Saturday, December 29, 2012

Kidnapped in America's Time Machine

We have all seen it in movies.  A person, perhaps our protagonist, is walking down the street when a speeding van pulls up, the door flies open.  Masked men jump out and pull a hood over the person's head.  The victim is tossed into the van and it speeds off.


American Indian authors and artists must feel that way at times.  They may be doing their work, representing their lives in the United States in the 21st century when BAM, out of nowhere, they are snatched away -- driven off not in a van but, more appropriately, in a DeLorean with a functioning flux capacitor.

Kidnapped!  And taken back in time!

Even Sherman Alexie, the most famous American Indian author at the moment, has been snatched off the street this way.  In The Los Angeles Times, no less.  But even The New York Times is not immune to this time banditry.

Alexie is a writer of poems, short stories, novels, and films that are by turns inventive, funny, angry, poignant, and ironic.  His autobiographical novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature in 2007.  War Dances, a collection of stories and poems, won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2010.

He is perhaps best known for exploding stereotypes of Americans Indians and mainstream America's desire for natives to fulfill mythic roles in everyday life.  What is he NOT famous for is representing tribal customs and traditional lifeways in his fiction; he famously avoids doing that.  If anyone wears feathers in his stories they are either acting like a fool or they are updating some notion of traditional culture with contemporary flavor.

For instance, a character in "St. Junior" takes his college entrance exam while wearing his grass dance regalia, reminding himself that a native warrior in modern society fights for his people with a pencil rather than a bow and arrow.  In "Do Not Go Gentle," the father of an ailing newborn creates a new healing ceremony in the hospital by beating a drum with a dildo.

Nearly all of his stories are firmly established in modern, urban, media-saturated America.

That is why is was so odd to see this sentence in the Los Angeles Times review of Blasphemy, Alexie's new short-story collection:  "Reading Alexie is like listening to a man tell stories by a campfire."

Out of nowhere -- kidnapped!

Campfire?  What about his fiction -- in style or subject -- suggests a campfire?  There is nothing rustic or unsophisticated about his stories.  His stories are more like those told in a crowded kitchen at a house party -- loud, profane, and funny.  Or perhaps told in a quite booth of a brew pub -- the confessions of someone puzzled by life and love in the big city.  Or maybe while seated beneath the basketball hoop between pick-up games -- Alexie loves basketball and refers to it many times in his prose and poetry.

The reviewer's campfire statement seems very much out of place in a review of Alexie's work, but I can guess where it comes from.  There is this impulse in the United States to confine American Indians to the past, some region that is pure and simple and enviable to the stressed and disillusioned American.  (I have written about it in relation to contemporary American Indian art (and here) and in images of the "stoic Indian.")

That notion of the Indian as pre-modern is so firmly established within the American national mythos and psyche that it can emerge when there is no evidence to support it; in this regard, reality must conform to the assumption.

These thoughts were further impressed upon me when the same writer, a week later, reviewed a new book about Edward Curtis and his famous images of American Indians from the early days of the 20th Century.  I have written before about the conflicted relationship Indian Country has with Curtis.

On the one hand he created important archival images of American Indians intended to depict them as they would have appeared before being inundated by the tidal wave of Americans, their military forces, their religions, and their material culture.  This was remarkable when you consider that not many years before his photographs, the U.S. government was waging genocidal warfare against the same people Curtis photographed.

On the other hand, he altered the appearance of many of his subjects to more closely resemble his assumptions about American Indians, assumptions that confined them to a disappearing past.  An example is when Curtis altered this image to erase the clock his subjects had posed with.  (This image accompanies an essay, "Taking Identity," by my friend Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair about the current conflict between the First Nations and the Canadian government.)

When Curtis was taking those pictures, he was hurtling into the 20th century, adapting to a rapidly changing world, just like his subjects.  But he didn't want to record that intriguing experience of American Indians adapting to new conditions, forging new relationships and identities -- just as they had always done, long before the Europeans arrived.  Instead, perhaps with a kind of envy, he wanted to photograph them NOT changing, NOT entering that new century.

The LA Times reviewer says this about Curtis's photographs: "His portraits, especially, have a timeless quality."  Timeless is an appropriate word here, not because Curtis's photographs transcend the interpretative limitations of historical moments (time), but because they try to stop time, to erase the process by which American Indians entered the 20th century.

He wanted to toss them into a time machine -- just a decade removed from H. G. Wells's novel that gave us that concept.  That was a century ago, and a lot has changed since then, but, with the LA Times as evidence, apparently Curtis's DeLorean still has some gas in its tank.