Paul Chaat Smith and His Pal Irony Offer a Dose of Indian Reality
Traveling cross-country and through time with his old friend Irony, author Paul Chaat Smith lets you know that everything you thought you knew about Indians is wrong … or right, depending on the roles Indian people choose to accept or discard, and for what reasons.
Those who enter here may not escape unchanged. That’s the covert power of the delightful Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong (University of Minnesota Press, 2009). Overall it is a good-natured, if pointed, analysis of Native America and mainstream society past and present, but written—and here you’ll wish to pause for a moment’s thought—by a man who says his animal guide is a rock band.
Although Smith at times worries about the blandness of contemporary cultural analysis, his mentor Irony may still be around: “Dead? I don’t think so. Wherever Germans build tipis, government officials announce BIA reorganizations, Indians star in westerns and tribal chairmen argue that high-stakes casinos are a traditional affirmation of sovereignty, Irony lives.”
Issues of individual and collective identity weave together the book’s essays, written over a 16-year period, as Smith describes himself in part as a suburbanite with Comanche heritage who wants the real “Comancheness” he finds in the rural Oklahoma of his ancestors.
Smith’s street credibility and political acumen were established in his years of work with the American Indian Movement (AIM), described in Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee, coauthored with Robert Warrior in 1996, which fleshed out the increasingly sanitized (or demonized) and simplified view of AIM and the big issues of the 1960s and 1970s.
Some essays in the present book deal with art and art matters, since the author is, after all, associate curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, which “always struck me as a bad idea, but a bad idea whose time had come” and which he felt might forever cement the Native role in the art world: “(Art. Culture. Beadwork.)”
Smith’s exhibitions have explored Canadian and American artists, and his projects have included the permanent history exhibition at the museum, performance artist James Luna’s appearance at the 2005 Venice Biennale, and co-curation of the 2008–2009 exhibition “Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian.”
Beneath his analysis of contemporary Indian art, however, is a broader conversation about myths concerning Indians that are so intertwined with and essential to central myths about America itself that U.S. historical identity could disappear altogether without its binary, mythical Indian Other, which he calls “a kind of national mascot.”
“Generally speaking, white people who are interested in Indians are not very bright,” he said, because intelligent white people instinctively understand that everything they are likely to learn about Indians “is probably going to be crap, so they should be avoided.”
When Smith explains that “the Americas are built on the invasion and destruction of a populated land with hundreds of distinct, complex societies, and a slave trade involving millions of Africans,” he offers that “as an observation that is the minimum requirement for making sense of the history of our countries.”
Indian people are defined by the “distinctive type of racism that confronts Indians today: romanticism,” or a “highly developed, deeply ideological system of racism toward Indians that encompasses language, culture, and history,” ensuring their status as “strange and primitive.”
One antidote is acknowledgment of the totality of the lives of such notables as Geronimo, Quanah Parker, Black Elk and Sitting Bull, whose foibles and accomplishments included gambling, entertainment, and entrepreneurial self-promotion. Ironically, however, “Many Indian folks and our so-called friends in the Wannabe Tribe make a pretty good living dispensing jukebox spiritualism and environmental teachings” attributed to them and to other historic figures.
To dispel the master narrative of colonization, an opportunity exists for those willing to leave behind the “cheap, played-out clichés… It is nothing less than a reclamation of our common history of surviving the unparalleled disaster of European contact and the creation of something new and dynamic from the ashes.”
Smith’s sharp tongue and perceptive wit will probably sneak up on readers regardless of their heritage or politics as, along with his sidekick, Irony, he probes the many paradoxes of other-defined, exoticized Nativeness attributed to people who are living lives that are otherwise pretty much like everyone else’s.
At the conclusion of the book, Smith calls attention to its title but adds, “it’s a book title, folks, not to be taken literally. Of course I don’t mean everything. Just most things. And the ‘You’ really means ‘We,’ as in all of Us.”
Below, a Q&A between the author and his editor at the University of Minnesota Press.