a particular anarchist's breakdown and explanation of theory and thought.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The New Age and Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues

I have endeavoured to make a post every month for this blog. Today, I have finally gotten around to picking something up to publish on this blog. This is an essay I wrote in an independent study. Since I don't really make a distinction in my school work and my political activity and thinking, I think it's be fine if I published this here.
I was once part of the New Age movement. I was a Wiccan and performed rituals (Mainly sabbats at the end of the year). I then became Asa Tru and believed in my interpretation of the Norse Gods. I then became a materialist, first a deist, then what I called an Apatheist - convinced that spiritual beliefs are purely cultural and psychological, and that the existence of a spiritual being didn't matter to anyone. I now identify as a Secular Humanist. Since the cop didn't know what a Secular Humanist was, it says on my first arrest report than I am an Atheist.
So, in writing this, I was casting away the New Age that had made a strong impact on my development.
P.S. I still am interested in Norse mythology and the allusions to it in poetry are very easy. I recommend the Poetic and Prose Eddas, as well as the sagas and lays that form the litereary manifestation of the Norse. It's good reading.

The New Age and Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues 28 March 2011

By Ian W Schlom

Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie has a theme that addresses the New Age movement. In it are Betty and Veronica, two white women from Seattle who are obsessed with what abounds in the New Age movement – an Indian Fetish.i This can be very insulting and harmful to Native Americans. For instance, in one point of the book, Thomas Builds-the-fire, after hearing a song by Betty and Veronica, collects all that he has in his house and puts it in a pile to watch and make sure no one else steals anything from him any moreii (Alexie 1995 pg.296).

Walking in a New Age aisle of a book store one can find a shelf of prominent New Age gurus discussing the deceased tribes and how the special wisdom of those Native Americans can enhance your livelihood, power, finance, sexual prowess, and save the world as we know it. This is often condescending, as if selling the idea of their culture and establishing an 'Indian' idol,iii as if forming a new New Age cult stealing from tribal customs can be considered reparations or earn forgiveness. Stereotyping of Native Americans began with the first encounters. First the Puritan conception of the 'Ignoble Savage', the barbaric murderer who scalps women and children and burns the villages of innocent whites. Then with the wave of European romanticism came the 'Noble Savage', who's intimate knowledge of the wilderness gives him a spiritual connection and becomes the first conservationist.iv Respectable yet dumb, the noble savage usually plays the side-kick to the white hero who gleams the info from the noble savage's interesting lessons from the tribe.

Trying to assume the identity of the idolised Native Americans is a failure at the beginning. Many whites find out they might have had Native American ancestry and spend a vacations at reservations, calling themselves Indians.v As Sherman Alexie remarks through several of his key characters, “You can't be an Indian unless once you wished you weren't.” This suggestion strikes the heart of the 'Indian fetishist' tendency in the New Age, which proclaims as Betty and Veronica did “My skin is white/ But I'm Indian in my bones.” (295) This movement that acknowledges the genocide against their idols ignores the insensitivities of its worship, putting forth the idea that 'anybody can be an Indian', just as anybody can be an ancient Celt or German, assuring New Age customers of their legitimacy and authenticity.

This brings me to the quote of the 'Cavalry Records' businessman, which exemplifies the propellant of this Indian Fetishism: “...There's been an upswing in the economic popularity of Indians lately...” (92) With large companies recognising the genocide that took place, and the rediscovery of their cultures, they capitalise on this opportunity and give consumers a chance to give their lives meaning by supplying the 'Tool-kit to be Like the Hopi' and the 'Little Big Book of Indian Wisdom'. Given the unfulfilling lifestyles of today, access to an alternative lifestyle for a short time supplies the illusion of meaning and the impression that your life is interesting and worthwhile. Thus Indian Fetishism is used to escape from and invent meaning within Capitalism, which has in general alienated its members, instead of directly challenging the system and raising the Social Question. Indian Fetishism, along with other currents that exoticise foreign cultures, presents the façade of anti-capitalism because it is alternative.

