Sunday, May 27, 2007

Hawks and Handsaws

An acquaintance of mine thinks maybe people have just seen too many episodes of “Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman,” but the phenomenon certainly predates that show’s 1993 release—Native Americans and others alike romanticize that culture, benefiting no one.

Let me be clear—I have great respect for Native American tradition. I’ve dated Native American women. I have close Native American friends. I even have an Indian name—it means “When the Warm Winds of the South have Returned,” and once, one of a group of Native friends raised the question of my totem animal—they all immediately agreed on the red-tail hawk. Let me also clarify that I certainly don’t dispute that Native Americans have historically faced significant injustice. All the more reason not to make a mockery of that history with distorted stereotypes. Note that I am not addressing the matter of using Indian names or mascots for sports teams—that’s another issue entirely. No, I’m addressing our joint cultural insistence on blindly replacing truth with fantasy.

Let’s start with the most prevalent view—Native Americans have a special, close connection to nature, even to the point of almost magical powers. What bullshit. One afternoon I sat chatting at length with a few friends and a few strangers in the Oneida cultural center about exactly this “connection.” At one point, we heard a bird call: “Whoo….whoo whoo….whoooooooo.” The director of the center, an Oneida Indian with a Ph.D., noted, “Oh, an owl!” I looked at him incredulously, and pointed out that no, that was a mourning dove—a VERY common bird [An owl’s call, unlikely in mid-afternoon, would sound “Hoot-hoot, Hoot Whoooooooooo]. My other Oneida friends at the same gathering, including a Turtle Clan elder, are about as citified as possible, even though they live in the country. They know virtually nothing about animals, plants, climate, the land—things even the children of any farmer, even a poor farmer, would know. They gave me a red-tailed hawk feather as a gift, warning me not to tell anyone. Certainly illegal animal parts show up sometimes on Native lands, eagle feathers for example, but red-tailed hawks are common here—I once picked up a feather in my driveway.

Then there’s the illusion that any Native American craft is art. Want cash? Build dream catchers. Want to sell paintings? Paint eagles and wolves—easy as Elvis on black velvet, or dogs playing poker. The only difference is which cliché we buy. Why? Certainly we have excellent Native American artists, but as one Native artist friend said after deciding to go to art school, “I thought I knew everything. I found out I knew nothing.” Today, her art is MUCH more interesting, varied provocative, and less predictable than it was. Likewise, certainly my students study Native American writers—N. Scott Momaday, for example, but not because he’s native, but because his command of metaphor and imagery is exceptional. We’d study him even is he were only another dead white guy.

Here’s the problem—such a naïve, widespread and economically viable misperception of reality can only lead to someone realizing this means political power.

It starts with the land claims. The Oneidas, for example, argue that two hundred years ago, their ancestors reached a land agreement with the State of New York, but since that agreement was never ratified by the U. S. Congress, the transfer was illegal. Why they want to argue their ancestors were foolish, I can’t imagine, especially since they’ve stamped themselves as “The Oneida Nation” and love to insist on “government to government relations” with the cities, counties, and states—by which they mean they refuse to pay taxes, to collect taxes on sales to non-natives, or to follow any of those annoying little laws—like weights and measures, or health inspections. And people love it, lured by the chance to same a dime, fairness or health be damned, oblivious to the reality that services cost money, and if the funds don’t come from one source, they must come from another. Native Americans enjoy, without taxes, the benefits of roads, legal systems, and military protection. Why? Hardly the role of “government to government relations.” That’s because the “nation” is legally a “ward of the state”—as in children protected by their superiors. Who would embrace that? People ready to abuse it for power and wealth.

Enter the casinos. Under the guise of “economic development,” ignoring that (1) gambling just moves money around instead of creating production and that (2) casinos suck business away from the (tax-paying) establishments that formerly provided those services, politicians and native business men play the native fantasy to the hilt to line their pockets. Anyone who disagrees is labeled a “racist.” Convenient—and ignores the reality that the Wisconsin Oneidas and Thames Oneidas oppose the New York “Oneida Nation.” New York Oneidas also oppose Corporate Oneida, and for that opposition, have their houses condemned and their voices shunned. The Oneida Cultural Center, for example, features none of Diane Shenandoah’s beautiful art, and neither will you find any trace of Grammy Award winner Joanne Shenandoah—so much for promoting Native American culture.

Hamlet tells us “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” But the wind is from the north, not a trace of the south winds, and industry has replaced the hawk.


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