The Scarlet & Black

The Student News Site of Grinnell College

The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Speaker addresses misrepresentation of American Indians

Philip Deloria, Professor of History and Native American Studies at University of Michigan gave a talk entitled “American Indians in the American Popular Imagination,” for this past Wednesday’s convocation on April 16, as part of the Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar Program. The S&B’s Kelly Pyzik ’16 spoke with Deloria about his interest in Native American studies and how his family heritage has influenced his work.


How did you get interested in this subject?

The short answer is that my dad was a really prominent American Indian activist and I grew up in this activist family, with someone who is constantly contesting all of this imagery, thinking about American Indian political power. I kind of circled away from that and went to this whole life in music, and then I found myself interested in bigger pictures of American culture as a whole … But I found myself combining those two things—the Indian part of my upbringing came together intellectually with my interest in American studies and I found myself thinking about those bigger pictures of America.


With all of the manipulated images of Native American culture, what are ways to find accurate ideas about what their cultures are?

I think there are a bunch of ways. One is to really try to do good history. Good history really does matter. Good history doesn’t always let itself be imprisoned by these sorts of ideological things, it’s more complicated. To me, what really matters is that moment in the late 18th, early 19th century when the Indian people broke all those stereotypes—they traveled all over the world, they wore suits and ties, not all Indian people, but a lot of Indian people jumped into modernity and shaped modernity in ways that nobody ever thinks about. For me, that’s a linchpin, a turning point in history. To grab onto that moment and re-think the way we think about Indians in history in relation to that moment means that you play out the whole 20th century differently in your head … That’s when you stop thinking of them as 19th century people who, you know, live nomadic lifestyles, and you start thinking of them as contemporaries with yourself. Another way would be to say, “Are there ways to know real-life Indian people?” Yeah, there are! You guys have the Meskwaki settlement like 15 miles away, and those are really interesting people, and in some ways their histories don’t conform to the standard trajectory I was laying out [in the talk] … It doesn’t just mean going to a reservation … there’s a lot of Indian media out there, there’s Indian blogs … If you get into even an online Indian world, you can see all kinds of stuff you haven’t seen before … History, investigation, experience—those all seem really important.


With the moment of jumping into modernity, you were saying that American Indians had to act their culture in a way that was expected of them in order to get the footing or fame to be able to break stereotypes. Can you speak to any similar experiences of other cultures in history?

African-American performers in the late 19th century have a huge role in America popular culture, but a lot of what they do has to do with the tradition of minstrelsy … That’s an example of saying, “Okay, I’m going to make a life for myself as a performer, but to be able to do it, obviously I’m going to have to piggyback onto the form you guys have created and then see if I’ll be able to change it.” And they do change it, they alter it, they invert it. Everywhere, you see people playing with stereotypes. A comedian, for example—ethnic comedians who often invoke a stereotype, make fun of it. Two things are happening at once—they’re destroying the stereotype by making fun of it, but they’re empowering it by calling on it. They’re saying, “You know it, I know it, it’s our shared language. Stereotype is powerful and now I’m going to make fun of it and play with it, and hopefully I can get you to the point where that shared language of the stereotype has lost its meaning and its power.” But to get there, you have to pull out the stereotype.


Do you think that is the most effective way to change stereotypes?

Not necessarily. I think in a performative, individual to group, mass popular culture way it’s a pretty powerful way. But for me, I think the better way is to complicate these things, or to simply put human beings together in a small context where they see each other and they work things out. Face-to-face intergroup, intercultural relationships are really powerful.


What are you working on right now?

I’m working on two things. I’m working on a family history of my great-grandfather, my great-aunt and my [great-] grandmother … The basic part of this is that my [great-] grandmother’s family is such a colonizing, dominating family. They own slaves, they start the Mexican-American war, they dam up a river and create an industrial working class. They are as colonizing as you can get. George Washington sleeps in one of their houses—they’re the Sloats family of Sloatsburg. It’s this big, dominant, old, Dutch white family. Whereas my [great-] grandfather’s family is very mixed up—French people marrying Indian people, mixed blood people. Europeans who come and engage Indians become very complicated people. My grandfather and grandmother knew each other for three days before they were engaged to be married. That’s weird, right? I mean, that’s an odd thing. Part of the book is why [that] happened and part of the book is, “Why did they live such miserable lives afterwards, even though they had very productive lives?” The three of them ended up kind of destroying each other. Then I’m working on this American Indian artist from the 1930s who is unknown, undiscovered. No one has ever seen her work before, so it’s my mission to have a gallery show and a catalogue, essays, things like that. Her name is Mary Sully.


Photo by Aaron Juarez
Photo by Aaron Juarez

How do you think your family history has influenced your work?

When I was a kid, I fled in the opposite direction of my father … Later I swung back around, I came to really appreciate my dad a lot. I found myself in this position … my dad could never quite figure out whether I was part of my family’s seven generations of destiny or whether it was [only] four. I was part of the fifth generation. At one point he said, “No, it ends with four, but it’s your job to write it all up.” I’ve had this interesting back and forth with my dad about this stuff, which the upshot is that at some moment he had designated me as the sort of family historian. And I kind of find myself doing that … The family thing is really important because it’s a weird, interesting family. You don’t want to claim too much about your family, but my family is a really interesting family with a lot of different characters in it.

View Comments (1)
More to Discover
Donate to The Scarlet & Black
Our Goal

Comments (1)

All The Scarlet & Black Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • R

    Rollin KekahbahApr 18, 2014 at 9:41 am

    Was Vine Deloria Philip Deloria’s father? Did Philip Deloria mean it was the early 20th century when Indian stereotypes were broken-not the 19th century?