This industry fuels and solidifies the cultural colonialism that is Indian fetishism. Idolisation and fetishism is still part of the colonial enterprise to destroy and assimilate Native cultures, perhaps inadvertently, by generalising, glamorisingvi, as well as inventing Native cultures, the truth of those cultures becomes twisted. Also, making these generalisations allows for a fabrication of myths and imposed culture, for both native Americans and New Ageists to enter and adopt, for instance Builds-the-fire and Victor's attachment to an eagle feather when boarding an aeroplane. In an article, Sherman Alexie writes that “after reading such novels, I imagined myself to be a blue-eyed warrior nuzzling the necks of various random, primitive and ecstatic white women. And I just as often imagined myself to be a cinematic Indian, splattered with Day-Glo Hollywood war paint as I rode off into yet another battle against the latest actor to portray Gen. George Armstrong Custer.”vii The loss of true and original cultural traditions are replaced by the mythical/stereotypical and fabricated traditions. It is in this way that the New Age Indian Fetishism assimilates Native Cultures.

Throughout the novel the characters are harsh towards New Age believers. Both Chess and Builds-the-fire repeat “You can't be an Indian unless once you wished you weren't,” and other characters also repeatedly make fun of Betty and Veronica, asking where their crystals were, exposing the general hostility towards the New Age movement. This may be just ridicule of the New Age movement, not exclusive to those Native Americans, but the antagonism is made clear the way Sherman Alexie crafts the story. Take the above mentioned part, where Builds-the-fire collects his things to prevent them from being stolen. When the band and Betty and Veronica meet, Veronica is surprised to find that the idol she'd been praising as an holy or grand thing, coerces her into performing a sexual act (43). Veronica's case can provide the omen that the Indian Fetishism does not provide the meaning or satisfaction it's supposed to for those in the New Age movement, and obviously provides inaccuracies through stereotypes.

Ultimately, this Indian Fetishism is harmful and insulting to Native Americans, and it does not serve to actually give meaning to those who would seek it through Indian Fetishism. This is one of the points provided in Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues. The best way to go forward from here would be to stop searching for meaning through sensational avenues, cut off the demand for those sensational avenues, and harness some manner of sensitivity and awareness of how behaviours and actions can effect the flesh behind the idol.

iI will be referring to the New Age stereotyping and idolisation of Native cultures as Indian Fetishism and actual American Indigenous peoples and cultures as Native Americans.

iiAlexie, Sherman. Reservation Blues. New York, NY: Grove Press, 1995. Print.

iiiBy which I mean an idol to the idea of their culture.

ivBarnes, Michael. "1665-1860: The Development of Two Savage Stereotypes." Authentic History Center. The Authentic History Center, 17 Sep 2010. Web. 27 Mar 2011.

vOne website declares the benefits of Native American ancestry, taxation exemption. "Uncovering your Native American Ancestry Entitles You to Tribal Benefits." Native Net. Native-Net.Org, 2011. Web. 27 Mar 2011.

viThat is by making the human “Indian Chief” into some kind of messiah.

viiAlexie, Sherman. "I Hated Tonto (Still Do)." Los Angeles Times 28 Jun 1998: n. pag. Web. 24 Mar 2011. .


Alexie, Sherman. "I Hated Tonto (Still Do)." Los Angeles Times 28 Jun 1998: n. pag. Web. 24 Mar 2011. .

Alexie, Sherman. Reservation Blues. New York, NY: Grove Press, 1995. Print.

Barnes, Michael. "1665-1860: The Development of Two Savage Stereotypes." Authentic History Center. The Authentic History Center, 17 Sep 2010. Web. 27 Mar 2011.

"Uncovering your Native American Ancestry Entitles You to Tribal Benefits." Native Net. Native-Net.Org, 2011. Web. 27 Mar 2011.