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Tucson Weekly Rites And Wrongs

"Playing Indian," by Philip J. Deloria.

By Gregory McNamee

APRIL 13, 1998: 

Playing Indian, by Philip J. Deloria (Yale University Press). Cloth, $25.

FOLLOWING D. H. LAWRENCE'S observation that the American character is essentially unformed and constantly under revision, University of Colorado historian Philip Deloria, a Sioux, traces the tendency, apparent since the arrival of the first colonists, of Anglo Americans to appropriate Native American dress, customs, and habits.

It was no accident, Deloria writes, that the perpetrators of the Boston Tea Party donned Indian headdresses before sending British cargo into the drink; they at once wanted to disguise themselves and proclaim a kind of solidarity with the continent's first inhabitants. "As England became a them for colonists," he writes, "Indians became an us." Reveling in Indian dress allowed the New England Puritans to enjoy freedoms, and even a certain licentiousness, that would not have been possible in plainspun black tunics.

And the Puritans were not the only ones to seize on the possibilities of this freedom, won at the same time that the people who inspired it were enduring all manner of oppression: Indian societies were deconstructed and imagined in American literature, in secret societies like the Tammany and Cayuga Wolf all-white "tribes," in the latter-day, Prescott-based Smoki fraternity, and in open organizations like the Boy Scouts, whose American founder, Ernest Thompson Seton, suspected real Indians of harboring "unpatriotic sentiments."

Deloria turns up fascinating oddments, including the story of one Colorado Boy Scout troop that went native to the point that the national organization tried to reeducate them into again accepting WASP norms. As Deloria notes, "the Boy Scouts of La Junta were not Indians, but they were also more than simple, straightforward white boys," youngsters who managed to reconstruct the secret Shalako ceremony of the Zuni Indians so convincingly that Zuni elders built a special kiva for the masks the scouts had made.

Deloria is less admiring of the hippies, Deadheads, and modern New Agers who continue to appropriate elements of Native American religion and culture today without understanding the consequences of their actions. Even so, he concludes, "Americanness is perhaps not so much the product of a collision between European and Indian as it is a particular working-out of a desire to preserve stability and truth while enjoying absolute, anarchic freedom."

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