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The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

Playing Indian

The title of this essay refers of course to Lakota scholar Philip Deloria's brilliant 1998 study Playing Indian, in which he examined the ways in which pretending to be some version of "Indian" has been a key part of the development of a national identity in the united states. Not many canadian scholars seem to have engaged with his work much in this area, perhaps because so much of his discussion deals with how citizens of what became the united states manipulated their idealized versions of "the Indian," whether noble or ignoble to refuse the label of "british traitor." After all, the "united empire loyalists" who went to canada and played such a big role in developing early notions of canadian national identity were differentiated from their compatriots in the thirteen colonies by remaining loyal to the british crown. This part may not have seemed relevant. Deloria carefully examines the role of "playing Indian" as a means of social protest within united states society as well as its part in helping united states non-Indigenous citizens that they were civilized. To this day, especially in the united states, "playing Indian" can be big business and known fakes and scholars who played fast and loose with fashionable identity claims to Indigenousness still abound, many of them doing just fine. To this day, many people are certain that Jack Marks' alter ego Jamake Highwater was a "real Indian." Then there is the difficult case of Andrea Smith, who has done real scholarly work while continuing to insist she is Cherokee when she isn't. Playing Indian can go all too dangerously awry, hurting actual Indigenous people and wrecking the credibility of political and scholarly work that might be truly useful and accurate. But that's the trouble with playing, it makes it impossible to trust the player, and the damage they do to others wittingly or unwittingly is no game.

This is not to say that canada has not had a share of people who played Indian and took the game all too far. But they have taken rather different routes. In the united states, people busy playing Indian for profit in the twentieth century seem to cluster in the plastic medicine people scene and a few specific academic fields, especially Indigenous studies and anthropology. In canada, the big areas in the nineteenth century were in what we would now call environmental activism and wilderness tourism, the original stomping grounds of Archie Belaney. He tried to flee his englishness and the industrialized world into an idealized version of reserve life in southern ontario. Otherwise not many tried playing Indian who didn't actually have Indigenous heritage of some kind who managed to get famous and away with it. The most famous example in canada to this day, of a person who did indeed have Indigenous heritage who played Indian, and perhaps she made things a bit too hot for others who wanted to try their luck, is E. Pauline Johnson.

An older version of the mohawk gas station logo, quoted from a lot information card produced by mecum auctions, accessed 30 august 2021. Mohawk gas stations are mainly in southern ontario, now equipped with an abstracted chief's head, rainbow toned logo. An older version of the mohawk gas station logo, quoted from a lot information card produced by mecum auctions, accessed 30 august 2021. Mohawk gas stations are mainly in southern ontario, now equipped with an abstracted chief's head, rainbow toned logo.
An older version of the mohawk gas station logo, quoted from a lot information card produced by mecum auctions, accessed 30 august 2021. Mohawk gas stations are mainly in southern ontario, now equipped with an abstracted chief's head, rainbow toned logo. This older logo is unique in that the man's eyes are open.

Born of an english mother and a Mohawk pinetree chief, Johnson became an important nineteenth and early twentieth century poet, essayist, and performer. Faced with making a living on her own by her pen, Johnson shrewdly took advantage of the general romanticized interest in "Indians" provided they weren't too close or too challenging to create a performance of "Indianness" and victorian "Britishness." There are few direct accounts of audience responses to her, although advertisements for her recitals suggest confusion was not the least of it. Praised for her poetry and her personal charisma and beauty, ad writers and reviewers couldn't even agree on her skin tone and it is not certain that she always played her two roles in the same order. She may have "played Indian" first or second depending on the night or maybe even the audience, but her own performance notes and plans if she kept them did not survive her sister's destruction of most of her papers after her death. Whatever the more specific facts of her performances, her prose included short stories sharply criticizing racist and sexist attitudes to Indigenous women. Her complex legacy makes her a particularly tough act to follow. And in any case, "playing Indian" soon stopped being acceptable all together in the context of a music hall or theatre, or indeed anywhere else, unless the performer in question was indeed Indigenous and able to show receipts.

