PRINT Summer 1988


(The passages of this essay that are printed in boldface were written by Jimmie Durham, those in lightface by Jean Fisher.)

Don’t worry—I’m a good Indian. I’m from the West, love nature, and have a special, intimate connection with the environment. (And if you want me to, I’m perfectly willing to say it’s a connection white people will never understand.) I can speak with my animal cousins, and believe it or not I’m appropriately spiritual. (Even smoke the Pipe.)

I’m assuming there is an audience interested enough in American Indians to read this. Like V. S. Naipaul, I imagine the possibility of there existing at least a few readers with a detached intelligence and sympathy rather than ulterior motives. If there are such readers, however, they will probably already have “covered” American Indians. Maybe they’ll pass over this article without reading it. So actually, I make the assumption only as an excuse to myself for writing.

It must be admitted from the outset that Native Americans are peoples about whom we can have nothing to say that is not fatally contaminated by Eurocentric patterns of thinking. The vast body of “objective” data, scientific or literary, that purports to evidence indigenous Americans almost invariably constitutes a mirrored reflection of our own psychic demons instead. For “knowledge” is a matter of interpretation, which is in turn a property of the subject who assumes it, not of the object itself.

If Western culture traditionally seeks the truth about itself in “knowledge” about an Other external to itself, then it has a need for that Other, an anterior desire for its presence, or for it to be produced. It is also the case that undesirable truths may be disavowed by transferring them onto the body of this Other. As Edward Said comments in relation to “Orientalism,” Western culture’s knowledge of the racially different Other is more than a body of potentially correctable lies and myths; it is more properly a sign of the relations of power.1 We might speculate that if the feminine was assigned the place of the unspeakable Other within white American culture, Native America was assigned the place of the unspeakable Other outside it—“unspeakable” in the sense that for either of these to speak would have been to transgress the authorship of the dominant text. In our language, the colonized body, like the body of the feminine, has no cultural existence in and for itself. It is, to borrow a thought from Gayatri Spivak, “the place of knowledge, rather than the instrument of knowing.”2 Alienated from its traditional source of identity, it is a body of paradoxical representations, like the Native American artist Jimmie Durham’s sculpture Self-Portrait, 1986—a flayed skin, emptied of any fullness of being, though mapped with ironic inscriptions of its not-quite-sameness. Indigenous America has never been fully appropriated to the forces of labor, and as such it exists as an untenable excess in terms of capitalist production and reproduction. And so, at the same time that Durham’s self-portrait mischievously claims he is “willing to do a wide variety of jobs,” he provocatively displays a monstrous psychedelic dildo.

Indigenous America is outside representation, unrepresentable, except as a phantasm masquerading under the misnomer “Indian”—a term that homogenizes what was in fact a heterogeneous population, as diverse in language and customs as Europe and Africa. The word is the consequence of a navigational error, of a displacement of time and space, of Christopher Columbus’ disavowal that he was not in the East Indies but somewhere outside his knowledge. It reflects the dread and desire of a colonizing population who were unable to recognize cultural difference except through their own preexisting conceptions. Cultural difference is the unbridgeable zone between the phantasm and the unrepresentable body; if we can speak about anything at all in connection with Native Americans, it is about this margin of the unspeakable where no one is.

V. S. Naipaul writes very well about the stupidities of the third world, and white intellectuals just love it; as a person of color, he can say things they feel they shouldn’t say but have wished they could. Third world intellectuals, on the other hand, often feel that Naipaul shouldn’t be so mean, pointing out all the self-deceptions they want to hide from the white world. They say he either shouldn’t be writing all that stuff or he should show more clearly that it is all the fault of colonialism. Now me, I think he isn’t mean enough, that he has blunted his rage by some intellectual process that looks like a career move. More, he writes as though his books address some universal audience. The race, class, and political situation of that audience remains unspecified.

I feel fairly sure that I could address the entire world if only I had a place to stand. You (white Americans) have made everything your turf. In every field, on every issue, the ground has already been covered.

