05 April 2007

Playing “Indian” and Speaking Back in Song

let's begin with a song on playing "indian" in the form of cigar-store wooden indians ...

“kaw-liga” (1953) excerpts by hank williams, sr.
KAW- [Dm] LIGA, was a wooden Indian standing by the door
He fell in love with an Indian maiden over in the antique store
Kaw-liga [A], just stood there and never let it [A7] show
So she could never answer "YES" or [Dm] "NO"
He always wore his Sunday feathers and held a tomahawk
The maiden wore her beads and braids and hoped someday he'd talk
KAW-LIGA – [A] too stubborn to ever show a sign
Because his heart was made of knotty pine.
CHORUS [D] Poor ol' KAW-LIGA, he never got a kiss
[G] Poor ol' KAW-LIGA, he don't know what he missed
[D] Is it any wonder that his face is [A7] red
KAW-LIGA, that poor ol' wooden [D] head

tribal poetics, tribal politics
at the 1992 university of arizona “poetics and politics series,” 13 indigenous intellectual writers, like joy harjo and simon ortiz, “not only examined the extraordinary emergence of Native American literature, but presented that literature within a living context.” yes, a living context, unlike w/hank williams’ kawliga, because indigenous peoples are still here, though that may be contrary to some mindsets.

i’m considering poetics in musical expression and politics in social constructions of race. namely, i situate this discussion near the poetics in Native Americana and the politics of playing “Indian.” Native Americana is an Indigenized lyrical-musical hybrid of Americana/roots/alternative folk music. and I’m thinking of the politics of playing “Indian” in American culture as it appears in sports mascots, television, and movies. my purpose is to shed some light on how tribal poetics and tribal politics are intertwined, how, more specifically, Indigenous songwriting and Indigenous scholarship inform each other in this interweaving. for many indigenous peoples, politics and poetics already intersect. they’re already related, all part of a larger circle. You might say that indigenous peoples are not only the original inhabitants of this land but also the original interdisciplinarians on this land, contrary to the one-dimensional stereotypes we may see elsewhere.

for Arigon Starr, a Kickapoo musician, songwriter and playwright, she connects the process of playing “Indian,” of enacting redface, with the absence of respectful Indigenous representations in tv and film. in fictional tv and cinema, to play “Indian” is a process in which non-Native characters appropriate and/or fabricate Indigenous identities and perform on-camera as “Indians.” As Arigon Starr says [chords added],

"please do not touch the indians" excerpts by arigon starr
[D]They put a white guy in tan makeup/[D]They put a [G]black wig on his D]head[D]
It's no wonder we ain't on tee-vee / [D] They all [G] think we're [A] dead
They write songs and they make movies / About Indians long ago
All those pictures never look like / Indian folks I know

Please do [G] not/Touch the [D] Indians / they’re my [G] world / My only[A]home
Please do [G]not/Touch the[D]Indians / Way[G]ya hey[A]ya/Way[G]ya hey [D]yo

Old time westerns show warriors / As fools and as a liars
Cartoon Indians dancing around / A captive set on fire
A producer takes a call / From a studio on the phone
They want him to make "Geronimo" / With Sylvester Stallone

Please do [G] not/Touch the [D] Indians / they’re my [G] world / My only[A]homePlease do [G]not/Touch the[D]Indians / Way[G]ya hey[A]ya/Way[G]ya hey [D]yo

with Native actresses and actors as the invisible on American television, representations of redface stand in as the visible. Playing “Indian,” w/its artistic expressions, w/its intentions to entertain, and w/its power to wield influence on audiences, also brings about entertainment at Native People’s expense and brings about disrespect and brings about misinformation, which, in turn, lead to political-poetical protest in Indigenous intellectual songwriting by Indigenous intellectual-artists like Litefoot, a consciousness raising Cherokee hip hop artist and actor. (yeah, he’s that NDN in the film Indian in the Cupboard, not to be confused with the sequel ... White Man in the Pantry). Litefoot's song “What’s it gonna take?” asks what it will take for intercultural peace. Speaking on racial hypocrisy, he asks why Eminem gets called a racist for saying the N word while hip hop folks who go ’round wearing Cleveland NDNs and Atlanta Braves hats aren’t called out for perpetuating the objectification of native folks. Eminem gets called out while biz markie and flava flav wear headdresses and ignore Indigenous tradition and respect for tribal leaders in certain indigenous nations who wear headdresses.

like Arigon Starr, Litefoot, turns to televisual redface and tries to make sense of television’s colonial discourse, asking, what’s it gonna take for respect?

can you speak to me about what the world screams to me
Disrespect so d*** blatant whose reality's on TV
Got the money to buy the box, What's this comin out my box?
It ain't respectin me! What the f*** is on my TV?
Saturday Night Live got a comedian named Billy Smith
He don't look like no ’skin I know and he ain't funny for s***
He got a cowboy hat on and of course a braid out the back
But he don't talk good English and oblivious to why he's laughed at
I guess basically what Lorne Michaels and Jimmy Fallon tryin to say is,
I'm in the past what you doin here trying to be today
That me and my people just some washed up has-beens
That we couldn't even tell a joke or be funny to get some friends
SNL saying the same as the movie biz and Hip Hop
We only good with feathers on we don't exist when they off
I punch the remote feelin like my whole race is a joke
I wanna grab em by the throat but instead I burn this Cedar for hope

and Litefoot goes on to talk about being invited to perform at a hip hop concert in NY in 2003 w/busta rhymes and other predominantly African American hip hop artists. But as litefoot explains and as cristina veran reported in "rap, rage, REDvolution," he was not too welcomed.

Show time and its chaos the coliseum's sold out
Jadakiss spits, Ludacris grabs the mic and out
Before Busta Rhymes, it's time for Litefoot and his crew
I jumped on stage; Grass Danced and I spit the truth
Then the crowd split between cheers to "F" this skin
I thought this was America people? Guess we ain't equal again.
Now a year later I'm watchin' the Grammy's - It's 2004
The crowds praisin Outkast dressed like Indians jumpin round on the floor man
(And that ain't disrespectful)

So what's it gonna be for you and me to see
That we brothers and sisters we all need equality
This world ain't just white it ain't all black either
Takes the brown, yellow and red to complete the people

susan shown harjo, a Cheyenne activist, agrees that outkast and cbs, who aired the grammys, didn’t show respect. Harjo describes the scene: "Andre 3000 [of outkast] wore the kind of wig that white guys wear in movies to 'look Indian'; each of the women dancers wore a wig of long braids, topped with a headband and a solitary green feather, standing upright. Above knee-high silver boots, they wore sea-foam tops and shorts with shake-your-tailfeathers fringe. And, there was the USC Trojan Marching Band, not in the usual helmets and burgundy and gold colors of the University of Southern California, but in green and white uniforms and plumes, with green and yellow paint on their faces." "Whoever dreamed up the production," harjo adds, "was going for an Indian effect, but it more closely approximated the Jolly Green Giant and dancing vegetables on crack."

this is a way by Harjo, like by many Natives, to approach offense with humor. It’s part of trying to speak back and to decolonize the images/words/and discourse in representations of redface. It’s what Haunani Kay-Trask calls “a collective resistance to colonialism.” For me, it’s not about being politically correct; it’s about being humanly respectful; it’s about being respectfully human; it’s about raising awareness/consciousness that something like outkast’s grammy performance and other recent instances of playing “Indian” are rooted in hundreds of years of colonization. We cannot take what may look like isolated instances and separate them from a larger historical and contemporary context, or like that Arizona poetics and politics series says, a larger living context.

in closing, please remember that just because it’s play, don’t make it okay.

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