I saw this image last week after a couple of items circulated in blogosphere about the woman pictured in the feathered war bonnet. She is identified as Queen Chief Warhorse and as Ms. Elwin Gillum.
When I saw the image of her in that Plains-style bonnet, I thought about Tea Party demonstrators who wear tricornered hats. I thought about how group identities, such as ethnic and political identities, are products of fantasy and imagination – even when the group or a person’s claim to membership is legitimate.
Gillum spoke at the recent Healing for Democracy conference in New Orleans, and the discussions that followed tended to involve whether she was or was not an American Indian. They concerned the question of who gets to speak for American Indians. They concerned whether the group she represented had a legitimate claim to tribal status. They concerned whether questioning another person’s identity was legitimate. And they concerned the implications that fraudulent claims to tribal status presented to federally recognized tribes and those groups seeking that status.
Indian Country is a complicated place.
I don’t have room here to address all of the issues raised by the blogosphere’s reaction to Gillum. If you are interested, read about some of those reactions at the blog of my friend Debbie Reese. What I did want to consider for a moment was Gillum’s “Indian name,” her feathered headdress, and the man standing next to her in neon colors. What do those things mean?
N. Scott Momaday is a Kiowa writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969, and he wrote an essay famous in American Indian Studies titled “The Man Made of Words.” In that essay he poses the question, “What is an Indian?” He answers it by saying “an Indian is an idea which a given man has of himself.” Later he asks about a human’s “the relationship between what he is, and what he thinks he is.” Momaday suggests they are inseparable, that a human’s identity is produced by his or her imagination.
For some people, this seems like a recipe for chaos. Anyone can be anything he wants to be, anything he imagines himself to be. Regardless of a person’s lived experiences, she can claim any identity.
I don’t think that is what Momaday intended. In the essay he describes the importance of imagining experiences one may not have first-hand access to. For instance, he discusses the importance of a person’s relationship to the land, but not just the land here-and-now; it is important to imagine the land before you arrived and the land after you have gone. It is important to imagine the land you cannot see from your current place. Similarly, he writes that it is important to imagine those ancestors who came before you. It is important to imagine their sacrifices and successes that made your existence possible. It is important to imagine them fully, in their complexity and humanity.
More than personal identity relies upon imagination. In his book titled Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson writes that nations are built upon imagination. Nations are built of many local communities, and the greater the distance between these communities the less their members will have in common. But having a belief, trait, or experience in common is so important for creating a nation that humans will create it if they need to. And if even if they do not make it up, they still must imagine it. Anderson describes the importance of the newspaper in creating a nation: people in distant parts of the nation can easily imagine their countrymen reading about the same events and sharing something of a common perspective on them. “Remember the Maine!” American Idol results. Etc.
This act of imagination is so fundamental to nations that Anderson writes: “Communities are to be distinguished not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.”
That brings me back to Gillum’s feathered bonnet. It is initially puzzling because it seems out of place. She represents a group calling itself the Tchefuncta Nation of the Chahta Tribe. Chahta is a variation of Choctaw, a tribe of the Southeast United States, and the Tchefuncta River runs into Lake Ponchatrain just north of New Orleans. Historically, the Choctaw did not wear bonnets like that. Those were a Plains thing. So why is she wearing it?
Is she wearing it because she does not know much about Choctaw history and culture? Is she participating in a kind of “redface minstrelry”? Or perhaps she is truly the descendant of Choctaws, but the United States government’s effort to erase Choctaw culture and communities was so successful that she is left to recreate her Choctaw identity out of the bits and pieces she can glean from … wherever. Including Hollywood.
If you have read my blog before, you know that I like to entertain the notion of signs – the ways in which humans communicate to themselves and to each other. I think her feathers could signify “the partial erasure of Indianness” as much as they signify “Indianness.”
However, that bonnet could signal a cultural heritage connected to New Orleans and Mardi Gras traditions rather than to centuries-old Choctaw traditions. That man standing next to her is dressed as a Mardi Gras Indian. He possibly is a member of a “krewe” or “tribe” that dances and parades at Mardi Gras celebrations. These groups elect a “chief” and a “queen.” When I searched online, I found images of such chiefs and queens, and some of them wore headdresses like Gillum’s.
The Mardi Gras Indians have their origin in African slave communities in and around New Orleans before it became part of the United States. Those groups had important links to the region’s Indian communities – through personal and romantic relationships and through a kindred feeling of oppression and resistance. Their signature flamboyant costumes seem to be an influence of carnival traditions brought by people from the Caribbean.
Some of the bloggers commented on her name of “Queen” and how this is not a rank bestowed by American Indian tribes. It was bestowed by Europeans who did not understand how Indian politics and diplomacy worked, who assumed that North America worked as Europe did (or mostly didn’t – Europe was really a mess). However, Mardi Gras Indians have “queens.”
So, is Gillum imagining herself as an Indian when she wears that feathered bonnet? Is she imagining herself as “only” an Indian, or is she imagining herself as an amalgamation of African and Indian ancestries and cultures? The latter makes sense, but when she addressed the group in New Orleans, she emphasized only her Indian identity and ancestry, and she spoke of representing those who were, one could say, Americans before there was an America – but the Africans did not arrive as slaves until after there was an America.
What do her feathers mean? The answer to that question could be very complicated.
As I said earlier, her bonnet makes me think of the Tea Party demonstrators who wear tricornered hats. This is their way of signaling their own imagined nationhood. They see themselves as connected to those Americans who fought against Great Britain in the Revolution – regardless of whether they are truly descended from those people. Who knows when their ancestors came to the United States? Whether he is or isn’t descended from some brave Minuteman is not as important as his act of imagining himself to be.
This connection of the imagination and the past is especially evident with someone like Thomas Jefferson. Those who argue that the United States is somehow a Christian nation insist upon Jefferson’s implicit Christian leanings, while those who argue for a separation of church and state cite his written sentiments supporting their position. Each side fights over his ghost, in a sense, trying to imagine themselves as his legitimate ancestor. It seems hard for humans to imagine themselves in entirely new communities. They seem to insist on looking for connections to the past, whether real or imagined.
This is not to say that all national identities are merely the stuff of imagination and have no claims of legitimacy. But all national identities are imagined, and that process of imagining a national identity is intriguing.