Scratching the surface of white behavior toward indigenous peoples reveals a large and shocking catalogue of cupidity, of contempt for political honor, of denial of reality through an overdose of the imaginary. The abiding images of the “Indian”—Edenic innocent, uncivilizable savage, noble savage, infantilized adult—arise from this dissembling rhetoric of dread and desire. Such images are the effects of an unexpiatable debt, a debt that remains at the core of the political reality of the United States, finding contemporary echoes that infect us all. Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam film Full Metal Jacket, 1987, for example, contains several references to “Indian savagery,” subliminally perpetuating the Hollywood cowboys-and-Indians fictions around which the Vietnam War itself circulated. (“Gook,” a popular American-army nickname for the Vietcong, is, according to some, a reference to the Chingachgook character in Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, 1826—yet another fiction.) Thus the negative image of the Indian is so overdetermined that it finds expression wherever an enemy is identified, through a potentially endless metonymic displacement. The racial stereotype is paradoxically inscribed with both sameness and difference. It cannot, as Homi Bhabha emphasizes,3 disappear at will; the signs of racial difference must remain visible precisely because their function is to ensure the integrity of the sovereign subject.

Inquiry and discourse itself are confined to the “experts” of whatever field. They are confined to their “proper” spheres—they are just confined, confined for control by a system of power not necessarily organic to human society. That system is in fact acutely specific; we can both remember and see how it arrogates the world, and for what purposes and to whose profit. But all those who do remember and see cannot effectively say what they see because there is no podium, and no audience except a designated audience. The motive for the designation is cancellation; designated, the audience becomes passive, a nonaudience.

So discourse, including art, and certainly including the ability to act upon discourse, is kept compartmentalized in a kind of complicity that makes the Mafia’s methods of producing complicity seem childishly underdeveloped.

Misrepresentation, as a sign of the impossibility of translating one set of cultural terms by another, thoroughly inscribes the history of relations between white and Indian. At the risk of misusing Jacques Derrida’s formulation that translation always leaves an unaccountable remainder,4 we might say that the remainder, or debt, that arises with colonialism in the Americas is actualized in the struggle over territory—the forcible removal of the native body from its place, its separation and enclosure (“in reserve,” so to speak), and the remotivation of native signifiers to serve white purposes. European culture’s emphasis on the sovereign subject and its private property is alien to a Native American concept of the self as an integral part of a social body whose history and knowledge are inscribed across a particular body of land. In the latter view, territory is a living entity, to be nurtured and respected as the literal body of the self.

This is not a metaphor. When Theodore Roosevelt claimed that “as regards taking the land, at least from the western Indians, the simple truth is that the latter never had any real ownership in it,”5 he willfully ignored the repeated assertions by tribal spokespersons that material possession—private property—was not an admired goal in their societies, where it was unthinkable that the land/body should be an object of exchange. At the same time, and equally suppressed in Roosevelt’s words, indigenous peoples were so invested in the land that it and they “belonged” to each other in an intimacy incomprehensible to a European.

This position is clearly stated in a speech attributed to Joseph of the Nimpau, whom we call the Nez Percé: “[When] the Creative Power. . . made the earth, [he] made no marks, no lines of division or separation upon it, and that it should be allowed to remain as then made. . . . He was made of the earth. . . . and therefore to part with the earth would be to part with himself or his self control.”6 This mutual inscription of land and people is illustrated in the story of the U.S. Army’s pursuit of Joseph and a group of his people in 1877, when the Nez Percé were attempting to seek sanctuary in Canada to avoid being confined to a reservation. One is struck, like readers of the time (the progress of the conflict was avidly reported in the Eastern press), by the fact that these several hundred people, including the aged and the very young, were able to move, mostly on foot, over a thousand miles of difficult terrain without capture, and that over a period of months they could repeatedly strike and evade the pursuing troops. The Nez Percé appear finally to have been intercepted through the army’s use of telegraphy as much as through their own fatigue—and the telegraph is an abstract form of communication unaffected in its workings by the topography of the land.

One of the more distressing traits of Americans is a tendency to feel powerless and vociferously to blame their powerlessness on other Americans somewhere else in their field of view, or on a general or particular system, as though the blamers themselves were not complicit in those crimes and sharing the loot. It’s like the wife in a rich household realizing that to be a housewife is to be oppressed, and solving the problem in a housewifely way—by demanding a share in the household system, a share of the profits, a piece of the action. The system stays the same—it’s just bought another person invested in its success. So many Americans braggingly dissociate themselves from participation in profit-sharing, but only in their attitudes. Artists in every generation can make their housewifely careers by such attitudes.

