What’s a Wannabee To Do?

So what can we do to make our pretendian-ness less obvious? How can we avoid embarrassing ourselves when we encounter individuals that actually have a birthright to the Native culture? Study, study, study…learn as much as you can from as many trusted sources as you can.

Read extensively. It is overwhelming how much printed information exists that can offer assistance in getting our vision straight. There is actually a pretty good body of primary source (anthropological and historical) materials available for many of the Indian nations. Admittedly, many are out of print and can only be acquired through libraries and used book sources, but many are available on the Internet as well, in a digitized format.

There is an ever growing body of literature written by Native authors that offers their perspective on society; theirs and ours. There are novels, anthologies, biographies and scholarly works.

I realize that reading is not everyone’s favorite activity. Reading can be difficult for many. But, lacking access to a Native elder to teach you how to think and see and act, reading is, unfortunately, necessary to developing a correct understanding of Native culture. There are books that are directed to all age groups and reading levels; all of them can offer insights to a hungry mind.

The list of available authors is much too large to begin to enumerate, but here are a few that are worthy of your attention, if you are not familiar with them already: Vine Deloria, Jr., Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, Joseph Bruchac, Thomas Mails, John G. Neihardt, Joseph Epes Brown, Robert (Bobby) Lake-Thom, E. Barrie Kavasch, Kent Nerburn, and J.T. Garrett.

Watch relevant movies. There is a growing body of movies that offer an accurate reflection of Native America, past and present. Many Native artists are now producing independent movies that provide the perspective which comes from growing up Indian. Even mainstream movie sources are being careful now to consult Native sources to ensure accuracy in their portrayals. Among those films I can recommend: Songs My Brothers Taught Me, Smoke Signals, Skins, Dreamkeepers, Crooked Arrows, and Lakota Woman.

Older mainstream films that “got it right” (more or less) include: Thunderheart, Last of the Mohicans, and, of course, Dances with Wolves. Avatar offers a valuable window on the contrast between the colonizer, the indigenous people, and the wannabee. Last of the Dogmen does this also.

Use the Internet judiciously. The Internet can be a vast wilderness of misinformation, so it is important to be very cautious about which information sources you rely on. Basically, in my opinion, if the site does not belong to a federally-recognized nation or a university, you should be somewhat skeptical of whatever information is offered with regard to Native culture and traditions.

One source I can vouch for, because I have been a participant and contributor for a long time, is the Woodlands Indian forum. It should be noted, however, that the available information is primarily concerned with the Eastern Woodlands nations only.

Nonetheless, there are some important online news sources that may be relied on for current affairs and editorials. The pretendian is well-advised to keep up with these, to be aware of what is happening in Indian country. Indian Country Today, Native News Online, and Last Real Indians are some of these.

What Are You Reading?

It is imperative that the serious hobbyist stay informed and do research to hone his/her understanding of the culture and current affairs of Native America. There is no other way to properly claim a place in the Native community. One of my biggest difficulties with the pretendian population at large is their reluctance to make a personal effort to learn the culture and traditions of whatever People they claim to belong to, preferring rather to practice and parrot whatever they are told by others.

Most enthusiasts do not have the advantage of having near relatives that can provide true cultural information and traditional teachings. We do not have the aunties, uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers available to us that can pass on that knowledge. Thus, we must diligently seek out reputable sources for this instead.

Books and the Internet are the obvious choices, but care must be taken to ensure the accuracy of the information gathered therein. Many books have been written by individuals claiming knowledge that they cannot actually authenticate by citation. Some of those individuals claim identity that is later demonstrated to be fabricated or exaggerated.

The Internet is a treasure trove of sources that would not be otherwise accessible, thanks to digitization of primary source materials and access to the writings, quotations and recordings of Native elders. But it is also a swamp of misinformation because it is an open access medium that allows anyone to write anything without the restriction of fact checking, editing or peer review. Caution must be exercised in accepting materials gleaned from personal websites as authentic.

I honestly cannot offer a sure-fire litmus test for cultural information. Primary source materials (books written by anthropologists or Native authors) are pretty safe bets. The application of the principle of “from the mouths of two or more witnesses” is also a valid precaution, with the addendum of “the more diverse the sources, the more credible” and some attention to the apparent credibility of the sources (e.g. be wary of self-identified Native sources that feel compelled to include their “spirit name” in their byline).

