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“Playing Indian” and the Search for Authenticity in Modern White America

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2009

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Modern society, it would seem, is a conspiracy against authentic existence. Freud thought this true of all civilization, but a generation of literary critics, historians, and social scientists are laying at the door of modern civilization responsibility for the pathologies of everyday life. The time scales vary greatly, some scholars insisting that the modern revolution in the conception of the self has taken centuries, while others see this process as having taken place within the last century, but the savants all seem to arrive at roughly the same conclusion, namely, that what characterizes modern American life in this century is an unconsummated search for authenticity. The social pathology of this search, those most critical of modernity conclude, is narcissism. Clearly, whatever form the argument takes and regardless of the willingness of the analyst to moralize on the basis of his or her analysis, authenticity is a “hot” subject.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1980

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1. The key work in this debate, the one to which everyone seems to return, is Trilling, Lionel's Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972)Google Scholar. See esp. Trilling's interpretation of Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents (1930)Google Scholar. Berger, Peter L.'s review, “‘Sincerity’ and ‘Authenticity’ in Modern Society,” Public Interest, 31 (Spring 1973), 8190Google Scholar, attempts to talk about Trilling's thesis in terms of Berger's two categories, honor and dignity. See also Berger, Peter, Berger, Brigitte, and Kellner, Hansfried, The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness (New York: Random House, 1973)Google Scholar. Sennett, Richard's The Fall of Public Man: On the Social Psychology of Capitalism (New York: Random House, 1976)Google Scholar rather elaborately continued the argument, calling narcissism the pathology of modern culture. Independently, Ralph Turner proposes a new continuum on which to place Freud, Trilling, and others. See his essay “The Real Self: From Institution to Impulse,” American Journal of Sociology, 81 (1976), 9891016Google Scholar. The latest contribution to this ferment is Lasch, Christopher's The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978).Google Scholar

2. “Microscopic” is an adjective the anthropologist Clifford Geertz uses to characterize ethnographic description. “Microscopic” is not to be confused with “microcosmic,” which method of generalizing from the particular Geertz explicitly rejects. Geertz, Clifford, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), pp. 2123.Google Scholar

3. Berkhofer, Robert F. Jr., The White Man's Indian (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978), p. 107Google Scholar. In the present essay I am adopting Berkhofer's word usage—that is, to capitalize White when the word refers to the ethnic group and to use “the phrase Native American(s) to refer to the actual peoples designated by the term Indian(s),” the latter term applying to the White image of Native American people. See Berkhofer, , p. xvii.Google Scholar

4. The chief sources on the life of Seton are his autobiography, Trail of an Artist-Naturalist (New York: Scribner's, 1940)Google Scholar, and Seton, Julia M.'s By a Thousand Fires (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967).Google Scholar

5. Seton, Ernest M. T., “A History of the Boy Scouts by: Ernest M. T. Seton, Chief Scout, 1910–15,”Google Scholar unpublished typescript in the Seton Papers, Seton Village, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Seton probably wrote this account in 1927. For the intellectual context of Seton's ideas, see Kett, Joseph F., Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America 1790 to the Present (New York: Basic Books, 1977).Google Scholar

6. Seton, , “A History,” unpaged.Google Scholar

7. Seton, Ernest Thompson, The Book of Woodcraft and Indian Lore (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1921), p. 58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

8. Julia had already established her own reputation in Indian lore when she met Seton. Her books are still used in the study of Native American arts and crafts. See Buttree, Julia M., The Rhythm of the Redman (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1930), for a fine example.Google Scholar

9. Much of the background information I present here is from Kelly, Jack, Koshare (Boulder, Colo.: Pruett, 1975)Google Scholar, an uncritical celebration of the Koshares.

10. An excellent summary of the Ghost Dance movement is in a museum catalog, I Wear the Morning Star (Minneapolis: Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1976)Google Scholar, that accompanied a touring exhibition of Ghost Dance objects in 1976.

11. Feder, Norman, “Editorial: Authentic or Not?American Indian Hobbyist, 1, No. 2 (10 1954).Google Scholar

12. Koshares, , Constitution, By-Laws and Bibliography (revised 03 1962)Google Scholar. Library of the Koshare Indian Dancers, La Junta, Colorado.

13. Kelly, , Koshare, pp. 4353Google Scholar, tells the story. For an account of the Shalako ceremony and some rare photographs of the costumes, see Scully, Vincent, Pueblo: Mountain, Village, Dance (New York: Viking Press, 1975), pp. 271–87.Google Scholar

14. ValGendron, Behind the Zuni Masks (New York: Longmans, Green, 1958), 189.Google Scholar

15. A useful introduction is Singer, Milton's “For a Semiotic Anthropology,” in Sight, Sound, and Sense, ed. Sebeok, Thomas A. (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1978), 202–31.Google Scholar

16. Geertz, , Interpretation of Cultures, pp. 5, 9, 14, 24, and 26.Google Scholar

17. This phenomenological approach to the making of meaning in everyday life appears in sociology as symbolic interactionism and ethnomethodology. A good anthology on this approach is Douglas, Jack D., ed., Understanding Everyday Life (Chicago Aldine, 1970).Google Scholar

18. Bateson, Gregory, “The Pattern Which Connects,” Coevolution Quarterly, No. 18 (Summer 1978), 515Google Scholar, and Peirce, Charles S., Philosophical Writings of Peirce, ed. Buchler, Justus (New York: Dover, 1955), pp. 8889.Google Scholar

19. MacCannell, Dean, “Ethnosemiotics,” Semiotica (forthcoming, 1979).Google Scholar

20. The Native Americans, I might add, are also making their interpretations of both themselves and the tourists who invade the reservations not far from La Junta. Making somewhat the same argument as MacCannell's is Wagner, Roy, The Invention of Culture (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975).Google Scholar

21. MacCannell, Dean, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: Schocken, 1976), pp. 111.Google Scholar

22. Ibid., p. 13.

23. Ibid., p. 8. See also pp. 78–80 on the function of museums. Buck Burshears's house is also a museum of sorts, filled with much of the art and Koshare memorabilia that will go into their new museum building when it is constructed. Buck regularly invites a few scoutmasters and their best Scouts to come over to his house after a Koshare performance to see the house, its contents, and a slide show about the Koshares.

24. MacCannell, , “Ethnosemiotics.”Google Scholar Says MacCannell: “Ethnosemiotics understands that culture is not natural in the way that a geological formation is natural; it can never be authentic; it dies at precisely the moment it stops questioning its own existence.”

25. MacCannell, , “Ethnosemiotics,”Google Scholar and MacCannell, , Tourist, p. 5Google Scholar, on social scientists as tourists.

26. Sennett, , Fall of Public Man, pp. 312–36Google Scholar. See my “Sacred and Profane Play in the Boy Scouts of America,” in Schwartzman, Helen B., ed., Play and Culture (West Point, New York: Leisure Press, 1979)Google Scholar, and Sutton-Smith, Brian, “Epilogue,”Google Scholar The Association for the Anthropological Study of Play Newsletter, 5, No. 1 (Summer 1978), 45.Google Scholar

27. MacCannell, , Tourist, p. 15.Google Scholar

28. Geertz, , Interpretation of Cultures, 347Google Scholar. See also Geertz, Clifford, “Thinking as a Moral Act: Ethical Dimensions of Anthropological Fieldwork in the New States,” Antioch Review, 28 (1968), 139–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

29. MacCannell, , “Ethnosemiotics.”Google Scholar

30. Singer, , “For a Semiotic Anthropology,” p. 211.Google Scholar