Benjamin Branham

Benjamin Branham: On "Truganinny"

"Truganinny, the last of the Tasmanians, had seen the stuffed and mounted body of her husband and it was her dying wish that she be buried in the outback or at sea for she did not wish he body to be subjected to the same indignities. Upon her death she was nevertheless stuffed and mounted and put on display for over eighty years."

Paul Coe, Australian Aborigine Activist, 1972 -from Wendy Rose, "Truganinny"

Wendy Rose's appeal to historical documentation evokes the dynamic relationship between history and text that permeates the poetry of many American Indians. Rose positions her work in symbiosis with history, both extracting life from and injecting life into a narrative of desolation, agony, and genocide that spans hundreds of years.

"Truganinny" provides an ideal starting point for an analysis of this relationship. The poem's outgrowth from a quoted source firmly anchors it to history, but at the same time declares its relative autonomy by assuming the voice of a long-deceased individual. In this sense, the poem is unique. For whereas many poems invoke historical events, names, and places, most avoid an unconcealed reliance upon a specific text. This is not to say that "Truganinny" depends on the words of Paul Coe for its poetic identity, but rather that it directly illustrates the intermingling of elements comprising it. Furthermore, Rose addresses not her own history of Hopi and 'Me-wuk ancestry, but rather that of the Australian Aborigines, the two groups joined by their common heritage as indigenous and oppressed. We might consider this a deviation from the efforts of other American Indian poets who often focus on topics and issues extending from their own roots.

Yet the possible inaccuracy of Coe's statement, implied in numerous sources, demands further historical scrutiny. Although there is a dearth of scholarship on the island of Tasmania and its former inhabitants, the land's fated encounter with a colonial rule that would lead to the "extinction" of an entire race has nonetheless generated a number of historical accounts. Most sources (indeed, all of the ones I came across) acknowledge the woman Trucanini (spelling varies, but Ellis makes a claim that "Trucanini" reflects the correct pronunciation) as the last surviving Tasmanian before her death in 1876 (Bonwick, Ellis, Davies, Robson & Roe). The death of her third husband, William Lanne, considered the last male Aborigine, in 1869 provoked a dispute that saw the mutilation of his body in an attempt to obtain his skeleton (Robson 35). No source other than the quote attributed to Paul Coe makes any reference to the stuffing or mounting of Lanne's body, or even that Trucanini ever saw the corpse of her dead husband. Her sense of devastation and her wish to avoid the desecration of her own remains is well documented, but again Coe's account clashes with those that report Trucanini was indeed buried at the time of her death and later disinterred by the Royal Society of Tasmania. Early in the century, the Tasmanian Musuem and Art Gallery displayed Trucanini's skeleton, not her stuffed corpse, in the Aboriginal exhibition room, where it remained until 1947 (Ellis 156). In response to a wide controversy surrounding the issue in the 1960s and 70s, the Tasmanian Museum transferred possession of Trucanini's remains to the Tasmanian government in 1975. In May of 1976, 100 years after her death, Trucanini was cremated and finally granted her wish when her ashes were scattered over D'Entrecasteaux Channel near the place of her birth.

With this information apparently refuting the scenario presented in the epigraph to "Truganinny," what significance does the discrepancy between these competing representations of history contribute to our reading of the poem? To indict or discredit Rose for such an "error" would be preposterous. It is unlikely that she knows Coe's account might be in error. And yet, the conflict encourages an examination of the profound complexity of representing an unfixed history.

Rose's poem opens with the speaker conceding the fragility of her own voice. The dying Truganinny, an old woman, addresses the frailty of age yet proclaims a strong vocal insistence:

 

You will need

to come closer

for little is left

of this tongue

and what I am saying

is important. (1-6)

 

In drawing attention to the deterioration of her vocal apparatus, the speaker summons a "closer" attention and proximity from her listener. By entreating such nearness with urgency and "need," the textual Truganinny seeks to narrow the gap between speaker and listener, mimicking that between poet and reader, text and history. Rose crafts an intriguing matrix of these binaries, deconstructing them by illustrating both their mutual reliance upon one another and their multiple permutations. The voice extends outward from the historicity of Truganinny's time--but within the poet's perception--Rose herself functioning as a reader of Coe's text, and he a reader of a larger text still. In the poem, she synthesizes her own voice with that of the individual she portrays, thus merging historical perception with historical representation, art with history, present with past. Simultaneously, we as the audience remain spectators to the "actual" history as well--not to claim that any history is authoritative--perpetuating the cycle that the poem initiates.

