Indians? What Indians?
The Authorship of Expertise
A Reflection on Native Self-representation in Movies and Elsewhere
By Ernest M. Whiteman III
The Pledge – N for Native
“In the Great American Indian Novel
When it is finally written
All of the white people will be Indians
And all of the Indians will be ghosts”
Native American. American Indian. Indigenous American. First Nations. First Peoples. Aboriginals. Skins. Redskins. Savages. Heathens. Indians. Whatever the en vogue moniker is, the name has always been thrust upon us by outside communities. Even many of the contemporary tribal names are not native to Natives in tongue; Sioux, Arapaho, Navajo, Choctaw, all names imposed, altered, or just ignorantly mispronounced, by outside forces.
Since the names and lands have been appropriated throughout the years, the next step is the appropriation of identity and voice. The taking of symbols, of motifs, of ceremony, of the very look of Native peoples and their incorporation into the commercial sends a strong message to Native peoples everywhere; we control how others see you and we see you as something romantic and gone and without power.
I will use the term Native American in this piece as a way of simplifying the very complex issue of Native Identity as it pertains to self-representation. As a Native author and writer of this piece I choose to use it to give you, dear reader, something to easily identify the over eight hundred still-living tribes that make up the Native American population in the United States. I also choose it because it is within my power to choose it, as the author and writer of this piece. No one begrudges Stephen King or Tom Clancy their choice in content, nor their expertise. I ask you to grant me the same courtesy.
The idea that Native peoples can speak for and represent themselves in the media seems to continually be out of the grasp of the American public, and most especially, those Native “Experts” who claim that they only want to help “Indian” peoples. We are on the cusp of a Native New Wave in the arena of movies and media. Natives are taking those first steps in gaining an independent voice in film. Yet there are still many hurdles and perceptions to overcome. The biggest hurdle in gaining a Native first-voice in the media and movies is the paternalistic concept of the authorship of expertise.
The Authorship of Expertise is the creation of that label of expert in certain situations and circumstances meant to protect one’s ego from fallibility. Where one’s credentials, one’s knowledge is given authority over entire Native societies. It can also help non-Natives lay claim to being part of the “Native Experience” which they cannot attain by practical experience or by birth. I mean, who can blame them, who would willingly give up their good and comfortable lives to live on any Indian reservation?
This Authorship of Expertise can also be used to perpetuate a set of circumstances that help maintain these labels of expert. For instance, major museums can claim that their expertise in the care of Native artifacts allows them to not repatriate sacred items back to tribes. Or, they would, if only tribes can shell out impossible amounts of money for facilities to house said objects that by custom, by NATIVE TRADITION are supposed to deteriorate; items such as totem poles, perhaps, human remains, possibly.
It becomes circular: their authority sets the circumstance; the circumstance comes to their authority that maintains the circumstance that is verified by their authority. Even when proven wrong they can fall back on their expertise and authority in stating they are wrong.
To use one’s knowledge of Native American culture and society to shield one from blame and critique so as to maintain that posture of the moral high ground and maintain a tenuous connection to the Native experience is another definition of the Authorship of Expertise. This idea can reach into many other arenas; politics, society, art, but here relates to the Native American experience, in particular Native self-representation. It is just paternalistic arrogance to assume you know better than someone else.
In many movies containing Native themes, it is customary for the principal character to assume a Native Identity; e.g. Dances With Wolves, which can shield the white man from their participation in Native genocide while never giving up his superiority over Native peoples. I covered this in my article on the defunct website NativeVue, titled “No One Ever Sees Indians.” When the concept of taking a Native identity becomes obvious or difficult, the authorship of expertise tends to be the fallback position. People steep themselves in Native knowledge and social issues so that others can come to them rather than getting their information from actual Natives; ensuring them that connection to the “Native Experience” that they cannot achieve by birth.
How far would one go to lay claim to such an expertise? How far would anyone go? Would they lay claim to a Native heritage, however tenuous, claim “adoption” by a Native friend, live among a tribe for a number of weeks, months, or years? All are classic examples of non-Native participation in Native society but speak more to the generosity of Native Americans than making one a “Native”. Many take the easier route, assuming the mantle of expert about Native history, culture, music, ceremony, or art. They become the authors of their own expertise.
So what does all this have to do with Alexie’s quote above? What does it have to do with Alexie himself? That is an interesting story. We will get to that later. More and more, yet little by little, Native writers and filmmakers are making headway into the contemporary consciousness. We are gaining a little more control over the perceptions others have about Natives. We can now control the stories, the perceptions, and maybe, how others react or how one reads something a Native creates. But are you, dear Reader, willing to let go of that Authorship of Expertise about Native Americans and let me, your humble author, offer you some compelling examples of my theory?
