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Return to the Native

During the past eight years Peter Matthiessen has returned from his travels in Africa or Nepal to discover a hidden network of native American states of mind and places—his “Indian country.” These are remote, impoverished, embattled enclaves within or on the borders of the official Indian reservations. There the representatives of what Matthiessen considers the true Indian way of life are still holding out—his “traditionals.” Many of these families and factions revived their native identity only during the past thirty years. Their radical tribalism was nurtured through semi-secret support networks such as the Hopi Rebirth Movement and the more public protests that made national headlines in the 1960s and 1970s. They are troublemaking idealists from Florida to California who refuse to abandon their old treaty rights, who dream of absolute tribal sovereignty, defiantly resist federal authorities and their own tribal governments, and equate their survival with that of the land they revere.

To Matthiessen these holdouts represent America’s last hope as they stand up to the federal Indian bureaucracy, the law enforcement establishment, and the multinational energy consortiums that are poisoning their sacred lands. Matthiessen has no doubt that the white man’s frontier crusade to obliterate Indian culture remains very much alive; he seems to regard this collection of magazine pieces as urgent dispatches from censored zones in an American cold war. He is to be commended for caring enough about these beleaguered corners of Indian America to search them out. Again and again he must outwait the suspicious scrutiny of his wary subjects. Through a mysterious string of inside contacts he manages to connect with key people and bring out their desperate stories. He penetrates police secrecy in upper New York State to bring back the sordid story of the police treatment of the Akwesasne Mohawk; in Tennessee he avoids guards to tell the tragic story of the Tellico Dam; in California he undertakes a trek to the sacred “high country” in the Siskiyou Mountains.

Matthiessen also dips into the morass of cultural and political history behind each of the tribes he visited. He makes an effort to untangle the legal nightmares that are part of every tribe’s pedigree, trying to pinpoint the crucial shifts in the power relations between whites and Indians. Finally, as if these tasks have made him increasingly uneasy, he does what comes most naturally to him, evoking the wildlife and landscape that brought him to some of these locations on earlier assignments and still seem to engage his abiding affections. Indeed the book is at its most powerful less in its account of human misery than in its description of environmental ruin. When the nineteenth-century journalist Helen Hunt Jackson brought Indian suffering to light in her A Century of Dishonor the central issues were Indian starvation, disease, in-human treatment, and the loss of land. Today it is ecological suicide; Matthiessen’s awful descriptions create the impression that Anglo-America is inflicting some perverse revenge upon itself.

In South Dakota’s Black Hills the rush for uranium, natural gas, coal, and oil is creating a doomsday landscape of chemical smog above and prairie desolation below, as well as the problem of leftover radioactive “tailings” that must be buried somewhere—usually in Indian backyards. Attempts to manipulate the natural cycles of Florida’s Everglades have produced droughts, saline contamination, and loss of wildlife. In Arizona wanton strip mining for coal has endangered subsurface water aquifers, polluted lakes, and has left naked maws in the desert. In Tennessee the flooding of the Little Tennessee River has destroyed a valley and drowned sacred Cherokee townsites. Logging in the Klamath River country of northern California has caused sliding mountainsides while silt and chemical defoliants have poisoned the breeding grounds of steelhead salmon. Since Matthiessen stresses throughout the spiritually interdependent relationship between land and the Indians, it is not surprising that the most dangerous and unpleasant standoff between Indians and lawmen takes place in an atmosphere of utter toxification, along a stretch of the St. Lawrence in upper New York State whose water, air, and earth have been poisoned by a Reynolds plant and a General Motors foundry.

If Matthiessen’s outrage about the environment and his sympathies toward the Indian seem so well directed, why does one sense throughout that something is cripplingly wrong with his voice and his thesis? The last journalist to undertake such a journey through Indian America was Earl Shorris, whose The Death of the Great Spirit was written from a perspective as far from Matthiessen’s as one can imagine. The book appalled Indian-lovers everywhere. Shorris combined evolutionism and the theories of Lévi-Strauss to support his contention that the white man’s progressive culture had irrevocably shattered the timeless insularity of Indian societies. He mocked native efforts to perpetuate their “identity” through costumed pow-wows staged for themselves or militant events for the white press, and he argued that both were pathetic pastiches of tribal realities that were gone forever.

Ironically, Matthiessen presents a romantic and approving reversal of the same view of the timeless primitive. To him what makes his Indian friends authentic is that in spirit they still exist ab origine. He would have us see his eleven sketches as pilgrimages to the last strongholds of primeval truth in America. To reach them he takes as his companion that long-suffering intermediary, the mystic scout. As Thoreau had his Penobscot guide Joe Polis, and Leatherstocking his loyal Chingachgook, Matthiessen has Craig Carpenter, who describes himself as a “half-baked detribalized Mohawk from the Great Lakes country trying to find his way back to the real Indians.”

