American Indian Literature

and Cultures


Week 4: California

Readings: Greg Sarris, Weaving the Dream: Mabel McKay

Artwork: Pomo Women and Baskets, Pomo Architecture (on line and slides)

History: Duane Champagne, Portrait of the Peoples pp. 331-96

Essay: "Ethnography Without Tears" (outside Laura's office--CC307)


Writing Assignment: please bring a one to two page reader response of Greg Sarris' Weaving the Dream: Mabel McKay to class. One of Sarris' goals is to write a less colonizing form of biography (see discussion below). Pick a passage in which you feel he does or does not succeed and analyze it. Alternatively, you might choose an image of a Pomo basket from on-line and analyze using what you consider an "ethical" approach. (If you chose the second option, you should briefly outline what your approach is and why it is ethical.) For your own notes, you might want to make a list of expectations for a biography and then keep a running of list of times when Sarris' challenges your expectations.


Focus: This week we will be analyzing the arguments surrounding cultural property rights and the ethics of reading and writing about American Indian traditions. This book will help us continue our discussion of the oral tradition (particularly oral style) and Postmodernism.


1. Cultural Property Rights

Activists and artists have defined cultural property as including "both real property, the land, the burials, the 'ruins,' etc., and intellectual property, the writings, the languages, the images, the culture itself."[1] As you saw in Sherman Alexie's satirical chapter "Introduction to Native American Literature" (from his novel Indian Killers), American Indians are concerned with who should have access to American Indian cultural property and how people should approach these materials. This week we will be discussing the ethics of reading, writing about, and viewing American Indian cultural property. We will be examining some of the suggestions American Indian authors have made for how both Indians and non-Indians might approach Indian materials in a more ethical manner. I highly recommend the web site "A Line in the Sand" as a background for this discussion. (If you don't have a computer with web access at home, there is a computer lab [the "IRC"] in the basement of the library. The lab is open 24 hours a day.)


2. The New Age Movement

In order to begin a discussion of how one can approach American Indian materials in an ethical manner, I'd like to suggest an example of what most scholars of American Indian literature would consider an unethical use of American Indian culture: "new age rip-offs." (Click here for a list of web sites by New Age "rip-off" groups) One example of a "new age rip off" would be the use of the Lakota vision quest in New Age rituals.[2] What is the problem with such borrowings, though? Don't American Indian cultures borrow aspects of other cultures all the time, too? What is the difference, then, between the incorporation of elements of Christianity into the Ghost Dance movement and the incorporation of the vision quest into New Age religions?


Certainly one of the concerns people have raised have to do with the reasons why the materials are being used. In her essay, "Wanting to be Indian: When Spiritual Teaching Turns to Cultural Theft," Myke Johnson identifies three (problematic) reasons why members of the New Age movement use American Indian materials: denial, wanting to be Indian, and guilt seeking redemption. She argues that the problem with these reasons are as follows:

* First of all, this redemption we find is really a cheap grace. It makes us feel better but doesn't transform the situation of Native peoples. The injustices keep happening.

* Secondly, by denying the spiritual and political autonomy of Indian people, the New Age "rainbow" people subvert whatever good intentions they may have about multi-cultural community. What gets created is multi-cultural white middle class dominance in yet another form.

* Thirdly, these options perpetuate the fantasy image of the Indian, and distort the real picture. They prevent us from seeing the real lives of Native people. They obscure and drown out their voices and expression of self.[3]

Thus, Myke Johnson argues that when members of the New Age movement borrow the Lakota vision quest "this ritual is brought into a New Age context, [and] its meaning and power are altered. The focus shifts to White people's needs and visions, which in most New Age venues are about individual growth and prosperity. There is no accountability to a community, particularly any Native community. Rather, White people get to experience their own distorted idea of being spiritual and "Indian," without any sense of the responsibility which is fundamental to Native religion."[4]


A second interrelated concern that scholars have raised is that such appropriations reinforce the power structure rather than altering it. The Ghost Dance movement was a resistance movement by a colonized people; the New Age movement (according to critics such as Johnson) is merely creating "multi-cultural white middle class dominance in yet another form." This sort of non-progressive use of other cultures' "property" is an example of what I would call cultural tourism: that is when people use aspects of other cultures for their own entertainment and in order to reinforce their own power and prestige and are relatively unconcerned with the effect their actions have upon the original culture.