I fix you with an honest stare and open my hands to show you they are empty. The following stories are based on fact; names and places have sometimes been changed or removed. But, unfortunately, the attitudes have not. Worry not about me leaving any facts out. For the following 2,500 words, you will get nothing but the absolute truth from me, your humble author.
Native American peoples have been portrayed in the medium of film, almost from its inception. Slots sang the nickel ring on the first moviolas that flickered the images of dancing Indians in their feather regalia. But the creation and juxtaposition of what the American public has seen of Indians since has always been controlled by non-Indians. There was the notable exception now and again, but only made notable by its rarity. Now, while Natives are starting to make the movies and call the shots, we have yet to really crack the mainstream of pop culture media. Beyond Billy Jack, I mean. With Adam Beach’s recurring role on NBC’s Law & Order, we may damn well get our proverbial foot in the door.
But there is still that resistance to the contemporary modern Native. The making of such shows as Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Comanche Moon continue to present the Old West Indian. Still, experts are seeing their grasp on arenas of Native society, once only the providence of white men, challenged. For museums, it is by NAGPRA. For film producers, it is by Native first-voice.
I am the Director for the First Nations Film and Video Festival, Inc. in Chicago. As the Director and a fellow moviemaker, I am happy to challenge the perceptions and stereotypes by presenting a modern, contemporary view of Native Americans directed by Native moviemakers. So it was as the Director, some time back, that I had the opportunity to set up a screening at a college in Chicago to talk about the festival.
It was a series of recruitment drive screenings to drum up (ha) interest in serving on the FNFVF Committee. It was poorly attended. We ended up gathering in a waiting area screening portions of movies from the previous festival. We talked about Native American first-voice and self-representation in the media and took questions. We had hoped to recruit some committee members for the upcoming festival. In the end though, we got names and numbers, but no one really showed much interest in helping beyond being attached to a Native film festival.
During the Q&A, the question arose about why non-Natives cannot be involved in Indigenous Film making. I answered along similar lines to what I have written before. Being a non-Native does not exclude one from participating on a Native film, but it excludes one from speaking for Natives. A lot of people were turned off by that. They want that connection for some reason. Some will willingly give up their family history and ethnic heritage to be counted among those partaking of the Native Experience. I have to wonder why.
Now, it so happened that the contact person for this screening event teaches an “Indigenous Filmmaking” course at this college. He is not Native. I have spoken in this class where the students’ main complaint was it was not a practicum course, meaning, they “could not make movies about Indians”. Anyways, this Instructor was eager for the FNFVF to screen a documentary or two at the college and to speak about the mission of the FNFVF. But the setup was deceptive.
When it came time to let the Natives speak for themselves, he monopolized the time talking about his experiences in dealing with his own documentary, about the return of some old film footage of a prominent Navajo family in the 1950’s and how this led to the return of a misplaced Navajo son back to this same family. He continually would cut me off when I would try to raise a point and somehow, what he had to add would always include his experiences and his documentary. He had a Navajo producer on the project, but this person was never mentioned nor was there to speak. You see, he was the author of his own expertise and he wielded to devastating effect on this crowd. My answers were always greeted with a confrontational anger, while they would nod at his words.
He spoke about how the other producers wanted to focus on the white person’s returning the film but not about Navajo family in the film or of the prodigal Navajo son retuning after decades away. He never touched on how the Native image was fair game to anyone who had a camera. The filmmaker pointed out that he fought hard to make it about the Navajo family and that is what he had to deal with in making his documentary. How he fought for the “Native voice” of his documentary.
As he spoke I could only shake my head. He completely missed the point. He completely missed the point about the films we screened. He completely missed the point about our very festival. He missed the point about Native first-voice, and most definitely, he missed the point about Native self-representation. You see? His documentary, however sympathetic and steeped in Native issues, was not a Native first-voice film: because it was not written or directed by Native Americans. The documentary has a Navajo producer, but where was he or she, honestly? Why not let the Navajo speak on THEIR experience? In the end it was he who had the control, the expertise over the documentary. He was, to this group of people, the expert and they came to him to learn about the Native American experience.
You see, this Instructor has been given a tacit endorsement as an Indigenous Film Expert by the mere fact that he teaches a college course bearing the title “Indigenous Filmmaking”. The point being that it is never really about the content of films but about the Native power behind the making of films, the Native power in control. The Native power behind the films that chooses the content and the imagery contained. That is the Native first-voice we Native moviemakers are trying to promote and protect.
