restricted access 7. Contemporary Wannabes
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7 Contemporary Wannabes When non-Indians dance at intertribal powwows, what does their participation signify in the context of interracial and transcultural exchange? How do these people perform race? Why are some non-Indians so intensely invested in what could ultimately be called a game of dress-up? In this chapter, I explore how some of these individuals play Indian through dance at powwows primarily in the United States, though it is also a common practice in Canada, Europe, and elsewhere in interesting ways. By focusing on the details of body movement, one can begin to understand why wannabes, hobbyists, New Age practitioners, and tourists are motivated to join the powwow circle not as themselves but as Indians for many reasons in the twenty-first century. Their complex and varied motivations include entertainment, the search for an American identity, a desire to participate in a communal and alternative reality that is different than their own, and the desire for a new or renewed spiritual experience. History In the United States, the phenomenon of non-Indians playing Indian goes back to the eighteenth century, when we have our first written reports of Europeans dancing with or “like Indians.” The earliest accounts deal with French and British officials in the mid-eighteenth century who participated in Indian dance to help “create alliances with and between Indian tribes” (Young 1981, 119). Though the motivations of these officials was distinct from that of other nonIndians who would later “perform Indian,” nonetheless, they recognized the importance of dance for Indians and participated in that activity to facilitate Native and non-Native relations. James Mooney’s 1896 narrative of an incident that took place in 1750 serves as an example: “When a governor of Canada and a general of his army stepped into the circle of braves to dance and sing the war song with their red allies, thirty-three wild tribes declared on the wampum belt ‘the French are our brothers and the King is our Father’” (qtd. in Young 1981, 120–121). Indians and Wannabes 126 Non-Indian play has taken on many different forms since then. However, what is of interest here is how dance was a specific and integral aspect of these forms. For example, in the early nineteenth century, the Tammany societies of New York City performed May Day rites that were largely derived from European carnival practices. As David Ridgely reported in 1841 in the Annals of Annapolis, at these festival-like gatherings, after dancing around the maypole in an “Indian war dance,” the participants would form “a large company usually assembled during the course of the evening, and when engaged in the midst of a dance, the company were interrupted by the sudden intrusion of a number of the members of ‘St. Tamina’s Society,’ habited like Indians, who rushing violently into the room singing the war songs, and giving the whoop, commenced dancing in the style of that people” (qtd. in Deloria 1998, 17). Another group that traces its history to the first half of the nineteenth century is the Improved Order of Red Men, which was formed during the 1812 War and was first called the Society of Red Men. The origins of this group lie in pre-revolutionary era secret societies of colonists who objected to the British Crown. The organization persisted after the Revolution as a patriotic fraternity. This group provides some of the first instances of non-Indians actually dancing and practicing “pow-wows, victory dances, braves and princesses” (Green 1988, 36). The secret “costumed rituals” of the group were performed by members who wore regalia patterned after a Euro-American version of Native American regalia. It is likely that dance played a role in these ceremonies. In the 1950s, the Improved Order of Red Men had hundreds of chapters or what they called tribes throughout the United States, and it still exists today. According to chroniclers Bunny McBride and Harald Prins, the Improved Order of the Red Men was “the oldest of various patriotic societies in the country” and was also “the most widespread, especially in the eastern states.” The chapter on Mount Desert Island in Maine (now the site of the Annual Native American Festival) was one of 116 chapters in the state. It took its name from “one of the five so-called ‘civilized’ tribes—the Cherokee” (2009, 63–64). The authors explore the disjuncture between “playing Indian” and being Indian: “One cannot help wondering what the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy Indians...


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Subject Headings

  • Indians of North America -- Ethnic identity.
  • Indian dance -- North America.
  • Powwows -- North America.
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