Indian Country: Essays on Contemporary Native Culture

Fabien Jean-Marie

I chose to review the first chapter of Indian Country: Essays on Contemporary Native Culture by Gail Valaskakis. This chapter is entitled "Living the Heritage of Lac du Flambeau: Traditionalism and Treaty Rights."

Valaskakis begins by stating that those who study culture and history do not attach much value to narratives. "Unlike language, kinship systems, or social structure, narrative has not been valued as a source of scholarly analysis or as the lived experience of collectively constructed cultures." What she tries to say is that narratives are perceived like stories or myths, but they do not tell the truth. In a sense the idea here is that the way Indians have been perpetrating their culture and their stories has no value. "In the writing of outsiders, Native traditional practice is often misunderstood as feathers and fantasy or, worse, as oppressive reification of the distant past."

Therefore, Valaskakis rectifies the general view right from the beginning, so she and the reader can start from common ground. "Traditionalism is an instrumental code to action knitted into the fabric of everyday life, the "lived historicity of current struggles and the interminable intertwining of past and present […]." Traditionalism is experienced collectively and individually as heritage, a multivocal past, re-enacted daily in the ambiguous play of identity."

As she talked about heritage when describing the notion of traditionalism, Valaskakis talks about the heritage left by her great-grandparents. She conveys multiple emotions through her writing on the subject, but the most present one is proudness. The reader can feel that she is proud of her great-grandparents and what they have accomplished. To her it is a shame that the ethnographers who came to Lac du Flambeau were only interested in the doings of her great-grandmother and not the person herself. "It was my great- grandmother […] who attracted ethnographers. She acted as an interpreter and sang songs recorded on wax cylinders […]. No one asked about her hair dish or her altar, about the ambivalent and binding power in the unspoken meaning she assigned to Medicine Rock […]. No one asked about her father, […], her daughter in Minneapolis or other children she raised […]. No one asked about her heritage, historical and recent, Chippewa and Other, ambivalent and prescribed, from which she acted. No one asked who she was." Obviously there was more to her great-grandmother than just an interpreter or a singer.

Valaskakis raises here the idea of the Imagine Indian. Ethnographers were interested in her great-grandmother because they had their idea of who she was, and they did not want to hear anything else but what they had in mind. That idea is conveyed in the declaration of a Republican congressman when he said, "The tribes must recognize that they cannot expect members of Wisconsin's Congressional Delegation o support federal aid for tribal economic development or other tribal programs if they insist on remaining separate from the United States when it comes to hunting and fishing." Here once again the Delegation came with on idea in mind and did not want to change or adapt to the Indians' traditions. It is as if they were saying, "we came to negotiate but we already have a solution and you have to accept it or there is no negotiation."

To my opinion this narrative was very informative. I did not know the story that surrounds Lac du Flambeau. I think the vision of Valaskakis is very interesting because, even though she is related to the main people in the story, she does not hide the sins, or flaws of the people she associates to. As I wrote in the text, she conveys a lot of emotions. For somebody who is really close to his family, I can relate and really feel her admiration for her great-grandparents and that is encouraging to see that she took her time to share their story.

All in all it was a good reading.

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