They have to be white, however, and they have to take care that their art primarily addresses other art. It’s true that nonwhite artists sometimes make an entrance—Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example, has been allotted some space for a while. But isn’t his kind of neoprimitivism a subcompartment of contemporary art that was developed before the actual appearance of neoprimitivists? In that sense, he’s only reading the lines provided for him.

Michael Jackson is allowed space, though he seems to feel he had to cut off his nose for it. But Howlin’ Wolf is allowed no space at all. At a particular time twenty-odd years ago this blues singer was allowed a small audience at some universities because those institutions had “collectors” of Howlin’ Wolf. That part of the audience, anyway, was a pretend audience; it was no more than collectors and potential collectors because its interest was no more than academic. If the system sees a use for neoprimitive music it assigns songs not to Howlin’ Wolf but to Mick Jagger, and develops a self-referential subcompartment, a turf, that can incorporate similar singers and groups. By and large, it’s these people, rather than the people who developed the music they’re playing, who get the audience, your culture’s ear. It is not the case that Howlin’ Wolf was too much of his own world, too ethnic, to get it. We have no world. People of color within the United States, or those outside the U.S. who want to find space in the U.S. for their own discourses, cannot easily find space because there is no space.

The colonizing Europeans were themselves deterritorialized, but unlike the Native Americans, they had cut their connection with their own landscapes by choice. Severed from sociopolitical and familial bonds and responsibilities, they crossed the ocean like wind-borne seed, putting down roots that were shallow but pernicious, strangling the indigenous flora. A process of displacement began—white man on Indian territory, alien crops in the place of indigenous ones, European names for Indian names. Displacement—and dispossession—begins with this (mis)representation in language. Tzvetan Todorov gives an account of Columbus’ mania for renaming everything in sight, as if naming were an act conferring right of possession (literally, an entitlement).7 By the same token, to deprive a person of the use of his or her own name and language, signs of relationship to the social group and the land/body, was fundamentally to deprive him or her of identity.

Cherokees imagine the universe—that is, everything that exists—to be like a council meeting. It is the duty of everyone in the council to listen well and to speak well, with respect and with integrity, so as to see and plan our next moves. It is the opposite in American society, not because we and you are opposites, but because your history and culture are invasions and thefts. Because of this the culture and its members are both arrogant and deliberately uninformed, so that the events or situations most of significance to understanding this history are the very ones most ignored and denied. A false history is then supplied as an alibi to cover up the truth, and this alibi in turn informs the culture in ways that serve to reinforce control.

Nothing could be more central to American reality than the relationships between Americans and American Indians, yet those relationships are of course the most invisible and the most lied about. The lies are not simply a denial; they constitute a new world, the world in which American culture is located. By invasion, murder, theft, complex denial, alibi, and insignification, American culture gains a tremendous (if pathological) psychological power and energy, which draw their strength almost exclusively from their own falseness. To maintain the necessary level of falseness, the styles and specifics, even the internal challenges and rebellions, of art must be kept banal, and preferably must refer only to the art system. Only now and again at most can they refer to the overall reality of the larger false system. The art world and its individual members, including its would-be members, must complicitly not speak or hear of other things, even if the arrogance of power enhanced by lies allowed them to.

Obviously, then, the problem of audience is practically insurmountable (definitely not soluble) for third world artists, so we owe ourselves the inclusion of that insurmountability in our work. In the U.S. it is an especially acute problem because generally speaking the American people combines the worst blind self-confidence of the British during their empire days with the bullying arrogance of the South African voortrekker. Are we supposed to challenge you, who are by your collective natures unchallengeable? Can we ignore you when your filthy boots stomp everywhere?

