Indianness in Undetermined America

What is America? Who is American? What represents America? Those are the key questions of the course we are taking now. As it was in other texts, it also penetrates the text “Playing Indian”, too.
American Identity is incomplete and unfinished, wrote D. H. Lawrence, a British writer, in his critique (Deloria 3). People might all know that there were native Indians before Europeans came in America at first. However, in modern days it is very hard to find Indian things in America. Everything is so modern, so one might not think of Indians in daily life. On the other hand, you should not think only the external forms of the Indians; the point here is ‘Indianness’, the mind of Indians. Indianness is still underneath American identity.
The author, Philip J. Deloria, said the Indianness is the hidden identity of America. It has functioned as an identity from Boston Tea Party, in 1773. Against the provincial governor, Indian costumed men dumped tea into Boston harbor. It functioned as a catalytic event of Americans defining themselves (Deloria 2). After that, in big events, people played Indian (citation). It expresses two paradigmatic moments, Revolution and modernity. Americans might potentially acknowledge that Indianness is the basic identity and power of American. Maybe they tried to resist with Indianness. Indianness is a kind of driving force of America. Deloria mentioned “You can’t change your nature and mode of consciousness like changing your shoes” (9)
However, there is a contradiction in seeing Indians. One sees them representing freedom. However, the other side sees them as a savagery.
Savage Indians served Americans as oppositional figures against whom one might imagine a civilized national Self. Coded as freedom, however, wild Indianness proved equally attractive, setting up a “have-the-cake-and-eat-it-too” dialectic of simultaneous desire and repulsion. (Deloria 3)
Lawrence said it connects to current American identity with two dilemmas. The first one is that Americans tend to define themselves as what they were not. They don’t have their own positive identity. The second one is that they want to get both civilized order and savage freedom (Deloria 3). It still remained not clearly identified (Deloria 9).
I want to focus on the word “playing”. As the title of the text is “Playing Indian”, I think this is the perfect word for this text. Americans tried to win in the historical moments by wearing Indian costumes and ‘playing’ them. I think play is a common way to escape all over the world. For example, in Korea, there were clowns in 14th ~ 20th centuries. They were in the lowest social class at that time. However, as Deloria said, ‘wearing a mask also makes one self-conscious of a real “me” underneath’ (7), the clowns also could say their unsaid words in their masks. They usually criticized the King by wearing the costumes of king and masks. It was very popular among common people in that era. Common people at that time couldn’t say thoughtlessly about their king. If they do, it was one of the biggest guilt. But the clowns were only permitted to do that. So the plays of the clowns worked as an escape of everyday life, and those spoke for all people. It was thrilling but it was not a direct sarcasm. These kinds of characteristics of Korean clowns function similarly with American’s playing Indian.

Discussion Questions
1. This text is written in 1998. Do you think the ‘Indianness’ is still in America? In what ways?
2. Do you agree with the author that Indianness is precondition for the formation of American identities (Deloria 6)? If not, why?

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9 Responses to Indianness in Undetermined America

  1. cekarri says:

    Although the article was written in 1998 I believe it still rings true in American society today. Americans love “Playing Indian”. If you look at something as simple as the clothes many females wear with Native American like prints on them you see how we love to dress up; while not as apparent as costumes, as Native Americans. Or when people wear feather earrings and other elaborate feather and stone based jewelry. Many of our sports teams are named Native American names. Teams such as the Washington Red Skins, and the Kansas City Chiefs are prime examples of how Americans literally are “Playing Indian” while playing football.
    I agree with the author that Indianness is a preconditioned for the formation of an American society because the United States is built on Native American land. There is no escaping the reminders in our society that there were people here on this land before the Europeans got here. Even driving down the street you may see a Jeep Cherokee SUV, just another reminder of how things would not be the way they are now if it were not for the Native American people that roamed this land many years before the Europeans showed up.

  2. juholiveiramartins says:

    Americans can look to the Indians to try to find themselves, but also they may want to try to save their own history, once the Indians were here before the Europeans colonize America. I agree that they want to maintain the tradition, because you can find football times with Indians names, that reinforce the savagery that the Indians had, especially in this sport that the strength is so important. In my country, Brazil, the natives were killed and forced to let their own traditions and culture to follow the Portuguese doctrines. Like Americans, we have Indian dances, Indian music and Indian Day, which all the kids paint their faces with ink and run around screaming and pretending that they were fighting or fishing. But I think Americans and Brazilians just remember the Indians because they were part of their history, and nowadays they know that they were killed in vain, they were killed just because they were trying to preserve their land and their culture. Therefore, in the end, all this remembrance is just to try to apologize and hide a history of discrimination.

