Student Journal

Dead Indian

In this critique I will address ethics as they relate to the way in which Native [1] Americans are depicted in Western modernity, and will argue that proximity, in space and time, is vital when considering ethics of the Other. [2] I will focus mainly on ethics as they relate to space, and particularly the profound effect of the daw (gap; space) [3] that is between subjects; the proximity of the other. It is the proximity of the other where we, not only understand and appreciate differences, but also where conflict seems inevitable. Conflict, implying one or more opposing position, participates in ethics, and in order for opposing views to have the space or ground to stake their claim, a relatively fair playing field is implied, a field that does not exist as such when the Other is placed and held in time. In order for binaries to be in ‘play,’ this shared field of space must also be zhayiigwa (now; already). [4] The work of Native American performance artist James Luna brings zhayiigwa to the Native critique, creating de-colonized space.  

The Western concept that any and all expansion is a good thing, at any cost, legitimized thesystematic collection and containment of Native Americans to a particular space and time, designated for them by Others. Edward Said refers to a similar type of management by the Other, when he references Orientalism as “a geographical space to be cultivated, harvested and guarded.” [5] At a time, during the later 19th and early 20th century, when the Indian wars [6] in the United States were coming to an end, Buffalo Bill Cody capitalized on the Western fascination with, what the audience saw as the exotic Native American, culminating in an American Romanticism. [7] Cody took his “Wild West Show” across the U.S. and Europe, casting Cowboys and Indians in dramatic reenactments, but with a veneer of camaraderie. The enemy Other was cast as friend, but only if they played the part of enemy for the audience’s entertainment, and so called, education. The Natives on display were frozen in time, to serve the Other, (whom they were often expected to be grateful to for saving them from their savage and sinful ways). This educational entertainment was especially poignant in urban areas in the U.S. and Europe, and is similar to how, for Said, “the Orient is turned into a program for control by divination. Yet such programs must always have a liberal veneer.” [8] I agree with Said that to understand and appreciate the Other “it is always better to let them speak for themselves,” [9] but how can the dead speak?

The living performance art of James Luna speaks for itself in Artifact Piece, which he performed in 1987 at the Museum of Man in Balboa Park, San Diego. Luna lies, still, as if in state; as an object, in a museum case, dressed in a loin-clothHe is surrounded by artifacts such as divorce papers and contemporary ritual objects, as well as other mementos from his life as a modern “Indian,” with labels pointing to evidence like scars from real events in his life. In this respect, his performance is inherentlyproximitized, as the viewer does not expect to find the Indian artifact is alive. The work is a serious parody revealing how Natives are viewed by most of the world.  In an interview with Jeff Righthand of the Smithsonian, Luna says “I’m making a statement for me, and through me, about people’s interaction with American Indians, and the selective romanticization of us.” [10] Emmanuel Levinas refers to the importance of proximity between us when he states “the irreducible…experience of relationship appears…not in synthesis, but in the face to face of humans…in its moral signification…not as a secondary layer.” [11] He goes on to say “morality has an independent and preliminary range…the term ‘transcendence’ signifies precisely the fact that one cannot think.” [12] The objectifying cultures’ thinking leads to ideological interpretations that lend Natives as static objects and commodities. If we are in close proximity to the other our immediate attention is demanded and the tendency to objectify the other is diminished, eclipsed by the face, not to mention the body and actions of the other. We move away from the categorical when we are face to face. Said too, speaks to this same significance of space when he refers to how space “acquires emotional and even rational sense by a kind of poetic process, whereby the vacant or anonymous reaches of distance are converted into meaning for us here.” [13] He goes on to say; “the same process occurs when we deal with time. Much of what we associate with or even know about such periods as ‘long ago’ or ‘the beginning’ or ‘at the end of time’ is poetic – made up.” [14] When facing the Other zhayiigwa,conceptualization is interrupted and whatever is ‘made up,’ is necessarily by the subject, and about the subject.