With their tales of either cannibalist savages or innocents in Eden, the reports circulated by Columbus and the explorers of the 16th century on the indigenous peoples were conflicting and fanciful, and created models of what would later become the stereotypes of “savage” and “noble savage.” In addition, there is evidence to show that as the European powers became more interested in the exploitive and colonialist potential of the new continent, the representation of the Indian became more conditioned by European fantasies at home than by whatever accurate details were available. Representation and observation were not yet embedded in a concept of scientific truth; they remained infected with symbolic discourse. Hence great license was taken with information received, exacerbated by the fact that European illustrators could not imagine a people outside their own conventions of representation. Bernadette Bucher, analyzing the illustrations in the Flemish publisher Theodor de Bry’s Great Voyages (the Collectiones peregrinationum, 1590–1634, the first compilation of explorers’ tales of the Americas), comments that firsthand accounts of the life of the indigenous peoples were subsequently distorted by the European engravers; she goes on to correlate the changes in representation—the introduction of Northern Renaissance ideals, and of demons or grotesques—with contemporary political and religious power struggles in Europe.8 Very quickly, it seems, the discourse of European civilization nominated the Indian as savage, in a moral justification for the theft of the land.

The black writer Amiri Baraka used to stand at podiums before 99-percent-white audiences in university lecture halls and tell the audience that he wasn’t speaking to the white people there. (The Indian artist, similarly situated, employs a similar irony, but feels he must point it out parenthetically.) Given our condition here, however, what could be more fun than speaking to you monsters? Once a grizzly bear, coming down a narrow mountain trail, met a mouse coming up the trail. The mouse stood up and looked the grizzly bear in the eyes. Then he said, “Is your name Kak?” The bear got so agitated at being called such a silly name that he fell off the mountain. (I got that story from reading Claude Lévi-Strauss.)

Your name really is Kak. You will not fall down just by my saying it, but if millions of us say it over and over maybe you will fall down, and that would be very good for you.

The New World could not be translated in part because no perceivable prior text encompassed it. According to white rhetoric, the land’s people were savage because they were without “Scripture”—they were excluded from the family of man in the biblical text, the written contract with God. They also lacked scripture in the lay sense of recognizable writing, and they had made no inscription on the land in the form of property boundaries. Outside the Word that was the Law, they could only be illegible and illegal.

Without written title to its history, territory, and name, the Native American body—and its extension, the land—was to be the blank page upon which the colonizers would forcibly trace their own master narrative. Armed with the gun, the plough, the pen, and eventually the camera, they were the authors of history, outside nature, outside the scene they reinscribed and recorded. Through the centuries, they would invoke Scripture to justify dispossession as the natural and divine right of those who made their mark upon the land. Thomas Jefferson, 1784: “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God.”9 Horace Greeley, 1860: “These people must die out—there is no help for them. God has given this earth to those who will subdue and cultivate it, and it is vain to struggle against His righteous decree.”10 The signs of culture that were unfamiliar to the colonizers they did not recognize as signs of culture; what was familiar they suppressed, for it was incompatible with the desire to see Native Americans as backward and savage.

That this construct was used to support the political rationale for dispossession is illustrated by the government’s 1830 removal policy toward the Five Civilized Tribes, among them the Cherokee Nation of Georgia. If the complexity of its legal and commercial systems are the criteria, Cherokee society was civilized by any standards; moreover, it possessed a syllabary, devised by the Cherokee Sequoyah, through which its language could be inscribed, and indeed was, in books and newspapers. The Cherokee Nation had accomplished what was inconceivable to the colonizing mind. In its enterprising adaptations of white culture, it had absorbed difference without loss of identity; possessing both a complex social order and a written language, it had transgressed not only the mythic text of colonialism but also white claims to authorship. Thus it threatened the core of the colonial discourse. How was this crisis—of the ideology of perception as well as of politics—to be resolved except by transporting the Cherokees to where they “properly” belonged—in the “wilderness” beyond the “frontier.” Later, the same function was served by enclosure. The reservation—part prison, part natural history museum in its effect—was an instrument of surveillance in which the native body, hitherto evasive and inscrutable, could be studied and molded into the white man’s image. When it was seen that as large populations isolated from white influence, the reservations actually reinforced Indian identity, a number of acts were instituted to fragment them, and to prohibit their inhabitants from practicing traditional customs.

