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Reviewed by:
  • Indians in Unexpected Places
  • Melissa L. Meyer
Indians in Unexpected Places. By Philip J. Deloria (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004) 300 pp. $24.95 cloth $17.95 paper

This book is extraordinarily engaging and insightful. Deloria's penetrating, poignant, and humorous prose reveals the struggle of Native people against powerful cultural forces that sought to confine them in stereotypical notions of Indian life.

Deloria brilliantly counterpoises a colonial project to sideline and trivialize a frozen Indian past with Native initiatives to create a hybrid culture based on remembered traditions and selected elements of American culture. With an eye for iconography and loaded descriptors, he deftly discusses local newspaper coverage of South Dakotan murders, the cultural content and space of Wild West shows, the typical plot of Hollywood westerns, Indian actors' efforts to fashion more realistic depictions of Native people, portrayals of Native athletes as the epitome of organic physicality, representations of Indians using sewing machines and cars, the popular nagging tom-tom that is actually nothing like the heartbeat rhythm of Native drumming, and hybrid musical forms. Deloria illuminates a historical moment in the early twentieth-century when Native people challenged how they were portrayed and offered alternatives.

Deloria's keen analytical lens spotlights Native efforts to modernize and offers reasons for why they ultimately failed. As descendants of a settler society, Americans needed certain stereotypes of American Indians to justify their dominion. Indians must be aggressive, conquered, and poor. "Outbreaks" from contained reservations replaced "uprisings." Families hunting game were constructed as violent to justify vigilantes who murdered them. Indians performed their conquest in Wild West shows, but also toured Europe and hobnobbed with royalty and heads of [End Page 305] state. Old westerns that revisited this theme, however, required Native actors to step aside for white lead actors. Riding in cars was anathema, especially for old warriors like Geronimo. Indians who used modern technology risked charges of "squandering" their money. A photo of Red Cloud Woman in powwow regalia sitting under a hairdryer always provoked titters.

In the conclusion, Deloria explains why Native activists demanded their own cultural space. Native people share a living memory of an autonomous, sovereign time and remain indigenous. Despite colonialism's devastation, Native groups retain a collective sense of themselves as distinct people. Taking advantage of legal and judicial windows to enlarge that sovereignty characterizes Native activism in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Debilitating stereotypes have left a horrible legacy for Native and non-Native people alike. Contemporary society is impervious to its modern American Indian people. The growing wealth and influence of gaming groups is met by a backlash of anti-Indian sentiment. After all, Indians should be poor and live "in harmony with nature," not lobby state politicians. Fans defend Indian mascots as "honorable" despite Native protests. Native children are denounced as inauthentic if they fail to exhibit physical or cultural stereotypes, whereas white schoolchildren can dress in long, black braids and Plains symbolism at Thanksgiving with impunity. Deloria argues that Americans need Native people to conform to white images instead of attend properly to the realities of their lives. When they fail to do so, they are forced to bear a heavy ball and chain.

Melissa L. Meyer
University of California, Los Angeles


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pp. 305-306
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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