Indian Givers: Reterritorializing the South in Contemporary Native American Literature

Article excerpt

I know that we invent what we need to be true, imagining and re-writing until there is some kind of a text that gives us back a self.

--Louis Owens, "Finding Gene"

THE PHRASE "INDIAN GIVER" HAS LONG BEEN A PART OF OUR AMERICAN English vocabulary, along with its derogatory connotations. Originally, "Indian giving" simply referred to what struck European settlers as an odd gift-giving ritual, wherein a Native American expected his offerings to be reciprocated in a gesture of appreciation and respect. (1) After repeated experience with whites--who assumed gifts to be unidirectional grants and beyond the standard economy--Indians began to resent the affronts to their goodwill and in disappointment appeared to want to take back their offerings. Thus, the "Indian giving" idiom has literal weight but disturbing layers of ironic implications: not only were Natives' earliest contributions of skins, husbandry, and agricultural tutelage unreturned but their very lands formed a gift-wrapped package of lucrative opportunity for waves of European settlers who continued to take and take until virtually nothing was left for the exploited "givers." Nonetheless, in a classic twist of colonial rationalization and hypocrisy, America's own most extraordinary and reluctant givers of an entire continent earned this disparaging idiom for ungrateful and covetous behavior. The evolution of this idiom typifies strikingly the pattern of stereotype formation still operative in contemporary America, in which Indians are often figured as greedy loafers demanding unreasonable reparations from the federal government in the form of free services, economic aid, and the license to develop casino dynasties. It is high time to begin theorizing ways in which Indians and indigenous literature are reterritorializing this concept in efforts to take back contaminated notions of culture, community, and identity long appropriated by the discourse and practice of American society and academia.

Misconceptions about Indian greed have been especially common in the South, where the stubborn Natives who remained after the sweeping Removal efforts of the 1830s seemed to white Southerners to receive "unnatural, even scandalous special treatment from the federal government" (Martin 144). This misleading notion increased as the post-Civil War South's own economic woes mounted. It makes for a revealing coincidence, then, that the term "Indian giver" first appears in common usage only in 1860, a date--centuries after the first European-Indian encounter--that coincides with the eve of the Civil War and the South's decisive loss of its plantation economy. These amnesiac renditions of irrational greed and vindictiveness virtually erase Anglo America's responsibility for Indian poverty, neglect, and exploitation. Moreover, they downplay the very real and cruel circumstances that caused indigenous dispossession and need and led to the federal government's inept and prejudicial policies and bureaus formed to deal with such matters (mainly by ignoring or deferring them). (2) Southern whites' own perceived sense of victimization and loss has historically trumped all other claims to persecution in the region. African Americans and women, for instance, have only in the post-Civil Rights era been accorded attention equal to that bestowed on white male Southerners by the region's literary critics. Native Americans have suffered an even more prolonged absence in Southern studies; the vast majority of scholarship on Southeastern Indians, concerned only with pre-Removal tribes and societies, helps to solidify the popular notion that the Native South was evacuated in the 1830s and remains so today.

While references to Indian histories and figures abound in works emerging from the region, they tend to memorialize a bygone age in typically nostalgic Southern fashion. Worse, many Southern writers co-opt the trauma of Indian resistance and removal as an analogy for their own suffering. …