The speaker's voice, however, presents problems. How does such a vocal assimilation affect the agency Rose intends to ascribe Truganinny? Does the impersonation of voice risk additional objectification by usurping it from its owner and fixing it upon the page? And do we, as readers, contribute to this objectification by virtue of our subsequent gaze upon the narrative? The answer to these questions resides in the acknowledgment that all narratives necessarily contain some element of objectification; otherwise, they would fail to function. And a relatively little amount of narrative objectification does not quite impose the same intense oppression as does the objectifying weight of history. Rose makes the recovery of Truganinny's voice her imperative. Whether the real Trucanini can speak for herself at all is a matter justifiably complicated by Gayatri Spivak's influential essay, "Can the Subaltern Speak?," in which she suggests the impossibility of recovering an authentically autonomous voice. In addressing Spivak's theories, Ania Loomba observes a number of critical issues:

Do we necessarily position colonised people as victims, incapable of answering back? On the other hand, if we suggest that the colonial subjects can `speak' and question colonial authority, are we romanticizing such resistant subjects and underplaying colonial violence? In what voices do the colonised speak--their own, or in accents borrowed from their masters? Is the project of recovering the subaltern best served by locating her separateness from dominant culture, or by highlighting the extent to which she moulded even those processes and cultures which subjugated her? And finally, can the voice of the subaltern be represented by the intellectual? (Loomba 231)

These crucial questions pertain to our reading of Trucanini the person and "Truganinny" the poem. However, part of the poem's success lies in its deviation from history, even if unintentional. Through these differences, or innovations, Rose uses history to engender a new narrative, transforming silence into an empowered voice.

To fully appreciate the intricate dynamic of history and its representations, we must look more comprehensively at the events surrounding the death, burial, and display of Trucanini. In the poem, the speaker's self-reflexive concern for a part of her body, her tongue, directs attention to the colonial commodification of the body that the poem addresses. Even prior to the death of William Lanne, the colonizing world's obsession with Tasmanian physiognomy culminated in a mad dash for bones:

As it became obvious that the end of the race was near, scientists all over the world became anxious to obtain skeletons before it was too late. Years before, in 1856, J.B. Davis had realised the importance of preserving skeletal material. He had written to artist Alfred Bock pressing him to find some medical gentleman connected with public hospitals who would be willing to help him acquire Tasmanian skulls. "Were I myself in the colony I could with very little trouble abstract skulls from dead bodies without defacing them at all, and could instruct any medical gentleman to do this," he wrote. He also suggested raiding the old cemetery at Flinders Island to get skeletons. "Difficulties always stand in the way and may always be overcome," he stressed. Judging by his results, he overcame his difficulties with the greatest success. (Ellis 133)

This ruthless quest exemplifies the colonialist gaze, exoticizing the body of the Tasmanian as other. Davis expresses a concern for "preserving skeletal material" and extracting skulls without damaging them, but makes no mention of keeping the skin and body of the dead in a respectable condition suitable for a funeral. Although the practice of raiding graves for the study of medicine occurred across the globe at this time, the particular fetish for Tasmanian bones embodies something more: the colonial regime's suffocating surveillance. Davis' description of "difficulties" blocking the path to skeletal possession characterizes his brutality as a contest, one offering various obstacles to make the challenge more exciting.

Such a narrative of mystery and conniving accompanies Lanne's death in 1869. The body was initially entrusted to Dr. G Stokell, Resident Medical Officer of the General Hospital, for him to look after, as the Colonial Secretary realized the potential value of the skeleton. The general consensus among the public held that after a proper burial and appropriate passage of time the Royal Society would exhume the body for its collection. Dr. W. L. Crowther, however, intended to ship the skeleton to colleagues at the Royal College of Surgeons in London and executed a plan that saw him extract Lanne's skull in the middle of the night "by the light of a candle illuminating the macabre interior of the dead-house" (Ellis 136). After replacing the skull, inside the skin, with one that had been similarly extracted from a white man, Crowther and accomplices made their escape. Upon discovery of this deceit, Stokell grew irate and, determined to stop Crowther from obtaining the rest of the skeleton, cut of the hands and feet of the corpse to secure them, an effort sanctioned by the Royal Society. Following the funeral, which made the body appear unmolested to dismiss developing rumors, Stokell arranged to have the remainder of the skeleton stolen from its fresh grave that evening. A public uproar arose over these events, and the government appointed a Board of Enquiry to investigate the case, the details of which were published in The Mercury, a newspaper for the town of Hobart (Ellis 138-140). Crowther lost his position with the hospital, and Stokell was cleared of all charges. Because of an abrupt end to the enquiry, the Board never required Stokell to provide a full account of what happened to the body after its removal from the grave. The whereabouts of the remains of William Lanne, including his skull, have never been traced. Years later, without certainty, speculation arose that Lanne was not, in actuality, of pure Tasmanian descent, casting a much deserved air of futility on the competitive grave robbing by Crowther and Stokell.

