Outkasting of the Indiansby Anthony Chew
During Outkast’s performance of their hit song “Hey Ya!” in the 2004 Grammy awards, the hip hop duo and the dancers, dressed in skimpy midriff green outfits with feathers stuck on green headbands, were “kick[ing] and gyrat[ing] in front of a giant tipi backdrop”(Adams) throughout the performance. Many Native Indian viewers were offended by the antics and felt that it was an unfair representation of their culture by the corporate media in an effort to gain viewer ship. In response to this, the Native American Cultural Center in San Francisco called for “a nationwide boycott of CBS, Outkast’s label Arista Records, and the Recording Academy which sponsors the Grammys” (NACC). One of their board members called it “the most disgusting set of racial stereotypes aimed at American Indians that [he] ha[s] ever seen on TV” (NACC).
While Native American Indians have lost their cultural heritage, their way of life can only be seen in the appropriation and misrepresentation by the dominant white American culture of commercialism. However, in her poem “Moving camp too far”, Nila Northsun believes that such “cultural evolution”, a form of assimilation, is unfortunate but inevitable.
The words Northsun choose to use in the first stanza illustrate the feeling of lost of culture. Throughout the poem, she formats her sentences by putting the first half of the sentence separate from the rest of the sentence which is left on the second line and indented. By doing this, she brings more attention to the first half of each sentence that tells the reader if Northsun is able or unable to do whatever is stated in the second half of the sentence. In the words “i can’t speak”, “i can’t tell” and “i don’t know”, Northsun could mean a variety of different limitations she has. Those words could mean that she has never experienced the feeling of being part of the culture of “moving camps on the travois” or “the last great battle”. It could also mean that she grew up not understanding why Indians practiced those rituals, like she never knew understood the philosophy behind those rituals or way of life. Another possible way of looking at it is that she has no idea what those traditions even are. Either way, it shows her lack of familiarity with her cultural heritage. The fact that Northsun chooses to engage in eating buffalo meat from the “tourist burger stand” further enforces this idea because it suggests that she is a “tourist” and is unfamiliar to her own culture. All these shows that the lost of Native Indian cultural understanding is present not only among white Americans, but also among Native Indians themselves.
One distinct part of the poem that shows Indian culture dying out is the “eagle [,] almost extinct”. The Native Indians are losing part of their culture when, the eagle, sacred to them, is shown to be dying out in “I can see an eagle almost extinct on slurpee plastic cups”. Eagles, like the Indians, are native to America. The “slurpee plastic cups” represent corporate America because Slurpee is a product of 7-11, one of the many large corporations to come out of America. In that sentence, Northsun could mean that the eagle is “almost extinct” due to pollution, such as “slurpee plastic cups”, products of corporate America.
However, when Northsun mentions the eagle, it could also be an allusion to Native Indians themselves. Like the eagle, Native Indians are going extinct, whether metaphorically or literally. While eagles are going extinct, the grounds, sacred to Native Indians, that native animal species live on are also being destroyed by corporate white American agenda. This is happening in Alaska, where the “Gwich’in Indians fear that proposed oil drilling on caribou calving grounds could end their ancient culture”(Gildart). In this instance, the traditional lifestyle and the livelihood of the Gwich’in are threatened. During the frosty winter, the Gwich’in Indians hunt caribous for food. If American corporations decide to drill for oil in that area, they would not only destroy “some of the greatest biological diversity in the entire Arctic” but also “the main calving ground of the Porcupine caribou herd” (Gildart). Destroying the livelihood of these Gwich’in Indians would make them lose their subsistence lifestyle and force them to further assimilate into mainstream white America, and thus further lose their unique cultural heritage.
When the Indians lose their way of life and livelihood, the dominant white culture of commercialism appropriates Native Indian culture and misrepresents it in order to take advantage of any business opportunity to bring in money. By saying that the “eagle[,] almost extinct on slurpee plastic cups”, Northsun could mean the image of an eagle is being printed on slurpee cups and bought and sold like a product. The eagle, therefore, is used as a commodity. The powwows Northsun travel to are probably events operated to make more money from tourism because there was a need to travel there “in campers and winnebagos”. The presence of a “tourist burger stand” and the stereotypical “indian music” of “rock-n-roll hey-a-hey-o” only add to the feeling that the powwow she attends is not spiritual, but rather, an effort to earn money through pseudo-Indian culture. It is a racist generic stereotype of Native Indians, very similar to Outkast’s outfit and antics during the performance at the Grammys.
The use of the word “but” between the first and the second stanza shows that Northsun feels those stereotypes do not fairly represent Indians. The word “but” shows the first and the second stanza in opposition to each other. If the first stanza represents her Native Indian background, then the second stanza shows a false representation of Native Indian culture.
