A Conversation on Culture and Change Regarding the Washington Slurskins

Photo courtesy of BrianMKA
FedEx seats
courtesy of BrianMKA

(Originally posted on 2/8/13 at WeLoveDC.)

By now, local Washington media has covered the internet with their summaries of a timely – yet still largely ignored – issue involving a particular football team located in this area. While Racial Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports spoke to the broader issues regarding Native American culture and peoples and their use as sports logos and traditions, make no mistake: the local NFL team’s moniker was a lynchpin in the discussion. The topic was subject of one-third of the day’s symposium, and itself is well-covered elsewhere. (You can watch the recording online in its entirety.)

I couldn’t attend in person, so I settled for the live webcast. And I’ve spent time re-watching the panels as well, because there was so much information and passion involved I couldn’t catch all of it the first time around. I could probably write several blog posts about the topic, and may yet in the future.

But what I wanted to really comment here and now, since other outlets are more focused on the local team aspect, is some key comments made by Director Kevin Gover at the start of the day. Thanks to NMAI, I received a full copy of his remarks; they provide a context that is important to the background of the overall discussion. While I won’t simply copy them all here – you can listen to Dr. Gover online for that – I did want to point out some relevant comments.

Photo courtesy of New York Public Library
Broncho and the Redskin
courtesy of New York Public Library

The call to change the team’s moniker isn’t an isolated issue and it’s not, as many opponents callously bawl, “a bunch of PC bull.” It’s part of a broader issue in how we, as humans on this planet, relate and respect each person’s beliefs, culture, and ideals. How is it that this crude and racist epithet continues to exist on the fourth-most valuable sports franchise in the world? It’s an issue that goes beyond the misguided use of a word; it’s the taint of a past that many refuse – or ignore – exists. Dr. Gover addressed this in his opening remarks:

Certain myths persist and are reinforced. Disney’s animated “Pocahontas” celebrates the Indian-princess-helping-white-people-bring-civilization story of old. Even the movies in which Indians are heroes too often engage in the old stereotypes. The large blue Indians of “Avatar” and the Indian werewolves of the popular “Twilight” series may be heroes, but note the spectacular violence of which they are capable. Note as well the addition of new stereotypes that evolved in the late twentieth century: Indians as pristine environmentalists and, even better, magic Indians.

Further, these characters represent Indians of the past. Television, movies, and books almost never portray Indians as contemporary characters. are confined to the past, as though the government’s policies directed toward the deconstruction of Native nations had succeeded universally. The practice of using Native people as mascots largely emerged at the very time government policy was to deliberately destroy Native language, Native religion, and Native identity. In this respect, the mascots served very directly the government’s purpose by portraying Indians as proud and noble figures, but only figures of the past. Government policy and the popular culture assumed that, certainly by the end of the twentieth century, there would be no more Indians.

These policies find their roots in the misguided beliefs of the nineteenth century in racial hierarchy and the ranking of cultures from primitive to civilized. It hardly bears noting that the so-called “science” of race in the nineteenth century always concluded that white people, “Anglo-Saxon” or “Nordic” white people in particular, were the pinnacle of human development and their civilizations were the best ever achieved. This foolishness has long since been discredited as simple racism, as have the policy ideas that arose from it. The popular culture, however, has kept alive the “vanishing red man” stereotype that is at the foundation of the phenomenon of Native mascots.

The celebrations of our extinction turned out, of course, to have been premature. However, certain ideas and themes in the popular culture remain persistent and influential. Native mascots are primary offenders in perpetuating these stereotypes. Consider why a franchise or university might choose a Native image to represent its team or teams. We are told that they are meant to honor Native American qualities such as bravery, strength (physical, not mental), endurance, and pride. Certainly Native people had and have those qualities in varying degrees, though I do not believe that they had or have them in greater quantity than other peoples. And why is it that Native people are not chosen to represent positive human qualities such as intelligence, piety, generosity, and love of family? I suppose the answer is that we are far less interesting to mascot makers when revealed to be ordinary human beings, with all the virtues and failures of other human beings.