I want to say my own things to the world, and so, of course, given history, part of “my own things” is that you don’t let me say anything. Another part is that your name is Kak. You may think these are the main things I have to say; you probably think I am your mouse. You think I am your Other.

The settlers’ renaming of what they found in North America acquires an extra significance in its application to the names of people and of peoples. Derrida has asserted that such proper nouns as these are untranslatable, and therefore outside language;11 the insight suggests why, for whites, Native American names became a sign of unknowableness. Significantly, they did not attract official censure until the territorial dispossession of indigenous peoples was all but accomplished, and the people themselves confined to reservations. In 1924, Native Americans were offered American citizenship, but the absurd ceremony that was involved explicitly equated this step with a renunciation of Indian identity through a surrender of the Indian name. Dissociated from its origins, the name as sign could now be secured within white mythology, for example through attachment to fetishized commodities in the brand names and logos of market products. By these strategies indigenous America was transferred not only from one territory to another, but also from one linguistic place to another, a place where the menace of “savagism” could be safely recycled as a nostalgic “primitivism” in art, advertising, children’s toys, and so forth.

It was also in the late 19th and early 20th century that the “noble savage” stereotype, popular as a critique of European society since the time of the Enlightenment, was resurrected in photography of Native Americans, particularly in the hands of Edward S. Curtis. In accordance with prevailing assumptions that the Indian was a “vanishing race,” Curtis set about documenting the “authentic” Indian, uncontaminated by white contact. The absence of such a pure signifier compelled him to fabricate his fantasy by cropping or retouching signs incompatible with those of “Indianness,” or by adding props and costumes bearing little relation to the life of the sitter. To the extent that the identities of the sitters in these images are displaced by the “primitive” one imposed on them by the photographer, Curtis manifested an arrogant lack of respect for cultural difference, a pernicious form of liberal paternalism that in the end is no less vicious than overt racism in its effects upon the colonized victim alienated from his and her own representations.12 As Durham has written, “One of the most terrible aspects of our situation today is that none of us feel that we are authentic. We do not think that we are real Indians. . . . For the most part, we just feel guilty, and try to measure up to the whiteman’s definition of ourselves.”13

U.S. culture and politics both operate by the mythos of the cowboy taming the wilderness—the pioneer family, whose innocent courage proves victorious over savageness. Robert Wilson wears cowboy boots. You all write and paint and politic wearing cowboy boots. You think there is some intrinsic connection between cowboys and Indians.

Several years back Art in America did a special issue on American Indian art.14 It included an admiring essay on Edward Curtis and showed some of his photos of Indians, with barely a word of caution. When an American magazine in any field treats the subject of Indians, the tone and the style are always very like those of National Geographic. The purpose is a tour of the territory, and thereby its reacquisition—the staking of a claim.

Nowadays you people love your story of us so much that you spend money on mystical Cherokee crystals, courses on shamanism, and trips to the Hopi Holy Land. And of course you still retain the Washington Redskins as a ball team and wear Cherokee casual wear. You think you own us. You think our history is American history.

For all I know you’ve been waiting for a mean mouse to come along. James Baldwin was such fun at parties. Here is a poem I wrote called “A Song for My Enemy”:

Ka, Now is the time in which it is perfect,
So that you will be full of stones and empty
Your ugly spirit into a dry place. I know all you names.
Your nickname is something stinking inflicted upon my eyes.
The names your lover uses have bitten my ears.
Your surname I can spit out without hesitation;
It is despicable, twisted spoiled meat.

The grain of corn is poison for you of course.
When you try to walk this path this corn will
Make you sick. Ka, Now your steps lose direction.

Of course you will stumble and sink into that blue pit.
The dry pit with stones. Stones hit your eyes.
Blue boulders in your gall bladder,
A stone for your liver, gritty stones in your teeth,
Sharp stones under the nails of your pale fingers and toes.

Now your stomach is full of dirty hair, balls of dirty hair
In your joints. You are incontinent, your prostate swells
And becomes a rock. Your pain hollows you out.

Ka, Now my hatred of you is clear and perfect,
Now you will die a hard death from my contempt.
At this moment you sicken, you turn blue, you
Fall down.

