- Outbreak from the Vaudeville Archive
Dakota historian Philip Deloria has called Native peoples’ making of popular culture “a secret history” that must be fully recovered if we are to appreciate the centrality of Indigeneity to modernity (Indians 14). How might a settler scholar contribute to this recovery, given the long fetch of caricature, trivialization, and erasure? Initially at WLA’s fiftieth anniversary conference, then in revised and expanded form at the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) Conference in June 2017, I laid out my particular recovery project, probing its methodology in substance and presentation style. Stripped to print, this lightly edited version of the NAISA presentation loses the sounds of the Guna-Rappahannock theatre artists in video and audio clips (their Brooklyn accents, emphases and hesitations, laughter along the spectrum from anger to joy, which filled the room and electrified the audience) and most of the visual archive (the photographs), which provoked these emotions and acute analyses. Nevertheless, this piece remains a record of some practical methodological steps—listening, exchanging—emerging from one contribution to recovering an archive of Indigenous modernities.1
To begin, let’s listen to Gloria Miguel and her daughter Monique Mojica, senior Guna-Rappahannock theatre artists. Gloria began her performance career as a young girl working with her family as a “show Indian” in 1930s Brooklyn. She describes an occasion when, performing at the Canarsie Carnival, she was on her lunch break in her performance regalia: [End Page 113]
I remember one time when we were having spaghetti and we all had this great big pot of spaghetti in the middle and we were all dishing out and we were all eating—men, women, and children—eating our spaghetti, very happy. And the crowds came around—these were adults and children, white people, black people—and they went: “Oh! Look at the Indians! Look at the Indians! They’re eating spaghetti! The Indians are eating spaghetti!” And people were looking. And the kids were laughing—hee, hee—and the mothers and the fathers were looking at us all. And this was like we were part of the freak show. I don’t know if the freaks ate outside. And it was something for them to crowd around and look at all of us eating spaghetti.
I don’t remember all of the looks on the faces; I just remember the crowd and the feeling I had, the feeling I had as a little kid eating spaghetti. I just wanted to disappear. I didn’t want . . . I just followed my own feelings . . . I went into myself . . . I didn’t like the idea of people looking at me eating spaghetti.(Summer 2010)2
And I carry that. She transmitted that.(9 November 2015)
The scene that Gloria describes and Monique bears in her bones carries the legacy of an earlier group who also “played Indian” under conditions not of their own making.3 These were the “vaudeville Indians”: Indigenous entertainers who traveled global circuits of vaudeville, variety, and Varieté between the 1880s and 1930s, seizing the first transnational system of mass entertainment, the quintessentially modern form, as one route to survivance in a time of genocide. As a community, they have gone under the scholarly radar; my aim is to follow their traces in institutional and digital archives, ultimately to contribute to the recirculation of their intersecting stories. The “vaudeville Indian” community constitutes a key, still-missing piece of Deloria’s secret history.
In the development of and critical reflection on my contribution to this recovery, two cautionary paradigms stand out. Australian Aboriginal scholar Henrietta Fourmile has identified the unequal [End Page 114] power relations when the non-Aboriginal “broker” enjoys access to “official” archives and resources, while “the historical Indian [remains] the captive of the archives” (1). Deloria has analyzed how Buffalo Bill Cody positioned himself in and beyond the Wild West arena as orchestrator of Indigenous display by exploiting the perceived threat of Indigenous “outbreak” (Indians 21, 60). In these critiques lie challenges to the process and presentation of this project by this researcher. How to reshape brokerage into exchange—discursive exchange...