At the National Museum of the American Indian, we address a public that has been deeply influenced by the failings of formal education and the misinformation imbedded in the popular culture. The existence of Native American mascots is partly responsible for this misinformation. Mascots stereotype Native people, employing imagery and ideas that arose from the racism of the nineteenth century.

I challenge those who find the whole “name change” issue either pointless or an affront to their team loyalty to take the time and watch the symposium, listen to the panelists. Better yet, visit the museum. Talk to the staff. Grasp the cultures of the hundreds of nations that were here before Europeans – and still thrive today. Learn more about the “history” behind the team traditions. (Did you know Lone Star Deitz, whom the team was supposedly named for, was actually 100% German and posed as a Sioux to avoid serving in the Army? I didn’t until yesterday…)

We need to look at this issue not with burgundy and gold glasses, but with educated respect and understanding. That’s how change truly begins. And hopefully, one day soon, we’ll all be united in cheering on a re-branded and re-birthed Washington football franchise.

Happenings…

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Quick update, I suppose.

Update 1: I recently had the chance to interview one of the museum curators at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, as well as tour their latest exhibit “A Song for the Horse Nation.” You can find both articles in the links provided. I rather enjoy blending interviews, history, and museum exhibitions together and really enjoyed the process for these.

Update 2: My wife and I just returned from an extended vacation in Paris. Yes, again. It was fabulous, wonderful, exciting, and much needed. I’ll be posting additional journal thoughts and photos here when I have free moments to construct them.

Update 3: I am pulling back into the writing saddle (so to speak) with both BattleTech and my aforementioned nonfiction book project. I have a few new chapters to complete for Potomac Press and I am in the process of submitting two proposals to Herb for additional sourcebooks in 2012. Plus, I have this whole Handbook: House Kurita to outline and write.

Update 4: And, finally – there’s a new MechWarrior game coming out. And I’ll be skipping this, mostly because of this from one of their game blogs:

So remember this, time and experience (the real kind), will always equal greater skill. Greater skill will always equal more rewards. You can’t buy skill, you earn it.

Let’s face it – for me, time is precious. With my commitments to my wife, work, freelancing, and basic life skills, I barely have time to play Wii and Xbox (first generation – not the 360), much less play with my friends. (They’ll vouch for me here – I see them for a HALO or Black Ops party maybe once in 3 months; you can imagine where I usually place on the kill boards and where my rank sits…) And I ditched my desktop PC last year; the main computers in our house are our laptops, and mine is specifically geared to writing and photo editing.

So as much as it might be fun to play, I’ll be avoiding it.

NMAI: Hear the Song of the Horse Nation

Photo courtesy of
‘DSC_0006’
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

(Originally posted at WeLoveDC on 10-31-11)

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian opened its doors this past weekend to a new exhibition, “A Song for the Horse Nation.” The exhibition, nestled on the third floor of the museum, tells the epic tale of the how the return of the horse to the Americas changed Native culture, from lifestyle to war to art and beyond. “For some Native peoples, the horse still is an essential part of daily life,” said exhibit curator Emil Her Many Horses (Ogala Lakota). “For others, the horse will always remain an element of our identity and our history. The Horse Nation continues to inspire, and Native artists continue to celebrate the horse in our songs, our stories, and our works of art.”

To walk the exhibit’s path is to walk side by side with the conjoined path of Native and horse. Though horses were introduced to the Native Americans relatively late in North American history—the early 1700s saw the initial widespread explosion of the horse from captured Spanish mounts in the southwest—the image of Indians astride these graceful animals is one that is common to modern Americans. The “Horse Nation” quickly entwined themselves with Native communities, forever altering tribal culture and the Indian way of life.

