If Paul Chaat Smith ever needs another
job–he's currently a curator at the National Museum of
the American Indian at the Smithsonian–he would make an
excellent stand-up comic. Unexpectedly, his latest book,
Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong, is a funny and
painful collection of essays about a deeply serious subject:
the ways in which Indian stereotypes infiltrate culture,
damaging Indians and Non-Indians alike.
"We are reputed to be stoic," Smith
writes, in regard to the myth of the strong, silent Indian,
"but in reality it's hard to get us to shut up."
It's lucky for us that Smith, a Comanche
born in West Texas, refuses to shut up. His insights on film
and art are sharp and startling. Language and image–
especially photography and film–often portray stereotyped
responses to everything Native American, at home and abroad.
"Some Westerns demonstrate a real interest in Indians, but
in most we exist as metaphor," writes Smith. For example, in
the John Wayne film The Searchers, "The Comanches (Wayne's)
been fighting for two hours are simply a plot device to get
to this moment of terrible pain and alienation."
Smith illustrates the love-hate
relationship between Indians and photography as well as the
film industry. "The movies gave us planetary fame," he
writes. "Without them, the Comanches would be an obscure
chapter in Texas history books. With them, we live forever."
It's like advertising: Even bad press is good for the
subject. For Smith, invisibility is the worst curse of all.
"We, you and I, must remember
everything," says Jimmie Durham, a Cherokee, one of Smith's
favorite Indian artists. "We must especially remember those
things we never knew." Smith interprets Durham this way:
"History promises to explain why things are and how they
came to be this way, and it teases us by suggesting that if
only we possessed the secret knowledge, the hidden insight,
the relevant lessons drawn from yesterday's events, we could
perhaps master the present."
While Hollywood will doubtless continue
to use (and misuse) Native Americans, Smith is the bearer of
good news in the matter of contemporary art. Little-known
artists like Durham, Erica Lord and James Luna prompt
readers to hie immediately to the Smithsonian's National
Museum of the American Indian or other Native art venues for
a dose of hope.
Lord, a filmmaker, makes films that upend
the romanticized and simplified celluloid Indian. "An Indian
film will star the beautiful losers, belligerent drunks,
failed activists and born-again traditionalists who make up
our community," writes Smith. "It will be brave enough to
engage issues like the civil wars that tore through some
communities in the 1970s, the terrible plagues of isolation,
alcoholism, and poverty. It will not turn away from complex
issues like debates over identity."
Indian identity will clearly be Smith's
subject for a long time to come. He cites Palestinian
intellectual Edward Said in his closing pages: "In the end,
the past possesses us." Smith answers: "Okay, Eddie, I get
it. But is it supposed to possess us this much?" Answering
his own question, he concludes: "Once considered so
primitive that our status as fully human was a subject of
scientific debate, some now regard us as keepers of
planetary secrets and the only salvation for a world bent on
"Heck, we're just plain folks, but no one
wants to hear that."
Despite the leavening humor, Smith's
ultimate message is a warning to all of us: "Good intentions
aren't enough; our circumstances require more critical
thinking and less passion, guilt, and victimization."