Why not let Native filmmakers teach the class? Asking Natives to teach the course would mean that he would have to relinquish that expertise about Native films to actual Natives. Something he is not about to do. He enjoys that “expert” label as it marks him an active participant in the Native Experience. Also, it excludes him from the continued cultural decay of Native peoples by the continual overtaking and de-powering of the Native voice, even though his activities contribute to that by continually speaking on behalf of his “Native” film. The course also covers Indigenous peoples from Australia and Africa, but the primary focus has been Native Americans, which shields the course from being exclusively Native American. Yet, it also lends an air of expertise on the indigenous cultures of Africa and Australia as well when there are no Indigenous Australians or Africans helping to teach the course.
I was very disappointed at this screening, in particular, with the actions of the Instructor. This exemplified for me the authorship of expertise and reminded me of something Sherman Alexie wrote in his review of Ian’s Frazier’s memoir “On the Rez”; “…his formal use of ‘the rez’ marks him as an outsider eager to portray himself as an insider, as a writer with a supposedly original story to tell and as a white man who is magically unlike all other whites in his relationship to American Indians.” Is it the knowledge about Native moviemaking that he has providence over, that makes the Instructor and his documentary magically unlike all others as Alexie states? Again, with Alexie. How do Alexie and myself fit into this? We will get to that a bit later on.
Once again, I show you I have nothing concealed on my person. With a clap of my hands we move on to the next act….
Powwowing on Company Time
This next story is an example of how Natives can sometimes do this themselves – retreat to the romantic side of expertise to promote themselves as “Indian”. I have nothing against being proud of your tribal heritage, there is something about being of your tribe that non-Natives can never understand or experience. The same can be said for someone who is Jewish or Italian or Romanian. But for some Native Organizations, I do mean one in particular, seem to relish that connection to a romanticized past only because it marks them as Native. Not all Native Organizations are like this, mind you. There are some that truly have the well-being of their people as their primary function.
Urban Natives have a dual struggle by living in the city. How do you maintain ties to your tribe and culture when you are so disconnected from the tribe and the tribal land base? Or, how can you overcome the perceptions that many city citizens have about Native Americans when all they recognize are Indians from the past? Even reservation-bound Natives have perceptions about city Natives. They are accused of “losing themselves”, losing their “Indian-ness” because they are not on the reservation. Yet, how can you lose something that is, particle for particle a part of you?
Anyways, there was once an Organization dedicated to serving the Native American population living in metropolitan areas. This Organization, as many do when they are the only one dealing with Natives in urban areas, had come to represent the entire urban Native population in the state. So much so, that they looked on other Native organizations trying to form in the same city as competitors instead of partners in a shared cause. This organization is the only Organization I know that not only protests Chief Illiniwek, but also, in the same week, will not hesitate in trotting out the beads and feathers to mark themselves as a Native Community.
When young urban Natives challenged the Organization’s logo, which depicted the beads and feathers of the Old West, one prominent member of this Organization replied, seriously, “You just as well ask us to stop dancing”. He was dealing in hyperbole of course, because he did not want his perceptions challenged. It is ridiculous to believe that if you stop powwowing or wearing beads and feathers, you are no longer Native.
Now, it so happened that a local community offered the Organization a 10,000 square foot building to use as a Native Arts gallery. Here was one chance to put forth a new representation of urban Natives. Here, the Native artists would be in control of the imagery. Here, the Native artists could challenge the beads and feathers that the non-Native community had come to expect and accept. Here, the Native artists could put forth a modern, contemporary view of Native society. Here, the Native artists would be listened to. It did not matter that what they would present would not be the beads and feathers that the non-native community wanted. The Native artists would teach them something new, a new oral tradition, a modern first-voice representation. As my father would say, “If you give them what they want, they don’t learn anything.” The Native Artists would be the experts, the authority.
They had this one great opportunity to dismiss the beads and feathers but what did they do? They listened to the non-Natives and displayed a non-Native’s powwow pictures as their primary and permanent attraction. In a Native Arts Gallery. For Native artists. They put beads and feathers on the gallery logo. In a Native Arts Gallery. Which was established to challenge those motifs.
In the end, it was a wasted opportunity to say something different about Native Americans. Instead they played it safe and they gave non-Natives what they wanted; the beads and feathers and the powwows, the romance of the Old Times Indian. It was their need for that Authorship of Expertise, by the non-Native photographer and the Organization, which led to this missed chance. They did not allow the Native artists to be the authority of their own individual cultures but rather they chose to be the authority for all Natives instead.
