Friday, April 13, 2012

"Noble Savage"

After the last blog on Mildred Bailey and “passing as white,” a friend suggested that it sounded accurate on the one hand, but on the other, why is it that so many Americans claim Indian roots? There are jokes about the number of people with Cherokee great-grandmothers, but when, he asked, have you heard someone obviously “white” claim a slave ancestor from Sierra Leone.

What’s with this contradiction of widespread pride in Indian ancestry—and white America’s disregard for and continuing practice of forgetting Indian history and consciously eradicating Indian culture?

I can’t site a page in a Josephy book or remember a specific conversation, but I know that he believed that, from the earliest days of white settlement, relations with Indians were dominated by a triad of white attitudes toward them: romanticize, kill, or assimilate.

We now know that diseases often preceded actual contact and that millions of indigenous Americans died before they saw a white face. We also know, though it is less frequently mentioned, that Europe, and especially northern Europe, was in the final throes of the little ice age when those first ships sailed to the North America. Famine was fact, and the people who traveled were a scrawny lot (I read somewhere that Napoleon’s army was made up of men who barely topped five foot, unlike Charlemagne‘s much earlier army of six footers.) And their first sightings of Indians must have been awe-inspiring. Think of the early paintings of the “red men,” and of the Indians who were brought to Europe to parade in front of kings, queens, and philosophers.

These able-bodied Indians appeared to be living well without the trappings of European civilization, without large houses, police forces, and only the barest of manufactured goods. “Noble savages,” Rousseau called them. At least some of the early colonists, Benjamin Franklin among them, read and were influenced by the Europeans and found confirmation of their views in personal experience.

I don’t remember which general declared that the only good Indian was a dead Indian, and there is not time or space to chronicle the attempts by do-good white Americans to assimilate Indians. The Dawes Act, Indian Reorganization Act, and Eisenhower’s termination policy can serve as brief reminders

But is it too much to say that Josephy’s original triad is with us still? That White America is still conflicted about Indians, and that we carry with us these old attitudes—all of them. At Fishtrap, we hosted the Makah filmmaker Sandy Osawa, and watched her documentaries on musician Jim Pepper and prima ballerina Maria Tallchief. We listened to Horace Axtell describe a language and sounds related directly the world around us.

And now that powwow’s are mainstream, we are stirred by jingle dancers and Indian elders with eagle feathers. I remember selling a book of Indian sayings in my bookstore days: To Touch the Earth.

Maybe that is what the Cherokee great grandmother is all about….

check out Sandy Osawa and Maria Tallchief here: http://indiancountrynews.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2006&Itemid=80

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