Ethnicity Studies · graduate school · Politics of Education

Indians in Expected Places: Musings on Deloria and Canon Formation

I finished reading, not that long ago, Philip J. Deloria’s Indians in Unexpected Places.

While I have known for a while that American Indians (and, really indigenous peoples all over the world) have had a larger role in cultural development and have participated in popular culture such as films, athletics, and music much more than is typically portrayed in main stream history, Deloria’s book offered specific and, well, unexpected ways in which Native Americans took part in the rapid shifts in technology and culture that took place as the 19th century turned into the 20th century.

This book was especially helpful for me as I think about my dissertation, and also as I think about a paper I’m working in, about the Chickasaw Nation’s use of digital spaces to assert and practice sovereignty. Deloria writes about American Indian participation in the formation of the genre of the Western in the film industry (stemming first from participation in Wild West Shows), in American Indian participation in athletics (for a brief stretch, Indians were the heroes of college athletics, in baseball, football, and running) and music, both as composers and subjects of operas and other uniquely American musical developments. The basic thesis is that Indians have always been participants in American cultural formation, and that what has been commonly treated as an anomaly was actually the norm. Along with this argument, Deloria illustrates the ways in which American Indians took part in new technology and used it with every bit as much understanding and sophistication as non-Indians, contrary to popular images of Indians being unable to understand or process technology.

In reading Deloria, yet another aspect of the myth of the vanishing Indian was revealed, though at times this myth was not one of a vanishing Indian, but instead a myth of the incompetent Indian, the myth of the under-evolved Indian, or the myth of the assimilated Indian. Assimilation and acculturation are tricky concepts, and the assumption that making use of modern technology erases the Indian is one that is problematic as well.

I also couldn’t help but think, as I read Deloria, about the places where I expect to find American Indians, and where I still don’t find them. For example, when I took a history of rhetoric class last fall, one of our textbooks (which was supplemented by other readings by the professor, thankfully) The Rhetorical Tradition, edited by Patricia Bizzell, does not include any texts from Native Americans. No speeches, no writings, no letters to the editor, no mention of Indian American run newspapers. I expected something—at least one speech. But yet, it wasn’t there.

As Jodi Byrd has pointed out, Indigenous Studies is often taught as a special interest topic, something that is pushed off to the side but left out of the center. So, while there are anthologies of Native American Rhetoric and literature, I still find it troubling that there are no samplings of Native American rhetoric present in a core text. Of course, this is not the only problem with Bizzell’s text—her selections have a clear European bias, and her selections of women’s writings are horribly biased and mostly focused on women defending their right to speak in church—because women never write about anything else. Still, though, I find it problematic that the closest thing we get in her anthology to Native American rhetoric is an excerpt from Gloria  Anzaldúa—an important writer to include, no doubt, but representative of hybridity, mestiza culture, not of American Indian culture. It would be easy to include a few key players, too. So many American Indians wrote and spoke against the Relocation Act, against and for allotment, against and for education and assimilation… yet, none of them are included.

Deloria’s book came out in 2004, after The Rhetorical Tradition. But, Deloria’s book hardly marked the beginning of Native American studies, or the beginning of serious discussion of the limitations of a Western-Euro-Anglo-centric canon. Ten years later, we know that Indians exist in unexpected places, so why are they still missing from the places where, by now, they surely should be? Why are they still missing from places where scholars surely expect them and should surely include them?

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