The physical and cultural usurpation at work in this account grants even more salience to the poem's eerie forecast: "They will take me" (29). Truganinny speaks with the knowledge that a colonizing force plans to incorporate her body into its own consuming discourse:

 

Already they come;

even as I breathe

they are waiting for me

to finish my dying. (30-33)

 

The speaker's sense that the people who will ultimately make her a spectacle "already" envelop her stems from the remorseless progress of an encroaching gaze. Her status as "the last one" (8)--a status conferred by the very colonialists who administered her people's genocide--attracts the eyes that wish to put her on display as evidence of a culture long since extinct. As they wait, like vultures, for her to "finish" dying--as if completing a task demanded of her--the agents of hegemony move ever closer, infringing, as they always have, with a claustrophobia that asphyxiates. The desire to accumulate artifacts supersedes the value of human life, and the eager "waiting" to redeem the corpse at the nearest pawn shop only precipitates death.

Wendy Rose's reappropriation of history that she accomplishes by generating a new voice succeeds in shifting savagery from the colonized to the colonizer. She crafts "Truganinny" with a delicacy and insistence that forces readers to challenge the representations of history we take for granted and presents an example of how to recover lost voices.

Benjamin Branham: On "Scalp Dance by Spokane Indians"

The Canadian artist Paul Kane, 1810-1871, whose oeuvre consists largely of sketches and paintings depicting landscapes and scenes of Indian life in Canada and the Pacific Northwest, plays a central role in Alexie's "Scalp Dance by Spokane Indians," named after Kane's painting of the same title. Much like Wendy Rose's "Truganinny," the poem begins with a quoted epigraph and subsequently takes on the voice of the woman portrayed in Kane's painting.

Copyright © 2001 by Benjamin Branham

Benjamin Branham: On "Scalp Dance by Spokane Indians"

The Canadian artist Paul Kane, 1810-1871, whose oeuvre consists largely of sketches and paintings depicting landscapes and scenes of Indian life in Canada and the Pacific Northwest, plays a central role in Alexie's "Scalp Dance by Spokane Indians," named after Kane's painting of the same title. Much like Wendy Rose's "Truganinny," the poem begins with a quoted epigraph and subsequently takes on the voice of the woman portrayed in Kane's painting. The epigraph, taken from The Spokane Indians: Children of the Sun of "The Civilization of the American Indian Series," describes Kane's visit and the composition of his painting: "Its central figure, a woman who had lost her husband to the Blackfeet, whirled around a fire swashing and kicking in revenge a Blackfoot scalp on a stick. Behind her, eight painted women danced and chanted, as did the rest of the tribe to the beat of the drums."

Kane's contribution to and perpetuation of representational mythology finds an opponent in the voice of the depicted widow:

Always trying to steal a little bit of soul, you know? Whether it be poetry or oils on canvas. They call themselves artists but they are really archeologists.

Really, that's all any kind of art is.

And who am I, you ask? I'm the woman in the painting. I'm the one dancing with the Blackfoot scalp on a stick. But I must tell you the truth. I never had a husband. The artist, Paul Kane, painted me from memory. He saw me at Fort Spokane, even touched his hand to my face as if I were some caged and tame animal in a zoo.

The comparison of art with archeology parallels an observation by Vine Deloria, who in God is Red narrated a 1971 confrontation between AIM activists and archeologists at a dig in Minnesota. The archeologists upheld the myth that "the only real Indians were dead ones" (quoted by McGuire 63). Archeology necessarily paralyzes culture by embalming it, and its task ties inextricably with the imperative of museums. "The archaeologists were clearly surprised that the activists objected to what they were doing and that Indian people thought of archaeology as a form of oppression. The archaeologists saw themselves as the preservers of a dead Indian culture, while the activists, through their protest, sought to establish that their culture and their pasts lived on" (McGuire 63).

The speaker of the poem, like an encased artifact or a "preserved" culture, lacks a voice until Alexie endows her with one. In the painting, Kane usurps her identity to suit the configuration of his own vision, a vision that Heather Dawkins argues contains "an instance of imperialist discourse" (Dawkins 25).