I am reminded of the image Sherman Alexie chose of Seymour Polatkin stripping off the beads and feathers in the ending of “The Business of Fancydancing.” Seymour was a modern Native in that movie. He made the choice and had to live with it. Just like urban Natives everywhere, everyday, who live among the concrete towers and promenade and cannot return to those beads and feathers. Again, I mention Alexie. So what does Sherman Alexie have to do with this? Later.
Native American People are well past the beads and feathers that marked them over one hundred years ago. The hard truth is that assimilation has taken a toll, more so on the younger generation. You see it when our youth want to be urban gangbangers rather than emulating the leaders of our histories. Media manipulation of the younger generation stretches across all races and has led to this mass-market, consumable doxa that is prevalent among today’s youth.
It is not all hopeless. No matter what happens, the Native Experience will go on in our Native children and future Native generations because the Native Experience goes beyond the easily identifiable motifs that mark us. It includes our most secret and sacred of ceremonies, our connection to one another as family and tribesmen, our genetic connection to the ancestors, and our experience among the modern American societies.
Yet, in an increasingly homogeneous society, how can Native peoples stand out? This may explain why it is so easy to retreat to the beads and feathers of yesteryear, not because it honors our past, but because society needs an obvious marker to identify Native people as participants in today’s American Society. But constant retreating to the past de-powers our contemporary voice as society will continue to view us as the beads and feathers of yesteryear, as the vanishing race we eagerly portray.
It is easier for society to dismiss the Native voice as ancient, even vanished. It is difficult for the thousands of movie makers, writers, and artists, even the everyday Native people, to have their voice heard when one person can speak so easily for all Native peoples. Can you imagine what that leads to among a people who are never listened to nor are given a chance to speak?
Which brings me to one Mister Sherman Alexie. Finally.
With so many tribes still in existence, one of the growing problems is the unifying of the “One Native Voice”. Expertise is bestowed on that singular person or group meant to represent all tribal nations resulting in pan-Indianism.
Author Sherman Alexie has the singular distinction of having become a master of the literary arts. He has become the single most popular Native author of any that have come before him or since. He has become that one Native voice that is magically unlike all other Native authors in his relationship to his non-Native audience. Sherman Alexie has become, whether he intended to or not, the singular spokesman for the entire race of contemporary Native Americans, no matter the tribe or region, whether or not the Indians he writes about like his work or not.
I once sat on a Native Forum panel with esteemed Spokane author Sherman Alexie. He was bright, funny, irreverent, and generous to the mainly non-Native audience. I spoke about Native Americans in movies and my ideas for a contemporary view of Natives by Natives, that Natives should have the power to represent themselves in today’s media-driven world. I spoke of my action movie aspirations and got a laugh mentioning I want to be the first Indian Sell-out.
I am a moviemaker, trying to be a novelist, but have somehow ended up in an art gallery exhibit with my drawings. I have written a novel. Now, I only wish to publish it and expand my reach. Sherman and I share our stories, we cheer our shared heritage and talk about relevant issues facing our “Indian people, we are all Indian people”. We were brothers in a cause, Sherman and I. We support each other, but only for now.
In the quiet in between, he turns to me; “I hear you’re writing a novel.”
“Yeah. Actually, it started out, as my version of the Margaret Coel Wind River Mysteries but became more an allegory on life on the reservation, of how reality can become myth as it pertains to Native peoples. Now I’m working on several more novels and some poems and short stories,” I said.
He then replied thusly; “So, you think you’re a writer now? Don’t you know I am the greatest living Indian writer of the new century? You are a maker of crappy, film school level, action films. My spoken words have changed destinies. My movies have changed perceptions. My poems have stopped wars. My stories keep Indians in existence. Without me, you would all simply vanish. So then you pick up a pen and scribble some petty imaginings on some loose-leaf paper and you think you’re a writer? Worse yet, you think you’re an Indian writer? You think you can out white-guilt me? Try it. Try to rack up my sales. Go on.
“I will fucking destroy you.
“No one cares what you think. No one will ever care what you think. No one will ever care about what you have to say. They will never give you that opportunity to say anything important. You will forever be compared to me. No one wants another smart, self-representing Indian living in the modern. They will never let you be me. Go on and try. I will destroy you.”
He repeats it quietly in my ear before throwing his arm around my shoulder and smiling for the photo; I will destroy you.