The Smithsonian’s exhibit seeks to give us a view into that not-so-distant past. But it’s more than just a simply history lesson: subtly but surely, “A Song for the Horse Nation” reveals how interwoven both horse and man became among 38 tribal communities from the Plains and Western United States. The horse was more than a beast of burden or a tool; the animal became a part of Native culture that still resonates among the people today.
Photo courtesy of
‘beaded coat’
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

It opens with historical context, showing the arrival of the horse to the North American continent from as early as the 1500s. Believed to have returned to the continent after evolving and moving westward through Asia and Europe, the horse made its return among the exploratory ships of the Spanish and British. The first appearance of the horse was quite the shock to the native peoples and helped the Spanish to quickly overcome any opposition. Natives had never seen an animal that could carry a person and many struggled to come up with a name for the new creature. Many Native names for the horse ended up being a derivative of “dog” such as the Cree’s “big dog” (mistatim), the Lakota’s “mystery dog” (sunkakhan), or the Blackfoot’s “elk dog” (ponoka-mita).

Natives quickly turned their fear of the horse into desire for them. In 1680, the Pueblo Uprising opened up the floodgates as hundreds of captured Spanish horses were traded to nearby tribes. The horse population quickly expanded north and east across established tribal trading networks. Historians often note that as the acquisition and absorption of the horse moved west-to-east, the rifle’s debut and spread among Indians moved east-to-west. By the time of the country’s western expansion in the 1800s, both rifle and horse were fixtures among the encountered Native communities.

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‘DSC_0014’
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

The exhibition quickly recounts the historical narrative, however, moving from scholarly education into that of cultural definition. By the time of America’s expansion into the West, horses had made their mark among the Indians. Their likenesses decorated shirts, dresses, tipis, blankets, and toys. Because the Native perspective sees creation around them as a partner in life rather than an obstacle to overcome, the horse was a fellow creature to share the land with. It’s grace and beauty were respected and honored by Natives; to own a horse was a mark of prestige and blessing. The practice of “giveaway” became an honored tradition and a symbol of wealth. Owning several horses was one thing; generously giving them away in times of ceremony and to those less fortunate was the ultimate gesture in prosperity and humbleness.

Of note is the lengths the exhibition goes in pointing out the importance of horse capturing to these communities. Young men would often go out either solo or in small groups and raid an enemy’s encampment through taking horses. Several artifacts on display show a warrior’s personal record or stories to that effect, decorating their blankets or clothing with these heroic exploits. A young man who could return to the camp with a captured horse received praise and honor from family and friends. Horse capturing was elevated to an art form. And there was no greater honor for such a young man to return astride such a prize and then give it away to a widow or other unfortunate member of the community. Such actions manifested the man’s generosity of spirit, as well as his bravery.

When seen from this point of view, it isn’t hard to page back through the history books in our minds and remember the stories taught about “Indian horse thieves” and how it was a scourge upon the Western colonists. From the white man’s viewpoint, it was breaking the law. From the Indian view, it was a cultural norm. These contradictory viewpoints were but a part of the constant conflict that clashed repeatedly between the ever-expanding Americans and the Natives of land.

Photo courtesy of
‘cree saddle beadwork’
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

Even as the West was lost and the reservations became the norm, the horse never left the Native communities. By the 1900s, the horse was irrevocably tied to Native culture, honored in beadwork and drawings in both art and personal belongings. Though many horses were confiscated by the U.S. government (such as the vast herds of the Nez Perce), they remained an undeniable part of the community. As the exhibition winds through the last days of the frontier and the ends of the Indian Wars, the horse is seen more in cultural symbols and traditions of the tribal communities than as a weapon of war.

It becomes obvious that the cultural shift remained permanent. Even as the reservation lifestyle forever altered Indian ways, it did not sever the connection Natives had to the horse. More and more, Native peoples honored the horse through their beadwork and crafts, creating elaborate decorations and ornamentation for use in celebrations, parades, and powwows. The Smithsonian’s exhibition blooms at the end with artwork from the turn of the 20th Century through the modern day. Contemporary artwork using traditional methods such as beadwork and quillwork, as well as ceramics and oil painting, still convey the respect and honor Natives have for the horse. At the very end, a short film highlights the Nez Perce’s continued efforts to rebuild their horse herds through the Young Horsemen’s Program, which seeks to preserve the Appaloosa made famous by their ancestors. Their dedication to not just breeding but in respecting the animal speaks volumes of the attitudes of many tribal communities today.