The very objective of Kane's work extends from the imperialist practice of surveillance and containment. In the preface to the diary he published, Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America, Kane assumes his cultural authority: "The principal object in my undertaking was to sketch pictures of the principal chiefs, and their original costumes, to illustrate their manners and customs, and to represent the scenery of an almost unknown country" (Kane, liii). Kane stops short of divulging to whom the country remains "unknown" and his purpose in attempting to depict it. Kane's nostalgia for a subject "in which I felt a deep interest in my boyhood," having "been accustomed to see hundreds of Indians about my native village" (lii), evokes what I.S. MacLaren dubs "an almost Wordsworthian fervour for retrieving an innocent past" (MacLaren 1987, 180). If this tendency toward exoticizing comes from Kane's preconceived ideas of Indians, it undergoes further development as he choreographs the scenes he sketches. In Wanderings, he reports the reluctance he encounters when searching for a model that fits his conventions:

"I wanted to sketch one of the females, but she refused, as she could not dress herself suitably for such an occasion, being in mourning for some friends she had lost, and therefore only wearing her oldest and dirtiest clothes.

After some difficulty, I succeeded in getting a young girl to sit in the costume of the tribe, although her mother was very much afraid it might shorten her life. But on my assuring her that it was more likely to prolong it, she seemed quite satisfied." (69)

This interventionist tactic resounds with fraudulent representation. How can Kane paint the customs and landscapes of an unknown country if he merely imposes his own narrow knowledge upon the canvas? If Kane aims to provide an ethnographic account of Native Americans through painting, then he seriously compromises and corrupts his intention by explicitly staging his portraits. The voice from Alexie's poem echoes this confinement as the woman protests her culture's imprisonment within the disciplined classification of Kane's gaze: 

You must also understand that we treated Paul Kane well even as he conspired to steal. Some sat still for his portraits and didn't smile because Kane insisted they remain stoic. That was his greatest mistake. Our smiles were everything; our laughter created portraits in the air, more colorful and exact than any in Kane's work.

I have seen all his paintings and Kane never let us smile.

Here, Alexie illustrates not only the perpetuation of myth but the ideological enforcement of it as well. By refusing to allow his subjects to dress, pose, or gesture in ways that fail to accord with his perspective, Kane creates paintings that register a racist agenda. "They did non merely repeat already-held racist beliefs-they produced an imperialist discourse" (Dawkins 27).  More evidence suggesting the inauthenticity of Kane's enterprise comes from accounts that highlight significant discrepancies between the initial sketches drawn in the field and the subsequent oil paintings completed in the studio. MacLaren examines the significant revision that occurs within Kane's studio, implying his potential influence by the "corporate conditioning or artistic representations of the West" (1987, 181). Davis and Thacker compare some specific examples in which they discuss Kane's drastic style change. In looking at the two versions of a piece translated as "The Man that Gives the War Paint," they supply an intriguing analysis:

"In a manner typical of Kane's field sketches, the watercolor study clearly concentrates on the subject's bold, strong face, adding only the merest suggestion of a bare torso and ornamented wolf skin thrown over his left shoulder. . The canvas, in contrast, is a polished amalgamation of the portrait study and some additional props, in particular a fine eagle-head pipe-stem and decorated jacket. Between the preliminary and the final stages, therefore, quite considerable changes have been made not only in presentation but in general effect. The subject is no longer a rough, determined warrior but a groomed and contemplative chief." (Davis & Thacker 14)

Davis and Thacker propose that such changes result in part from the Kane's awareness of the "sensitivities of his white audience and knowing their Victorian preference for a unusual, embellished clothing on a 'noble' bearer, rather than the crude reality of quotidian 'savage' life" (14). Indeed, the painting "Scalp Dance with Spokane Indians" most likely derived from Kane's sketch of a Chaulpay scalp dance, indicating a casual blending of tribal customs and a misrepresentation on a much broader scale (Harper 226-27, 294). Dawkins additionally observes that some of Kane's paintings stem from the conflation of two or more sketches (27), a tactic that conveys a serious indifference for cultural accuracy. Kane's pronounced repulsion with his subjects, from his disgust with their "barbarous language [and] the horrible, harsh, spluttering sounds which proceed from their throats" (Kane 125), to his contempt for their lifestyle--"they are probably the laziest race of people in all the world" (147)--reveals an utter lack of the sensitivity required for any interaction with, let alone representation of, a given culture. With this established, we might agree with Dawkins' conclusion that Kane's work "is not a sketch of life as it really was, a document of Indians in their original state, but neither is it simply the perception of Indians through European filters. Kane's gaze, of observation and of knowledge, his sketches, paintings, and writings are deeply implicated in, and constitutive, of power" (27).

