If you live between the Missouri River and the Sierra Nevada, you are where the great American reinvention machine cranks out new lives and new identities for those who, it is sometimes said, are strangers in a strange land.
That is what Bobby Bridger, noted historian-author, actor and balladeer, seeks to convey about a certain, special aspect of our nation’s culture.
In his 464-page Where the Tall Grass Grows: Becoming Indigenous and the Mythological Legacy of the American West (Fulcrum, 2011), Bridger undertakes the ambitious task of melding the Plains Indian culture of the Trans-Missouri region with Eurocentric values and goals during decades of shifting national priorities and vacillating non-Native views of Indian people.
Lest that seem too limited, he also takes on the challenge of distinguishing among identities constructed around “playing Indian” (taken from Philip Deloria’s book of the same name), “going Native” and “becoming indigenous,” which he suggests is integral to national survival.
It all makes for compelling reading for those who want another peek under the suffocating blanket of American myths about Thanksgiving, John Wayne, intellectuals, pioneers and Johnny Appleseed, to name a few.
Using a deft touch and some sly humor, Bridger entertains his readers with a shrewd analysis of the underlying themes played out in the American West. The book’s title refers to the Trans-Missouri area “where Americans will always go to reinvent themselves—and America is about reinvention, if nothing else,” Bridger writes. “The heart and soul of the people live in this region.”
But it’s also a region that’s frightening to immigrants who are accustomed to plenty of water, wood and land, who found the Great Plains arid and treeless. Deeper still, as Bridger quotes the late, iconic Vine Deloria Jr.: “Although non-Indians are born in North America, they are not indigenous to North America, and they remain strangers in a land they do not understand…. Where we (Indian people) have consecrated the land with our lives and blood; we have truly become native to this land.”
In fact, Bridger contends, the archetypal American is a nameless, dislocated traveler, a wanderer—often a cowboy. The archetype fits the requisite core plot of fiction: “a man goes on a quest,” or “a stranger comes to town,” or both, he says, quoting playwright Dale Wasserman. Another piece of American identity came from “playing Indian,” as rebellious colonialists donned “Indian” garb at the Boston Tea Party; in fact, Philip Deloria suggests that the American personality was largely created by non-Indians role-playing as Indians.
One kind of American to be reinvented in the West by “going Native” was the mountain man, because “inhabiting the indigenous culture of North America to become a mythmaker is what would eventually distinguish the very fine line between “playing Indian” and “going native,” Bridger says.
“Because of their absolute immersion into Indian culture, the mountain men would thus become recognized as the very first collective manifestation of American freedom and individuality in the heart of the ‘wilderness’ of the New World,” he says. “Since they were totally immersed in the Indian culture in order to survive, the greatest compliment one could pay a mountain man was, ‘I took you fer an Injun.’ ”
Taking it a step further, the transformative “playing Indian” and “going Native” are transcended by “becoming indigenous,” which has a redemptive quality; in Bridger’s analysis, Dunbar in Dances with Wolves “becomes human” in Lakota perception, and, Bridger says, “becoming human, he has become indigenous” as he renounces the brutality of the society and culture for which he once fought.
A similar transformation occurs in Avatar, which Bridger describes as American Western, when Sully, departing his avatar body to engage Quaritch in combat, becomes indigenous through a fusion of nature, technology and spirituality. Those movies and others “suggest that both Indian and non-Indian Americans continue seeking mythological transcendence in the Trans-Missouri by means of our national narrative, the Western.”
Blending Musicianship and Authorship: An Interview with Bobby Bridger
Bobby Bridger, known for his Ballad of the West trilogy, was a buckskin-clad performer for many years. Before a signing of Where the Tall Grass Grows at Denver’s Tattered Cover bookstore, he discussed his role as a non-Indian in what he describes as a pan-Indian culture, and his attempts to tout the universality of the words in Black Elk Speaks, the seminal volume containing accounts of Lakota rituals and some of the knowledge of Black Elk, as dictated to non-Native John Neihardt by the Oglala Lakota spiritual leader and Holy Man.
How do you see the role of the non-Indian in a pan-Indian world?
It’s in the last chapter, when I talk about a 2009 Western Writers of America convention. Among other things, it concerns non-Indians writing about Indians. One of the writers, Joseph Marshall, a Lakota, said, “We have lived in your world, but you still haven’t lived in ours.” I felt justified in writing about it because I lived in Indian culture for many years. But I don’t consider myself Indian. The only way I have been privileged to continue my work as a non-Indian has been to get this story [Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, told through John Neihardt] to the forefront.
How do you think that point of view has been generally received by Native people?
It’s dangerous territory because of appropriation—you have to walk on eggshells to do what I do. But close relationships with Vine [Deloria Jr.] and others from Pine Ridge to Miami have helped. Now that Vine and Floyd [Westerman] are gone, it’s more difficult. But it’s a double-edged sword in some circles; you don’t have to be a Dane to play Hamlet. In fact I’d like to see an Indian play him. Kevin Costner appropriated Lakota culture [in Dances With Wolves], but that brought the language forward to the 21st century, and there has been successful sponsorship of many other Indian films and Indian actors. That is worth walking on eggshells for.
You also stress being indigenous as important, though pioneers and present-day Americans apparently were and are not. But do people accept that?
I started asking people, “Are you indigenous?” and they’d reply, “No—only Indians are indigenous.” So I’d respond, “Then what are you?” They’d say, “That’s a trick question,” and they’d start talking about grandparents and great-grandparents and the Mayflower and so on. Bottom line—most Americans don’t have any idea what we are.
You hold Black Elk Speaks in high regard. What is its importance?
The work talks about the reunification of all people. It’s from the area where the Plains religion came from. Vine, in the preface of Black Elk Speaks, calls it a “Native American Bible.” Black Elk Speaks stands beside other [religious texts] of the world in significance. It has not been made into a major movie, but as I say in the book, it continues to reunite us with the spirituality of the world that Black Elk lived in.
You’ve been in theater and in music for many years. How has the entertainment culture affected Native people?
In the early days, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show took Plains culture around the world. Even today, if you go abroad, it’s the first thing people ask about Indians. They think of Plains Indians, with the feathered headdress, canupa, tipis, the sweat lodge, the language. The show affected a lot of things. Indians in it were leaders, and that was encouraged, because their absence from the reservations gave missionaries greater latitude to convert Indians to Christianity and fill the boarding schools. When Sitting Bull left Canada, a lark told him [in a vision], “Your own people will kill you.” But he understood celebrity; he joined the show and became too famous to kill.