- Keeping It RealSimon Ortiz Resists “The San Francisco Indians”
A pervasive theme in Acoma author Simon Ortiz’s extensive body of literature across time is that of maintaining Indigenous identity in the aftermath of colonization, from its earliest predations to its ongoing assaults across seven centuries. “We can’t take Indigeneity for granted,” Ortiz insists in the foreword to American Indian Literary Nationalism. “It is hard and tough enough to be Indigenous, especially against such heavy political, social, and cultural odds. On the other hand, it is too easy to be Indigenous,” Ortiz continues, “especially to be the very image of the Indian who is a foil and fool to the dominant culture and society.”1 To maintain authentic Indigenous identity is no simple matter, as Ortiz’s writing and speaking consistently express, and no single feature of Indigeneity—original languages, living within original homelands, even oral traditions—can be pointed to as representing an individual’s or a community’s “cultural authenticity.” Rather, it is the tightly woven fabric of some or all of these features, and others besides, which Ortiz understands to identify contemporary Indigenous peoples. The reasons for this, Ortiz asserts, are “because identity has to do with a way of life that has its own particularities, patterns, uniqueness, structures, and energy. Because Indigenous identity cannot simply be attributed to only one quality, aspect, or function of culture. Because identity has to be relevant and pertinent to other elements and factors having to do with land, culture, and community of Indigenous people.”2 Ortiz’s philosophy connects directly with the United Nations [End Page 5] Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People’s Article 33, which states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to determine their own identity or membership in accordance with their customs and traditions. This does not impair the right of indigenous individuals to obtain citizenship of the States in which they live.”3 Consequently, much of Ortiz’s writing—as with much Native American/Indigenous literature in general—may be read simultaneously as resistance literature and human rights testimony. This applies not only to his nonfiction essays and poetry, for which he is more internationally known, but also to his one collection of fiction, Men on the Moon.
“The San Francisco Indians,” Ortiz’s short story first published in 1974 and later collected in Men on the Moon in 1999, fits the description of resistance literature by humorously articulating Ortiz’s persistent belief in the power of writing as a fundamental medium through which Native peoples exercise resistance to colonialist aggression manifest through racist policies, discourse, and image-making. “The San Francisco Indians” appears to be set shortly before the 1969–71 occupation of Alcatraz Island,4 in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury hippie heyday. In this story, Ortiz’s Native male protagonist reluctantly becomes a short-term guest of “Chief Black Bear” and his “tribe,” a small clan of white hippies and unwashed flower children who wear “Indian” clothing, appear to have no jobs, and wander the streets of San Francisco hoping to recruit “real” Indians to “guide [them] in the ceremony.”5
In complete counterpoint to Ortiz’s remarks above regarding the difficulty and necessity of Indigenous peoples fighting to retain their identities on their own terms, the San Francisco “Indians” in Ortiz’s story are of that group of counterculture youth, specifically white, who are devoid of personal and collective identity to the extent that they attempt to appropriate the identity of others. The speech and actions of Chief Black Bear and his tribe perfectly embody what Ortiz’s remarks caution against regarding the sort of “easy” Indigeneity that allows some to exploit “the very image of the Indian who is a foil and fool to the dominant culture and society.” In her book Hippies, Indians, and the Fight for Red Power, historian Sherry Smith identifies these concepts as being precisely why many white hippies of the 1960s and 1970s found American Indians so compelling. “Many looked to Indians as symbols of, and even models for, alternative ways of life,” writes Smith. “Native Americans seemed like perfect foils, in fact, to all that these predominantly Anglo...