By showcasing modern artwork through everyday items such as martingales and blankets, masks and paintings, the exhibition ties together and drives home just how important the horse truly is to Native culture and relevance. It is a syncretistic blend of the old and new, adaptation and growth, and a shining example of the spirit of today’s Native people. The Horse Nation is alive and well because of their efforts and will remain an integral part of the history, culture, and understanding of Native America for generations to come.

A Song for the Horse Nation will remain open through January 7, 2013. The National Museum of the American Indian is located at the corner of 4th Street and Independence Avenue, SW. The closest Metro station is L’Enfant plaza, servicing the Blue, Yellow, Orange, and Green lines. For more information, visit the museum’s website. You can see some of the items in the exhibit on my Flickr site.

The Song of Emil Her Many Horses

Photo courtesy of
‘DSC_0027’
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

(Originally posted on 10/28/11 at WeLoveDC.)

out of the earth / I sing for them
A Horse nation / I sing for them
out of the earth / I sing for them,
the animals / I sing for them.

~a song by the Teton Sioux

Emil Her Many Horses is, by first appearance, a quiet, unassuming gentleman. A museum specialist in the office of Museum Programs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), he is responsible for the facility’s latest exhibition “A Song for the Horse Nation.” A member of the Ogala Lakota nation of South Dakota, his expertise on the Northern and Southern Plains cultures is well served and seen in the exhibit that opens to the public tomorrow.

NMAI’s latest offering is a touching and brilliant display of how the horse has deeply impacted and affected Native cultures since their introduction to the Americas in the 17th century. “The exhibit tells the history of the horse; that they were here once before, migrated to Europe, and returned as the horse we know today,” explained Her Many Horses. “They changed Native culture. The horse had a major impact on hunting, warfare, travel, spirituality. These were big changes.” Changes that extend beyond the European vision of the animal.

Seen as a beast of burden, a tool, a weapon, the horse was brought and used by European explorers and colonists early in America’s “New World” history. And their introduction, according to many Natives, was probably one of the biggest positive changes brought about by the white man.

Emil Her Many Horses, NMAI Museum Specialist (photo courtesy NMAI)

Exploding across the Plains after the Pueblo Uprising in 1680, the value of the horse was readily apparent to many tribes. Their acceptance quickly altered the very fabric of tribal life and culture as Natives admired the animal’s grace, beauty, bravery, and determination. “When American Indians encountered horses—which some tribes call the Horse Nation—they found an ally, inspiring and useful in times of peace, and intrepid in times of war,” said NMAI Director Kevin Gover (Pawnee). “This exhibition shows how these splendid creatures came to represent courage and freedom to many tribes across North America.”

“The horse really became a fellow creature that lives with us,” explained Her Many Horses. “They are a comrade, ally, friend. What we try to establish is a relationship with a fellow living being, something that really reaches into the realm of companionship, as opposed to that of a simple tool or resource.”

That relationship can be seen in Her Many Horses’ own family history. The name is Lakota and that of his paternal great-great-grandmother. “More accurately, the English translation would be ‘Many Horses Woman,’ meaning she owned many horses,” he said. When the first census was made on the Ogala Lakota reservation in South Dakota, her name became the family’s last name. The census takers, however, had mistranslated “Tasunka Ota Win” into English as “Her Many Horses.” And so it stuck.

Photo courtesy of
‘DSC_0123’
courtesy of ‘bhrome’
Among the Lakota, horses were a measure of wealth, but not in the traditional European sense. To the Lakota—and many other tribes—a more important demonstration of wealth came from giving away horses or other items in honor of a family member. Possession was not as important as generosity. Horses could be given away at naming and memorial ceremonies, or at giveaways, which celebrated anything from the return of a war veteran, honoring a graduating student, or the marriage of a daughter.

