The Predicament of Identity
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Ethnohistory 48.1-2 (2001) 337-350



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Review Essay

The Predicament of Identity

Liza Black, Cornell University


Weaving Ourselves into the Land: Charles Godfrey Leland, "Indians," and the Study of Native American Religions. By Thomas C. Parkhill. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. vii + 238 pp., appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $19.95 paper.)

Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian, Incorporated. By Mike Gidley. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 330&nb sp;pp., preface, introduction, illustrations, notes, index. $21.95 paper.)

Imagining Indians in the Southwest: Persistent Visions of a Primitive Past. By Leah Dilworth. (Washington, dc: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996. ix + 274 pp., introduction, illustrations, references, index. $15.95 paper.)

Wild West Shows and the Images of American Indians, 1883—1933. By L. G. Moses. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996. ix + 364 pp., introduction, illustrations, abbreviations, notes, bibliography, index. $18.95 paper.)

Mixedblood Messages: Literature, Film, Family, and Place. By Louis Owens. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. ix + 263 pp., illustrations, preface, notes, references, index. $27.95 cloth.)

Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds. Edited by Ruth B. Phillips and Christopher B. Steiner. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. ix + 424 pp., illustrations, preface, notes, references, index. $19.95 paper.) [End Page 337]

Studying Native America: Problems and Prospects. Edited by Russell Thornton. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998. xi + 443 pp., preface, introduction, index. $27.95 paper.)

Natives and Academics: Researching and Writing about American Indians. Edited by Devon A. Mihesuah. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998. ix + 212 pp., introduction, index. $15 paper.)

These books center on the question of what it is that we can know about Indians. Knowledge is limited by access, by subjectivity, by commodification, by political structures. Yet recent monographs in American Indian studies avoid looking at the relationship between identity or positionality and knowledge and ignore the ontology of Indian identity and knowledge altogether. Perhaps because of the parameters of American Indian studies, Indian identity has come to be defined one dimensionally. In the end Indian identity swallows up other identities and influences. Scholars don the mantle of omnipotence when they decide for themselves who is Indian and who is not. Most assume that Indian identity is self-defined and created, yet they run into trouble when self-definitions clash with community definitions and acceptance clashes with rejection. How can Indian identity and positionality come to be understood by non-Indians? Is understanding possible only between shared subjectivities? Although these questions are being discussed indirectly in the academic community, there remains a tyranny of silence over the heart of the matter. While these eight books in no way categorically frame their arguments around identity politics, they do indeed underscore the question of knowledge. These works assume the possibility of knowing, understanding, and describing Indians. The authors and editors grapple with the reasons why they assume that possibility and the question of what they can know as scholars.

Ethnic studies in the broadest sense includes many disciplines and many ethnic groups. Its approaches are varied and its methodology is constantly under dispute, both from within and without. Within the vortex of American Indian studies, who speaks for and about American Indians matters a great deal. Just as important is the issue of who is spoken about and on what their claims are based. In the world of American Indian studies the claims we make as scholars matter in the most material way. Scholarly claims bear a direct impact on land claims, political claims, and cultural claims. These arguments bear the responsibility of something far more serious than polemics. What is at stake is power. Many scholars would like to see a decided shift toward using Indian sources. This is not the first time such attempts have been made, however, and the question of what is an Indian source is a vexing one, at least for academics. One has to look no [End Page 338] further than the exaggerated disappointment with Black Elk Speaks’ influence by a non-Indian or Iron Eyes Cody’s true identity as an Italian to see how complicated...


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