James Luna, The Artifact Piece, 1987, Performance at the Museum of Man in Balboa Park, San Diego

James Luna, The Artifact Piece, 1987, Performance at the Museum of Man in Balboa Park, San Diego

Positing and freezing the Other in time and space leads to the designating of a particular way of life for them. The culture allotted to Native Americans today has much to do with what they have come to call the “White Buffalo:” gaming. Given the poverty and high mortality rates on reservations today, [15] it seems the choice for Natives is game or die. The objectification and isolation, in time, of everything Native runs throughout Native history since the arrival of the Other from Europe. In the early 19th century photographer Edward Curtis posits Natives and their culture, in time, by literally removing time from his photograph In Piegan Lodge of 1911. [16] Finishing the photograph for publication in the dark room, Curtis removed the clock that was in the original photograph between Little Plume and his son, Yellow Kidney. I can only imagine that Curtis wouldn’t want his public, which he charged himself with educating, to know that Natives were like them. How could that be good for business: a photograph of someone no different than you? This is what Luna speaks to in his performance Artifact Piece, where beadwork, pottery or garments do not make the Indian. There is so much more that is Indian about him, including scars resulting from substance abuse. The culture Curtis identifies in In Piegan Lodge, merely exists as a concept, which he manufactured through his blatant manipulation of the image, (anchored in an ‘Us and Them’ dichotomy, which is predicated exclusively on a Western perspective). As with Said’s Oriental, Natives are fixed in time and put on display for the West. [17]   Jane Blocker addresses these same issues of contrived cultures on display when she asks: “whether our memories as Westerners are ‘peopled’ by a cast of invented natives whose performances of authenticity and ‘silent customs’ are scripted by our own historical accounts.” [18] It seems these false signifiers are easy to manage for the West precisely because they are created by the West and remain concepts. Much more difficult to negotiate, from a one-sided perspective, are the real differences, which have little to do with equality. It is the idea of equality, during early colonization, where for the West there was no middle ground, but only the bringing of the Other to a Western ideal, that construct imagery of the Other to merely serve the interests of the West. It is then no surprise that colonization was achieved through unethical practices.

Photographic print by Edward Curtis of Little Plume and his son, c1910, with the clock they own and use between them

Photographic print by Edward Curtis of Little Plume and his son, c1910, with the clock they own and use between them

Photogravure of the same image after Curtis altered it, removing the clock.

Photogravure of the same image after Curtis altered it, removing the clock.

In addition to our inability to see past our own concepts of the other, the statistical, uninterrupted record for posterity actually limits our ability to fully understand the Other, as well as ourselves. It is in this geographical space between us; dawaa [19] where ethics become more, or less, real [20] because it is a part of our everyday life. We can only get a superficial understanding through reading a text or looking at images, (although we may get more insight from reading creative literature or looking at art, which tends to get past the pretense of recording for perceived accuracy). For Levinas, “the said[...] does not count as much as the saying itself.” [21] The said, as historical record, is not necessarily an accurate recording of the real. The Levinasian ‘said’ for Natives, is also the stage that Blocker refers to when she states, “to the degree that identity politics are the wages of thishistoriographic practice, ‘being remembered’ for Indians often means to dress the stage set on which dominant culture’s past is performed-a fact of which Luna’s project Take a Picture with a Real Indian is a vivid example.” [22]    Luna performed this piece on Columbus Day, 2011, in D.C.’s Columbus Plaza, in traditional Native dress, where he offered bystanders the opportunity to pose with him and have their photo taken. With both this work and Artifact Piece Luna sacrifices his body akin to how culture and spirit were sacrificed by colonization. Referring to Artifact Piece Blocker states “Luna engages diabetes similarly to the way he did alcoholism in his previous works, that is, he treats it both as an artifact of the dysfunction of Indian culture and as a metaphor for the dangers of white historiography.” [23] In his work, via the use of his own body as art, Luna displays himself as both subject and object. The important question Roula Haj-Ismail asks, (after Irigary,) relates to ethics: “How can one escape the clutches of ideology, and patriarchal imposition that has taken hold of language? Even in its very structure?” [24] She goes on to say: “the body is relational, I am a subject and an object, my body is an event, I can effect change through the technicity of my body.” [25] Is it in this union of subject and object in the human body, which Luna demonstrates, where concepts are opened up from a dead history to an ethics of the real zhayiigwa.

With the work Take a Picture with a Real Indian Luna refers to himself as being “there for the taking. Indian people have always been fair game” he goes on to say “we’re not game. Just because I’m an identifiable Indian, it doesn’t mean I’m there for the taking.” Referring to the performance, Luna states “In some ways you’re vulnerable physically…after a while I just want to run out of there.” [26]He intends the experience to be a ‘double humiliation,’ but, while the experience is humiliating for him, it seems to be fun for spectators and participants, even though, as Luna maintains, “I am not up here to entertain…I’m here to teach you.” [27] I believe we all teach, and are sovereign in that manner, but how can the teacher teach to those who already think they know the other? Where Orientalism objectifies the Other to perceive power, Luna’s de-colonizing art gives the Other a voice to reclaim what it means to walk the Red road; be a Indian in real time and recovered space.

