Friday, February 25, 2005

Endless Conversation: Go native

Commentary by Tony Evans

Tony Evans

Commentary by Tony Evans

In the Age of Empire the vanquished tend to disappear. History, after all, is told by the victors. And "to the victor go the spoils of war." I overheard this simple formula in a Ketchum locker room recently and considered how it leaves out the possibility of ideas, stories and myths, which are carried on the wind from generation to generation and have a power all their own.

Art can reflect the sensibility of a society even as the society is driven from existence. Think of the way school children and their parents are drawn again and again to the feathers and quill work of Native American dress, to the idea of natural beauty as a way of life, which once flourished on Turtle Island, and is now considered extinct.

Of course, Indians are no more extinct since Columbus than Italians are extinct after the fall of Rome. There are more Native Americans today than at any time in history. And some of them, like Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado, have something to say. Perhaps the national news media's attempt to demonize him, and those who think like him, will backfire, due to the sacred cow aspect of being Native American. I'd like to hope that he rests on his work as an academic.

Churchill and others know it is pretty easy to take the moral high ground with respect to the U.S. Cavalry. Even the noble adversary Chief Joseph of the Idaho Nez Perce, who evaded the U.S. military for months on end, had elders and children in tow. Hardly fair game.

Churchill's more prolific fellow CU professor, Vine Deloria Jr., a Standing Rock Sioux, recently turned down an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the university based on the scandalous conduct of regents there. Deloria wrote dozens of books, including "Custer Died for Your Sins," and was named by Time magazine as one of the 11 most influential thinkers of the 20th Century.

It would no doubt ease the conscience of empire to vilify Churchill, Deloria, Dee Brown, Sherman Alexie and others as enemies of the state. But I wouldn't count on them tucking tail and running. They know that the same Colorado Legislature, which recently castigated Churchill for his views, authorized, in 1865, a drunken orgy of horror carried out by U.S. troops at Sand Creek among Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle's band of mostly women and children. Thanks to the Internet, the entire court proceedings of the Sand Creek Massacre are floating forever in Cyberspace.

Indians as an idea lend themselves well to interpretation by others, filling a gap in the Euro-psyche somewhere between Hiawatha and Heart of Darkness. This shifting pattern of stereotypes serves the non-Indian desire to explain away the darkest legacy in American history. Ward Churchill and others remind us of the unsettling fact that a considerable population of Americans can relate as easily to the Kurds gassed by Saddam Hussein as to the U.S. troops working to stabilize Iraq. That despite our fascination with Indian artifacts and culture, Americans remain largely ignorant and ambivalent towards the people from this great country of ours who long ago survived a host of modern assaults such as prolonged internment, biological warfare, and genocidal policies.

If you want to get over it all, take a short drive this summer to the annual 4th of July Pow Wow and bareback horse race at Fort Hall Reservation in eastern Idaho. It's open to anyone. This drug-and-alcohol-free cultural experience begins with a veteran's honor dance and parade of elders who have fought on the side of the U.S. in many battles over the years. Fort Hall is home to the descendents of Sacajawea, the famous Lemhi Shoshone tour guide for Lewis and Clark. The Lemhi of Salmon, Idaho, were finally marched, in about 1930, 200 miles south to the arid Fort Hall Indian reservation an hour's drive from Ketchum. Fort Hall's Pow Wow is a celebration of native culture and a fine example of art and ritual that transcends politics. The people of Fort Hall are more interesting than anything that you'll ever hang on your wall.

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