From the Original Americans, Lessons for the World
(Native society is changing, but poet says its values and appeal remain)
By Jeff Baron
Washington — Kim Blaeser has some ideas on why American Indians hold an enduring fascination for people around the world: Indian culture helps them “to change their own relationship with what’s around them, to make them think about the world in a different way, to put themselves in a different place, to ask themselves different questions about what they’re doing in their lives,” she said.
Blaeser, an American Indian poet, will visit Bahrain in October as part of a U.S. State Department speakers program, sharing her poetry and evaluating the work of young poets there. Past trips for the speakers program have taken her to Norway and Indonesia, and a State Department videoconference led to a trip to Taiwan. Blaeser also has encountered the fascination for Indians as a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, where she teaches creative writing, Native American literature and American nature writing. She is working on launching a native writers’ institute at the university.
Part of the fascination arises from a romanticized view of Native Americans, she said. The idea of the noble savage — untainted, spiritual, brave and in tune with nature — arose in Europe centuries ago, and it persists “in the sort of imagined Indian, the invented Indian. [Native American writer] Gerald Vizenor calls it the invented Indian or the postcard Indian,” Blaeser said. “It’s one that is kind of the stereotype. It’s the Indian on horseback wearing leather and feathers.”
“People want to get an Indian name or be a part of a tribe, but guess what: It takes more time, is more work and isn’t as clean and easy as they think it is,” she added. “People want to be involved in ceremonial things. So they don’t realize that native people have to apprentice for years before they’re taught things. So you can’t go on a weekend and get the teachings.”
The truth is more complicated, she said, and it emerges, among other places, in Indian literature and other arts.
“There’s this investment in tradition and the ancient,” she said. “But that’s not to say that if you went to any reservation home, kids aren’t going to have iPods. It’s possible to have both of those things at the same time — read Time [magazine] and also go to the powwow, listen to someone tell stories and whatever. There are even native hip-hop performers. So the music can be traditional ceremonial music, [and] it can be as contemporary as anything out there.”
New forms and other changes don’t make Indian arts less authentic, she said. “What [outsiders] want is the original, as if there was a moment in time when everything stopped and that was Indian. … [Literature] will oftentimes bring in old stories into contemporary writing, and literally have the voices of other people, and I do that in my own work as well: traditional stories, but also stories of my family. So it’s like it’s an attempt to keep all of that alive.”
Even while participating in modern American society, Blaeser said, American Indians have worked to hold onto their traditional values. They don’t reject the materialism that they see in the broader American culture, but they recognize the tension between that and their own cultures.
“I grew up poor, really poor, and I never felt poor because we were rich in family. … I never felt hungry, and apparently there was some struggle,” she said. “In my earliest years, we didn’t have running water, we didn’t have electricity, a lot of things we didn’t have, but I didn’t know that I was underprivileged, so I never felt that way. I felt very loved; I was lucky. Not everyone finds themselves in that situation.”
What she had as she grew up on the White Earth Reservation in frigid northwestern Minnesota was stories. She said one thing that seems to distinguish Native American writers from others is that they tend to embrace and celebrate their influences. “Native people don’t seem to have the need to divorce themselves from that past literary excellence, but instead want to apprentice themselves to that, to keep that a part of who they are,” she said.
“We become the stories we hear. We become the people and places of our past,” she said. “So that has to be part of how we engage with the world, then, right?”
The persistence of the past in Indian culture is especially appealing for people in countries that are in danger of losing the ceremonial and ancient aspects of their cultures — aspects that mainstream American culture seems to lack, Blaeser said. And the spirituality of American Indian culture makes it all the more appealing.
“I do think that people seek out other ways of looking at the world when they’ve become a little bit disenchanted with their own,” she said. “And so I think that for many people, that is what native culture stands for, is this different way of understanding our place in the world. And part of that is the spiritual reality, and part of it is the way we relate to place.”
(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://www.america.gov)