By invoking Kane and supplanting his voice with that of his hitherto silenced subject, Alexie redistributes power. Like Truganinny, the speaker here asserts her importance. But rather than concede the fragility of her voice, she sustains it with self-ascribed authority. "When Paul Kane touched me I struck him down and only the hurried negotiations of a passing missionary saved me from Kane's anger. But far from that, I am also a healer, a woman who reserves her touch for larger things." Though she depends on the "passing missionary"--another outsider-to "save" her from injustice, she takes refuge in her autonomy. She faces "the loss of soul" upon discovering herself upon Kane's canvas, and in another parallel with Truganinny experiences the void of excavation: "Ever since Paul Kane had touched me that day, I had felt something missing: a tooth, a fingernail, a layer of skin." As a veritable curator of or visitor to a museum, Paul Kane has absorbed the life of another into his own life, usurping it from its rightful owner. By placing the speaker on his canvas, he has stolen a part of her and paralyzed it within the confines of a gaudy frame; she retains only the inert absence of an amputated limb. But whereas Truganinny awaits death, Alexie's speaker stands resilient, recalibrating the view of her audience: "When you see me now in that painting, dancing with the scalp, you must realize that I didn't have a husband, that I never danced without a smile, that I never sat still for Kane." A direct appeal to our perception re-articulates power and knowledge and redraws the boundaries of "observation, classification, investigation and surveillance" (Dawkins 27) that comprise an imperialist discourse. And though Alexie's poem does not mend a fractured history, it retrieves the apparatus of self-representation and an ability to declare: "That is the truth. All of it." 

Copyright © 2001 by Benjamin Branham

Benjamin Branham: On "Buffalo Bill and the Confiscation of Culture"

Pawn shops tend to represent sites of unorganized accumulation, places that gather anything and everything with the prospect of profiting from the vulnerability of others. By enticing patrons with quick cash--an instantaneous materialization of value--the pawn shop successfully confiscates living objects only to deprive them of meaning by re-offering them for sale. Sherman Alexie adapts this story poignantly in "Evolution."

Alexie centers the enterprise of objectification in the figure of Buffalo Bill. Also known as William F. Cody (1846-1917), Buffalo Bill, no longer just an historical figure but rather an icon now synonymous with the American West, did at least his share in exploiting Native Americans. An honorary website credits him with helping "his West to make the transition from a wild past to a progressive future." The establishment of a binary between "wild" and "progressive" subjugates Indians by placing them in the role of savages, a representation that American history has repeatedly thrust upon them. Despite supposedly championing the rights of Indians, Buffalo Bill certainly contributed to their cultural confinement in his "Wild West" shows, performances that "contained elements of the circus, the drama of the times, and the rodeo," offering a "unique form of theatrical entertainment. The Wild West Show had as its theoretical aim the presentation of a pageant of the settling and the taming of the West" (Kramer 87). Beyond mere amusement, the shows also served as advertising campaigns to lure settlers to the West to help further tame the "uncivilized" region:

The Wild West show was inaugurated in Omaha in 1883 with real cowboys and real Indians portraying the "real West." The show spent ten of its thirty years in Europe. In 1887 Buffalo Bill was a feature attraction at Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. At the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, only Egypt's gyrations rivaled the Wild West as the talk of Chicago. By the turn of the century, Buffalo Bill was probably the most famous and most recognizable man in the world. (American West)

Given the legendary status history has accorded him, Buffalo Bill may be compared to other colonizing heroes in Western culture, especially those who circulated a dominant ideology as their role in enhancing domination. His ability to disseminate representations stems not only from his ubiquitous stage presence but also from the extensive publicity that presented his image. "Certainly no individual, before the days of movies and radio, ever had such effective personal exploitation. For nearly half a century he was continuously held before the public, in the pages of nickel and dime novels, on the boards in blood and thunder melodrama and in that astounding Wild West Show which toured from the tank towns to the very thrones of Europe" (Walsh 18). The title of a 1928 book, The Making of Buffalo Bill: A Study in Heroics, suggests that the phenomenon of Buffalo Bill was as much created by an eager audience as it was by Bill Cody. Its collective gaze, like the gaze performed by museum-goers, constructed an impervious ideal: "When they gazed upon the man himself they saw that he looked the part of hero" (Walsh 17). Empowered with the iconic eminence of a hero, Buffalo Bill possesses the capacity and authority to reproduce and distribute cultural myths. His conception of the "real West" extends from his imaginary relation to American ideals that have themselves been formed by such hegemonic historical representations as Manifest Destiny. The posters advertising Buffalo Bill contribute to the representational subjugation of Indians, portraying them as features of a crude land that the military must rehabilitate and civilize.

The illustration depicts Buffalo Bill and his entourage riding in a "civilized" wagon through a tumultuous landscape. As the central focus, they marginalize the Indians on the borders of the painting, indeed cutting some of them off as they forcibly split the factions on both sides of their procession. The white riders stand taller than the encroaching Indians, a force that the advertisement construes as a threat to American progress. Such a hazard, the painting declares, must be vanquished by the collective gaze of American discourse, a gaze that restricts Native American culture to a territory of enclosure.

