- From Daniel Boone to Captain America: Playing Indian in American Popular Culture by Chad A. Barbour
CHAD BARBOUR'S From Daniel Boone to Captain America is an exhaustive examination of (mis)representations of American Indian identity in American popular culture from the founding era of the settler nation to the present day. Barbour focuses exclusively upon interpretations and appropriations of American Indian masculinity in his work, exposing an iteration of toxic white masculinity that has been present in American identity since the colonial era.
Within the work, Barbour analyzes and exposes the depth of the American subconscious desire to "be" American Indian, which has also been a focus of Indigenous critique and scholarship through recent controversies about passing for and claiming indigeneity where there is none and the fallacy of the DNA industry's attempts to pander to this subconscious desire among the American populace. Rather than focus upon the more commonly discussed aspects of American pop culture interactions with American Indian stereotypes, Barbour focuses upon a journey through the American imagination from early frontier mythology via early twentieth-century comic books to more recent trends in superhero fiction. In each of these, the desire to play Indian to access a form of hypermasculinity and thus a hyper-Americanness is artfully argued by Barbour. As such, the mythology of the American comic book and frontier mythology share a lot with sports mascot imagery and red face in early American westerns. This commonality helps strengthen Barbour's argument that playing Indian is a ubiquitous component of American identity.
Utilizing a wider array of resources, Barbour's work is part psychological exposé of white American male desires to be other than they are and part literary critique of the works in question. From the much-examined Chingachgook and Hawkeye in James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans to the less widely known Tomahawk cartoon of the 1970s, imagined American Indian men sit next to fictional Americans who embody their (assigned) best characteristics—from Daniel Boone, who was at one with and capable of taming the wilderness around him, to David Brown, a white man who was trained in the arts of "being" Indian and who was capable of transforming [End Page 167] into the Golden Warrior. Barbour explores their literary significance next to their nationalistic significance, highlighting trends in national eras, from the celebration of westward expansion to the anxiety of the Cold War.
Within this framework, both Daniel Boone and Captain America, the two chronological bookends of this study, are the significant heroic ideals of American masculinity and patriotism. They borrowed the very essence of their masculinity from imagined ideals of virulent and threatening American Indian manhood. Here, American Indian men are ahistorical "others" who can be rhetorically (r)emasculated into white American heroes. Barbour highlights this process as yet another aspect of the dispossession of Indigenous sovereignty through which white America can write its own stories, a wild landscape to be cleared and rebuilt, much as the mythology of the pre-American landscape has been reimagined.
Chad Barbour's From Daniel Boone to Captain America is a wonderfully detailed critique of the many complexities of identity, community, territory, and cultural connectivity, all entwined in race, gender, and nationalism, that constitutes the United States' imagined American Indian landscape. It details the sometimes subconscious, often overt, sometimes well-meaning, other times insulting, racism that extracts the objectified hypermasculinity of American Indian manhood for the (mis)use of American whiteness. It offers a timely reminder of the work to be done within the wider culture to educate them/ourselves about American Indian masculinity rather than imagine and appropriate it for their/our own benefit. However, as Barbour shows, such is the depth to which playing Indian is embedded in American culture, and American white gendered identity, that this work may always be "in progress." [End Page 168]
PAUL MCKENZIE-JONES is assistant professor of Indigenous studies at the University of Lethbridge.