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  • Selling the Indian: Commercializing & Appropriating American Indian Cultures
  • Michelle Raheja (bio)
Carter Jones Meyer and Diana Royer , eds. Selling the Indian: Commercializing & Appropriating American Indian Cultures. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 2001. xix + 279 pp.

From grocery store dairy sections carrying Land O'Lakes butter to toy store shelves stocked with Pocahontas and G.I. Joe Navajo Code Talker dolls, it is clear that Indian-themed merchandise sells well. In Selling the Indian: Commercializing & Appropriating American Indian Cultures, Carter Jones Meyer and Diana Royer have collected a series of essays treating the various ways Indian-produced arts, crafts, and performances "were commercialized and appropriated in the twentieth century" (xi). The book is divided into two sections, "Staging the Indian" and "Marketing the Indian," marking the difference between performances of "Indianness" for a non-Indian audience and the creation of tourist markets for Indian arts and crafts by both Indian and non-Indian entrepreneurs for a primarily non-Indian consumer. The editors argue that the various ways in which Native American cultures have been sold to a mass-mediated public is akin to the wholesale theft of indigenous land. As a result of commercial imperialism and appropriations of indigenous spirituality, Native Americans "will no longer own their own identity in the same way that Indians no longer own most of the land that was theirs when whites began to settle in the New World" (xi).

Two of the strongest essays appear in the first section of the book. Nancy J. Parezo and John W. Troutman's "The 'Shy' Cocopa Go to the Fair" is a study of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis and the indigenous people who participated in the fair. While Parezo and Troutman argue that World's Fairs "served as tools for the imperialist countries who staged them to justify and essentially celebrate the subjugation and dispossession of indigenous peoples worldwide" (4), they also contend that Native American participants in the fairs' ethnographic spectacles also possessed some degree of agency in reversing the colonial gaze and thwarting efforts to view them solely as "primitive" cultures. For example, the Cocopa delegation that traveled from [End Page 85] Arizona to become part of "a semicaptive research laboratory" required that professional photographers and tourists who desired to capture images of them pay twenty-five cents per photograph (11). Although not everyone honored their request, the Cocopa and other Native American delegations present at the fair "met the tourist gaze . . . on their own terms" (25).

Katie N. Johnson and Tamara Underiner's "Command Performances: Staging Native Americans at Tillicum Village" is another essay that highlights the strategies used to commodify Native American cultures while at the same time it makes a powerful argument demonstrating the ways in which Native people themselves possess agency in transforming commercial venues into ventures that benefit Native communities and educate the public. Johnson and Underiner examine Tillicum Village, a four-hour dinner theater performance in Blake Island State Park off the coast of Seattle to illustrate their claim. While Tillicum Village was founded in 1962 by a non-Indian and initially employed Boy Scouts to serve as dancers in the spectacle, as of 1992 a majority of the Village's employees are now members of local tribes and exercise "a degree of control over what is presented of and by them and are compensated both for their participation and for the handicrafts they sell in the tourist market there" (54). While Johnson and Underiner conclude that Tillicum Village is "a bundle of contradictions" because the white owners of the dinner theater continue to earn a lot of money from the performances and control the primary elements of the spectacle, Native American performers participate in the event willingly and have modified some elements of the performance by including local dances with tribal elders' permission (57).

While the essays included in Selling the Indian: Commercializing & Appropriating Indian Cultures engage various twentieth-century sites of commercial fantasy and Native American reaction in interesting ways, the introduction to the collection is both short (nine pages) and consists primarily of summaries of the essays included. Lacking is a detailed discussion of the theoretical and historical contexts of what...


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