Enough with the ‘Teepees’ Already! Book Review and Interview

Melvin Jordan
11/26/11

The term Indian lumps together members of myriad tribes with different languages, backgrounds, locations, spiritual beliefs and governments just to simplify matters for non-Indians.

But Catherine C. Robbins, a non-Indian herself, attempts to educate the masses about the complex issues that tribes confront today in All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos), (University of Nebraska Press, 2011). She details how the struggle to preserve a heritage while navigating the technological advances of the 21st century yields both significant success and dazzling failure.

Her description of the 1999 repatriation of 2,000 Pecos and Jemez remains to their ancestral lands, for example, shows a step in the right direction for U.S.–Indian relations. It also highlights the centuries--old disrespect toward Indians, given that archaeologists used Indian burial sites to evolve their science.

Robbins discusses how the non-Indian public, especially the U.S. government, overlooks the significance of tribal governments, often seeing them as more akin to developing-world dictatorships than as the democratic institutions that they are. While the book’s details sometimes overpower the message and drag down the subject matter, the triumphs of a person or a tribe emerge to pull the story back together.

Robbins’s ability to take the all-encompassing term Indian, once used to stereotype a myriad of peoples, and show it not as a limiting factor but as describing a larger brotherhood, is inspiring. The capacity of artists and journalists from various tribes to form alliances and bring the Indian voice to the non-Indian public is a monumental step forward in understanding today’s Indian country.

She takes a different tack than Alison Owings does in Indian Voices, which ICTMN excerpted earlier this year. But both do something of a send-up of how the so-called mainstream perceives American Indians.

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A surprising number of misconceptions still surround Indians. Journalist and author Catherine C. Robbins talks about what Indians are, are not, and how to bridge the perception gap.

Do you feel the U.S. government’s view and treatment of Indians is mirrored by the public or vice versa?

Most non-Indian Americans are generally clueless about Indian issues until someone has a land claim (like the Shinnecocks on Long Island); builds something in the Grand Canyon (the Hualapai Nation’s Skywalk); or wants a casino (fill in the tribal name). Many believe that Indians are just hanging around the reservation raking in gaming dough or waiting for “welfare” checks. They don’t know about the origins of gaming or that Indians paid for health care, education, etc. with their lands. As for the government, the picture is mixed in all three branches. Congress finally passed and President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act in 2010, after nearly a decade of work, and the Cobell suit dragged through several presidencies. The Supreme Court has cut deeply into sovereignty. No one—neither the public nor the government—wants to address outrages like the crisis in Indian health adequately.  In a sense, the government and the public are in sync. They prefer that Indians stay out of sight, out of mind. But what a Hopi artist called a “galactic explosion” in the arts is happening across Indian country.

What motivated you to write this book?

My motivation was complex and driven by passion. At a lecture, the great Acoma writer Simon Ortiz suggested that non-Indians concerned about incursions into sacred sites stop apologizing and “get pissed off” enough to do something. Anger at what I saw was one motivator, but I wanted to get beyond anger. I didn’t just decide one day to do a book. I had written stories about Indians for several years, and some were unique. No other national reporter wrote about the first broadcast of KUYI at Hopi until I did, and I used that event for a long story for the New York Times about Native telecommunications. To the stories and the notes, which served as a platform, I added more research and interviews that took me from Massachusetts to Washington State. My feelings for Indian people were important drivers. I grew to respect and love my friends and acquaintances. Those feelings keep the book upbeat, but I don’t ignore the despair and human failings, like greed and vanity. I also had some doubts. I am not an Indian wannabe, and I fretted about a white person writing this book. Indians have their own marvelous storytellers. In the end, I thought my story was worth telling.

As the book progresses, each chapter seems to expand on previous chapters. What is the reason for the organization of this book?

Reporters, like historians, look for patterns in human life, and, during the Pecos repatriation story I wrote for the Times, I began to see the restorative effect of that process on Indian communities. As they gather their ancestors and sacred objects, Native peoples are also revitalizing the cultures that were always there but often submerged in the grief and loss of a cruel past. Indians know their history; most other Americans have only a vague understanding that something bad happened to Indians, and it skews their view of modern Native life. The book’s historical material illuminates what’s happening today. For instance, Indians didn’t pull casinos out of a hat. Rather casinos grew organically out of the struggle for sovereignty and self-determination, about which many non-Indians, even “educated” ones, know little or nothing. So the chapter on sovereignty traces that struggle and puts casinos into that context. All the chapters have a similar dynamic, so they reinforce each other.

If the reader were to take only one thing away from this book, what would you want that to be?

Many whites and even some Indians I’ve met do not appreciate the value of Native ways, and I hope readers will learn enough from this book to reach out and connect. My book events aren’t just signings or talks; I invite whites and Indians to come and tell us their stories.

With the numerous examples in this book of the stereotyping of Indians by non-Indians, do you think the term “Indian” itself helps promote that stereotype when there are hundreds of tribes?

In several parts of the book, I talk about the number and cultural diversity of Native groups. But terminology generally is unsettled. I strongly support efforts to respect Indian names, but then I see a Navajo codger wearing a Redskins cap. Some organizations use Native American (Native American Rights Fund), others American Indian (Association of American Indian Physicians), yet others just Indian (“Indian Country Today Media Network”).  As I explain in the book, some tribes use their Native names—Diné, Ashiwi, Keetowah, etc. I use the term “Indian” for two reasons. First, I follow the lead of the people I’m with, and most Native people I know—ordinary people—call themselves Indian or use their tribal names. Secondly, American Indian is the standard journalistic rule. For variety I also use Native American, Native, Indian and certainly group names. By the way, I had a small tussle with editors over the word white. Go figure.

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