Posted by: Andy | April 17, 2008

book review: Real Indians

by: Eva Marie Garroutte

Bethany’s post here led me to this post on another blog, which happened to recommend the relevant book:

Publishers or reviewers could ask, point blank, “are you….” of authors who claim Native heritage or identity. But they don’t ask that of other writers, so, is it appropriate to do so here? These are very complex matters, but they are important, and they require a lot of reading and thinking to understand these complexities.

One good text to read to begin exploring the identity question is Eva Garroutte’s Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America.

So that’s how I wound up with this book in hand, I’m guessing this was a thesis or dissertation or something.

Sadly, I’ve already forgotten chunks of it (should have written review last week!), but I don’t think she came to any specific conclusions about identity, although It was certainly enlightening and worth a read. The author brings up many excellent points about identity and internal/external perceptions and what the values or lack of values inherent in each may be, as well as providing several Indian perspectives on each issue she addresses.

She also briefly brought up the ever-present “Cherokee princess” myth, which I’ve always found incredibly annoying. That shit needs to be beaten into the ground. Thankfully, even though one side of my family claims to be part Cherokee (and may actually be…although I can’t find the info on my great-grandfather), no on has ever verbalized the princess crap to me. Probably because they know of it via a male – although I suspect he was “only” 1/2 Indian (see the book for excellent discussions of what this means and if it means anything at all) and that half probably came from his mother.

The main thrust of the paper/book seems to be her idea for a new form of scholarship embracing Indian methods of knowledge acquisition as legitimate within the bounds of academia. She calls this “Radical Indigenism” (I think!) – not radical in the sense of rebellion, but radically different from previous positions. What this means basically is (I think) treating Native perspectives and methods of knowledge gathering (which include traditional ceremonies) in the same way we treat the scientific method of knowledge acquisition. Well, not quite the same, but perhaps “respecting the knowledge as true”? Hopefully that’s not mis-stating her too poorly.

It also sets the wishes of the tribe above those of the scholar – ie if there is some secret ritual that they really don’t want documented DON’T DOCUMENT IT. This boils down to basic “respect issues” and should be common sense, but “greed” for knowledge often overrides.

While to my “bleeding liberal heart” these things this sounds swell (actually I agree 100% with the second point, my disagreement is with the first – if a culture does not wish to be documented, fuck off documenters!), my rational scientist has to disagree. Not to say I disagree with the mentality behind it – because I do concede that there are means of knowledge acquisition outside the bounds of ration (religious experience included – no matter where I think those things come from, people do occasionally come back with “new” ideas – or at least with the inspiration to follow through on an old one sincerely). But rather to say that no, that should not fall within the bounds of “western” scholarship simply because it does not fall within those bounds….circular logic I know BUT

if we did allow something like that, then we would have to allow every religious tradition the same thing. This doesn’t mean I don’t give credence to things “discovered” via Indigenous sources (via divine inspiration, tradition, or anything else) – it just means I think that once that knowledge is known it should be tested with the same rigorous criteria we use for everything else. You can see this slowly happening with “Eastern” medicine in the last 10 years (acupuncture, etc.) – the Western establishments have noticed that these things actually work. They may not accept the reasons for the working, but they are beginning to acknowledge that some of these treatments do work, and are seeking out a scientific way of understanding why. This is the way to go IMHO – it would then allow that knowledge to be re-applied to other scientific issues. Limiting yourself to accepting it works based on a non-scientific explanation critically limits the reach of application of said new knowledge.

Now, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a valid place for this perspective in the realm of higher education. This perspective could be beneficially applied to Native American Studies (or whatever they call it) I think – but of course many would resist because they want to document everything in the Western way, but I suppose the two ideologies could split into two different departments, lets call them “Indigenous Studies” & “Native American Studies” or whatever, and if you were a member of the latter, tribes just might not want to work with you because they know you won’t be respectful of their ways.

Ok, so I may have horribly botched an understanding of her proposal, but I hope not.

I highly recommend this book as reading for anyone with an interest in the question of ethnic identity, especially as specifically applies to Native Americans. The thrust for Radical Indigenism may fall outside the interest bounds of most non-academic readers, but it does not dominate the book, and even with those sections there are plenty of things to interest the curious reader.

If anyone has actually read this book and has a better way of explaining the Rad. Indig. thing, or wants to tell me that I’ve horribly botched the understanding – please do. This vein of lit. isn’t exactly my forte.



  1. Hm. Good stuff. That’s a very compelling debate (re: acquisitions, etc). I think I would largely agree with you, although not because I feel science explains all that it portends (see almost all of neuroanatomy) – not that you claimed this. I see absolutely nothing wrong with “deferring” to science/scientific explanation because I perceive human knowledge/progression/intelligence as God-given. Wow, responding to this would take paragraphs upon paragraphs, I’m just realizing. It all takes me back to my IB Theory of Knowledge class and the theorized “ways of knowing”. Which could (and did) get real philosophical: we could accept those findings as true if truth refers to the perception of the theorist… and what does it mean for something to be unequivocally true to someone. Like, what would that mean for “us”, for this to be “true” to him/her/them. See. That goes right back into sociology/philosophy…

  2. Oh, I think your link to my blog goes to a category archive, on which the intended entry is no longer first.

  3. Link fixed.
    And yes, much to discuss, things that would be better discussed out loud.
    I had a very difficulty time putting my thoughts into text, and may have failed.

    Buuutttt I am trying to review every book I read, so there it is.

  4. Yes, yes, I agree.

    You’re a giant among men for the reviewing every book thing.

  5. Note that I was using the present tense of “read”…no way am I catching up on everything I’ve already done. ooo that would tingle.

  6. WHAT IF — What if! *holds up hands to calm you* You had a sponsored review-a-thon…. then would you retroactively review all the books you’ve ever read?!?


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