I never saw him much after that. Mainly, I try to avoid him. I see his name from time to time in some obscure literary magazines. My book remains unpublished and I have never yet gotten to make those movies I wanted to. He is the writer. I am the moviemaker. And he was right. No one wants a modern Indian. Modern Native. Modern Aboriginal. Modern What-Have-You. If they did, America would turn to us Native people and listen. They would look to us and simply ask. But no one ever does. No one wants to. No one wants to see us. No one ever sees Indians. Dealing with the dead Indian is easier than dealing with a living Native. Or claiming to know so much about and love all things Native is really what they want, because in the end, it is about them, not the Natives.
Now, it is if I can never escape him. The first thing I am always asked when I say I wrote a novel is, “Have you ever heard of Sherman Alexie?”
So now, I lift my arms and show I have nothing in my hands. I lift my sleeves to show you that I have hidden nothing from you. Were you able to see and make the connections between the stories? Were you able to relinquish your grip on what makes you an authority of Native society and accept what I have told you?
It does not paint a pretty picture. Not about our Native people, that is for sure. But art is not always beautiful. Neither is life in the big city. That need, the need to be accepted by society, is always there, driving us. And what is the authorship of expertise but the need for acceptance? How far would one go to be an expert on the Native Experience? What would you accept from a Native moviemaker writing this? What would you believe?
I step forward to face you directly. I hold up my hands and raise my palms and spread them to show that I have concealed nothing in them. I ask, “Are you watching closely?” And I perform my final trick and I pull the curtain away to reveal that Mister Sherman Alexie was never there. That whole story about my sitting on a forum panel with him: nothing but a piece of legerdemain. An illusion conjured from the audience’s need to hold providence over what comes from a Native’s experience. You wanted to believe it. If only you can tell it again, with advantages, in the coffee shops of your authority.
You will indeed find a way to dismiss my experience. You are the author of your own expertise; you have the knowledge and the love of all things Native American, you have done the studies, read the books, studied and reviewed the Native movies to steep you in enough knowledge to proclaim your expertise. You can look for my credentials in writing this, but you will not find them. Because of course, you are not really looking. You do not really want to know my experience, that of a Native American moviemaker. You want to be the authority. You want the Sherman Alexie is Really a Bastard story to be true to add to your authority. You want to be fooled.
Now, you could say I cheated you. That, I insulted your intelligence. That I was dishonest toward my readers. But, it is within my providence to do so. Much like any other writer or moviemaker. What is it that they do, but manipulate your experience? But I did warn you. I was not completely dishonest. I told you: for the following 2,500 words, you will get nothing but the absolute truth from me. And you did. For 2,500 words. It is only your ego, your need to accept some form of tacit authority over what I presented to you, that angers you, that makes you want that last story to be true, to dismiss my experience when I do not shove my credentials of expertise down your throat.
It makes you question the other two stories. Should you believe them as I told them? Are they even real? Do people really treat one another thusly? Do they still treat Natives this way? Even in this era of Dances with Wolves and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee? In the era of Smoke Signals? I leave it to you and your authority to decide. If only we treated the authors of history thus. We tend to trust history more than a modern Native. And why should you trust my authority, my expertise? I have given you no evidence to that. No credentials, no film expert degrees or writing experience.
You write all the ‘blogs you want on Native movies, media, issues and society. You can steep yourself in the books and movies with Native themes. You can study the movies and write the Native film reviews. You can post to all the Native Internet discussion boards. You can say and look like you love and support everything about Native America. Heck, I will bet you even counted the words so as to be able to dismiss them and retain your authority over my voice or will point out that I switch between “authority” and “expertise” throughout the piece. Dismiss my own experience because I have not proven to you my expertise, so you can maintain that connection to the Native Experience.
But you can never be a Native American. You can never have that perspective, you can never have that experience that tribal members all over the country have everyday. Which is why you turn to the Spielbergs, the Costners and TNT, turn to the one-sided history books and liberal professors to tell our stories. If you go to actual Natives you will have to relinquish that authority over Native films, arts, ceremony and society. All I have given you is my Arapaho-ness on display. My Native moviemaking identity is my only credential. But that is never enough. My Native identity will be never enough for your Native Expertise. You choose not to see that. No one ever sees Indians.
Now, I am nothing but a ghost.
I made something Visible, Invisible. Much like history, academia and media have done to Native peoples.
Here ends my trick.
I take my bow as the curtain closes.
As the footlights dim you hear me whisper in your ear: If you give them what they want, they don’t learn anything.
Then, from the darkness, Listen.
“You glorify the past when the future dries up” – Saint Bono