The more common areas in canada where people who are not Indigenous at all or have at best very loose connections to Indigenous heritage while leaving enough ambiguity to suggest more are in the arts. From poetry and novel writing to producing and directing, individuals seeking success in their fields and wider sales on the back of their claims to authenticity via Indigeneity have been caught in high profile and embarrassing incidents in the past five years. Their actions have entangled them in scandals that jeopardised others working with them on co-productions and even impinged on broader issues of treaty negotiation and striving to reinstate Indigenous nations arbitrarily declared disbanded or extinct by the united states or canadian federal governments. In fact, there is a stubborn and more recent strand of individuals who may not win as much fame but began apparently as hobby indians from eastern europe who managed to join Indigenous communities in canada, although their numbers seem to be quite small. Besides them, there is a more recent phenomenon of specific groups of non-Indigenous canadians seeking to claim identities as "Métis" meaning a fictional polity analogous to the Red River Métis, but earlier and "more authentic" for being whiter. In all cases, the attempt to claim "just enough Indian" to win political or economic advantage because so many people who identify with european colonialism will gladly spend money and support those claims for political points must be all too tempting.

In the canadian context, the desire some people have to be Indigenous, or at least to "play Indian" and not be criticized for it if caught at it when they aren't Indigenous themselves seems even more paradoxical than in the united states. In the united states, Deloria argued that national identity for citizens of that country is built on contradictory, irreconcilable imagery of interior and exterior Indian Others. The "interior" ones embody what united states citizens want a national identity to be and reproduce, the "exterior" ones what they don't. In a very strange way, it seems that in canada, it is the Métis Nation, the people who trace their history and family lines back to the people whose main home base was and is at Red River and whose leaders helped bring the province of Manitoba into the canadian confederation, who have been placed in the role of "interior Indian Other." Well, at least as long as they are not perceived to be politically active and organized in the present. Meanwhile First Nations have been pushed into the "exterior Indian Other," a position that is redolent of acute emergency as their urban and reserve communities struggle to win or keep access to clean water, decent housing, education, and safety from crime. Meanwhile the Inuit play spoiler to the whole system by not fitting in it and turning out to have plenty of challenge for depictions of them as silent, smiling, and only in black and white photographs. Obviously nobody Inuit, First Nations, or Métis is interested in being conflated with or reproducing the peculiar and all too often destructive stereotypes that make up "playing Indian" in canada.

Like the united states, now there are many, many people in canada who have come recently from many other places than in britain, and of those many whose families have been present for at least one or two generations. It is quite reasonable to seek a way to characterize who they have become in a new place. It is also understandable to try to avoid the difficult parts of canada's history of colonialism and its present bad relationships with Indigenous nations who are most emphatically still here. Clearly the idea of trying to take over an Indigenous identity is highly tempting not least because it seems like it might do the trick. But as Philip Deloria explains so inescapably, the actual Indigenous people still existing keep the trick from working. The inverse of the trick, trying to define an identity by saying "we are not those people" which in canada tends to be a double barrelled "not Indian, not American!" doesn't work either. It's hard to get excited or feel comfortable when the main thing being canadian seems to consist of negations, although maybe that's the backhanded reason donut purveyor tim horton's has marketed its supposed equivalence to canadianness so successfully. I can't help but think that a great start would be to give up place names that come from elsewhere, because they cause cognitive dissonance and distract people from getting to know where they are. Giving up those names does not mean giving up history or heritage by any means, after all, non-Indigenous canadians aren't going to forget their families' origins anymore than Indigenous people forget theirs. Yes, this is me speaking from a geeky and Métis perspective, yet I do love stories about people sorting out the proper names of places and taking them up. In my experience non-Indigenous people who do this are so excited and happy once they push through their resistance and do it, because they come to know where they are and appreciate how they can add to that special place where they live. Surely that is and feels far better than the inevitable guilt and discomfort of constantly trying to erase the original community and people. The tougher part though, because it entails so much socio-economic change, is acting towards canada as if they actually live here and plan to stay, rather than maintaining a system that is exploiting the land to death. Tougher, but not at all impossible, and no "playing Indian" required.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2023
Last Modified: Monday, January 02, 2023 00:54:15