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What Makes an Indian?
Reviewed April 28, 1996 in the New York Times by Patricia Nelson Limerick

JUST AS AN EXPERIMENT, ask a white liberal to give you a firm and reliable definition of “Indian.” Say, “What are the qualities by which we can identify a late-20th-century American as ’genuinely Indian,’ certifiably tied to a tribal ancestry and culture and entitled to participate in tribal self-government?” Will your test subject give a good imitation of a cat invited up on a hot stove? You bet.

But when Fergus M. Bordewich holds forth on, for instance, the authenticity of “traditional” Indian identity after many centuries of intermarriage and acculturation, we have the equivalent of a cat nestling comfortably next to the burner. While showing considerable sympathy for Indian people, he asks direct questions about the viability and fairness of tribal self-government and about the credibility of many of those who lay claims to a traditional tribal identity today.

Mr. Bordewich, whose previous book was “Cathay: A Journey in Search of Old China,” was introduced as a child to Indian people by his mother, Laverne Madigan Bordewich, who in the 1950s was executive director of the Association on American Indian Affairs, a private national advocacy group. Since his mother’s time, he notes, “an upheaval of epic proportions” has taken place on reservations, “challenging the worn-out theology of Indians as losers and victims” and “transforming tribes into powers to be reckoned with for a long time to come.”

Mr. Bordewich offers many memorable demonstrations of this revitalization of culture, religion and self-government. Particularly telling chapters trace the creation and development of Little Big Horn College on the Crow Reservation, the Mississippi Choctaws’ success in building industrial enterprises and the emergence of the Paiute tribe as a key player in the allocation of the water draining into Nevada’s Pyramid Lake.

Killing the White Man’s Indian draws vivid portraits of Indian efforts to combat alcoholism; of Indian campaigns for the return of museum-held skeletal remains; of investigations of reservation crimes made more complicated by a tangle of tribal, county, state and Federal jurisdictions—and of white Americans surprised and angry to find their property rights and their complacency under assault.

The stories in Killing the White Man’s Indian are well written, moving and stimulating. But while they often provoke thought, Mr. Bordewich’s argument, and his conclusions, have a way of driving thought back to its pre-provoked state. Thus, this advice to the reader: Choose his often complex tales over his often simple meanings.

The title, Killing the White Man’s Indian, gives one example of the problem. Mr. Bordewich notes, quite accurately, that white Americans have long viewed Indians through a fog of myth and illusion. Then he offers this promise: We are now ready to “kill” the illusion of the “white man’s Indian”—“a warped reflection of ourselves”—and “see Indians as they are.”

This is a remarkable hope. But white people’s myths and illusions about Indian people have been imbedded in literature, popular culture, Federal policy, commerce and—perhaps most important—Indian people’s self-images for centuries. It would take cultural surgery of unimaginable delicacy to disentangle them.

Just as striking is Mr. Bordewich’s belief that he, personally, has been able to break free of five centuries of distortion, fantasy, fear, yearning, envy and projection. “Bordewich’s Indians” are not going to be another set of “White Man’s Indians"; they are going to be the real thing, actuality transcribed, Indians at last captured whole and complete by a white writer.

Mr. Bordewich, however, shows himself to be an identifiable human being, and not a premillennial incarnation of omniscience and objectivity. Consider, for instance, his practice of what we might call separate standards for separate folk.

Imagine yourself reading his description of the failure of the Crow Tribal Council to give full support to the very deserving Little Big Horn College, or his description of occasions when the powers of tribal governments have crushed the civil rights of individual Indian people. Imagine that you are able to follow his lead and work yourself into a state of concern, and perhaps even outrage, over the lamentable workings of some reservation governments.

Then, quickly, while that fit is still upon you, think about the intractable freshman Republicans in the House of Representatives. Think about the budget stalemate. Or remember the cold war, and anti-Communist Washington’s infringements on civil rights. Of course, many tribal governments have struggled with corruption, cronyism, inefficiency and arbitrary authority. But what government on earth has not? Why hold tribal governments to standards that few governments can live up to?

One suspects that we are in the presence here, in Mr. Bordewich’s own phrasing, of one of those “ideas of mythic force . . . rooted in the American psyche.” In the most persistent, “unkillable” mental habit associated with the “White Man’s Indian,” Europeans and their descendants have exalted an idealized image of Indians and then plunged into deep disillusionment when Indians failed to match that image. Democracy may be having a tough time everywhere, but surely (the yearning goes) small, land-based, face-to-face communities, tied together by kinship and history, ought to be able to make democracy work.

In other words, when Indians struggle with the same problems of governance that afflict us all, our response is condemnation, rather than fellow feeling.

“Who, ultimately, are Indians in the 1990s? What are they to other Americans, and we to them?” Mr. Bordewich asks. In pressing this question, he is performing a genuine public service. His book will persuade few readers to rank Indian sovereignty among the nation’s greatest issues. But like liberals confronted with hot issues, many of his readers will squirm. And that could provide the occasion for a constructive national conversation. —Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company