Indian Country: Essays on Contemporary Native Culture
Alia, Valerie, British Journal of Canadian Studies
Gail Guthrie Valaskakis, Indian Country: Essays on Contemporary Native Culture (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2005), 293 pp. Paper. $28.95. £15. ISBN 0-8892-0479-9.
Gail Guthrie Valaskakis' long-awaited collection takes us on a journey through temporal, geographic, cultural, personal and interpersonal space. Written between 1988 and 2001, the beautifully crafted essays are framed by the introductory 'Approaching Indian Country' and the concluding tribute to 'All my Relations'.
The essays are deeply rooted in the author's personal experience. My favourites are 'Living the Heritage of Lac du Flambeau', 'Sacajawea and her Sisters', Dance me Inside', and 'Drumming the Past'. At the core is a struggle with, and a celebration of, multifaceted, hybrid identities. For Valaskakis, pan-Indian experiences, representations, organisations and identities are not 'artificial expressions of experienced tribal heritage' but 'authentic expressions of transforming traditional practice' (p. 121).
While some repetition is expected in a collection of this kind, occasionally passages lose their freshness (for example, the discussion of postcards in two essays, 'Sacajawea' (p. 127) and 'Postcards of my Past' (p. 67)). The discussions of Edward Curtis (p. 91; p. 128) work better because they present two aspects of the picture, rather than word-for-word repetition. In critiquing Curtis's photographs and the importance of '[r]econceptualizing culture as everyday action' (p. 92), it would be interesting to reflect on the differences between Edward Curtis's exoticised, costumed portraits and the workaday depictions of Native Americans and First Nations people by his photographer brother, Asahel Curtis.
There is one thing I find troubling - the construction, or assumption, of 'anthropologist' and 'ethnographer' as Other. Valaskakis' statement that '[r]esearch and writing about the meaning of Indian culture have long engaged anthropologists more than Native people' (p. 107) excludes the important work of anthropologists such as Alfonso Ortiz. Ortiz documented his own cultural community, and was a key figure in Princeton's Native American programme and a long-time advocate of indigenous education and rights. …