Friday, 5 August 2011

Environmental Indians: fact or fiction?

Since the increased public awareness of environmental issues in the 1960s, Native Americans have been closely associated with numerous ecological campaigns under the implied authority of having a uniquely harmonious and non-invasive relationship with the natural world.  In one now notorious television commercial, an ‘Indian’ in traditional dress is shown paddling a birch bark canoe through a polluted waterway of an industrial city.  Upon landing his canoe on the litter-strewn shore, the man walks to the edge of a highway where a bag of rubbish, tossed from a passing car, lands at his feet.  The voiceover delivers the campaign’s message: ‘Some people have a deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country.  And some people don’t.’  As the man turns to face the camera, a tear runs down his cheek and the narrator makes the emphatic statement: ‘People start pollution; people can stop it’ (Keep America Beautiful, 1971). 
       The commercial is today considered controversial on two counts: that it relies on a stereotype of Native culture; and, perhaps more damningly, that Iron Eyes Cody, the actor featured, was not Native American at all, but an Italian American who claimed to be Indian.  This second point will be discussed in Chapter Two, with regards to identity formation and transformation, and in Chapter Three in my exploration of authenticity and cultural appropriation. 
       Schwenninger (2008) traces the roots of the stereotype of the environmentalist Indian to Cooper’s representation of the noble savage[i] in The Last of the Mohicans, and also links it to the rise of the Boy Scout movement in the early twentieth century.  Referring to Philip Deloria’s study on the history of appropriation of Native American culture by European Americans, Schwenninger states that the Canadian author and co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America, Ernest Thompson Seton, ‘believed that American Indians were (or had been) in special touch with the natural world and should thus serve as the models for young European American boys who had gotten soft and had lost touch with the natural environment’ (Schwenninger 2008:24).   While many American Indians, including the writers Louise Erdrich and Paula Gunn Allen, actively promote a belief in a heightened environmental concern amongst Native Americans, others do not.  The Spokane writer Sherman Alexie, whose work has a largely contemporary focus, takes a far less romantic view of ‘Indianness’ and shuns what he sees as the stereotypical view of Indians.  In an interview in the Iowa Review, Alexie says:
Indians have no monopoly on environmentalism.  That’s one of the great myths.  But we were subsistence livers.  They’re two different things.  Environmentalism is a conscious choice and subsistence is the absence of choice.  We had to use everything to survive.  And now that we’ve been assimilated and colonized and we have luxuries and excesses, we’re just as wasteful as other people….The average everyday Indian – he’s not an environmentalist – he could[n’t] give a shit.  Just like the average American.  I grew up with my aunts and uncles and cousins throwing their cans out the window.  (Fraser, 2000)

Alexie, who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington state, is dismissive of Native American writers who portray Indian culture as though it were static: ‘[They] throw in a couple of birds and four directions and corn pollen and [call it] Native American literature, when it has nothing to do with the day-to-day lives of Indians’ (ibid).  Alexie believes that this ‘concern with place’, found in the work of many contemporary Native writers, is ‘detrimental’ to Native American literature because it sustains a ‘myth’ about Indianness which alienates modern-day Native American readers (ibid).  Alexie’s own portrayals of Indian life, on and off the reservation, are starkly realistic, focussing on the spiritual, social and economic challenges faced by contemporary Native Americans, and frequently satirise the ‘noble savage’ and eco-conscious images pervasive in American media.  In the short story ‘Amusements’, for example, Alexie exposes the effects of alcohol dependency and the cruelty which arises from a broken community:
After summer heat and too much coat-pocket whiskey, Dirty Joe passed out on the worn grass of the carnival midway and Sadie and I stood over him, looked down at his flat face, a map for all the wars he fought in the Indian bars.  Dirty Joe was no warrior in the old sense.  He got his name because he cruised the taverns at closing time, drank all the half-empties and never cared who might have left them there. (Alexie 1993:54)

Instead of taking care of their friend, the narrator and Sadie proceed to take advantage of Dirty Joe’s intoxication.  Such portrayals have led to criticism from a number of key Native writers and scholars who are concerned that by examining the prevalence of alcoholism, violence, mental illness and seemingly endemic poverty, Alexie is reinforcing a more detrimental stereotype of the ‘doomed’ and ‘self-neutralizing’ Indian (Owens 1998:72-3).  Sean Kicummah Teuton summarises the criticism, stating that some critics believe Alexie ‘does not sufficiently contextualize this Indian poverty’ (2008:207), and the dysfunction it produces, by attributing it to the colonial practices of forced assimilation and genocide which Native American peoples endured.  What is more, Teuton argues that by highlighting dysfunctional behaviours, Alexie risks harming Native Americans still further:
In representing Indigenous people’s poverty and its attendant social ills as a commonplace to dominant culture, Reservation Blues [Alexie’s first novel] risks playing into the hands of mainstream readers who wish to believe Native people are socially degenerate. (ibid)

       Teuton’s concern is that by examining contemporary Native American poverty and dysfunction without showing the government policies and historical events which caused it – an assertion I reject, Alexie leads his readers – Indian and ‘mainstream’ – to believe that poverty and dysfunctional behaviour are natural characteristics of Indian culture. 
       In the following section, I will show that Alexie does indeed direct his readers to actual events in Spokane history which can be seen as causes of contemporary suffering.  That these connections are implicit, rather than stated directly, should not be regarded as a weakness.

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