In "Evolution," Alexie addresses the compartmentalization and commodification of culture by supplanting Buffalo Bill's stage antics with a business venture:

Buffalo Bill opens up a pawn shop on the reservation Right across the border from the liquor store And he stays open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week And the Indians come running in with jewelry Television sets, a VCR, a full-length beaded buckskin outfit it took Inez Muse 12 years to finish. (1-6)

Alexie re-appropriates history to fit the mold of a "24 hours a day, 7 days a week" contemporaneity. Placing it across the "border," rather than across the street from the liquor store, Alexie reminds us of the laws forbidding the sale of alcohol on many Indian reservations and the physical and cultural boundaries that continue to encircle them. The liquor store further calls attention to the use of alcohol as a device of suppression. Numerous historical accounts tell of white residents getting Indians drunk as a negotiation strategy to convince them to sign treaties that would yield land (Barr 7). The high rate of alcoholism that persists among Native Americans occupies a prominent position throughout all of Alexie's work. In "Evolution," Alexie intimates that the money the Indians obtain from pawning themselves evaporates when they cross the street to purchase liquor. This vicious cycle in which everyone stands to profit from Indians except Indians themselves sustains itself because "Buffalo Bill / takes everything the Indians have to offer, keeps it / all catalogued and filed in a storage room" (6-8). Buffalo Bill scavenges all he can, classifying it with the commodifying gaze of a museum curator. The cycle culminates in Buffalo Bill's move from collecting to exhibition:

and when the last Indian has pawned everything but his heart, Buffalo Bill takes that for twenty bucks closes up the pawn shop, paints a new sign over the old calls his venture THE MUSEUM OF NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURES charges the Indians five bucks a head to enter. (11-15)

By seizing the "heart" of the last Indian and subsequently closing the doors of the pawn shop, Buffalo Bill seals out the possibility of repossession. This act deprives the culture of its lifeblood. The new museum freezes "NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURES" in place, on display, behind glass cases. The painted over sign recalls the years of government manipulation of Indians in which new treaties invalidated old ones that the U.S. no longer wished to honor. The glossing over of old wounds and forms of cultural exploitation--feeding a people someone else's idea of what they should be--cap this poem with the absurd reality of a perverse history.

Jane Tompkins comments on the manifestation of another absurd reality in her visit to a museum in Cody, Wyoming that enshrines Buffalo Bill himself. The existence of this memorial ironically shifts the position of the celebrated pioneer from curator to spectacle. However, unlike the cultural deprivation enacted by the museum of Alexie's poem, the Buffalo Bill Museum petrifies the superhero status of its namesake. Both instances cast a type of paralysis--The Museum of Native American Cultures frames its objects as an exhibition of a primitive culture, a display of dry bones; The Buffalo Bill Museum, as Tompkins tells us, galvanizes the golden image of an American icon:

The Buffalo Bill Museum envelops you in an array of textures, colors, shapes, sizes, forms. The fuzzy brown bulk of a buffalo's hump, the sparkling diamonds in a stickpin, the brilliant colors of the posters--there's something about the cacophonous mixture that makes you want to walk in and be surrounded by it, as if you were going into a child's adventure story. It all appeals to the desire to be transported, to pretend for a little while that we're cowboys or cowgirls; it's a museum where fantasy can take over. In this respect, it is true to the character of Buffalo Bill's life. (Tompkins 530)

The fantasy of Buffalo Bill's life is the fantasy projected onto it by the gaze of a hungry audience. For years Americans and viewers around the world stood captivated by the Wild West Show, feeding off its depictions of conquest, control, and violence. Tompkins gives us the severe yet appropriate metaphor that "museums are a form of cannibalism made safe for polite society," serving as venues that "cater to the urge to absorb the life of another into one's own life" (533). This remark accords with an attitude Alexie voices throughout his work. The dominant culture devours its subordinates to sustain its stance as an enforcer. "The objects in museums preserve for us a source of life from which we need to nourish ourselves when the resources that would normally supply us have run dry" (Tompkins 533). The act of sapping resources from another culture again points to the narrative of "Evolution," a title that drips with the irony of the concept of civilization. A civilized culture, Alexie implies, must "evolve" enough to perfect the practice of stealing and plundering other cultures for the purpose of presenting them as uncivilized behind the glass case of the museum. We too, Tompkins reminds us, are onlookers. "We stand beside the bones and skins and hooves of beings that were once alive, or stare fixedly at their painted images. Indeed our visit is only a safer form of the same enterprise" (533) rehearsed by Buffalo Bill's Wild West show--cultural objectification and destruction.

