Sunday, February 18, 2007

Misconceptions and Misrepresentations

It's funny the coincidences that come up. When I was at the Tiffany exhibit on Friday I saw some Native American artifacts that Tiffany--quite the collector apparently--had kept in his home. Two of these things were of Tlingit and Kwakiutl origin. Two tribes I had never heard of prior to reading Passage to Juneau. And it's the book's focus on Native Americans of the Northwest coast that I want to talk about just briefly.

As in most public collections of Indian culture up and down the coast, one's trip began with a little printed lesson informing the visitor that the First Nations practiced "a philosophy based on respect for nature and concern for the environment." Indians--in the new mythology--were the original designers of the eco-friendly life, the first passionate recyclers.

Yet this sort of statement could be made only because the systematic extermination of Indian languages, customs, and beliefs, carried out by zealous Christian ministers and government agents, had been so shockingly successful that no present-day Indian could possibly know what his great-great-great-grandparents had really believed. So it was now easy to attribute to the ancestors almost any belief that was thought desirable for them to have possessed. Most popular books about the Northwest Indians claimed that they had been monotheists, believers in the Great Spirit, a kissing-cousin to God the Father and Jehovah. There is no serious evidence for this--though the early missionaries certainly peddled the Great Spirit notion in an attempt to bridge white-Christian and Indian concepts. Likewise, the "respect for nature and concern for the environment" line is hardly confirmed by the oral literature and surviving art of the Indians. That little or no trace remains of a belief in the supremacy of man over the natural world (the stories tend to suggest the reverse), that no Indian text parallels Genesis I:26 ("And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the heavens, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth") doesn't--and shouldn't--suggest that the Northwest tribes were protoecologists, dedicated to the postmodern cause of environmental conservation.

Like John Muir Indians and Fenimore Cooper Indians, these museum Indians were unreal in their milk-and-water nobility. Their art and stories were so full of complex life, so shot-through with grim humor, so of-their-own-kind, that it was insulting to the Indians to cast them, in their current starring role, as people who apologized to Salmon before killing them, who hugged trees before turning them into war canoes, like good children of the 1990s, following Mother Nature's rule book.

--Jonathan Raban, Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings

It was the aspect of the book represented above that most interested (benefitted?) me. Not that I'm jumping to believe him unquestioningly. I would have to actually do research of my own to form a real opinion. But it does make me realize how simplistic my previous understanding was. I've never been particularly interested in Native American history. But I am interested in historiography, so the ways in which we've interpreted Native American history and society and the reasons behind those interpretations does interest me. The idea that people have been able to turn Native American culture into a blank slate of sorts onto which we can project our own desired history is fascinating.

So, I wonder what Tiffany was projecting on the Tlingit and Kwakiutl (among other tribes) when he collected the things that had belonged to them and displayed them in his giant mansion.

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