and Whites in the New Fur Trade, Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1978.

6 Bernadette Bucher, Icon and Conquest: A Structural Analysis of the Illustrations of de Brys’s Great Voyages, trans. Basia Miller Gulati, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

7 Berkhofer, op cit, p 29.

8 Pearce, op cit; Frances Yates, The Art of Memory, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1966.

9 Thomas Jefferson, 1784, quoted in Pearce, op cit, p 67.

10 Governor George Gilmer of Georgia, 1980s, quoted in Berkhofer, op cit, p 161.

11 Theodor Roosevelt, 1885, quoted in Frank Bergon and Zeese Papanikolas (eds), Looking Far West, New York and Scarborough, Ontario: New American Library, 1978, pp 38-40.

12 Bucher, op cit.

13 Joseph Bruchac, ‘New Voices from the longhousse: some contemporary Iroqiois writers and their relationship to the H0-de-no-sau-nee’, in Coyote Was Here, (ed) Bo Scholer, The Dolphin, April 1984, 9.

14 Berkhofer, op cit, p 162.

15 Vine Deloria Jr, Of Utmost Good Faith, San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1971.

16 N. Scott Momaday, The Way to Rainy Mountain, Alberquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976, p33.

17 Jacques Derrida, ‘Des Tours de Babel’, in Difference in Translation, (ed) Joseph F. Graham, Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 1895, pp 165-207.

18 Edgar Heap of Birds, Sharp Rocks, Buffalo NY: CEPA, 1986.

19 Jacques Derrida, Positions, trans. Alan Bass, Chicago: University of Chicago press, 1981, p 20.

20 Paula Gunn Allen, quoted by James Ruppart, ‘The poetic language of Ray Young Bear’, in Coyote Was Here, op cit.

21 Scott Momaday, op cit.

22 Jimmie Durham, Columbus Day: Poems, Drawings and Stories about American Indian Life and Death in the Nineteen Seventies, Minneapolis: West End Press, 1983.

23 Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem, trans. Myrna Godzich and Vlad Godzich, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

24 Christopher M. Lyman, The Vanishing Race and Other Illusions, New York: Pantheon Books in association with the Smithsonian Institute Press.

25 Jolene Rickard, artist’s statement in Ni’ Go Tlunh A Doh Ka, exhibition catalogue, Long Island, New York: Amelie A Wallace Gallery, 1986.

26 Jimmie Durham, essay in ibid, 1986.

27 Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, (ed) Caryl Emerson, Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1984, p 193.

28 Vine Deloria Jr, Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, New York: Avon Books, 1969.

29 Wayne C. Booth, Introduction to Bakhtin, op cit, p xxi.