American Amnesia and the Rise of Indigenous Aesthetics

Sherman Alexie, the renown U.S. Spokane-Choeur d’Alene Indian poet, fiction writer and screenwriter commented in a 2001 interview in El Andar magazine, “People want to claim some sort of Indian identity, or else the would have to claim the anti-Indian history of this culture, the fact that there was genocide committed here. By claiming to be part Indian, you can think of yourself as being on the good side of that, rather than being on the aggressive side.”

The new music video, “The Center of the Earth” by psych-folk indie group, Backwords has a single moment of innocent and playful reference to a circle dance. The video is light-hearted and sincere. But, it prompted my interest in reference to a rising and historic trend in US American culture. As Alexie notes, US Americans always want to claim, and sometimes offensively, toe the line of Indian identification and mockery.

Of Montereal

We’ve seen this before. Hippies in the 60’s with feathers in their hair and civil disobedience via Walt Whitman and William Henry Thoreau. Wearing Native American garb, prancing around to tom-toms and wielding axes, America loves re-enacting colonial melodramas in art and music. The American media has historically loved of color drag shows, be it blackface, brownface, yellowface or two-faced. Comedy and culture in the U.S. would not be what it is if people didn’t love to two-step and toe the line, ignorantly and otherwise. In their latest video, “The Center of the Earth,” I wouldn’t quite say our hipster-hip friends, the Backwords have astounded audience with their awkward yet sincere video-cheese. But “Center of the Earth” is catchy as hell.

One should simply overlook their flimsy disregard of traditional native customs and spiritual practice. When I was a rabble rousing college kid at the illustrious cattle heard and frat-boy-bile infested University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, a small segment of the elite academic population adamantly protested the misuse and misrepresentation of Native American headdress and garb as a half-time stunts show, with cartwheels, racists hoots and all. But, the times have changed and despite the university’s acknowledgement of the mascot’s offensive implications, I’ve since noticed a rise in Native American-Apparel merchandized across the U.S. in fashion magazines and hipster-chique boutiques throughout Chicago.

Maybe, it’s my lingering respect for the atrocities untold and the realities unvoiced of most Native peoples, be it Afro-indigenous folk living in Vera Cruz, or the trilingual native youth immigrating up from Guatemala via México to pick corn in the fields just outside of Champaign-Urbana. Or maybe it’s my faint recollection of astounding Native American authors such as Joy Harjo, Sherman Alexie and Leslie Marmon Silko who I teach to avid 6th grade poets and cultural dissidents on the southwest side of Chicago. But, my exploitative curiosity and humanistic empathy with native struggles for land rights, reservation blues and urban identity, makes me somewhat biased on the subject.

I have to admit, I unwittingly clicked on Backwords’ video (Backwords being an adequate and eloquent name for such a fashion forward band) with delight and ease as a I shifted through my emails one morning, longing for a pleasant distraction. The style: Spike Jonez’ Where the Wild Things Are meets the Beatles’ Abby Road album cover. The music: calm and quintessential. The mood: melodic and carefree. The lyrics: grappling with every American’s economic unease and the possibility of peace amongst the roving crowds and chaos of life. I dig it. My email angst quelled, eased into tranquility and soothed into this casual discourse on race and representation in American music and fashion with the echo of a white-man’s gently whispered lullaby in my ear.

Point is, I don’t know what to make of these native trends, this faux-homage to indigeneity run amock among the (mostly Anglo, but every now and then fashionable-of-color) masses. I don’t know what to feel about this nations amnesia and the up-rise of an indigenous aesthetic.

Backwords – Center of the Earth (official music video) from Tim Pioppo

Just the other day I found myself at the thrift buying a baller-ass Native inspired, fake silver, glittered eagle artifact of bling from the $2.99 jewelry case. I rock my M.E.Ch.A. aguilas in subtle stunner-shade solidarity. Now don’t get me wrong I’m no bandera wielding Mexican either. There are no feathers in my hair, nor am I a dedicated dancante either. I’m just an “art-bitch,” with something on his mind, al a Cansi de Cer Sexi. However, I hope amongst the war painting party people, be you black, brown, beige, red, yellow, tan or pasty white and freckled, I pray, just maybe, we’ll remember a rain dance or perhaps a ghost dance for those ancestors who died in the Trail of Tears or the genocide known as “how the West was won.” I hope these visages of Native identity might flag back or even celebrate the struggle of our Native fam. Not yours, you Disney-for-a-day, wanna-be-Pocahontas, but you, my sisters and brothers in the queer-of-color and allied nations. Maybe, someday, we’ll all be dancing at the ‘center of the earth,’ with dirt in our hair and smiles of pre-colonial bliss donning our ambiguously ethnic faces. And once again the world will revolve around us!

P.S. If you’re into all this folk-adelic, psych-folk frenzy check out Backwords touring in support of their new album, Quilt. Unfortunately there aren’t any Chicago dates in sight, but we’ll let these guys slide. Next time they wanna prance a fancy dance through my town, they better ask somebody permission.

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