In the exhibit is a piece familiar to Her Many Horses. It is familiar because he made the toy painted tipi himself. “I made it to talk about the origins of my last name. It shows a woman—my grandmother—surrounded by many horses. To me, it became an honorable name to have.”

The opening of the exhibit is exciting to Her Many Horses. An expansion of the original exhibit at NMAI’s New York City George Gustav Heye Center location, this one adds an additional 15 major objects. One of the centerpiece displays is a 19th century 38-foot round tipi that stands 16 feet tall. Cavorting across the surface are 110 hand-painted horses, both with and without riders, all in full gallop. “The tipi is Hunkpapa-Lakota, showing horse raiding and battle scenes all along the outside,” said Her Many Horses. His glee at being able to set it up for visitors was evident. “If you look at the drawings, you can see who’s the enemy. It’s Lakota versus the Crow—you can tell because of the hairstyles. It’s kind of a war record of the warrior who lived within.”

Photo courtesy of
‘DSC_0023’
courtesy of ‘bhrome’
The tipi was a challenge for the staff to set up, taking them four afternoons. “We knew it had been re-sized, plus it wasn’t being set on open ground but a slick display surface,” he said. It’s safe to say the effort was worth it; the tipi is an exquisite testimony to how personal the horse was to one individual in the tribe; a sentiment still shared across the Native landscape today.

Other objects of life and culture of the Plains tribes decorate places of honor in the exhibit. “We included pieces that are associated with famous people, such as the rifles of Geronimo, Chief Rain-in-the-Face, Chief Joseph,” said Her Many Horses. “And we have photographs of many of these people, showing that link between the object and the person.” These placards are entitled Honor In the Name, introducing them to visitors and providing a glimpse of past lives to those in the modern day.

But primarily, the horse dominates. So entwined into the lives of tribes, they are the subject of beaded artwork on tipi bags, shaped into dance sticks, decorate jackets. Objects of everyday use with the horse, such as saddles, saddlebags, and horse masks, are given individual touches of color and life, providing an intimate look into the relationship between the owner and the animal. “I want the public to walk out of there understanding not just how the horse revolutionized Native life, but how that thread continues even today,” Her Many Horses said.

Photo courtesy of
‘DSC_0096’
courtesy of ‘bhrome’
Bridging that gap of history to the modern, Her Many Horses invited Native artists to create their own contemporary art for the exhibit. He believes it’s critically important to show that continued thread of relationship still impacts Native life in today’s world. “We may no longer depend on the horse for travel, for hunting, for warfare – but it’s still important to us, our culture.”

To that end, NMAI will celebrate the opening of its new exhibit with a variety of events on Saturday, October 29. Partnering with the Washington International Horse Show, celebrating its 53rd year through this weekend at the Verizon Center, both WIHS and NMAI are providing free programs and activities at both locations. (A free shuttle will run between the museum and the Verizon Center on Saturday only.)

Central to Saturday’s events is a presentation of the U.S. and Crow Nation flags on horseback between Crow equestrian and artist Kennard Real Bird and the DC Mounted Police. Following the presentation, K.J. Jacks of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma will sing the U.S. national anthem. The presentation will happen in the museum’s outdoor Welcome Plaza.

Photo courtesy of
‘DSC_0106’
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

Award-winning bead worker and porcupine quill worker Juanita Fogarty Growing Thunder (Assiniboine/Sioux), whose own art is displayed within the exhibition, will hold demonstrations throughout the day. Children will be able to “dress” a full-sized horse mannequin using pieces that simulate many of those in the exhibit. S.D. Nelson (Lakota/Standing Rock Sioux), a children’s book author and illustrator, will host special storytelling sessions and lectures for both kids and adults.

It’s a jubilee worthy of the exhibition, and one that Emil Her Many Horses and the museum’s staff have worked tirelessly to bring together. It’s a celebration of the horse through many pathways, one that gives a glimpse into the history, life, and culture of many of the 38 Native communities represented.