 

Bibliography of Works Cited:

"Buffalo Bill," The American West. 10 December 2000. <http://www.americanwest.com/pages/buffbill.htm>.

 

Kramer, Mary D., "The American Wild West Show and 'Buffalo Bill' Cody," Costerus: Essays in English and American Literature, 4 (1972): 87-97.

 

Tompkins, Jane, "At the Buffalo Bill Museum--June 1988," South Atlantic Quarterly 89.3 (Summer 1990): 525-545.

 

Walsh, Richard J., The Making of Buffalo Bill, Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1928.

Copyright © 2001 by Benjamin Branham

On "Scalp Dance by Spokane Indians"

The Canadian artist Paul Kane, 1810-1871, whose oeuvre consists largely of sketches and paintings depicting landscapes and scenes of Indian life in Canada and the Pacific Northwest, plays a central role in Alexie's "Scalp Dance by Spokane Indians," named after Kane's painting of the same title. Much like Wendy Rose's "Truganinny," the poem begins with a quoted epigraph and subsequently takes on the voice of the woman portrayed in Kane's painting. The epigraph, taken from The Spokane Indians: Children of the Sun of "The Civilization of the American Indian Series," describes Kane's visit and the composition of his painting: "Its central figure, a woman who had lost her husband to the Blackfeet, whirled around a fire swashing and kicking in revenge a Blackfoot scalp on a stick. Behind her, eight painted women danced and chanted, as did the rest of the tribe to the beat of the drums."

Kane's contribution to and perpetuation of representational mythology finds an opponent in the voice of the depicted widow:

Always trying to steal a little bit of soul, you know? Whether it be poetry or oils on canvas. They call themselves artists but they are really archeologists.

Really, that's all any kind of art is.

And who am I, you ask? I'm the woman in the painting. I'm the one dancing with the Blackfoot scalp on a stick. But I must tell you the truth. I never had a husband. The artist, Paul Kane, painted me from memory. He saw me at Fort Spokane, even touched his hand to my face as if I were some caged and tame animal in a zoo.

The comparison of art with archeology parallels an observation by Vine Deloria, who in God is Red narrated a 1971 confrontation between AIM activists and archeologists at a dig in Minnesota. The archeologists upheld the myth that "the only real Indians were dead ones" (quoted by McGuire 63). Archeology necessarily paralyzes culture by embalming it, and its task ties inextricably with the imperative of museums. "The archaeologists were clearly surprised that the activists objected to what they were doing and that Indian people thought of archaeology as a form of oppression. The archaeologists saw themselves as the preservers of a dead Indian culture, while the activists, through their protest, sought to establish that their culture and their pasts lived on" (McGuire 63).

The speaker of the poem, like an encased artifact or a "preserved" culture, lacks a voice until Alexie endows her with one. In the painting, Kane usurps her identity to suit the configuration of his own vision, a vision that Heather Dawkins argues contains "an instance of imperialist discourse" (Dawkins 25).

The very objective of Kane's work extends from the imperialist practice of surveillance and containment. In the preface to the diary he published, Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America, Kane assumes his cultural authority: "The principal object in my undertaking was to sketch pictures of the principal chiefs, and their original costumes, to illustrate their manners and customs, and to represent the scenery of an almost unknown country" (Kane, liii). Kane stops short of divulging to whom the country remains "unknown" and his purpose in attempting to depict it. Kane's nostalgia for a subject "in which I felt a deep interest in my boyhood," having "been accustomed to see hundreds of Indians about my native village" (lii), evokes what I.S. MacLaren dubs "an almost Wordsworthian fervour for retrieving an innocent past" (MacLaren 1987, 180). If this tendency toward exoticizing comes from Kane's preconceived ideas of Indians, it undergoes further development as he choreographs the scenes he sketches. In Wanderings, he reports the reluctance he encounters when searching for a model that fits his conventions: 

"I wanted to sketch one of the females, but she refused, as she could not dress herself suitably for such an occasion, being in mourning for some friends she had lost, and therefore only wearing her oldest and dirtiest clothes.

After some difficulty, I succeeded in getting a young girl to sit in the costume of the tribe, although her mother was very much afraid it might shorten her life. But on my assuring her that it was more likely to prolong it, she seemed quite satisfied." (69)

This interventionist tactic resounds with fraudulent representation. How can Kane paint the customs and landscapes of an unknown country if he merely imposes his own narrow knowledge upon the canvas? If Kane aims to provide an ethnographic account of Native Americans through painting, then he seriously compromises and corrupts his intention by explicitly staging his portraits. The voice from Alexie's poem echoes this confinement as the woman protests her culture's imprisonment within the disciplined classification of Kane's gaze:  

You must also understand that we treated Paul Kane well even as he conspired to steal. Some sat still for his portraits and didn't smile because Kane insisted they remain stoic. That was his greatest mistake. Our smiles were everything; our laughter created portraits in the air, more colorful and exact than any in Kane's work. 

