Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Playing Indian

As a child growing up in rural Nevada, it was hard to ignore the impact the “wild west” has had on the patchwork of American culture. Surrounded by ghost towns and silver mines, I was constantly bombarded by visual images of “Cowboys and Indians”. More often than not, the “Indians” were depicted poorly or worse yet, in that sad stereotypical way born of Disney and Warner brother’s cartoons.  For the sake of irony, I wish I could say that as a boy, when we played “Cowboys and Indians” that I wanted to be the cowboy but that is simply not the case. I was always the “Indian” in that game, and in my eyes we were always the victors. Despite the popular misconceptions about the history of Native people, I considered my very existence a victory. As an adult, I find myself twenty years in the field of public history, focusing on the Native American colonial experience and challenging popular misconceptions of the past every single day.  

Guy Johnson and David Hill by Benjamin West

My first encounter with modern Native American reenacting took place at Johnson Hall, the home of the famous 18th c British Indian Agent, Sir William Johnson. I attended as a spectator with my daughter who at the time was 9 years old, and we walked around their spring “Market Fair”, soaking up the ambience of the g Sir William Johnson. I attended as a spectator with my daughter who at the time was 9 years old, and we walked around their spring “Market Fair”, soaking up the ambience of the grounds. There were lots of people dressed in a wide array of “old timey” clothing. It all looked so real to my untrained eye and I easily became swept up in the spirit of the event. At one point, we spied two men, nearly naked wearing only loincloths and painting each other in red and black with their bare hands. My daughters’ eyes grew into saucers and I hurried her along the path until we were well removed from the intimate scene. I masked my own shock from her however and quickly explained to her that the men were preparing themselves for the reenactment. ‘It was history’ and ‘that’s how Indian people looked in the past’, I explained; she seemed unconvinced and still a little shaken afterwards and looking back, even my own words seemed weak and uncertain. My mind was spinning, but rather than reject the whole thing because it was so foreign I decided to find out more.

I never did try and talk with the painted men at that event. They were like ghosts that you might spot in the darkness. Sometimes I would catch a fleeting glimpse of them in the crowd of costumed re-enactors but more often they blended into the fabric of the event and would sit quietly in their own space. I was seriously curious about them but felt a bit hesitant to ask them questions as they seemed so alien and unapproachable to me in their colored intensity. Now, I know them well and call them my friends but that first encounter left me with far more questions than answers.

In modern native communities, traditional clothing is worn for ceremonies, social dances, dance competitions, and occasionally for public performances; and in all of those instances, the dress is far more conservative than a lone breechclout and paint. In fact, if someone did show up dressed that way, it would be considered quite rude and they would likely be escorted away or more likely, something worse. The painted men were something I had never encountered before in person and rather than denounce them, I tried to find out more about them. This curiosity would draw me into a global Native American history network which was almost entirely comprised of non-Natives. I had found a sub-culture of the living history community that I was certain most modern Native people were entirely unaware of. At that moment it became my goal to understand all I could about this phenomena, and perhaps in the future, to bring those two worlds together.

Fort Johnson

My next substantial encounter with a “Native” re-enactor would happen on my turf however, and I was a little better prepared this time. One quiet afternoon while working the front desk at Ganondagan State Historic Site a very tall man walked into the visitor’s center with what appeared to be a hari-krishna style haircut. He had a quiet demeanor and carefully picked through our literature and then found what he was looking for: our artifact case. He asked some simple probing questions about the archeological material that didn’t raise my interest but I quickly became aware that he had a deeper understanding of the material than the regular visitor. I had one the most satisfying discussions about Native American material culture that day. He encouraged me to attend a conference in Ohio where there were more people like him, I think he meant more people obsessed with woodland material culture but perhaps he just meant more people with funny haircuts? In either case, he was right. It took me another year before I attended my first “Eastern Woodland Indian Conference” but when I finally did I was blown away.

What I found was a community of people who had been studying Native material culture collectively for years. They had been gathering for nearly a decade by the time I was able to attend and had established a tight community of dedicated attendees. The conference was organized by Alan Gutchess (current Director of the Fort Pitt Museum), who, for whatever reason had a lifelong interest in Native Americans and had grew up in the living history world.  

Note: at some point I need to get Alan on the “couch” and root out that story as the results of that passion had an impact on my own life that I could never have foreseen. The real question is whether I should curse his name or praise it for drawing me into an obsession lasting nearly a third of my life. 

The attendees and speakers of this conference were incredible. I had no idea that there were other people looking into the material culture and history of the Eastern Woodland people! I had been working in a vacuum for the past 10 years with no one to share my thoughts and ideas with but now I felt I had found a home. Furthermore, they were putting into practice and use many of that very material they were studying. They used them in living history events and for historic films. I was simply amazed at the level of understanding many of the folks had and even more impressed with the quality of the lectures that were given. The world I had found opened up to me possibilities I could never have imagined. I owe a debt of gratitude to all the scholars both professional and otherwise who though enough of the past to study it and share their knowledge with me. 

The one thing I did not find in this community however, was many Native peoples. This truth really had me question my own involvement in the community. Why is it that other Natives are not drawn to this? Are there simply too many other pressing matters that keep people from diving in? Is there a prejudice perhaps that keeps Natives from feeling comfortable? These questions that I had would soon be answered. TBC.

1 comment:

  1. Another great post, Michael. As a boy growing up, I also always related more to the Native side of the Western genre, even though I am white. It probably goes hand in hand with an early suspicion of authority. I wanted to give you another example of how cultural norms don't always match our assumptions. Having lived for several years in the Bay area, I studied Japanese tea ceremony, the Urasenke school, for a couple of years. It amazed me to find that some of the most devoted, adept practitioners, were not native Japanese, but were from Europe, North America, and other places one would consider as foreign to the art.