As we follow them on backroads and into Indian kitchens we see the reenactment of an old pattern of intellectual exploitation: had the Indians never existed, perhaps white writers would have had to invent them, as a utopian antithesis to everything they disliked or found alienating about their own world. The spectrum of symbolic interpretations to which the defenseless Indian societies have been subject over the centuries has been well delineated in Elemire Zolla’s The Writer and the Shaman: A Morphology of the American Indian. Since the time of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (not to be confused, as Matthiessen seems to have, with the painter Henri Rousseau) opinions about Indians have swung from deploring them to adoring them. Indian writer Vine Deloria, Jr., maintains that US government policy still reflects this historical ambivalence; in this century he sees the pendulum swing between pro-Indian and anti-Indian legislation and back again as condensed into twenty-year cycles.

Reading Matthiessen’s book one has the sinking feeling that he is somehow trapped at the pro-Indian pole of this fixed ambivalence. His loyalties and evocations seem inherited from the earlier writers and approaches which Zolla surveyed. His pious attitudes toward his native hosts too often fall within the “tradition of benevolence,” exemplified by the idealistic descriptions of Indians in Thoreau, Melville, and Hamlin Garland. His sense of outrage is often undercut by a mystical romanticism straight out of the “literature of reverence” epitomized by the writings of D.H. Lawrence. And to the broad genre Zolla calls “poetic ethnography,” a category embracing fiction and nonfiction, Matthiessen splices the hyperbole and innuendo of radical journalism that often comes dangerously close to branding most whites as insensitive exploiters and most nonradical Indians as sell-outs. Many of these traditional literary approaches can be detected in the book’s opening sermon, “Native Earth,” which ends:

It isn’t enough to admire Indian teachings; we need them. We belong to the earth, it does not belong to us; it cares for us, and we must care for it. If our time on earth is to endure, we must love the earth in the strong, unsentimental way of traditional peoples, not seeking to exploit but to live in balance with the natural world. When modern man has regained his reverence for land and life, then the lost Paradise, the Golden Age in the race memories of all peoples will come again, and all men will be “in Dios,” people of God.

The problem with such lofty sentiments lies in using “The Indian” as a screen on which to project them. For how can one judge the validity of this interpretation of the collective essence of Indian society against those that claim that all Indians are dumb, lazy, savage, or nearly extinct? The problem, of course, is that “the” Indian has always been a fiction, and Matthiessen’s promotion of this monolithic stereotype is among his book’s major failings. While he pays respect to particulars of culture and ecology when he is visiting Indians, his book’s pervasive certainty about what Indianness means leads him to ignore the widely contrasting social, religious, demographic, economic, political, and ecological circumstances found among over three hundred different North American Indian peoples.

He might have taken a cue from the poet Charles Olson’s advice to the young writer Edward Dorn, who was contemplating a quest similar to Matthiessen’s: “Best thing to do is to dig one thing or place or man until you yourself know more abt that than is possible…. But exhaust it, saturate it….” He went on: “Indians is wicked. I think, the thing is to settle on one of em, either literally one, Red Cloud, say, or the Utes…, or a ‘civilization’—like Plains, or Maya, or Arawak….” These tips helped Dorn to write a fine report on a single tradition, The Shoshoneans. Dorn also picked up another idea from Olson and perhaps from James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: don’t be afraid to experiment when translating cultural realities to the page.

In his novel Far Tortuga Matthiessen was willing to experiment boldly with prose rhythms and Caribbean dialects, and the risk produced the most brilliant novel I have read about the sea since Joseph Conrad’s Nigger of the “Narcissus.” But his writing here seems strangely cowed as he unhesitatingly takes sides with the Indian factions he dubs as true “traditionals.” This reduction of Indian social and political realities to struggles between traditionals and “elected” or “tribal” Indians makes for grievous oversimplification. Today’s system of tribal governments was set up during the Indian New Deal in the 1930s by the idealistic Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier. For the tribes that voted to come under Collier’s Indian Reorganization Act, the system was intended to restore land and some semblance of power to Indian peoples who were disenfranchised during the late nineteenth century. During the last few decades increasing numbers of Indian leaders have contested the authority of the tribal government apparatus, claiming that it has effectively denied them their sovereign rights as promised in old treaties. They maintain that their tribal council officials are puppets of the government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, and that, by deputizing the opposition, the federal government has turned Indians against themselves and left them vulnerable, once again, to outsiders who want their remnant lands.

Matthiessen seems unaware, however, that this internal tribal dissent over how white to become has persisted since colonial times and that it has always been the part of Indian history that whites have chosen to emphasize. In the eighteenth century, much was made of the difference between “praying” and “pagan” Indians; later the important distinction was between “breeches” and “blanket” factions, and then between “hostiles” and “friendlies.” A generation ago the main conflict was seen as one between “conservatives” and “progressives.” As with most short-term visitors to Indian communities before him, Matthiessen ignores the other, myriad interest groups whose alliances and competitions make contemporary reservation life a far more complex puzzle than the one he presents. He gives little or no attention to the issues that have priority for Indians who live in cities and periodically come back to the reservation or retain voting rights there, to the concerns of mixed-bloods with varying degrees of status and investment in reservation policies, to the interests of college-educated Indians or professionals who have returned home or serve as long-distance emissaries, or to the preoccupations of members of various religious groups that stand together when it comes to tribal issues. For these and other constituencies, Matthiessen’s “traditional” versus “tribal” dispute is only one of many tensions that surround them; most would resent an outsider designating them as less “Indian” in spirit or creed because they had other things on their minds.

