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Truth, Myth and
the American Indian

by Diane Alden

n a thorough investigation of Indian history, myth and fact over the past 500 years, Fergus Bordewich does a profound service to our understanding of the modern American Indian. An example: American Indian is how so-called Native Americans refer to themselves, Bordewich says—"Native American" being a term made up by politically correct white society to further Balkanize the Indian from society at large.

From the use of language to debunking myths Bordewich paints a realistic picture of the American Indian. Having grown up travelling with his mother—executive director of the Association of American Indians—he developed an excellent understanding of the history and realities of the Indian nations.

Consider how Bordewich deconstructs one of white America’s most cherished fables about Indians—the famous "speech" of Chief Seattle. Though framed and hanging on countless walls, beloved by the environmental movement and enshrined in Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance, the speech is bogus. The famous 1,200-word speech was supposedly delivered in response to an offer by President Franklin Pierce to buy the tribe’s land near Puget Sound in 1854. But those words were actually written in 1972 by Ted Perry, a Texas scriptwriter. Perry’s text—intended to narrate an environmental film produced by the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission and later adopted by the larger environmental movement—has achieved the status of what might be termed an environmental psalm. But well-meaning whites’ uncritical acceptance was exploited to paint the Indian as the true caretaker of the environment and an example that other white men should follow.

The lesson to be drawn from the popularity of the speech, says Bordewich, is "that Americans still prefer fictional Indians to real human beings." What Chief Seattle actually said was probably, "The ground beneath your feet responds more lovingly to our steps than yours, because it is the ashes of our grandfathers. Our bare feet know the kindred touch. The earth is rich with the lives of our kin."

There was no need to embellish Seattle’s words with those of a public relations hack or the wishful thinking of environmentalists. Seattle’s simple statement was quite enough on its own.

The Bones of Our Ancestors

In Nevada and nationally Indian remains and artifacts are constantly the subject of disputes with Indian tribes. To the Indian reclaiming the bones of their ancestors is a cultural and spiritual necessity. But for the scientific community this has meant ending the search for the anthropological history of the American Indian.

Bordewich believes both sides have a point. He chronicles what ensued when the Omaha tribe allowed Doug Owsley of the Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. to do a forensic study of the bones of this group of plains Indians. Owsley wanted to document the arrival of European disease, and he uncovered some amazing facts. For instance, during the earliest period of contact with Europeans the thickness of Indians’ bones grew, reflecting the introduction of tools which made work easier. Owsley’s studies show that, though the coming of Europeans was catastropic, it was only one of a several-thousand-year succession of events happening to the Indian.

By burying the bones of their ancestors and denying science a chance to study them, argues Bordewich, Indians are sacrificing the best source of truth about their own past. Yet he gives a sympathetic account of the Indian concerns about the artifacts and ancestral remains. Perhaps in the future, he suggests, the American Indian may be less sensitive to past injustice and mistreatment. A rethinking of the policy could then allow a resurgent curiosity in the Indian people to inquire into their own anthropological history.

Indian Nations and
Questions of Sovereignty

Bordewich also believes that the idea of Indian nations within the American nation will, at some point, lead to confrontations over sovereignty and jurisdiction.

For instance, Indian casino gambling is currently creating problems in several states, including Nevada. Legal issues may also arise in law enforcement, access to natural resources, and the status of non-Indians who live or work on reservations. Disputes between white society and Indian communities have arisen in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Montana, Arizona and Nevada.

While there are problems, there are also success stories. One prime example is the case of the Choctaws of Mississippi who successfully improved their financial and economic situation and that of the local white community as well. The basis for the resurgence was the recognition that the white and Indian communities in rural Mississippi suffered from the same lack of jobs and economic opportunities. The Indian leadership determined that in rural America, when tribes isolated themselves from the larger society, both groups were bound to stay poor and invisible.

The Indian Question

If the American Indian is to prosper and maintain his identity, both as an Indian and an American, argues Bordewich, the cultural myths and reinvented history of the past few years has got to go. As one wise Ojibwa elder observed, "The truth doesn’t need a crutch—it can stand on its own two feet." Bordewich does a magnificent job uncovering that truth. u

   Diane Alden is a Contributing
Editor of
Nevada Journal.


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