Now it is good, your nose is smashed against a jagged rock,
Your voice cannot longer pollute the air because
The rocks smash your throat. I will sing and
Have a good spirit as you fall down.

It is debilitating for art to speak to art. Yet that is the main criterion of value to the art-makers, the art-shopkeepers, the art-buyers, and most of the writers-about-art. And it is all done by voortrekkers.

Curtis’ estheticized anthropologism underscores the fact that there can be no image of the Other that is not already a defacement, even given the best efforts to avoid distortion. In our own culture of the past two hundred years, for example, it is frequently an expression of the Western romantic’s dissatisfaction with his or her own society, a tradition that perhaps begins with Chateaubriand and continues to be inflected in the present. The problem with this rhetoric of dissatisfaction is that it seeks solutions not simply in the internal workings of its own culture but in those of others. That Europe is no less guilty of this than America is evidenced by the literary fantasies of the turn-of-the-century German writer Karl May, whose exotic Western adventure stories were essential reading for several generations of German youth, and were a presence in the popular German film of the ’50s and ’60s. May’s romanticism is not so much a primitivist return to nature as a statement of European idealism, for the “noble savage” in his writing takes on the values of German immigrants opposing Yankee villainy. There is no confrontation here with Europe’s responsibility in the formulation of racist ideologies, in particular the Hegelian concepts of “historical progress” and “national spirit” that reinforced earlier theological arguments of the “inferiority” of non-European cultures. Without such a critique, any use of the colonized Other in Western literary or visual representation is at worst an appeal to exotic fantasies, at best a mourning of the past. Neither option confronts the reality of a present that continues to disempower the people deemed Other of the right to speak for themselves.

Contemporary art too experiences difficulty in handling these issues. The work of the German artist Lothar Baumgarten, for example, reflects several of the problems inherent in Curtis’ or May’s treatment of the “noble savage.” Baumgarten says of himself, “The spiritual and intuitive force that drives me is rooted in dissatisfaction. . . the dream of creating the world all over again within oneself.” Nevertheless, he looks not only within himself but also to the Other for a way back to “truth” and “origins”: “Though trapped in my Western thought patterns, I have always been interested in the ‘Other,’ the societies without a state.”15 Baumgarten, like Curtis, “forgets” that we have been unable to apprehend cultural difference without circumscribing it by our own desires. Rather than reconstruct the myth of the Other as Curtis does, Baumgarten nostalgically recreates the European myth of the loss of origins. Neither strategy illuminates the real material conditions of indigenous peoples.

Baumgarten cannot avoid the reification of what is culturally different. (This is a common problem for all of us who engage with the issue of cultural difference.) For the most part he avoids using the image of the Other in his work, presenting instead its proper name; but without acknowledging how this name functions in place, and what is proper in its relation to its owner, the strategy risks yet another form of cultural annexation. The Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday writes of Native American names that “a man’s name is his own; he can keep it or give it away as he likes. Until recent times, the Kiowas would not speak the name of a dead man. To do so would have been disrespectful and dishonest. The dead take their names with them out of the world.”16 Baumgarten’s work reflects little awareness of such cultural modes as these, and thus subordinates them to those of the West.

Okay, I can do Indian tricks! Don’t turn the page, here’s another poem: “This Is Not New Jersey.”

Look, cousins, you made the wrong turn.
This is not New Jersey.
These salt marshes and pine trees understand
Neither Gaelic nor Sassenach English,
And those Leni Lenapé your fathers killed
Are walking around your closed, scared, suburban houses,
So you’d better just split.
If you want New Jersey, well, I think you got to
Tear down Old Jersey and build a new one there;
You can’t import Jerseys, or Yorks, or Hampshires.

Or Georgias. Those half-acre wooded lots are not suitable for building
And Mr. Penn does not own that sylvan countryside.
Now look, you huddled massas are messing up our corn
Crop and the bean rows we took such care with.
Why don’t you go huddle in Jersey or Silesia,
Or just ride a passenger pigeon into the sunrise?

Why don’t you just clear out? Drop dead?
At least forget about Jersey, cousin; you’re too lost
For that.

Hey, cousins, even the grass around here hates you,
You know that? Why don’t you just pack up your golf
Balls and jump in the gulf?