Nonetheless, the diligent enthusiast should be constantly seeking to enhance his/her knowledge of the People they claim an identity among and the current affairs of Indian country at large. Indian Country Today and Last Real Indians  are reliable sources of current affairs materials that should be consulted regularly. And we should be reading something relevant in a print medium (books and magazines) frequently as well. It seems there is a new book available almost every month by a Native author. I recently read a release for a new book about the Delaware people, written by a descendant about her ancestors.

What am I reading? I just recently finished “The World We Used to Live In“, Vine Deloria, Jr.’s final book. I am reading an e-book about the Bering Strait Theory. I am reading herbal texts to enhance my knowledge of the medicine that the Creator placed in the earth for the People. I read Indian Country Today almost every day, as my schedule allows.

What are you reading?

Earth People

I came across a concept that resonates with me in Kenneth Cohen’s book Honoring the Medicine. I share it for your consideration, exactly as he wrote it:

“In Native American literature, the term white man is frequently a designation of colonial values–the need to dominate, divide, and acquire–rather than of ethnicity. People who superficially imitate Native Americans while denying their own ethnicity, perhaps by wearing Native American clothing and jewelry and imitating speech patterns and mannerisms, are called by a equally derogatory term: wannabees. There are also wannabees among Native American people: ‘red apples’, who are red on the outside but white on the inside. In the past, red apples were called ‘loafers around the forts,’ because they hung around the soldiers’ forts to receive handouts rather than fight against injustice or live in a way that affirms Native American freedom, sovereignty, and values.

Today we have an entirely new fruit, one with a white skin and a red heart.What should we call people who identify with Native American values and behave in a way consistent with those values? A person can be born Indian but act like a colonizer. A person can also be born white or Asian or black and act like a traditional Native American. Yes, it is possible. Not though imitation but by having the courage to follow the guidance of the heart. I have met many non-Native people who have shed colonial assumptions and learned to live lightly and respectfully on the earth. Native American elders recognize that in today’s mixed up world, race is no longer a guarantee of culture. The Creator has revealed his wonderful sense of humor in putting so many red souls in multicolored bodies!

People who respect Native American people, culture, and land and who are willing to make a personal and political stand for them deserve a proper term of respect. I like the designation suggested by a Lakota acquaintance: Maka Oyate, Earth People. The term is similar to a Cree phrase that is sometimes used by spirits (who speak through a ceremonial leader) to refer to Indian people: aks-ju-aski-wes-skin-hagun, ‘Earth-Made People.’ In the Holy Bible, the first human being is called Adam, meaning ‘Earth Person,’ because this androgynous being was formed of earth infused with God’s breath.

You cannot become an Indian if you were not born one. But you can be an Earth Person.” (page 27)

I could live with that…

Indian Country Magazine

I was pleasantly surprised to finally receive the debut issue of Indian Country magazine, published by Indian Country Today Media Network, recently. Indian Country Today Media Network has been promoting it for several months, so my anticipation had been mounting; especially when the articles had been linked to other articles from their regular news feed, but were only available in summary to non-subscribers. I had only signed up to receive the debut issue before I determined if I wanted to pay the full $35 subscription for the year (six bi-monthly issues).

I am a firm believer that the pretendian cannot avail themselves of too many information sources. This one is a good one, in a more general sense. It contains articles largely concerned with contemporary human interest stories, with sidebars for historic and cultural expansions. Perhaps it could best be characterized as a “People”magazine for Native America.

Perhaps the most valuable aspects of this issue’s contents are the personal observations offered by the writers and subjects of the articles. Even the way a Lakota creation story was related offered an insight into the viewpoint of the author (which extends, apparently, to the Lakota people in general).

The magazine includes plenty of fine photography, artistic features and tourist information. This issue included a fairly comprehensive powwow schedule, along with some other powwow-related information.

I have to surmise that Native America is not really the intended audience; the content seems more suited to drawing non-Natives into the Native world in an informative way. Nevertheless, if you can afford the subscription amount, there is plenty of insight that can be gleaned by the pretendian with regard to the Native perspective and the Natives who are making their mark in the world.