Photo courtesy of
‘beaded horse mask 1’
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

In the exhibition’s companion book of the same name, Her Many Horses points out one particular piece that succinctly symbolizes the power and value of the horse in the Native community. A beautiful and elaborate Lakota horse head cover is on display. Covered in exquisite designs among a glimmering background of white beads, the cover was used at a 1904 Fourth of July parade at the Pine Ridge Reservation. Alone, it is a fascinating work of art in geometric design and stitching.

What stands out, however, is that it appears to have been made with the intention to be recycled later on as different objects. A critical Native eye can discern where a pair of women’s beaded leggings could be fashioned from the “face” of the horse. A pipe bag, from the “cheeks.” Tipi bags (or, “possible” bags, because pretty much anything possible could be stored inside them) and moccasins could also have been made from the upper and lower neck areas.

The resourcefulness of the artist is evident; fortunately for us today, never followed through. The union of gifts never passed on and remains a delicate and intricate symbol of traditions brought together through the celebration of the horse. It stands as a beaded and colorful declaration of the art and the grace of the animal.

To Emil Her Many Horses, it is an expression of life and of culture that will hopefully never fade. “The Horse Nation continues to inspire, and Native artists continue to celebrate the horse in our songs, our stories, and our works of art.” With the opening of this latest exhibit, Her Many Horses honors his Lakota roots. Through the blend of art and artifacts, stories and characters, community and culture, he presents the public a valuable gift worth more than a simple object. He gives away to all of us a view into part of the past, the present, and the future of Native America.

And that is a song worthy of the Horse Nation.

A Song for the Horse Nation opens on Saturday, October 29 and will remain open through January 7, 2013. The National Museum of the American Indian is located at the corner of 4th Street and Independence Avenue, SW. The closest Metro station is L’Enfant plaza, servicing the Blue, Yellow, Orange, and Green lines. For more information, visit the museum’s website. WeLoveDC will have a full review of the exhibit on Monday; you can see some of the items in the exhibit on my Flickr site.

American Indians, American Presidents…and a Heritage

Photo courtesy of
‘In the land of the Sioux’
courtesy of ‘Smithsonian Institution’

(Originally posted on 11/10/10 at WeLoveDC)

Ask someone on the street about Native American history and more often than not, they’ll most likely recall the “Thanksgiving story,” the Indian Wars of the late nineteenth century, “Custer’s Last Stand,” or probably the (abysmal) movie Dances With Wolves. It’s an era of our nation’s history that I think many know little about – or choose to look the other way – and I cannot blame them for it. It’s not a pretty period of history, nor is it exactly the United States’ most proudest collection of moments.

When I saw the National Museum of the American Indian’s (NMAI) press release regarding the variety of activities in celebration of Native American Indian Heritage Month, one of the events that caught my eye was today’s lecture with NMAI Director Kevin Gover and museum historian Mark Hirsch. They were speaking regarding a book the Smithsonian released last year, American Indians, American Presidents: A History, edited by Clifford E. Trafzer. While I couldn’t attend the lecture, I had wanted to interview both Director Gover and Mr. Hirsch regarding the book and its impact but despite both NMAI and my best efforts, we couldn’t quite make things work out.

Nonetheless, I decided to forge ahead with a look at this book – even though it was released last year – for a variety of reasons. Native American history is a subject very close to me, for starters, and is an era of history I feel is mostly glossed over in classrooms. The struggle of Native Americans during this country’s formation and rise to power is something that cannot be ignored and, I believe, contains lessons for our future as a nation and as a people.

So I asked NMAI for a copy of the book, eager to see what new perspectives awaited within. And…I was left wanting.

Photo courtesy of
‘Indians at dedication (LOC)’
courtesy of ‘The Library of Congress’

From the book jacket:

Here, for the first time, is the little-known history of the American Indians and American presidents, what they said and felt about one another, and what their words tell us about the history of the United States.

In a nutshell, though, it’s not.

The book is separated into five chapters, plus an overlong Introduction. Each chapter focuses on an era and covers the entire span of the United States, from revolution to present day (which is to say, late 2008; there’s no look at Obama’s presidency yet, just a quick blurb about his positioning during his election run). And each chapter is written by a different historian.

