Friday, February 07, 2003

Three New Good Books Nobody in Manhattan Will Notice

Saul Steinberg did a famous drawing, reproduced in posters that hung on many walls, of America as seen from Manhattan. It was about perspective: Manhattan districts, "midtown," "downtown," "upper east side" with separate characteristics and well-known metaphorical meaning were large and foregrounded, while the rest of the country was remote, tiny and broadly clich├ęd.

I don't know how many such drawings Steinberg himself did, but it seemed in subsequent years that every city had its own poster version: the country seen from Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Atlanta... Our near environs absorb us, everything about them is important, while the significance of events elsewhere lack relevance and especially, interest.

Which is a long way of saying that I've got three books here of some importance but little specific interest in San Francisco, which is where the audience for most of my published book reviews reside. Nor are they likely to interest the buzz mavens of Manhattan.

Fortunately, with my huge international web log audience here, I can recommend these new books without fear of being Steinbergered.

Two involve national phenomena as manifested in the American Midwest, where I spent some years as a student and "what's it all about?" wanderer.

DISSENT IN THE HEARTLAND: THE SIXTIES AT INDIANA UNIVERSITY by Mary Ann Wyncoff (Indiana University Press) is a thorough and well-written account of this complex and volatile period that changed the country, as well as its universities, including Indiana.

Most accounts of the anti-war movement, the student movement and all the other political, social and cultural movements of those years are by the major players, or those who experienced them at well-known universities or power centers. But all this didn't happen just in Cambridge, Berkeley, New York, Washington and Ann Arbor. In fact it had even greater and more revolutionary effects in places like Indiana.

These were places, as Wyncoff shows, where communities were very conservative and students were mostly apolitical. Yet the 60s fostered dramas just as important to the people they affected here as the more thoroughly reported happenings in the aforementioned places. Wyncoff's book is better written with more historical and social context than many of these other accounts, most of which have been pretty much forgotten anyway.

This book conveys the flavor as well as the substance of those days, while remaining restrained enough for contemporary audiences. If you're looking for thought-provoking perspective as well as a readable return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, DISSENT IN THE HEARTLAND is an excellent choice.

James B. LaGrand's INDIAN METROPOLIS: NATIVE AMERICANS IN CHICAGO 1945-75 from neighboring University of Illinois Press is a history of a specific instance of another kind of national phenomenon, this one occurring in slow motion and largely unseen. It was the migration of American Indians to cities. Though they've become a significant presence in a number of cities, including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Minneapolis as well as Chicago, this apparently is one of the first systematic chronicles of the causes and effects, and the human stories within this story.

Non-Natives seem to like to think of Indians as phantom stereotypes, still living in vanished wilderness and hunting non-existent buffalo. Indians are the last ethnic group to be treated as objects and symbols. Not that the traditional Indian way of life or the relations between non-Natives and Natives doesn't yield rich symbolism, touching otherwise hidden regions of common psyche and collective unconscious.

But Indians are also among the smallest "minority groups." Put that together with the deep symbolic power attached to their image with no thought at all to their current reality, and you get the Washington Redskins, the Atlanta Braves tomahawk chop and the grinning logo of the Cleveland Indians, where you would never get away with the Washington Niggers or Atlanta Wetbacks or the grinning pop-eyed logo of the Cleveland Watermellon Eaters.

But if memory serves, something like half of the Indian population now resides in cities. Smack in the middle of this period of migration, the Indian revival of traditional culture and identity began. Assimilation while rediscovering and recreating identity outside this same mainstream, and you wind up with the common expression of "walking in two worlds." Although it often turns out to be more than two.

No other ethnic or cultural group in the Americas finds itself living in its indigenous homeland, where the oblivious descendants of the destroyers and usurpers and in some cases Indian slave owners are dominant. There's so much complex drama in this ongoing and evolving situation, and much of it takes place in big cities. Indians experienced prejudice and isolation there as well as the poverty they tried to escape by leaving the reservation, but some also found meaning in the trans-tribal or pan-Indian culture that is largely an urban product, as well as in aspects of other cultures.

This book doesn't dwell on that big picture but tells a lot of interesting stories. Some involve historical sweep and time, and many are individual, about people of importance and ordinary people in the context of their times and place. The style is pretty straightforward. This book reads remarkably well-the scholarly footnotes and sources are a plus.

I'm interested in the subject, and since I spent some time in Chicago and nearby communities, there's information and resonance of particular interest to me. I was fascinated to learn for example that Carlos Montezuma, a famous Yavapai doctor, speaker and writer in the late 19th century spent his childhood and much of his youth in Galesburg, Illinois, the downstate town where I went to college. Though I knew of other ethnic communities in Galesburg because of the railroads and related jobs that were unusual in other Midwest farm towns, I wasn't aware of American Indians there. But that's typical in that Indians have often been invisible in American towns and cities, to everyone except themselves.

Another Road Home

When he was a young man, the Haida artist Robert Davidson worked on a project at the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, a wonderful place largely devoted to local Native cultures. He came upon some professional anthropologists there who were puzzling over an ancient Native artifact, trying to figure out its use. Davidson took the tool from them, held it right-side up for their inspection, and told them what it was still used for in the Haida island community where he grew up. "Why don't you ask one of us once in awhile?" he inquired.

In Jim Harrison's novel The Road Home, an anthropology professor insists that a student rewrite his thesis on Native coyote stories because it relied too much on conversations with local Indians and not enough on established scholarly sources. The professor accused him of being a "romantic humanist" who sullied science with emotion, whereupon the student turned over the professor's desk and left school a thesis short of his degree.

