Playing Indian by Philip Deloria

Playing Indian by Philip Deloria

Philip Deloria's Playing Indian seeks to explain why white Americans have consistently mimicked or played Indian for the past two hundred fifty years. Deloria attempts to untangle the various reasons for this “persistent tradition in American culture.” (Deloria, 7.) Americans, according to Deloria, have usually played Indian to order define “themselves as a nation.” (Deloria, 5.) As an amalgamation of various European and African immigrants and Native Americans, the United States had an understandably unclear and muddled national identity. White Americans, Deloria suggests, sought to create something uniquely American. One of the key ways they accomplished this was by appropriating Indian dress and traditions to fashion and inspire a separate and distinct American character. While the specific rationale behind playing Indian changed from generation to generation, Americans adopted various aspects of Indian culture to aid them in this quest. While White Americans saw the utility in adopting some aspects of Indian culture, they struggled with whether they should only adopt the mythical and stereotypical perceptions of Indian society or if they should try accurately portray Native Americans.

Attempts by White Americans to precisely portray Indians often brought Americans into contact with real Indians who often challenged their preconceived notions of Indianness and even undermined their national identity creation efforts. Deloria’s book presents a unique explanation for the creation of the American national identity, but his conclusion is debatable and unverifiable. Some key questions need to be asked to assess the merits of his work: Has he misread the intentions or reasons why White Americans played Indian? Has he conflated a relatively innocuous and meaningless practice into a quest for an American identity? Does the trend spotted by Deloria represent mainstream efforts at identity creation or do these individuals represent a less significant attempt at creating a national identity?

Deloria describes Indian performances by Americans from the revolutionary period to present. In each of these cases, he attempts to demonstrate that they represent concerted efforts by Americans to discover or define our national or personal identities as Americans. While Americans may have dressed up as Indians playfully, American adoption of Indian dress was not unintentional. When the Sons of Liberty in Boston dressed as Mohawk Indians and boarded the Dartmouth in order to dump its tea into the harbor, Deloria states these costumes allowed the colonists liberate themselves by adopting the persona of noble savages. These costumes were not intended to hide these men’s identities – which were widely known; they were used to create a new American identity in opposition to British domination. While it would seem an odd choice to dress like Indians because so many colonists feared and hated them, Native Americans represented principles of freedom and nobility for Americans. In fact, societies, including the various Tammany organizations, throughout the colonies had worn Indian costumes during May Day celebrations to break down social barriers to create “a nascent, artisan republic.” By wearing Indian dress artisans, gentleman and others could flout the social conventions of the day and demonstrate their solidarity.

While the Boston Tea Party has become a defining moment of the American Revolution, at the time the Sons of Liberty could be best described as radicals. Certainly, their actions gained mainstream appeal during and after the revolution. On the other hand, the Tammany organizations, while small, appeared to have had wide acceptance from some white elites. Still, whether or not these Americans used Indian play to define a new American identity is questionable. Playing Indian may have played a role, but Deloria fails to demonstrate that large numbers of Americans defined themselves this way.

Instead of creating a unified national identity, Lewis Henry Morgan established Red Man societies in an attempt to inspire a new American literary tradition. Writers, composers, and artists often become integral components of the nation’s identity. Morgan incorporated both Indian symbols, dress and language and Greco-Roman in an effort to merge the lyrical qualities of Roman literature with the noble savagery of America and invent a new American tradition. While Morgan’s Red Man societies lasted for over a decade, his efforts to create a uniquely American literature veered away from serious literature and became focused on examining native cultures and languages. Morgan and the Red Man societies, later known as the New Confederacy of the Indian Order, turned into the first early attempts at Indian ethnography in the United States. This transformation led Morgan to a serious study of living Indians and that focused on “rationalize, objective scientific observation.” (Deloria, 73.) Morgan’s mission to study Indians was driven partly by a concern that Native American cultures would soon cease to exist, but he still sought to foster an environment where American writers could explore “artistry, nature, and tradition” in America that was moving was well on its way to the Industrial Revolution. (Deloria, 89.)