Using generic cultural misrepresentations as commodities is now new. In the article “Ghost dancing in the salon”, Michael Hatt talks about how Geronimo, the mighty Apache Indian chief become a product of white American commercialism in the “great World’s Fair held in St. Louis” in 1904. At the fair, Geronimo “earned himself some money by charging fairgoers to have their photograph taken with him” (Hatt). While many whites took pictures with him, some whites “even bought the buttons off his coat as more tangible mementos of the old warrior” (Hatt). It shows Geronimo no longer an Apache chief, but “a bewildered old man, unable to resist the pressures of modernity and consumer culture” (Hatt). The transformation of Geronimo into a commodity illustrates Indian culture being totally absorbed by the dominant white culture of commercialism and consumerism.
Despite all these, Northsun does not believe that anyone should be blamed for what has happened and will happen to the Indians. It is unfortunate but she does not believe any group of people is solely responsible for it. Rather, she believes that it just occurs and is unavoidable. She takes the approach that culture is flexible and in flux. Culture is not fixed, so while it feels like losing past Indian heritage is unfortunate, it is bound to happen. Therefore, even though she “can’t speak of many moons” or “can’t tell of the last great battle”, she could still do whatever her Indian identity consists of now such as “travel to powwows” or “eat buffalo meat” or “dance to indian [sic] music”. In the second stanza, the first half of each sentence is in accordance to Indian culture but the second half is where culture has evolved to survive in mainstream white corporate American culture. The second half of the sentence, all indented, is the “unfortunate” but inevitable part. For example, eating buffalo meat is the Indian way of life, but “the tourist burger stand” is how it has evolved to become part of the rest of the United States of America.
The use of an un-capitalized “i” is also a significant part of the poem. It could be used to show how powerless she feels in this struggle to salvage the remnants of the Indian cultural heritage from the white dominant culture. She understands that the white dominant culture has leverage in this “cultural discussion” and “cultural exchange” between Native Indians and white Americans because they have a larger population. The un-capitalized “i” shows her sense of helplessness in being overwhelmed by the dominant culture.
This can be understood as she herself has chosen in many ways to assimilate into mainstream white American culture. Some examples of her assimilating into mainstream American culture include her learning English and choosing to write this poem in English and also choosing to engage in those activities mentioned in the second stanza even though it is not very much into accordance with the past Indian heritage. By choosing to eat buffalo meat at the “tourist burger stand” and dancing to “indian music”, she shows herself engaging in this new kind of Indian culture that has evolved to become in line with white American culture. She knows she has a choice because she says “i can” rather than “i have to”. She also ends the poem with “unfortunately i do” which shows she has other past, “more authentic” ways of how to engage with her Indian identity.
Not all Indian take the approach that Northsun takes, some Indians take a very strong position against having to merge into mainstream America. Minnie Littlebear, in the article “The forgotten Americans” for example, almost completely refuses to engage in the cultural dialogue between Indians white Americans (Laskas). “The word nation to her means Winnebago, not the United States of America,” is a very strong statement on her stance against assimilating or even acknowledging the nation formed by Europeans (Laskas). She also refuses to learn English despite being sent to boarding school by the government in 1910 to “assimilate Native Indians into mainstream American culture” (Laskas). Even though Littlebear does not want to acknowledge white America, the fact that she went through a translator for an interview with “Good Housekeeping” magazine shows her playing a part in the “cultural exchange”. It shows that such cultural assimilation is almost inevitable, just like how Northsun feels, quite resentful about it but helpless.
There are many ways that Native Indians have chosen to engage in cultural exchange with larger America. Two of the biggest ways is by going to American schools and advocating self-representation. Indians have to engage with the rest of the United States of America to have self-representation and power. Rather than sitting within reservation boundaries carved out by the government, many Indians go to school outside of the reservation to learn about the rest of the country and push for representation. In 2002, 166000 “American Indians and Alaskan native students” go into higher education, “more than twice as many as in 1976” (Teicher).
Northsun is an example of a Native Indian who represents Indians by writing in English about the struggles of Indians. To be successful in self-advocacy in white America, the Indians have to learn about white America. The younger generation could “experiment with new media to carry on their traditions” (Paine). That way, they are doing the delicate balance of merging into white America and keeping their roots. As Robert Paine says in his article, “Gwich’in youth in both Canada and Alaska: ‘regard Western ways as tools to govern themselves and protect their way of life. On other hand, passing on the traditions, including their language should be done by themselves in their traditional way. Knowing English is necessary for self-advocacy and representation and that in itself shows cultural evolution.
This trend of being overwhelmed by the American culture of commercialism and large scale production capitalism is not limited only to Native Indians in America. It is in many ways very similar to “Americanization” of many parts of the world. Weaker economies of less developed countries who find themselves rapidly being networked into the rest of the world often find their indigenous way of life and subsistence economies being threatened by more developed, large scale capitalist systems of the world and large multi-national corporations.