- Mapping the Americas: The Transnational Politics of Contemporary Native Culture
Shari M. Huhndorf’s new monograph, provocatively titled Mapping the Americas, offers a much needed alternative to the recent dominance of nationalist criticism in Native American studies, a focus which has resulted in the “underrepresentation of women writers” (4). While Huhndorf’s book can be read as working to address this inequity, she also questions the relative absence of Native studies within the emerging field of postnationalist or transnationalist American studies, which may acknowledge the long history of American exceptionalism but avoids delving into the stark reality of American imperialism both domestically and internationally. And Native Americans, of course, most vividly represent that disturbing legacy and its contemporary manifestations, as disputes over land claims, access to and control over natural resources, and cultural, political, linguistic, and economic sovereignty continue to be fought throughout the Americas. As Huhndorf explains in her introduction, she uses a two-pronged focus in order to create a sustained dialogue between Native American and American studies, where such conversations might otherwise have been [End Page 205] seen as incommensurable, because to place Native American studies under the umbrella of American studies would be perceived as an imperializing move. To do so, Huhndorf turns to various sites of cultural struggle and resistance, as manifested in Native-authored literature and visual arts produced by and about Native Americans, including museum exhibition documents, picture postcards, sculpture, and film.
Not surprisingly, Huhndorf begins her study with an examination of how the Indigenous populations of Alaska were colonized as part of America’s efforts at imperialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her first book, Going Native: Indians in the American Cultural Imagination (Cornell up, 2001), devotes considerable space to exploring how Americans have historically reclaimed Native Americans “as part of their own past” (15), particularly through displays at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 and the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Likewise, in Mapping the Americas, Huhndorf draws on a wide array of documents, including drawings done by Yup’ik and Inupiaq students (to promote government efforts to assimilate the Eskimo population) and pavilions designed to showcase colonized cultures at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, held in Seattle in 1909, to understand how the Eskimos were visually infantilized and literally dispossessed by the process of colonization. Her readings of two postcards from the 1909 exposition, one portraying two Eskimo women in Western bourgeois apparel titled “Educated Eskimos” and the other, an image of two toddlers—one in a loin cloth and the other in a long fur coat—called “Igorotte Baby from the Phillipines [sic] and Eskimo Baby from Alaska,” are the most fascinating of the chapter and make a convincing case for the perversity of American exceptionalism within an explicitly transnational framework by attending to multiple sites of American imperialism through a single image. But Huhndorf goes a step further by looking at gendered figurations of these colonized others, namely the Igorotte boy and Eskimo girl, noting that the latter is presented as “more racially advanced and altogether unthreatening” (61), which makes her potentially easier to assimilate.
While this attentiveness to gender is most welcome, the chapters that follow are more uneven in their efforts to pursue what is a complex coupling of often competing agendas. Huhndorf’s second chapter (on Igloolik Isuma Productions) posits an interesting explanation for why Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) has garnered international praise and box-office profits while Inuit director Zacharias Kunuk’s second film, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, has not had similar commercial success; she suggests that the more explicitly anti-colonial message of the second film has made [End Page 206] it less appealing to non-Inuit audiences. Having taught Atanarjuat, the chapter reinforced my own frustrations with non-Native student reactions to the film, and specifically their tendency to treat it as an ethnographic exercise, as well as their discomfort with the film’s concluding moments which self-reflexively take on the film’s ostensibly timeless qualities by...