I have seen all his paintings and Kane never let us smile.

Here, Alexie illustrates not only the perpetuation of myth but the ideological enforcement of it as well. By refusing to allow his subjects to dress, pose, or gesture in ways that fail to accord with his perspective, Kane creates paintings that register a racist agenda. "They did non merely repeat already-held racist beliefs-they produced an imperialist discourse" (Dawkins 27).  More evidence suggesting the inauthenticity of Kane's enterprise comes from accounts that highlight significant discrepancies between the initial sketches drawn in the field and the subsequent oil paintings completed in the studio. MacLaren examines the significant revision that occurs within Kane's studio, implying his potential influence by the "corporate conditioning or artistic representations of the West" (1987, 181). Davis and Thacker compare some specific examples in which they discuss Kane's drastic style change. In looking at the two versions of a piece translated as "The Man that Gives the War Paint," they supply an intriguing analysis:

"In a manner typical of Kane's field sketches, the watercolor study clearly concentrates on the subject's bold, strong face, adding only the merest suggestion of a bare torso and ornamented wolf skin thrown over his left shoulder. . The canvas, in contrast, is a polished amalgamation of the portrait study and some additional props, in particular a fine eagle-head pipe-stem and decorated jacket. Between the preliminary and the final stages, therefore, quite considerable changes have been made not only in presentation but in general effect. The subject is no longer a rough, determined warrior but a groomed and contemplative chief." (Davis & Thacker 14)

Davis and Thacker propose that such changes result in part from the Kane's awareness of the "sensitivities of his white audience and knowing their Victorian preference for a unusual, embellished clothing on a 'noble' bearer, rather than the crude reality of quotidian 'savage' life" (14). Indeed, the painting "Scalp Dance with Spokane Indians" most likely derived from Kane's sketch of a Chaulpay scalp dance, indicating a casual blending of tribal customs and a misrepresentation on a much broader scale (Harper 226-27, 294). Dawkins additionally observes that some of Kane's paintings stem from the conflation of two or more sketches (27), a tactic that conveys a serious indifference for cultural accuracy. Kane's pronounced repulsion with his subjects, from his disgust with their "barbarous language [and] the horrible, harsh, spluttering sounds which proceed from their throats" (Kane 125), to his contempt for their lifestyle--"they are probably the laziest race of people in all the world" (147)--reveals an utter lack of the sensitivity required for any interaction with, let alone representation of, a given culture. With this established, we might agree with Dawkins' conclusion that Kane's work "is not a sketch of life as it really was, a document of Indians in their original state, but neither is it simply the perception of Indians through European filters. Kane's gaze, of observation and of knowledge, his sketches, paintings, and writings are deeply implicated in, and constitutive, of power" (27).

By invoking Kane and supplanting his voice with that of his hitherto silenced subject, Alexie redistributes power. Like Truganinny, the speaker here asserts her importance. But rather than concede the fragility of her voice, she sustains it with self-ascribed authority. "When Paul Kane touched me I struck him down and only the hurried negotiations of a passing missionary saved me from Kane's anger. But far from that, I am also a healer, a woman who reserves her touch for larger things." Though she depends on the "passing missionary"--another outsider-to "save" her from injustice, she takes refuge in her autonomy. She faces "the loss of soul" upon discovering herself upon Kane's canvas, and in another parallel with Truganinny experiences the void of excavation: "Ever since Paul Kane had touched me that day, I had felt something missing: a tooth, a fingernail, a layer of skin." As a veritable curator of or visitor to a museum, Paul Kane has absorbed the life of another into his own life, usurping it from its rightful owner. By placing the speaker on his canvas, he has stolen a part of her and paralyzed it within the confines of a gaudy frame; she retains only the inert absence of an amputated limb. But whereas Truganinny awaits death, Alexie's speaker stands resilient, recalibrating the view of her audience: "When you see me now in that painting, dancing with the scalp, you must realize that I didn't have a husband, that I never danced without a smile, that I never sat still for Kane." A direct appeal to our perception re-articulates power and knowledge and redraws the boundaries of "observation, classification, investigation and surveillance" (Dawkins 27) that comprise an imperialist discourse. And though Alexie's poem does not mend a fractured history, it retrieves the apparatus of self-representation and an ability to declare: "That is the truth. All of it."