Deloria’s argument that the literary society’s adoption of Indian identity was a concerted attempt to create a new national literature is unassailable. It is difficult to disagree with his premise that playing Indian was perceived by Morgan and other literary types as useful way to define America’s soul. Still, Deloria fails to address whether the work of the Red Man or New Confederacy groups beliefs influenced mainstream America. Unlike the Tammany groups, these literary societies would have little appeal outside the intelligentsia. Additionally, Deloria believes that Morgan and his colleagues failed to make any lasting contributions to American literature. Therefore, it is difficult to suggest that these men’s views should be included in a discussion in the national identity of America because their direct impact seems somewhat limited. It may more difficult to evaluate the importance of Deloria’s next example - the Camp Fire Girls.

Ernest Thompson Seton and Dan Beard created the Boy Scouts at the start of the twentieth century to ensure the masculinity and American identity for boys who they believed were threatened by “an effeminate, postfrontier urbanism.” Each man had different ideas were drawn to very different ideas of what constituted the American identity. Seton believed boys should acquire this identity by studying trees, flowers, nature and playing Indian. Beard envisioned a society for boys that emphasized America’s frontier past, the history of white Americans and military order. Unsurprisingly, over time Seton’s and Beard’s conception of the appropriate education for American boys forced Seton to leave the Boy Scouts a few years after it was chartered. Beard did not believe that Seton’s nature programs created sufficiently masculine boys.

While the Boy Scouts ultimately rejected the Indian character of Seton’s program as inappropriate for American boys, these same were perceived as useful for shaping the identity of American girls. The Camp Fire Girls were created by Seton’s friends, Luther and Charlotte Gulicks, they adopted his program successfully and geared it to teach American girls an appropriate identity. The Camp Fire Girls emphasized “reconstructing middle-class notions of gender.” (Deloria, 113.) What was viewed as problematic for America’s boys, became the foundation of the Camp Fire Girls efforts to “reaffirm” gender differences and stress the importance of domestic life by rewarding the sacrifices required of “female work.” Playing Indian became an appropriate model to program American ideas and values to young girls.

The Boy Scouts and Camp Fire Girls have played roles in the lives in millions of Americans over the past century. While the Boy Scouts initially rejected Indianness as an appropriate model for American model, even some Boy Scouts troops gradually introduced “Indian characteristics as a sign of scouting excellence.” Therefore, playing Indian was used to indoctrinate American girls on gender differences and many girls would have been exposed to these ideas. Whether or not Camp Fire Girls played a central role in defining these peoples American identity is debatable. While girls may have been influenced by the Camp Fire Girls message, it would have been only one voice of many attempting to define their identities as women and Americans.

In the Twentieth Century, the American preoccupation of playing Indian, Deloria suggests, changed from an attempt to create a new concrete national identity to check modernity and establish personal identities for White Americans. To demonstrate this shift, Deloria discusses the establishment of the powwows for Indian lore hobbyists in the 1950s and 1960s, incorporation of Indianness into 1960s communes and, finally, America’s flirtation with New Age religion and spirituality. Instead of defining a modern American identity, white Americans sought out a refugee from the modern world. Each of these activities helped people create their own individual identities. The adoption by White Americans of Indianness for commune living and New Age religion was fairly superficial. Deloria does not even try to evaluate the importance of these two phenomena, but he argues that the Indian hobbyist movements actually helped Indians define their own culture for them. It is not exactly clear how Indian hobbyists were defined by the involvement with Indian cultures, but Indians appear to have benefited the most. This was one of the first genuine efforts by White Americans to encourage the open practice of native traditions. Instead of suppressing native religious practices, White Americans sought out Indian experts to guide their efforts to play Indian. Oddly enough, this interest affirmed the value of a separate and unique Indian culture. Indians “began to flirt with ethnic separatism” and encourage them to assert control of their communities.

While Deloria believes that White Americans have played Indian to both create and reshape their existence as Americans, it is not entirely clear at the end of his book how big a role these peculiar practices have played in defining a unique White American identity. Have these practices by White Americans helped shape this identity or have they only fiddled with the margins? The most convincing argument Deloria makes in his book is that playing Indian helped Indians reassert control over their communities and culture by sparking Indian separatism in the 1960s and 1970s. Ultimately, it is utterly impossible to determine what role, if any, playing Indian has had in shaping America’s identity.