Interchangeable Indians: Consent, Context, and the Contested Image

The following is a post from on of our members, Kerry Hawk Lessard (Shawnee). Kerry is an applied medical anthropologist working within urban American Indian communities. She is concerned both academically and personally with the impacts of historical trauma and microagression on the health and wellness of contemporary Native people. As voice, authority, and agency factor so significantly in exacerbating postcolonial impacts, Lessard has partnered with artist/activist Gregg Deal (Pyramid Lake Paiute) to marry social science with art in ways that make discussion of complex issues within Indian Country more accessible, relevant, and engaging. The two have very recently started a blog, “Kill the Man, Save the Indian” as a forum to explore an applied decolonization practice. Deal was also a recent guest speaker at Creative Mornings – the video of his talk can be found here.

Nader’s call for anthropologists “to study the colonizers” resonates deeply with me as a Shawnee woman who happens also to be an anthropologist. Upward anthropology presents an all too rare opportunity for the observed to turn the lens on the observers, often creating a useful discomfort that then allows for more honesty and equity in the relationships between the two.

The Last American Indian on Earth – © Gregg Deal

In the middle of getting dressed to go out,  I got a text from a friend, Paiute artist Gregg Deal.

“have you left yet? because i have something to show you.”

Pulling up the link to Daniel Wildcat’s June 10, 2014 essay for The Washington Post, I thought surely he meant to draw my attention to its headline, “Native Americans need reparations even more than African Americans do” [the title was subsequently changed to “Why Native Americans don’t want reparations”]. I was pondering the heavy-handedness of that statement when a familiar face looked back at me from directly below the headline: a photo of Deal in his performance art piece “The Last American Indian on Earth.” Dumbfounded, I understood his exasperation. The accompaniment of his image and art in an essay about neither of those things just rendered him little more than a stock photo.  And in the context of those whose voices are marginalized, that’s a considerable problem.

First, a few words about “The Last American Indian on Earth” are important for framing how problematic an issue this is.  In August 2013, Gregg Deal launched a performance art piece that, among other things, examines the impacts of microaggession not only on the ways in which non-Indians view American Indians, but on the ways in which American Indians’ own self-perception is informed and even distorted by these very same forces.  The concept is simple (well, not really, but …).  Dressed in a ribbon shirt, breechclout, and leggings, adorned with hairpipe breastplate and bonnet, Deal is an explosion of pan-Indianism, carefully documenting in film and in written word what happens when the general public is confronted with a stereotype made flesh.  As you might imagine, it isn’t pretty.  In February 2014, this work was featured in Washington Post Magazine, complete with photographs by Post staffer Lucian Perkins.  Fast forward to the photograph of “The Last American Indian on Earth” juxtaposed with Dr. Wildcat’s essay and concerns about consent, context, and the contested image of the American Indian become clear.

Although it is true that The Washington Post holds certain rights to its photographs of Deal in character, what are the constraints of those rights and where do they end?  While Deal agreed to the use of these photographs in an article about himself and his performance art, how could he have envisioned that his image would be separated from its purpose and used instead to illustrate an essay whose title was so misleading and inflammatory?  Consent was granted for an express purpose, one that this use falls well outside.  Perhaps there was some overlooked clause granting The Post rights to use this image in any way it chose, but doing so seems irresponsible considering the magazine’s understanding of “The Last American Indian on Earth” and its narrative.  Certainly there was no consent on Deal’s part to act as the interchangeable Indian.

When I use the term “interchangeable Indian,” what I mean to suggest is that Deal in all of his bonneted glory becomes representative of all Indians, at least in the limited ways that Americans have chosen to know and understand them.  This is foundational to the social critique of “The Last American Indian on Earth,” but taken out of context, the image presents fiction as fact, supporting an essay with which it has no organic ties.  Its only purpose is to signal to the non-Native reader that this piece is an “Indian thing.”  Pointedly, it panders to stereotypes embedded within American consciousness, a disservice to both author and artist.  To go further, coupling this specific image (Deal’s sign reads “My Spirit Animal is White Guilt”) with a headline (since changed) about Native reparations reflected neither Dr. Wildcat’s words nor Deal’s performance art and instead appears intentionally provocative.  The deliberate choice to join the two, then, seems egregious when held up to the negative feelings about American Indians that while coded in polite society, are on full display in any comments section of articles about us or our issues.  Probably like the one that follows Dr. Wildcat’s essay.  I don’t know; I haven’t looked.

And that’s what’s so damnably frustrating.  Use here of “The Last American Indian on Earth” implies something very different than what’s actually written bringing into question the weight and value of Native voice, both that of Dr. Wildcat and that of Deal. That The Post felt free to use Deal’s image in such a misleading way may be chalked up to corporate media prerogative but for American Indians, this violation cuts deeper.  American Indians simply don’t control the ownership and use of their own images as ridiculous as this sounds (and as it is).  Any expression of Indianness that falls outside of the accepted stereotype is immediately subject to invalidation and critique.  It is also the case that non-Natives reserve for themselves the right to adjudicate what and who is sufficiently Native and who is not.  America feels that we must accept their words simply because they say them, never mind our realities.

Consider the debate about the Washington DC football team.  Every opinion is considered valid except for the opinion of the people the issue directly concerns.  Don’t like what they say?  These days you can purchase the dignity of entire tribes with just a few dollars of Original American blood money and use them (as the team did in its propaganda video, “Redskin is a Powerful Word”) to justify a billionaire’s unjustifiable recalcitrance.  Exploiting poor people.  Sounds legit, right?  In fact, should you express any opinion as a Native person that counters the expectation that’s been forced upon you, understand that the first line of critique will be an attack not on the validity of your complaint but rather an assault on your identity.  Expect questions like, “how much Indian you are” or considerations of whether or not you are a “real” Indian, that then restrict the authority of your dissent.  Native people don’t get to choose the barometer for any of those things; non-Natives do.

America likes its savages to be noble and stoic.  Talking back subverts that paradigm and it makes people uncomfortable.  And that’s why The Post diluting Deal’s indigenous voice and altering its narrative to convey what it chooses is so problematic.  Native people must, as a very basic human right, be accorded the freedom to assert their identity, to articulate their own priorities, and to do so with their own voices.


3 thoughts on “Interchangeable Indians: Consent, Context, and the Contested Image

  1. Ferguson and the Founding of Sovereign Violence – Upward Anthropology Research Community

  2. What do Native Americans think about Archeology? | Cool Anthropology

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