Indians

I’m partway into Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative, comprising the CBC Massey Lectures of 2003. In chapter 2 of this book (lecture 2 of the broadcast, I s’pose), ‘You’re Not the Indian I Had in Mind,’ King talks about Edward Sheriff Curtis, the man who at the turn of the 20th century immortalised the image of the proud, noble Indian (noble savage? Rousseau, anyone?) through his photographs, many of which were staged to ‘look right’, involving clothing from other native cultures than that being photographed, wigs, horses, the whole bit.

We’ve entered Festival season in Edinburgh. The already-congested-by-normal-tourists streets have become well-nigh impassible almost overnight as the festival-goers, pamphleteers, and street performers compete with frustrated ‘locals’ (like me?) who are just trying to get from A to B.

On the Royal Mile, besides the people trying to construct and immortalise the image of the proud, noble Scot (‘Braveheart’, unnamed other medieval Scotsman/Highlander, bagpipers, cheap cashmere all available on the Royal Mile now!), were some of those South American panpipe players who seem to have sprouted in most major cities, though I never saw any in Nicosia, Cyprus.

What made this group of South Americans interesting was twofold. First, they were playing ‘Chiquitita’ by Abba on the panpipes. Interesting choice. I’ll reserve my comments for that sort of thing, perpetrated by the Red Hot Chili Pipers and others day in and day out, later. Second, and this became apparent upon entering the line of vision to see these South American fellows, their attire was essentially ‘pan-Indian’.

These guys had similar facial features to the other indigenous South Americans I’ve seen either playing panpipes or in photographs; they were also appropriately swarthy, the sort of thing one goes for when trying to look Indian (I have a friend of Norwegian descent who can tan really well and has been known to comment on how much darker he gets in summer than some of the Ojibwe and Cree of his acquaintance — but he’ll never look Indian). They also had facepaint on. These factors alone would probably make them look Indian, or at least foreign to any passersby.

But these guys decided to make it perfectly clear who they were. So they were all wearing leathers, and the lead panpiper had on one of those feathered head-dresses that reach all the way to one’s feet, the sort of thing my immortalised image of ‘Indians’ associates with ‘chiefs’ of the Plains of North America, with Blackfoot or Assiniboine or Cree, not with Peru. Another member of the band had one of those bone breastplates as part of his attire.

When I mentioned them to a man I know who lived for many years in Peru, he said that he’d been unable to place the attire but that it was nothing he’d encountered in South America.

The immortalised Indian of Edward Sheriff Curtis has grabbed a hold of our imaginations to such a degree that ‘pan-Indianism’ is homogenising the image of these varied and vast peoples across the whole New World, taking attire from the Plains of Alberta into the jungles of Peru.

This is not what my Shawnee ancestors, ‘the Prophet’ Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh had in mind when they sought to bring the different native peoples of North America together in the early nineteenth century (the effort was largely Tenskwatawa’s, although Tecumseh’s efforts to gain national and land rights with Sir Isaac Brock are part of the same larger effort to preserve native ways and rights in the wake of the encroaching European colonies).*

Canada is large. Europe is not small, either. Living in Europe (or rather in the northern portion of a large island off the coast of Europe), I am aware of just how many different peoples live here, each of them with their own traditions, languages, stories, customs, literature, music, and so forth. Even on this island, we have three living languages and a gazillion accents with traces of the old dialects creeping in nooks and crannies, fighting boldly against the all-devouring dialect called ‘Standard English.’

Europe is aware of its diversity and embraces it while at the same time making movement within this natural diversity easy. The kilted Scot and the liederhosened German are free to mingle and get to know one another, free to find similarities, quite aware of differences.

One would imagine that North America would be just as varied, and South America equally so. Yet there were these South Americans in North American headdresses, in feathers and leathers, competing with the bagpiper in a kilt.**

It boggles the mind.

*Alas, their sister’s husband, the man from whom I claim direct descent, did not do much to realise the dreams of his brothers-in-law during his much-loathed tenure as Indian Agent on Manitoulin Island. He is not much-loved to this day, which is a shame. Things could have gone so much better, but somehow they didn’t, and unlike Thomas King I don’t blame Genesis 1-3 …

**And is that bagpiper really what my other (and much more numerous) ancestors fought for in the Jacobite uprising of 1715?

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s