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  • Working the Indian Field DaysThe Economy of Authenticity and the Question of Agency in Yosemite Valley
  • Boyd Cothran (bio)

Broad cultural expectations are both the products and the tools of domination. . . . It is critical, then, that we question expectations and explore their origins, for they created—and they continue to reproduce—social, political, legal, and economic relations that are asymmetrical, sometimes grossly so.

Philip Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places

The place of a tactic belongs to the other. . . . Whatever it wins, it does not keep. It must constantly manipulate events in order to turn them into “opportunities.” The weak must continually turn to their own ends forces alien to them.

Michel de Certeau, Practices of Everyday Life

On the evening of September 3, 1929, Hazel Hogan’s hair prevented her from being Indian enough to play the part of Miss Yosemite during the Yosemite Indian Field Days. She had spent the day stiffening and shaping her dark, thick hair into a stylish marcel. For weeks beforehand she had worn her hair in tightly woven braids that cascaded down her back or rested upon her shoulders. She had worn elaborately designed buckskin dresses decorated with intricate beadwork. Appearing before audiences in such costumes, Hogan had won the admiration of all. National Park Service (NPS) officials and local businessmen alike requested to be photographed alongside Hogan. Many took the opportunity as a chance to “play Indian” themselves, donning their own buckskin shirts and warpaint. 1 The news media heaped praise upon Hogan for embodying their [End Page 194] expectation of what an “authentic Indian” should be: she was a “pretty Indian maiden” and the “most beautiful maiden among the Indians.”2 Yet Hogan’s decision to exchange her braids, with their accompanying marker of Indian authenticity, for the stylish, modern, and, in the minds of NPS officials, decidedly un-Indian marceled waves resulted in immediate condemnation from those who sought to control her public image. Upon seeing Hogan’s hair, NPS official Herbert Wilson threatened to fire Hogan and refused to allow her to appear in the evening’s performance. “If you don’t get that marcell completely out before the Field days,” one reporter quoted him as saying, “I’ll have to try and find another queen.”3 As a result of her actions and the reactions of park officials, Hogan had discovered that within the context of the Field Days white expectations of what constituted Indian authenticity created both opportunities and restrictions for those who sought to navigate its ever-shifting shoals.

The story of Hazel Hogan captures well the tension that existed when individual political economies operated within racial expectations of Indian authenticity. Originally conceived by NPS officials as a way to “revive and maintain [the] interest of Indians in their own games and industries,” the Yosemite Indian Field Days were part rodeo, part pageant, and part craft fair.4 Held in the late summer from 1916 to 1929, the Field Days purported to bring white tourists into contact with an authentic, exotic, and innocuous Indian. Amidst all the festivities, vacationers were invited to take in the sights, see an Indian performance or two, and perhaps buy one of the local Indians’ finely crafted baskets. Through these activities the Field Days offered white tourists the opportunity to encounter “real” Indians whose ethnic authenticity exuded from their physical appearance, embedding itself within those very items tourists came to purchase. However, ever-shifting standards of authenticity were maintained through a rigorous set of observations in the form of competitions and through the policing of borders of visibility. How Indians with ties to Yosemite Valley negotiated these borders to participate in what I term an “economy of authenticity” is the subject of this essay.5

In exploring this economy, however, I do not seek to ultimately “uncover” or “discover” Indian agency at work—it is undeniable that Indians did exercise and have always exercised agency. Rather, by examining the tactical choice made by Indian women and men as they engaged in this ever-changing economy of authenticity, I want to move the discussion of Indian labor beyond the dubious assumptions that lie behind the [End Page 195] question of agency and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1828
Print ISSN
0095-182X
Pages
pp. 194-223
Launched on MUSE
2010-04-02
Open Access
No
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