3. Cultural Tourism

As anthropologist Dean MacCannell argues in his book The Tourist a New Theory of the Leisure Class, it has become popular lately to dump on tourists (in spite of the fact that almost all of us like to travel). My point in calling members of the New Age movement "cultural tourists" is not to make us feel guilty about our own leisure activity (well perhaps in part). Instead, I hope to highlight some of the issues at stake so that we might begin to examine some of the ways that people have gotten around the "ugly tourist" syndrome in contemporary literary criticism. Daniel and Sally Grotta (authors of the Green Travel Sourcebook: a Guide for the Physically Active, the Intellectually Curious, or the Socially Aware) define the ugly tourist as those "tourists from American and Western Europe, among others, [who] share an unenviable reputation around the world as boorish, insensitive, demanding, and often unruly visitors. In many places, foreign tourists are tolerated only because they bring in vital dollars, but at the same time they are disliked because of their unconscious arrogance, sense of superiority, and insular behavior " (Grotta and Grotta 40). The ugly tourist then, is someone who at the end of the vacation has accumulated trinkets and postcards, but has remained fundamentally unchanged. As for the eighteenth-century travelers who went on Grand Tours, for the ugly tourist the purpose of visiting other places and learning about other cultures is self enrichment, not social transformation.[5] The tourist, then, is a voyeur: she views other cultures but does not allow them to gaze back at herself or to challenge her subjectivity.


4. Eco Travel and Postmodern Anthropology

This tourist and voyeuristic way of viewing cultures might be contrasted with what has been called "postmodern anthropology." The article for this week "Ethnography Without Tears" reviews and summarizes recent shifts in the field of anthropology and its attempts to not be cultural voyeurs.[6] Greg Sarris was trained in part by postmodern anthropologists and cultural critics Mary Louise Pratt and Renato Rosaldo. Does Sarris use any of the strategies discussed in the article? How does his approach differ from Neihardt's? (See Sarris' critique of Black Elk Speaks in the attached interview)


Academics have not been the only ones concerned with more making cultural encounters more ethical. A similar movement towards more responsible ways of interacting with other cultures has occurred in popular culture as well (for example in the Green Travel and Eco Travel movements). Organizations such as the Center for Responsible Tourism have responded to this desire to travel responsibly with a "code of ethics for tourists" which provides tips on how to respect and help--not harm--other cultures. Among other suggestions, they propose,

* Be aware of the feelings of the local people; prevent what might be offensive behavior. Photography, particularly, must respect persons.

* Instead of looking only for the exotic, discover the richness of another culture and way of life

* Get to know local customs; respect them

* Does your schedule allow for opportunities to meet with local people? Does its pacing provide time for you to create and/or accept opportunities for interacting with local people?

* Will you use accommodations, transportation, and foods used by members of the local society?

How does this code compare to Sarris' and that of the postmodern anthropologists?


5. Postmodernism and the Oral Tradition

A different way of interpreting Sarris' stylistic innovations would be to look at the influence of the oral tradition (particularly oral style) upon his work. What are the hallmarks of Pomo storytelling that Sarris comments upon in this work? Does he use any of these strategies himself? How do these compare to "postmodern" ethnographic methods? What difference does it make if we see his work as the product of his Pomo education or his training at Stanford or both? (If this subject interests you, you might take a look at Sarris' book Keeping Slug Woman Alive.)


6. Pomo Culture

Please don't forget to check out information about contemporary and historic Pomo culture on line. The page will be posted by Friday July 4th and will include links to the web pages on Cultural Property Rights.


Bibliography & Resources

"A Line in the Sand," (

Johnson, Myke. "Wanting to be Indian: When Spiritual Teaching Turns to Cultural Theft," (

Grotta, Daniel and Sally. Green Travel Sourcebook: a Guide for the Physically Active, the Intellectually Curious, or the Socially Aware. NY: John Wiley & Sons, 1992.

Halliday, Jan and Gail Chehak. Native Peoples of the Northwest: A Traveler's Guide to Land, Art, and Culture. Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1996.

Leed, Eric J. The Mind Of The Traveler : From Gilgamesh To Global Tourism. New York, N.Y.: Basic Books, 1991.

MacCannell, Dean. The Tourist : A New Theory Of The Leisure Class. New York : Schocken Books, 1976.

Sarris, Greg Keeping Slug Woman Alive. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. (E99.P65 S27 1993)