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Authentic Indians: Episodes of Encounter from the Late Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast

By Paige Raibmon

Review By Brian Dippie

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 150 Summer 2006  | p. 113-6

Authentic Indians examines the pressure exerted on a minority to conform to an ideal that the majority defined by another ideal – in short, two abstractions played off one another. Paige Raibmon calls this a binary, most easily described as savagery and civilization, though her preference is for the authentic and the inauthentic, since it suggests that the notion that Indians were savages who must be civilized was actually a trap. There was nothing between the absolutes of savagery and civilization – essentially an either/or binary denying continuity in the name of change. This perhaps overstates her argument because she also describes the dynamic involved as a “one-way journey” (165) to civilization, past signposts indicating the destination was near. Her case studies – “episodes of encounter from the late-nineteenthcentury Northwest Coast” – span the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 to the 1906 hearings on the admissibility of children of Native descent to Sitka’s public schools.

John C. Ewers, a student of the Blackfoot, persuasively documented the general acceptance of the Plains Indian as the representative North American Indian in an essay published in The Smithsonian Report for 1964. Consequently, one welcomes studies that locate their Aboriginal stereotypes elsewhere, and Authentic Indians offers new stories, if not new stereotypes. Raibmon contends that “imperialist nostalgia” (6) celebrated an unchanging ideal of the pure Indian – the noble savage, presumably, since the ignoble savage never spawned nostalgia, imperialist or otherwise. Those who chose to lament the disappearance of the noble savage also deplored the deviations from that ideal caused by the impact of civilization. Back in 1841, in an appendix to his Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indian, the artist George Catlin contrasted the “uncorrupted” and “corrupted” Indian under the headings “Original” and “Secondary,” which spawned the following binaries: handsome/ugly, clean /filthy, sober/drunken, happy/ miserable, and so on, culminating in full-blood/mixed-blood and living/ dying. Sixty years later, in the 1890s, nothing had changed as white observers of Northwest Coast peoples continued to see them as a dying race whose artefacts should be col lected and pre served as mementos. Indeed, in keeping with the perverse incon sistency of imperialist nostalgia, tourists clamoured to purchase fresh-minted artefacts, making carving, basketweaving, and the like lucrative sidelines for Aboriginal people who, by the very act of manufacturing such “relics,” confirmed white assumptions that they had no future – at least not as Indians, not during an era when missionaries shepherded their Aboriginal flocks along a path from savagery to civilization. Raibmon’s case studies flesh out these generalizations.

The Chicago World’s Fair, marking the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s “discovery” of America, like most expositions held in the second half of the nineteenth century, was dedicated to progress (which was perceived as a universal law) and em ployed ethnological exhibitions to contrast past and present. Since trans formation was the message, commemorating a vanishing savagery in order to celebrate the advance of civili zation would seem a simple matter. But what did it mean when the past confounded expectations by adapting to the present without disappearing? The savagery/civilization binary could not accommodate the “syncretic blends” (49) that constituted 1890s Aboriginal reality. Given that expositions had no investment in Aboriginal reality, why would the Kwakwaka’wakw agree to attend? For the wages, Raibmon argues, be cause money earned in Chicago could be spent to reaffirm traditional hierarchies back home, permitting elites to sponsor the ceremonies that validated their hereditary status and, hence, an identity that flourished outside colonial control. Raibmon dwells on a particular dance performance held in mid-August – a performance that, when real blood flowed, left a huge crowd of fairgoers who were eager to witness an authentic Indian ritual appalled rather than entertained. Thereafter, the public was prepared to denounce any ritual, however authentic, that retarded the progress the world’s fair celebrated. This swirl of contradictions is a subtheme of Authentic Indians.

Hop picking – Raibmon’s second case study – brought together Aboriginal people from Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington for seasonal work in the hop fields of the Puget Sound area. Attracted by good wages, the hop pickers, in turn, attracted white tourists eager to see quaint remnants of the past. They purchased Indian curios, adding yet another dimension to the “migrant wage economy” (104). The hop pickers, for their part, used this gathering of diverse Aboriginal peoples as an opportunity to engage in social and cultural activities (feasting, drinking, gambling, and horse and canoe racing) that asserted traditional values, fostered a pan-Indian identity, and subverted the simplistic either/or binary of savage/civilized that white observers subscribed to, despite clear evidence of change as well as continuity.

Tourism united the white demand for authentic Indians and an Aboriginal willingness to perform this role for financial gain. This would seem a properly civilized thing to do, but proving one’s progressive credentials by drawing on the past was a risky business since it confirmed white assumptions that the real, unchanging savage lurked beneath the trappings of civilization. The Tlingit of Alaska, Raibmon argues, thus inadvertently substantiated “the oppositional framework of authenticity” (169). No matter that, in their daily lives, they freely mingled aspects of traditional culture and white culture, the “one-drop theory of civilization” (183) precluded any accommodation between the two. The price to be paid by the Tlingit for earning tourist dollars became evident in court hearings held in 1906. The very binary that provided them with opportunity in the tourist trade – authentic/inauthentic – served to exclude those of Indian ancestry from Sitka’s public schools. Officials argued that the appearance of Indian civilization was superficial – mere “window dressing” (182). Moving back and forth between tribal and civilized lifestyles demonstrated not adaptability but, rather, a failure to civilize. The “ability to integrate supposedly mutually exclusive values and practices,” Raibmon writes, was viewed “not as an accomplishment but an indictment” (199). And so, in 1908, the court in Sitka held that those of Tlingit extraction – both mixed blood and full blood – could be denied admission into the public schools because they had not fully rejected uncivilized practices and completely immersed themselves in civilized life.

Authentic Indians advances a sophisticated and reasonable argument. However, a few reservations are in order. Setting up a binary to establish the complexity the binary ignores has an obvious drawback, resting as it does on oppositional absolutes that are equally suspect at both ends. What was savagery and what was civilization? Judging from reformers’ complaints throughout the nineteenth century that Indian progress was being retarded by the kind of civilization Indians met on the frontier, civilization was hardly monolithic. This complicates Raibmon’s binary as much as does the debate over what was and was not authentically Indian, which readily falls back on the notion of race since a degenerate white frontiersman (to use a favourite trope) could still claim the civilized status denied even the most progressive and respectable Indian. At bottom, the onedrop theory of civilization Raibmon proposes remains a racial, not a cultural, measurement. Other judgments she offers also seem arbitrary. For example, because Raibmon believes authenticity was (and still is, presumably) part of the “colonial hegemony” (10) imposed on Northwest Coast Aboriginal peoples, she asserts that “static replication is tradition’s grave marker” (13). Perhaps, but with an eye to Robbie Burns Day celebrations and St. Patrick’s Day parades, one could as plausibly assert that, for Aboriginal peoples and newcomers alike, “static replication” keeps tradition alive.

Authentic Indians intelligently con textualizes a hot-button issue: what, exactly, is an “Indian”? Tribal recognition, blood quantum, cultural involvement, and self-identification have all figured prominently in stand ard definitions, and perception plays its part. In 1990, W. David Baird published an article in the Western Historical Quarterly (21, 1) entitled “Are the Five Tribes of Oklahoma ‘Real’ Indians?” If an Indian (Baird’s example was G.W. Grayson, a nineteenth-century Cree) wears a business suit, or believes in individual property rights and favours assimilation, does this make him any less an Indian? This question points directly to the complicating reality of those who fall outside stereotyped patterns – “Indians in unexpected places,” as the Lakota scholar Philip Deloria recently put it. The issue of authenticity has long been with us, and it will not be going away anytime soon. Paige Raibmon’s book makes an important contribution to the discussion.