  3. Grace Gu says:

    As far as I am concerned, the ‘Indianness’ is still in America. As you quoted from Deloria that the Indianness is the hidden identity of America. I feel this is so true but i didn’t realize this before the lecture and reading about the Indian. After the lecture on Tuesday, when I walked in the Shield’s library as usual, I noticed something different. As I entered the Shield’s library, on the right side wall next to the computer room, it was the huge painting of a typical Indian with leather hat. I was surprised that I didn’t notice it before. Actually I had looked closely at the painting before, but it was only because I thought the color contradiction in the painting was very interesting. However I didn’t realize it was native American at that time. As Cekarri commented, there were a lot of things that were connected to Indian in America nowadays. I feel it is hard for me to identify the Indianness in daily life because I am not that familiar with it as a foreigner so that I am not sensitive enough to spot them out as Indianness even if I might see it everyday(like the painting in the library). I found it interesting that when I came to the computer room today to write this comment, on the left side of the computer room, I noticed something different again. At first, I saw a picture of the cowboy on a horse, which was very similar to the image in the Western movie that we saw this morning. Then I looked closely, there were other smaller pictures of the native America and the Western America landscape. Below the pictures, it said Western Research Center! I didn’t noticed it although I probably passed the sign almost every single day, but still I felt delighted to find connections between class and real life. This just reminds me the quote from French sculptor Auguste Rodin, “In short, Beauty is everywhere. It is not she that is lacking to our eye, but our eyes which fail to perceive her.” I should be more sensitive and discover the beauty in everyday life.

  4. cdowens says:

    Grace, I’m really impressed by the different view you have of the campus environment now! You (and other students!) might also want to check out the Gorman Museum on the bottom floor of Hart Hall (across from the Quad) — it is a museum affiliated with the UC Davis Native American Studies department that is “dedicated to the creative expressions of Native American artists and artists of diverse cultures and histories.” (see:

  5. cdowens says:

    You reminded me of something I wanted to but didn’t get to mention during lecture: the recent lawsuit that the Navajo nation brought against the clothing store Urban Outfitters. Here’s an interresting synopsis of it with some photos of the products the store was selling:

  6. Liz says:

    As Deloria insisted, an ‘Indianess’ is the precondition of American identity, which is the thing that I have never thought about. I just thought that Indian culture is on the boundary of the main culture which is white-American centered. After reading the article, underneath the American identity, I am pretty sure that there is the ‘Indianess’, but not sure that the meaning of the ‘Indianess’ is still the same. What I mean is that, as the time pass by, the meaning of Indianess might be changed. Let me break it down. In the video that we watched in the class on Thursday, there was the scene that two Indian men were looked down by white-American. This means that ‘Indianess’, represented as freedom and rebellion, is not ‘Indianess’ any more. In that video, they do not look like free and just defy faintly by singing. That is not an ‘Indianess’ that Deloria regarded anymore. I think, now, the meaning of ‘Indianess’, that Deloria meant, is substituted by American identity. In other words, now, American identity has the meaning of original Indianess. And the meaning of Indianess has changed and become subculture of the main American culture. In short, ‘Indianess’ is still underneath the American identity, but its meaning is different now.

  7. qfeng2013 says:

    After I read the reading response, I have new understanding of “Play India”. Indian were the local residents in America, but they were forced to leave their home and been played. There are lots movies about the fight between the local residents and outlanders, such as Avatar. In the movies, we can see the happy ending. However, in the reality, this kind fight never stop. The happy ending in the movies were just our human beings beautiful dream. We know what is right thing that we do and what is wrong thing we do, but we just make mistakes even we know that is the bad thing. Back to our society, we do not only have to know the social standard, but we have to follow those rules. Each human being has the right to live in their home land, so did Indians. But white people treated them as savages and seized their land. But if Indians be strong enough,
    then the whites can not snatch their resources. So not only the white should self- question what they had done to Indians, but Indians also should self-question, why they were the object of the white’s contempt. There always be some reasons. I want to say good-luck to Indians, I hope they can be strong in the future.

  8. jpnchudo says:

    I agree to your point that “indianness” still exists in the U.S and identity people in the U.S have in common is partly derived from this “indianness”. Unconsciously, to some extent American people have negative point of view or bias against Native American because they historically confronted against them a long time ago. But, on the other hand, they appraise Indians. This is because the United States is a relatively new-born country in the world and they tend to appreciate historical things that were born before the U.S was founded. So, they appreciate Indians that has existed before the U.S and they base their identity on Native American as source. Indeed, the U.S government is trying hard to protect Native American as a historical thing. For example, according to some article (sorry, I forgot the name of this article), they got some domiciles only for them and get a lot of money by wearing traditional Indian clothes. But, this is now criticized as overprotection and creating some problems in the U.S. this protection deprives Native American of willingness of studying and working hard because they can get money from the U.S government without being employed. As a result, the number of Native Americans who start drugs has been increasing. I hope they get their pride of themselves back by getting any support from government.

  9. Kevin Su says:

    Due to America being so multicultural since the 20th century, I believed that idea “Indianness” has slowly been diluted. I believe that since it was the base that founded the noble-savagery discourse it still exists somewhat in the states. Most of which is shown in movies today. The idea of “having the cake and eat it to” is something I find reflects the greediness of America and according to the text this is due to the lack of identity. I believe that this is true, over the past several weeks we have read multiple readings that suggest America has an identity crisis and has ever since been filling the void with other distractions. Frankly I can’t say whether Indianness is a precondition for the formation of American identities, it is hard to pin point the moment that our nation’s identity was formed. Even today, the question of “What is America?” would puzzle any person on the street. Everyone has a different definition of American and they certainly have the independence and freedom to do so. I believe this freedom might be part of who America is? But I still won’t be able to tell you.

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