Or at least straighten up. You made the wrong turn.
This is not New Jersey and this is not the New World.
You need to get your bearings straight.

We live here and you are scaring the fish.
See, we don’t call this place New Mongolia, or New Jersey.

If you lost New Jersey why don’t you just go
Home and start out again in a different direction?

There are no golden doors here; that’s only corn,
And we planted it. You got nice wheat to eat
Back in Jersey, why don’t you pack up your Wonder Bread
And jump in the ocean?

Or turn your station wagon around and drive off
The scenic overview?

Why don’t you ask the government to sterilize you?
You’re so unsanitary, dragging around that load of Jersey
Bullshit. You are just German germs and Dutch elm
Why don’t you O.D. on English tea and jump into the
Irish Sea?

A pack of wolves are going to ride down
On you. Our wolves can beat
Your German shepherds that guard your
Family treasures. Cyclone fence or not.

You may think I’m just talking tough
But this is not New Jersey.

That the Native American name is mis-taken while the body is presumed dead is a recurrent accusation in the work of the Native American artist Edgar Heap Of Birds: “A mockery is made of us by reducing our tribal names and images to the level of insulting sports team mascots, brand name automobiles, camping equipment, city and state names, and various other commercial products produced by the dominate white culture. This strange white custom is particularly insulting when one considers the great lack of attention that is given to real Indian concerns.”17 (How different is the commercial use of Indian names from the use of Indian names in art?) Heap Of Birds also points out that the names assigned to Native American tribes are not necessarily those by which the people call themselves. His own people, through a phonetic slippage of a Lakota Sioux word, have become “known” as the Cheyenne; translatable only through the agency of a secondary text, they are otherwise illegible to us. This margin of language where no one is is a place that means no thing and no one, yet it so imbricates the colonial text that it renders the colonized peoples of the Americas without access to their own representation, and, by association, to a power base from which to negotiate their own subjectivity.

Let’s see, what else? I hope I am authentic enough to have been worth your time, and yet educated enough that you feel your conversation with me has been intelligent. I’ve been careful not to reveal too much: understanding is a consumer product in your society; you can buy some for the price of a magazine. Like the TV ad says, “Time puts it all right in your hands.” Once you’ve bought some understanding, it’s only natural to you to turn it around and make a profit from it—psychological, economic, or both. Then you’d get even fatter, more powerful. And where would I be?

Jimmie Durham is a sculptor and writer who lives in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Jean Fisher is a writer who lives in New York and contributes regularly to Artforum.



1. See Edward W. Said, Orientalism, London and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.

2. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “A Literary Representation of the Subaltern,” In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, New York and London: Methuen, 1987, p. 260.

3. Homi K. Bhabha, “The Other Question—the Stereotype and Colonial Discourse,” Screen 24 no. 6, London, November–December, 1983, p. 18.

4. See Jacques Derrida, “Des Tours de Babel,” in Joseph R. Graham, ed., Difference in Translation, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1985, p. 165 ff.

5. Quoted in Frank Bergon and Zeese Papanikolas, eds., Looking Far West, New York and Scarborough, Ontario: New American Library, 1978, p. 39.

6. Quoted in Mark H. Brown, The Flight of the Nez Perce, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1967, p. 29.

7. Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Harper & Row, Perennial Library, 1985, pp. 26-27.

8. See Bernadette Bucher, Icon and Conquest: A Structural Analysis of the Illustrations of de Bry’s Great Voyages, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

9. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781–85, query 19.

10. Quoted in Bergon and Papanikolas, p. 43.

11. Derrida, ibid.

12. See Christopher M. Lyman, The Vanishing Race: Photographs of Indians by Edward S. Curtis, New York: Pantheon Books, in association with the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982.

13. Jimmie Durham, Columbus Day, Minneapolis: West End Press, 1983, p. 84.

14. Art in America 60 no. 4, July–August 1972.

15. Lothar Baumgarten, “Status quo,” Artforum XXVI no. 7, p. 108.

16. N. Scott Momaday, The Way to Rainy Mountain, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1969, p. 33.

17. Edgar Heap Of Birds, Sharp Rocks, Buffalo: CEPA, 1986, n.p.

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