2010 Review: Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong

Everything you know about Indians is Wrong Boor Review cover

Review by Shari Narine
Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong
By Paul Chaat Smith
Published by University of Minnesota Press 2009

December 2009

Paul Chaat Smith's Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong is a hard hitting collection of essays that examines mainstream society's inability to clearly understand the significance of Indian civilization prior to the coming of the Europeans and mainstream society's need to continue to perpetuate the myths and stereotypes.

While Smith's essays are compelling, they are at times confusing and contradictory.

Perhaps the most important point to keep in mind is Smith's comment in his Afterword:  "I continue to find buried history, pop music, failed revolution, television, and future that never quite arrived subjects of endless interest. But the truth is, I'm not really the same guy who wrote these essays." The changes in Smith can be seen in this very collection, which spans from 1992 to 2008.

Smith lambastes mainstream culture in its depiction of Indians in media, all the way through from film and television to history books and art – and hence the title of his collection of essays. However, Smith doesn't offer answers and perhaps he doesn't because he believes filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk is correct when he approaches his work with questions and not statements. Writes Smith, "Too many Indian artists approach their work with statements, not questions. And the statements are along the lines of: This is who we are, and this is what happened to us."

However, on one hand Smith clearly states that much of the depiction of Natives is through the hand of the white man and thus must be approached with healthy skepticism. But in noting that there is now a first generation of Indian artists, Smith vacillates on whether this new generation is doing any better of a job in depicting Indians. Too many Indian artists, he says, attempt to walk the two worlds of mainstream and Indian and only succeed in producing confusion.

Smith is probably no more critical of the media than he is in his take on film. He points out that the early westerns depict Indians in the stereotypical fashion, moving from savage to noble savage. He also notes that westerns are the creation of white men not Indians. Smith is vocal in his dislike of the critically acclaimed "Dances With Wolves." While he says, "An Indian film aesthetic must challenge the manufactured images if it seeks to represent our lives and experiences," he knocks Indians for taking the movies too seriously. Says Smith,  We've crossed the line somewhere and forgotten that it's entertainment and not a vehicle invented to first denigrate and then uplift our race."

However as critical as Smith is of the various media that are used to depict Indians, whether it be at the hand of whites or Indians, he does point out a handful of Indians that he thinks are getting the job done. Along with Kunuk, Smith mentions conceptual artist James Luna and in particular his "outrageous and brilliant" installation The Artifact Piece; Kanai artist Faye HeavyShield and her installation blood, which premiered in the Southern Alberta Art Gallery in Lethbridge; and Baco Ohama's Miyoshi, which also opened in Lethbridge.

Smith's essays also touch on the Indian demonstrations in the United States, particularly the take over of Alcatraz Island in 1969; the creation of the American Indian Movement; and the significance of the Nixon administration.

Smith's writing could be seen as a throwback to the title of his book. Indian people are known to have a dry wit and caustic sense of humour; throughout Smith's early essays that wit and sarcasm comes through. It makes the reading of his essays interesting, but also challenging, because with his tongue-in-cheek approach it's sometimes difficult to know exactly what he's being serious about.

Smith, a Comanche, is the associate curator at the National Museum of the American Indian of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.