Hypatia 18.3 (2003) 718-721
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Going Native: Indians in the American Cultural Imagination. By Shari M. Huhndorf. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.
When I first heard that the theme of this book was "going native," impressions came fast and furious. White folks breaking loose, getting real, growing out their hair. Wearing buckskin, loving the land. Burning sweetgrass before repeat viewings of Dances With Wolves and looking forward to the next drumming retreat. My response to both the actual and imaginary "experiences" of those white people who venture into Native ways has centered on what this boundary-crossing does to Native people and Native identity. In Going Native: Indians in the American Cultural Imagination, Shari Huhndorf takes the phenomenon of "going native" and lifts out a different question: What do understandings of Native Americans and the perceptions of the relationship between white Americans and Native Americans tell us about white identity? As Huhndorf explores this question, she exposes the ways in which white notions of Nativeness [End Page 718] and experiences of "going native" contribute to a particular understanding of U.S. history, power, and purpose.
The book is comprised of four primary case studies, presented in roughly chronological order. First, Huhndorf describes representations of Native Americans at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 and the Chicago World's Colombian Exposition of 1893. Then she considers European American representations of indigenous Alaskans, reviewing films such as Nanook of the North (1922) and the live exhibition of Eskimos brought from the Arctic Circle to museums in the early twentieth century. In the third chapter, Huhndorf critiques the creations of Asa "Forrest" Carter, using Carter's self-transformation from white segregationist to Cherokee autobiographer as an example of "going native." Finally, Huhndorf critiques recent examples of "going native," drawing from "New Age" works and practices.
While these specific case studies constitute the broad structure of the book, each chapter includes illustrations from many sources, ranging from Jack London's stories of the Arctic to Puritan captive narratives. The examples Huhndorf uses to support her arguments are impressively diverse: speeches, memoir, novels, film, exhibits, and photography all come together to provide an informed view of white representations of Nativeness, and from that, a picture of whiteness. The scope of the materials Huhndorf brings together makes her chapters richly textured, and her attention to the historical context of these representations makes Going Native compelling to read. The scholarship and character of the book is well suited for theorists and researchers. Students and those unfamiliar with the methods of literary criticism—like myself—might find the writing style quite challenging; however, the work is a tremendous resource to those of us who are interested in questions of identity, multiculturalism, and power. For teachers, Going Native provides a wealth of examples we might bring into the classroom, as well as a critique of identity politics that students will find interesting.
One of the ways Native Americans serve as a determinant for white identity, according to Huhndorf, is as a foil: an example of that which European Americans are not. Nativeness thus provides one extreme of a spectrum—one which "ends" or culminates in whiteness, or European American society. The spectrum sustains itself through several different models: developmental, technological, spiritual. Huhndorf considers several.
In the expositions of the nineteenth century, Natives represented untouched nature: resources that became raw materials to be developed into civilization. Progress, understood as industrialization and de-Indianization, would inevitably assimilate the native wilderness into white America. The idealization of progress was never without its critics, and Huhndorf describes the many ways in which white America used Native imagery to express that ambivalence. Organizations [End Page 719] such as the Boy Scouts glorified a version of Nativeness to teach virtues such as honor and community. Paradoxically, these same organizations included a doctrine of militarism and imperialism, an idealization of explorers, pioneers and other occupiers. This is one illustration of the way in which white identity is shaped by an understanding of Native Americans as simultaneously similar to and different from European Americans.