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  • Phantom Past, Indigenous Presence: Native Ghosts in North American Culture and History ed. by Colleen E. Boyd and Coll Thrush
  • Andrea Zittlau
Colleen E. Boyd and Coll Thrush, eds. Phantom Past, Indigenous Presence: Native Ghosts in North American Culture and History. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011. 317 pp. Paper, $35.00

Native ghosts have played an undeniably important role in American culture and history. From Pet Cemetery to Poltergeist, they have haunted our popular consciousness. With their edited volume Phantom Past, Indigenous Presence, Colleen E. Boyd and Coll Thrush intend to investigate the tradition of Indian apparitions. The contributions from the fields of anthropology, cultural geography, history, literature, American studies, and Native American studies comprise a variety of case studies and approaches, but they all agree on criticizing a profound preoccupation with Western theory concepts that do not fit the nature of Indian ghosts. It is an ambitious book that should be understood as an inspiration to undertake serious study into the subject.

As the editors make clear in their introduction, Native ghosts are an important element of colonial fantasy (viii) and are a particular kind of North American subjectivity (x). The editors seek to reach beyond the discussion of the imaginative and immaterial apparition of the ghost to include storied places and embodied practices (xi) to reveal how material circumstances have always been essential to ghost stories. Their book is to be read as a critique of the emphasis on literary analysis of Indian ghosts (and thus the emphasis on literary texts). But throughout the individual contributions, Renee L. Bergland's benchmark study The National Uncanny: Indian Ghosts and American Subjects (2000) remains a constant point of reference.

The book is divided into three parts: "Methodologies," "Historical Encounters," and "The Past in the Present." The first part includes contributions by Michelle Burnham, Geneva M. Gano, and Coll Thrush that focus on literary texts and concepts from literary theory. Burnha discusses Sherman Alexie's Indian Killer as indigenous gothic, calling attention also to the multilayered concept of the ghost. To her the ghosts are the dead as well as their stories. They are places and embodiments of ideas that Alexie disrupts with his text.

The second part of the book deals with historical events and their mystification. In "The Anatomy of a Haunting: Black Hawk's Body and the Fabric of History" Adam John Waterman traces the body snatching [End Page 281] of Black Hawk by Dr. James Turner. Waterman succeeds in connecting medical knowledge not only with the popular discourses on race in the second half of the nineteenth century but also with the intended disruption of the landscape and memory, dispossession, and a violent reconstruction of official historical narratives. Black Hawk's head is not a ghost but a symbol in its historical time as well as today. The irony of history has it that the bones stolen from the grave were returned to Black Hawk's widow, who, fearing another theft, left them in the charge of the governor (111). They were destroyed in a fire when the Geological and Historical Institution in Burlington, Iowa, burned down in 1853. Waterman's account can be read as a parable to contemporary discourses on museums and their human remains, a never-ending ghost story.

The third part of the book, "The Past in the Present," takes its point of departure from contemporary locations and situations. It is also the part of the book in which indigenous perspectives are included. A particular insight is provided by Cynthia Landrum in her contribution "Shape-Shifters, Ghosts, and Residual Power: An Examination of Northern Plains Spiritual Beliefs, Location, Objects, and Spiritual Colonialism." Her analysis departs from the exhibition of material objects in the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington dc and the haunting that occurred around them. But instead of examining the described incidents, Landrum continues to tell ghost stories of the location of Wounded Knee at night, of the Deer People, and of the White Buffalo Calf Woman. Ghosts are seen here as blank spaces in language, representing something words cannot express. But they also create blank spaces, as becomes obvious while reading Landrum's article. Her...


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pp. 281-283
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