When it comes to trying to understand and appreciate the other, it is not that we can integrate our differences into some universal whole, nor do ethics originate in such a way; conflict is revealed between the lifted pleat of ethics. For Levinas “the true union of our togetherness is not a togetherness of synthesis,” [28] he goes on to say “to reduce it to a theme, a principle[…] was the mistake of onto-theo-logy.” [29] It is not that which is assigned to the Other that brings ethics to light; as Levinas states, “the power of ethics is entirely different from the power of identities.” [30]Identities state “the said,” whereas physical interactions relate “the saying.” Anything else is nothing more than Luna’s ‘bones,’ referencing his statement from an interview with Kenneth Fletcher of the Smithsonian Magazine in 2008:

I had long looked at representation of our peoples in museums and they all dwelled in the past. They were one-sided. We were simply objects among bones, bones among objects, and then signed and sealed with a date. In that framework you really couldn’t talk about joy, intelligence, humor, or anything that I know makes up our people. [31]


Blocker reflects this same criticism of the historisized Native when she writes in support of an “interrogation of Western culture’s reliance on official history, and the damaging ideological effects of its mindless reverence for the uninspected category ‘information.’” [32] Is it a sort of nostalgia for totality that Block refers to as the “desire for poetical authenticity that produced the film Dances with Wolves”? [33] She quotes Luna’s statement about the film:

[It] didn’t show any Indians mad, or any Indians upset. It didn’t show any Indians cry. It didn’t show any Indians fucking up. We’re still beautiful, stoic, and pretty. You see the movie and you go out and see a fat, overweight, acne-covered, poor, uneducated person-is that the real Indian you want to see? [34]

It is the misrepresentation from a sort of metaphysical colonization that keeps the West from seeing Natives for who they really are. According to Said, “It seems a common human failing to prefer the schematic authority of a text to the disorientation of direct encounters with the human.” [35] In light of this, it seems Nietzsche’s statement, “Man would rather will nothingness than not will at all,” [36]relates directly to the passivity of Western ideologies that continue to will the “nothingness” of Natives who are held, dead in the past.

It is relatively easy to understand those close to us, or even in our own culture and therefore try to aim at what is just and equitable in daw between usHowever, if all that we have to go on is false truths about the Other, how can we even begin to understand what is ethical in daw between uszhayiigwa? Even justice for the unknown is easier than justice for the unknowable, Native as myth. I would go even farther than Blocker, when she states “in the context of dominant culture, being remembered, like being dead, is often a stifling experience.” [37] I think being remembered, as a dead, static image is more than stifling. In this context, any ethical consideration seems nearly impossible. ­­­Blocker goes on to ask: “what manner of violence is done when memory is tied like a stone to the foot of the native and then is tossed into sea of postmodern cynicism.” [38] I would answer Blocker’s question, to say that the violence she refers to is the type that stems from the injustices of the inability to consider ethics as they relate to the dead; not existing at all.

De-colonization of the Other concerns forgetting, only by forgetting what we [think we] know, can we see and hear what is in front of us. Just as a drawing student must forget what the object they are drawing is, i.e.: an aluminum can, in order to understand it as the series of abstract shapes comprising the cans form; to see the can for what it is, instead of what they think it is. The can is more than the concept of an object called ‘can,’ for many varied and multifaceted aspects are obvious in the object we face, especially if it has a history; if the can has been kicked down the road. The West, and the entire world, can strive to see the Other, not as a concept, but as the Other presents itself to the Other, to be conceived from an open, more abstract, perspective, like the artist sees the aluminum can as it is being drawn instead of the idea of a can, as they remember it, containing Coke, to be consumed. According to Levinas, the responsibility for the other is to “stop the anonymous and senseless rumbling of being. It is in the form of such a relation that the deliverance from the ‘there is’ appeared.” [39] The ‘there is’ of a can is what our memory tells us a can looks like, the ‘senseless rumbling’ is the statistical manner in which our memory betrays.

For Levinas “ethics does not have an essence, its ‘essence’, so to speak, is precisely not to have an essence, to unsettle essences,” [40] James Luna demonstrates the unsettling of the essence prescribed to Natives, through his work, to de-colonize a culture. According to Blocker “Luna uses a mock ritual to confront the two versions of white memory-repudiation and desire. He disturbs the happy image of the ‘peoples memory’ by showing whites what it can mean to ‘be remembered’” [41]When facing Luna, ‘whites’ can see their memories in contrast with the reality of Luna’s existence. Unfortunately, it seems the absurdity is still lost on many, which makes the task of re-colonization even more urgent. The dead Indian, which most of us still see as alive and well, must continually be exposed for what it is; a memory based on contrived and corrupt imagery and ideology. Only when we eliminate the dead Indian of Western history from our ideologies, can we begin to put an end to the extermination of the Native culture; the Native that lives today.

