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  • Rhetorical Removals
  • Daniel Heath Justice (bio)

In the Great American Indian novel, when it is finally written, all of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts.

Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene) "How to Write the Great American Indian Novel"

The stubborn insistence by North American Indigenous peoples on surviving the ravages of colonization has been an issue of constant fascination and frequent frustration to Eurowesterners since the onset of Invasion. The long-promised vanishing never took place, in spite of centuries of slaughter, dispossession, and marginalization; lynch mobs, politicians, and well-heeled social reformers alike have failed to make Indians a memory, though not for lack of trying. The endurance of Indian nations is more than just an accident of history or circumstance—it's a meaningful and daily assertion of physical, cultural, and political continuity.

It's perhaps easy to understand why reactionaries—from extremist conservatives to profiteering capitalists to racist wingnuts—dislike Indians, considering that treaties, federal Indian policies, and the vigorous exercise of tribal sovereignty make the economic exploitation of tribal lands rather difficult (though, as the recent BIA trust fund scandals have demonstrated, by no means impossible). Yet it's always a bit puzzling why so many who present themselves as being on the side of progressive politics seem to resent Native peoples—after all, according to conventional wisdom it's those on the left who are supposed to be [End Page 144] the ones who defend the rights of the marginalized, oppressed, and underrepresented. From the nineteenth-century "Friends of the Indian" to anti-whaling environmentalists, New Age seekers, appropriationist artisans, and academic poachers, many who claim to admire the idea of Indians tend to have surprisingly little respect for the lived realities and opinions of Indians, especially when they don't fit the docile stereotypes of the doomed noble savage.

Such a puzzle becomes easier to untangle when we reflect on the fact that the more superficial currents of liberal activism are posited on a model of "uplift"—that is, the idea that the downtrodden must be lifted up to the social status of the privileged but ostensibly sympathetic activist-observer. In such a model, there's no reflection on whether or not the observer's status quo standards hold any appeal for anyone else and no thought that those standards and values might be considered dangerous or even corrosive to those being "helped"—especially as so many models of uplift tend to ignore the more pervasive and systemic sources of inequity and oppression. Rather, the assumption is that the activist-observer comes from a morally or intellectually unimpeachable position of superiority, and that it's not only good sense for the downtrodden to be transformed but an unavoidable duty, both for the pious person doing the lifting and for the grateful ones being lifted. Multiculturalism is thus okay as long as it doesn't require any substantive change in the existing cultural values or economic system—in short, if it doesn't require anything of those in power beyond a cosmetic change. When the downtrodden show little interest in modeling themselves after the uplifter's image, when they insist on a more significant realignment of economic or epistemological structures, or when they seek to redefine the process to better serve their own needs and not the ideals of their self-ordained saviors, the response is often bafflement, anger, and, all too often, erasure.

Not all liberal politics are tainted by this self-serving rhetoric; deep and abiding bonds of friendship, mutual respect, intellectual engagement, and loving kinship have been the foundation of many successful alliances between Native and non-Native peoples and have led to stronger relations between the two and the positive improvement [End Page 145] of Indian political and social conditions. Still, the shadow-side of liberalism's shallower proponents is all too real and destructive, especially when it masquerades as respect. I was forcefully reminded of this fact while reading Elvira Pulitano's Toward a Native American Critical Theory. While Pulitano ostensibly asserts a provocative new model for thoughtful analysis of Native literature through interpretive strategies proposed by Native critics, beneath the...


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pp. 144-152
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