These two anecdotes illustrate the difference and the distance between some of the anthropological information Thomas Buckley evaluates and his own descriptions of contemporary Yurok culture in STANDING GROUND: YUROK SPIRITUALITY, 1850-1990 (University of California Press.) Buckley shows how unstated and usually unconscious assumptions and prejudices colored the work of supposedly scientific anthropologists, causing them to describe what they thought they saw in inappropriate context and therefore drawing inaccurate conclusions. While he acknowledges the contributions and information these anthropologists nevertheless made, Buckley works hard to understand and state his own assumptions and limits of his observations.

Yurok country is in my current neck of the woods, though much of the non-urban Yurok community is some distance from where I live. I know several of the people Buckley names as sources. The actual subject of his book, Yurok spiritual belief in its cultural and historical context, is too complex to describe in a few sentences here, even if I felt confident I knew enough to do so. The issues involved in gathering and printing this information are also complex, with many differing views.

Some five years ago, not long after I arrived here, I heard Chris Peters speak to a mostly non-Native audience. He is the executive director of the Seventh Generation Fund, one of the few Native run organizations involved in issues of importance to grassroots Native communities. Buckley quotes him early in his book, when he was beginning his anthropological studies locally and Peters was running a local community organization. Peters said he wouldn't hinder him but he wouldn't help him, because it was time for Native scholars to do their own anthropology.

But when I heard him speak, Chris Peters' message was that the Native American really was vanishing, and that non-Natives had better learn what they can from Native cultures and begin to take responsibility for the land beneath their feet. (Although I don't think "feet" was the part of the anatomy he referred to.) He wasn't giving up on sustainable Native communities, or on Native peoples in the present who are building a better future, but there is a sense in which the numbers are troubling, and anyway, he was making a point about what all of us need to do today.

What I learned from this and subsequent work I did for the Seventh Generation Fund was that while many Native cultures locally and across the continent are being revived and renewed and reinvigorated, there is also a need to use traditional knowledge in the shared world. We who do not come from Native cultures but who live here and are therefore among the caretakers of this land and certainly this planet, need to understand as much as we can from the knowledge accumulated over so many generations, and its context as derived from a particular relationship to the natural world. Because this basic relationship is also part of our human heritage, from the often forgotten past of other places and peoples, hidden deep in the cultures of our specific ancestors . While these living indigenous cultures are here, perhaps hanging by a thread, preserving, resurrecting, interpreting and applying traditional knowledge in the contemporary world, we'd best take advantage of the opportunity to learn and participate as best we can.

This process takes a lot of tact, respect, patience, openness, self-knowledge and courage. This book is a great gift for me, because Thomas Buckley knows and tells so much more of local history than I know, and has experienced more of indigenous cultures than I have. I'm sure some of what he writes will be challenged. But I admire how he's gone about accomplishing this book, over such a long time-some forty years all told, including a decade of focused work---and I admire his courage.

Readers whose poster maps don't foreground Eureka and the Yurok and Hupa reservations, the Wiyot and Karuk rancherias, with San Francisco in the foggy distance, will learn about these local instances of larger and even universal subjects: the interplay of politics, environmental concerns and Native cultural and religious revivals and battles, as well as relevant aspects of traditional knowledge and what we call religious beliefs. And you don't even have to be a romantic humanist to enjoy reading it.

A final note: you may have noticed that I capitalize the word Native. This is contrary to most style manuals (publications are always changing it back to a small "n".) I learned to do this writing for the Seventh Generation Fund, but it makes perfect sense to me. For there is a problem in nomenclature. For awhile the term "Indians" was replaced by "Native Americans." Most American Indians call themselves Indians, and the Indian people. But there are several problems, one of which is called India. There are people from that country, or with that ancestry, all over North America. Not to mention by the millions in India. When most people mention Indian food even here in Humboldt County, they aren't talking about frybread.

And there's the problem of "American." There are Native tribes all over North and South America; some tribal homelands are divided by the borders between the U.S. and Canada, or the U.S. and Mexico, as well as between other nations. Though both continents are called Americas, the term American usually means the United States, and so Native American doesn't go over well in Canada. There, the term First Peoples or First Nations has gotten some play, along with Native Indians and even Native Canadians.

I think all these problems can be avoided by the simple adoption of Native with a capital N. The small n is not a name but a description. I am a native-born American. But I am not Native. It's true that neither black nor white is capitalized when referring to race, and when Negro was a current usage, it was capitalized. But we aren't talking about race as much as cultures and ethnicities.

But small-n native is often inspecific even in context, and given the history, it seems literally belittling. Maybe it would be better to be more specific, naming Zuni and Yurok, but that's not always or even frequently possible due to multiple ancestries, and by now the Native population has common interests and some common culture .

I just think capitalizing Native is clearer, less awkward, more accurate, and shows some proper respect. Others took away their country, right down to the name, and substituted a name that already belongs to another country. (Peter Matthiessen makes an historical argument that Native peoples weren't named Indians because Columbus thought he was in India, but as a variation on "una gente in Dios" or a people of God, which is what Columbus called them shortly before he started enslaving and killing them. At the time what we call India was referred to as Hindustan. But that was then, and this is now.)

So far the only non-Native writer I've noticed who capitalizes Native is the aforementioned Jim Harrison. I wonder how he gets away with it.