I so dearly want to dive in and pull out tidbits of information, divulging them here for you to discover and chew on…but I can’t. It’s not really all that possible with this book. It reads, by and large, like a standard college history textbook. Certainly the important dates and points of various events are covered, but in general terms. And every single presidency is discussed, though very little in depth. The Native American personalities are snapshots; quick names, dates, and tribal affiliations scroll by, sometimes with a point here or there, but with little cohesion. It is, simplistically, a large timeline with small asides here and there to various presidential quotes or citations regarding their Indian policies.

Photo courtesy of
‘President Garfield and his Cabinet’
courtesy of ‘Cornell University Library’

For someone who has never really followed this era of history, it’s appropriate. But it’s not engaging. This period of time is rife with emotional kindling, from families and tribes torn asunder with no respect to personal rights, to the forced “civilization” of Native children, to underhanded and greedy tactics by various people (on both sides) simply to claim land – and its natural resources. Personally, I still find Dee Brown’s excellent Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee a better perspective of the era, an emotionally charged account of various events during the nineteenth century. Because to really understand this era, these tragedies and trials, simple dates and places just don’t cut it. It’s a tale that requires an immersion of our heart and soul, in order to understand it with our mind.

And I think that’s what disappointed me the most about it – I was expecting something to further fuel speculation and thoughtful discourse, and received basically another history textbook. While Trafzer tries in the Introduction to tie all of the sections together with the common thread of the question of sovereignty, the fact is that not every chapter addresses this question. It’s a hot-button issue with all Native American nations (and has been since the first Europeans landed on America’s shores) but it remains an afterthought in this sprawling work of history.

To the book’s defense, however, it is trying to capture a very convoluted, twisted path into a cohesive package, and that’s not easy. Every tribe has its own unique dealings with the U.S. government, and its own perspectives. Not only that, every presidential administration has its own perspectives and dealings with the Native American nations; some moreso involved than others. Trying to document every single viewpoint or dealing that Natives have had with every presidential administration is a strenuous undertaking, never mind attempting to put issues on the table for dissection and discussion. In the end, the book simply tries a little too hard to stretch beyond what is a solid recounting of Presidential history regarding Native Americans.

There is some redemption within its covers. The colorful sidebars of various people, objects, and events are nice diversions from the overarching, dry text. It is here the book really shines; the sidebars are more intimate, personal, and engaging. I do wonder that if the book had more of that tone and content present, it would’ve matched up more to what I had hoped it would be.

The value of understanding how much of a role Native Americans have had in our nation’s history is incalculable. Both for good and for ill, it’s tied into the soil of this country and feeds our future actions. While it’s good that books like American Indians, American Presidents: A History exist, it’s not nearly enough. They only barely scratch the surface, whetting the appetite (or overwhelming it). If you’re new to this realm of understanding, it’s a great primer. But to understand the conflict, the people, the essence? Dig deeper. You’ll find that the plight of Natives in this land will touch your heart and your soul – and both our country and our humanity will be better for it.

If you want to learn more about the people, the culture, and the continuing story of the Native Americans, your best starting place would be the National Museum of the American Indian. There’s tons of events still going on this month, so make sure you check out their Events calendar for more information.

Scribblings: Paul Chaat Smith

Paul Chaat Smith 4/18/09

(originally published 4/28/09 at WeLoveDC)

On one of the first springtime Saturdays in April, I managed to slip down to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian to catch its associate curator, Paul Chaat Smith, read from his latest book Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong. Not exactly an event to herald the death of a wet, extended winter, but the book title and press release had my attention. I wanted to know more about the book – and the man behind it. Spring, for the moment, could wait.

I wasn’t disappointed.

To understand the author is to understand the book that much more. It’s less a cohesive treatise on any particular point – and if you’re looking for a “top ten” list based on the title, you’ll be sorely disappointed. As Paul stated, “It’s a book title, folks, not to be taken literally. Of course I don’t mean everything, just most things. And ‘you’ really means we, as in all of us.”

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