If Matthiessen had paid closer attention to regional Indian history he might also have avoided self-contradiction. He praises the St. Regis Mohawk tribe as archtraditional but his sketch of their culture omits a crucial phase of their history. He attributes the origin of their famous Iroquois Confederacy to the legendary Deganawidah and Hiawatha, but never mentions Handsome Lake, the visionary whose synthesis of Quaker ethics and selected rites from the older Iroquois ceremonial cycle produced a code of behavior that restored the “People of the Longhouse” after their dreadful losses at the end of the Revolutionary War. It is actually this neotraditional, hybrid movement that Matthiessen’s Iroquois friends are perpetuating. While its Christian tenets have been absorbed into what today is considered the old-guard “Indian way,” the revitalizing experience that kept the Iroquois alive is a vivid example of the sort of doctrinal flexibility one can find throughout native America.

Indeed the most intriguing and heartening aspect of Indian survival is the ways that tribes have continually been able to reinvent their identities as groups through the interplay of their inherited traditions, their historical circumstances, their imagined selves, and manipulations of their “image” and expressive symbols. The dialectic between a timeless perspective and the time-bound exigencies of survival have helped to produce the Native American Church, the Shaker Church, the revived Sun Dance, the new inter-tribal sweat lodge ceremony, the California Bola Maru Religion, the Redbird Smith movement, and other examples of native American ability to endure in tormenting times. Matthiessen runs into trouble by applying one exclusive criterion for traditionalism to a spectrum of tribal cultures. It is rather like assessing the degree to which the French or British are more or less European, and then maintaining that Europeanness is a nobler attribute than either of them. Most Navajos, for instance, will be bewildered to learn that their age-old talent for incorporating items from other cultures—whether weaving methods, religious iconography, or pickup trucks—puts them low on Matthiessen’s scale of traditional virtue.

Matthiessen’s lapses into purist sentimentality also lead him into the misapprehension that Indian beliefs about sacred sites automatically can be translated into environmental ethics. This is a widespread misconception among whites who are pious about ecology and would like to consider Indians as natural environmentalists. At one point Matthiessen and Carpenter appear pained by the fact that Hopi prayer plumes flutter on bushes growing where the Hopi throw their trash. That seeming paradox is a fact of reservation life. Not to understand how the Hopi might have come to juxtapose these two realities during their dealings with the encroaching consumer culture suggests the sort of snobbery that modern Indians often perceive as a new form of the colonial impulse to tell them how to live. Perhaps both the plumes and the trash can be read as messages of defiance to any who would dictate their behavior, admirers and enemies alike.

Throughout the book Matthiessen offers incomplete, sketchy references; his apparent wariness of the “primary sources” Charles Olson was so concerned about, as well as voluminous anthropological and historical materials on each of the tribes he investigates, seems based either on the constraints of magazine deadlines or the distrust in which many of his Indian informants hold those materials. Yet he might have taken a lesson from Edmund Wilson, whose Apologies to the Iroquois was effective as advocacy journalism precisely because Wilson patiently interwove the perspectives of the best academicians, historical scholarship, his own experiences, and native testimony—much of it from vociferous militants.

Matthiessen comes across as an uneasy polemicist and a reluctant war correspondent; he relaxes only when he has animals to watch, hills to climb, surroundings to describe, and one or two people whose inner sensibilities he can quietly respond to across a campfire. We get the flavor of his Indian country only when he takes us with him on Jimmie Tiger’s airboat, skimming across the vast Everglades to isolated Miccosukee hammocks, or when he accompanies John Trull through the glorious forests of the Siskiyou range, or when we sit beside him over a meal with Tu-pi or Buster McCurdy to hear them bemoan modernized Indians. Otherwise these reports seem a burden of conscience to him, and one wonders whether today, after two difficult books behind him on a subject whose historical, cultural, legal, and personal complexities have exhausted many other writers, he might not sympathize with Oliver La Farge, who after a lifetime of writing about and negotiating with Indians, wrote a friend, “More than ever, I wish to God I’d never heard of American Indians. They’ve been a trap and ruination for me.”

What is most interesting about Matthiessen’s book is its unwitting perpetuation of the oldest images that whites have used to turn the Indians into symbols of their own deepest longings. Perhaps these images can be replaced only when the conversion of spirit Matthiessen preaches comes to pass. Meanwhile his impassioned confusion of the themes of America as Lost Paradise and the Indian as its Dispossessed Spirit seems evidence of the astonishing power of the myth of “the Indian” to enthrall white imaginations. It is as if, in some cosmic compensation for five centuries of anguish and insult, Indians have preserved a way to imprison their conquerors and still keep their secrets.

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