- Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong
During Paul Chaat Smith’s life, he sometimes felt that he had missed everything or that he was perennially in the wrong place, geographically, temporally, ontologically. Yet, the series of previously published essays that comprise Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong reveals that what Smith once perceived as “missing” or “wrong” now serves to catalyze Smith’s questioning of Native art, text, and other forms of representation. Smith explains that during his life, he has been many things: a suburban adolescent malcontent (in Ohio and outside of Washington DC); a dissatisfied student at Antioch College; an intern for the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee; the founding editor of the American Indian Movement’s Treaty Council News; an omnivore of literary and visual art; a fan of rock-n-roll; the coauthor with Robert Warrior of Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee; and, today, the associate curator at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Taken together, the essays, whose previous publication venues have ranged from exhibition catalogues for museums and galleries in Canada and the United States to the National Geographic Society book Native Universe: Voices of Indian America, reveal that the story Smith now wants to offer is historical, [End Page 93] biographical, activist, technological, and, at the root, inconclusive because it is a story in which Smith is asking rather than telling.
Uniting Smith’s essays in this collection is his overriding concern that many Indian artists “approach their work with statements, not questions,” an approach that Smith conceives of as wrong-headed and one he strives to avoid (29). As a result, Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong is a book of questions: Who will be the next Native “public intellectual” (161)? When will the missing books about Native leaders and critical historical moments appear, and why haven’t they yet (161)? How should a “national” Native art and history museum (namely, the NMAI) function? Should it “challenge . . . white people, or . . . Indians?” (61–62). Should it be “about beautiful objects, or history?” (62). How can Native intellectuals confront “the anti-intellectualism in our own communities?” (85). If irony did not play a role in Dances with Wolves sweeping the Oscars, with the passing of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, or with the “explo[sion]” of casinos “across Indian country,” why were Indians doing this “funny, brilliant . . . stuff” on their own (148–49)? Smith indicates that the answers to these and other questions are not clear but that the questions themselves are crucial, viable, and compelling; we must consider them because, according to his title, many of the answers both Native and non-Native people have offered in the past have been “wrong.” In fact, he explains, most of the answers have been wrong. The title “is not meant to be taken literally,” but we must be reminded to think again, to question, and to understand that the “You” in his title “really means We, as in all of Us” (182).
Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong is also a book about the interactions between Native people and technologies, as articulated through Smith’s own involvement (as a writer, editor, art critic, curator, and cultural commentator) in practices of consumption, production, and reproduction of images and information. In discussing photography, film, music, painting, mixed-media installation, and performance art, Smith comments upon technologies that historically have functioned to both mirror and manipulate while serving cathectic purposes for the capturer/creator. On these lines, Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong is itself a device [End Page 94] that encourages readers to reassess their own relationships to and assumptions about the images they consume and the ones they produce.
The first essay, “Every Picture Tells a Story,” begins with a barrage a people, places, and technologies: cameras, a museum, Ishi, Smith’s Grandpa Chaat, forty-eight glass lantern slides, and Sitting Bull. Regarding technologies of visual capture, namely cameras...