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Reviewed by:
  • Indian Work
  • Jeanette Palmer
Indian Work. By Daniel H. Usner Jr.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. 202 pages, $49.95.

Indian Work by Daniel H. Usner Jr. attempts to illustrate how Indian work—both noun and verb—has been manipulated and objectified by Euro-American culture beginning with Thomas Harriot, who erroneously assumed that the indigenous population would jump at the idea of steel pots and spoons. The thesis of the text concludes that Native people have and continue to contribute to the Euro-American workforce in a plethora of ways; but these ways are often considered substandard, exotic, or primitive to Euro-Americans who consider Native people to always be on government welfare rolls. Usner states that this erroneous assumption by the general [End Page 310] Euro-American public is directly related to their ignorance regarding treaty agreements between sovereign nations and the United States government. Patrons of modern Indian casinos who are looking for blankets, baskets, and other stereotypical items are disappointed that these items are not to be found. Usner explores why this disappointment exists and how these expectations arose. However, Usner does not establish the connection between identity and land which is an integral part of Native people's worldviews, creation myths, material culture, and tenure in their land.

Usner refers to Standing Rock Sioux author Philip Deloria's text Indians in Unexpected Places (2004), but only briefly, which is unfortunate. The text is divided into specific time frames and locations for each chapter; Usner's book is a brief treatment of a complex topic focusing on a few specific tribes but mostly on traditional stereotypes. However, Usner properly implicates many anthropologists, politicians, and clergy for misrepresenting Indian life and material culture in an ethnocentric way by comparing indigenous culture to negative lifestyle and Euro-American culture to positive and productive lifestyle.

Usner claims, in the introduction, that indigenous people have been conquered, but for many indigenous people that is still up for debate. In addition, Usner mentions many Native writers who can "no longer be ignored" regarding his topic of Indian work; yet none of the writers mentioned are alive, a few are controversial, and none of their tribal affiliations are noted (15). Many current Native authors have written about this topic (i.e. Robert Allen [Warrior Osage], LeeAnn Howe [Choctaw], Craig Womack [Creek/Cherokee], Simon Ortiz [Aquemah Pueblo]), but none of them have been cited, which weakens the credibility of the text.

Usner frequently refers to Indian Work as crafts when in actuality material culture is a more proper term. In one chapter, Usner focuses on D. H. Lawrence's objectification of the Native people of Taos Pueblo for his own inspiration and enjoyment, which seems to be similar to Willa Cather's and Edward S. Curtis's practice. The text does, however, have many positive paragraphs relating to the objectification of Native people and their negotiation between living traditionally, refusing assimilation, and contributing to the Euro-American workforce. Unfortunately, Usner only rarely wavers from the traditional polar views of indigenous people—the vanishing Indian and the real Indian. [End Page 311]

Jeanette Palmer
University of Nevada, Las Vegas


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pp. 310-311
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