Works Cited

Blocker, Jane. "Failures of Self-Seeing: James Luna Remembers Dino." Journal of Performance and Art 23.1 (2001): 18-32

Clandrew, Bob. (Division of Indian Works, Minneapolis), interview by Arlinda Henderson, April 23, 2012.

Curtis, Edward. "In Piegan Lodge (The North American Indian)." Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. In a Piegan lodge . Washington, 1910.

Fletcher, Kenneth R., “James Luna,”, April 2008, (10 February 2013).

Haj-Ismail, Roula. "The Impossibility of Being Self/Other," Poligrafi 17 (2012): 141-160.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo. Translated by Richard A. Cohen.1st ed. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Nietzsche: “On the Genealogy of Morality” and Other Writings: Revised Student Edition. Edited by Keith Ansell-Pearson. Translated by Carol Diethe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Red Lake Nation News, Obituaries, 2012, (December 13, 2012.)

Righthand, Jess,“Q and A: James Luna,”, January 2011, (10 February 2013).

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Random House, 1994.


[1] I use the term Native to refer to the peoples indigenous to North America because that is the way the Natives who I know personally refer to themselves.

[2] The ‘Other,’ in the context of my argument constitutes both the objectified group or culture, in this case Native Americans, and the group, or entity advancing the objectification, because for each there is the Other identified as that which is set apart from them; Native Americans set apart from and by mainstream Western culture as objects to be managed. Western culture, which objectifies in this case, set apart from the Native American culture as the example of acceptable ideals in the West. For clarification in my argument, the ‘Other’, as that which advances objectification in this case, is noted in italics. The ‘Other’ as that which is objectified, codified and/or commodified, in this case Native Americans. The ‘other’ will designate a general use of the setting apart of a culture or group of people, by the Other.

[3] Anishinabe term for gap; space. Clandrew, Bob, interview by Arlinda Henderson. Division of Indian Works, Minneapolis(April 23, 2012).

[4] Anishinabe term for now; already. Ibid.

[5] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Random House, 1994), 219.

[6] This enduring term itself denotes the one sided view, identifying only the enemy.

[7] Edward Said, Orientalism, 204.

[8] Ibid., 293.

[9] Ibid., 293.

[10] Jess Righthand, “Q and A: James Luna,”, January 2011 (10 February 2013).

[11] Emmanuel LevinasEthics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo, trans. Richard A. Cohen (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985), 77.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Edward Said, Orientalism, 55

[14] Ibid.

[15] The mean mortality rate from June to November of 2012 on Red Lake Nation in Minnesota is 42, and five years ago it was 41. Calculated using data from the continuously updated Red Lake Nation News, Obituaries, 2012, (December 13, 2012.)

[16] Edward S. Curtis, “In Piegan Lodge.” Library of Congress, March 1910. (15 February 2013). and

[17] Edward Said, Orientalism, 108.

[18] Jane Blocker "Failures of Self-Seeing: James Luna Remembers Dino." Journal of Performance and Art 23.1 (2001): 19.

[19] Daw; gap, space, room. Dawaa; there is a space or gap. Bob Clandrew (Division of Indian Works, Minneapolis), interview by Arlinda Henderson, April 23, 2012.

[20] Real, as in meaningful to both us and them; self and other; friend and enemy. Real, as that which awakens our desire toward the self through the other.

[21] Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, 42.

[22] Jane Blocker, "Failures of Self-Seeing: James Luna Remembers Dino." 31.

[23] Ibid, 23.

[24] Roula Haj-Ismail, "The Impossibility of Being Self/Other," Poligrafi 17 (2012): 145.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, 77.

[29] Ibid, 11-12.

[30] Ibid, 13.

[31] Kenneth R. Fletcher, “James Luna,”, April 2008, (10 February 2013).

[32] Jane Blocker "Failures of Self-Seeing: James Luna Remembers Dino." 18.

[33] Ibid, 22.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Edward Said, Orientalism, 93.

[36] Friedrich Nietzsche. On the Genealogy of Moralsed, Keith Ansell-Pearson. Trans. Carol Diethe (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1996), 83.

[37] Jane Blocker "Failures of Self-Seeing: James Luna Remembers Dino." 21.

[38] Ibid, 19.

[39] Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, 52.

[40] Ibid, 10.

[41] Jane Blocker "Failures of Self-Seeing: James Luna Remembers Dino." 24.