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  • White Skin, Red Masks
  • Joane Nagel (bio)
Playing Indian. By Philip J. Deloria. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. 249 pages. $25.00.

In their collection of American Indian oral histories, Joseph H. Cash and Herbert T. Hoover include the following account of an ironic reversal of the roles of Indians and non-Indians on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota in 1969:

ANONYMOUS: The hippies came to the reservation last summer in tens and twenties and camped at Ghost Hawk Park. They took off all their clothes—both men and women—and were skinny dipping and dancing around down there.

JOSEPH CASH: Were they Indian dancing?

A: I’ve never seen any Indians dance like that. But I suppose they were doing what they thought was Indian dancing.

C: Were any of the Indians dancing with them?

A: No. We were all in the bushes and trees with cameras taking pictures. We’d never seen anything quite like that.

C: Then what happened?

A: The tribal police came and arrested them and took them away. 1 [End Page 948]

This story is interesting for a number of reasons. First, we see, in this telling, that it is the non-Indians who become objects of curiosity and amazement, while Rosebud’s native residents are touristic voyeurs, hiding in the bushes taking pictures of the dancers. We also see in this scenario, Native Americans taking charge of non-natives in a transposition of social control where tribal authorities control space and judge behavior and demeanor, thus reversing decades, even centuries of whites’ inspection and regulation of the actions of Indian individuals and communities. Finally, we see a familiar pattern of role-taking by non-Indians, where whites attempt to dress up and act like Indians, and where their performance is judged by those whom they try to imitate as a less than successful act of surrogacy: “I’ve never seen any Indians dance like that.”

Philip J. Deloria’s Playing Indian traces whites’ ambivalent fascination with Native Americans from the earliest days of the U.S. republic when a crowd of colonists dressed up like Mohawk men and dumped English tea into Boston harbor to protest an unpopular tax. Ironically, real Indians represented at least as great a moral and mortal threat to the plans of European colonists as did the English. Colonists’ imaginings of Indians, however, served as a legitimating, unifying image for American patriots. Deloria catalogs European settlers’ fondness for simulating the continent’s indigenous peoples from colonial times to the present. Whites played Indian at the Boston Tea Party and represented themselves as patriotic “Indians” in riots, rebellions, and protests before and during the Revolutionary War and throughout subsequent periods of U.S. social and political history. We see white Indians gathered in nineteenth-century fraternal lodges, active in party politics, organizing literary societies, forming children’s organizations, playing as hobbyists and weekend warriors in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and finally donning Indian garb and identities in the counterculture of the 1960s and in the New Age search for spirituality, manhood, and community in the 1980s and 1990s.

What do the Grateful Deadhead Indians and the Boston Tea Party Indians have in common? What could be the possible links among multiple Indian enactments by whites across more than two centuries? Deloria answers with the confidence of an interdisciplinary studies scholar: “Playing Indian is a persistent tradition in American culture, stretching from the very instant of the national big bang into an ever-expanding present and future” (2). The reason for this continuous [End Page 949] costume drama? For Deloria, the common thread has been the tenuousness and inventedness of U.S. identity, the need to fill in the blank that is “American.” This quest for a credible answer to the question of who we are has led whites to look for, indeed long for the authentic, the indigenous, the “real” America. Despite, or perhaps because of, native peoples’ legitimate claims and subsequent moral rights as the first Americans, non-Indian Americans have masqueraded through history as Indians, searching for the vigor and authority that derived from even transparently fictive white materializations of Indians.

Deloria argues that playing...

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pp. 948-953
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