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Fantasies of the Master Race: Literature, Cinema and the Colonization of American Indians

 by Ward Churchill (Forward to the 1998 Edition)

The Open Veins of Native North America

It is perhaps helpful to provide a backdrop to the analysis of films and written works which follow by providing a factual overview of the modern colonial context in North America. Although ideologues ranging in outlook from reactionary Republicanism to revolutionary Marxism are wont to decry as “misleading and rhetorical" any application of such terms to the structure of relations prevailing on this continent, the fact is that the very core of U.S. imperialism lies not abroad in the Third World, but right here "at home."

As these words are written, more than 400 native peoples continue to exist within the boundaries of the 48 contiguous states of the United States alone, another 200 or so in Canada. About half these peoples retain nominal possession of some reserved portion of their aboriginal territory (or “replacement lands"), a pastiche of areas comprising about 3 percent of the continental U.S. and a lesser portion of Canada. Moreover, these peoples, having never ceded it by treaty or other instrument of consent, still retain unassailable legal title to something more than ten times the territory now left to us. Put another way, the United States lacks even a pretense of legitimate ownership of about one-third of its claimed land mass, while in Canada situation is rather worse.

While pushing Indians off 90 percent of the land we'd retained by treaty—instruments through which both the U.S. and Canadian governments formally and repeatedly recognized indigenous peoples as comprising fully sovereign nations in our own right—the U.S. in particular consigned native populations to what were thought to be the least useful and productive portions of the continent, mostly semi-arid tracts deemed unfit for ranching and agriculture, and typically lacking in timber and other renewable resources. In effect, the reservations represent nothing so much as dumping grounds, out of sight and mind of polite society, where it was assumed that Native North Americans would die off altogether.6

It is one of history's supreme ironies that this same "worthless" acreage turned out to be extraordinarily rich in minerals, endowed with an estimated two-thirds of what the U.S. now claims as its own uranium assets, as much as a quarter of the readily accessible low-sulfur coal, 15-20 percent of the oil and natural gas, and appreciable deposits of copper, bauxite, zeolite and other strategically/commercially crucial ores. These minerals, plainly belonging to the indigenous nations within whose reservation boundaries they lie, constitute what federal economic planners now like to call "U.S. domestic reserves." Without these resources, America's contemporary business as usual could never have been created, and would presently come to a halt in a hot minute.8

Using the term "colonization" to describe such circumstances stands to instill a certain unsettling, and perhaps "destabilizing," sense of cognitive dissonance among the Euro-American citizenry. After all, they themselves, or rather their ancestors, once engaged in a decolonization struggle against England, a process inaccurately referred to at this juncture as a "revolution." Their success in that endeavor has with equal inaccuracy anchored their collective boast of having emerged as "the land of the free." To be confronted with the proposition that their ostensible heritage of staunch anti-colonialism embodies instead as virulent a strain of colonialism as has ever been perfected is more than the average Joe can be expected to reconcile with any degree of psychological grace.

Hence, propagandists in service to elite interests have long been bent to the task of inventing a whole vernacular behind which to mask the true nature of U.S.-Indian relations. Rather than occupying and colonizing Native North America, for instance, it is asserted that the United States has merely assumed a permanent "trust" responsibility for indigenous land and lives, thereby accruing "plenary (full) power" over the disposition of native property. Or, to take another prominent example, a bill designed to afford Indians a hiring prefer­ence in implementing federal Indian policy is titled—grotesquely, to anyone in the least familiar with the meaning of the term—the "Indian Self-Determination Act" (emphasis added).    Illustrations of this sort could, of course, be easily continued at length and extended northwards across Canada.

The systematic deployment of such euphemisms has allowed projection of the illusion that federal interaction with Indians, while displaying a variety of "errors" and "excesses" during the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century settlers' wars, has long been and remains well-intended, benevolent and "for the Indians' own good."12 Thus, the average Joe, should he bother himself to think of Indians at all, has no reason to feel especially uncomfortable, much less outraged at what has been and continues to be done to us. Indeed, the opposite is often true. So relentlessly have official fables of federal largesse been put forth that many Euro-Americans have come to feel resentment at what they see as the "free ride" bestowed upon Indians at their expense.

The reality hidden behind this deceptive "spin" is, to be sure, very dif­ferent. The true cost to native people bound up in the relationship provid­ing the Euro-American status quo its foundation is revealed in the federal governments own rather less publicized statistics. By any reasonable compu­tation, a simple division of the fifty million-odd acres of land still in reserved status by the approximately 1.8 million Indians reflected in the last U.S. cen­sus should make us the largest per capita landholders of any group on the continent. Based upon its known mineral resources alone, our .6 percent of the total U.S. population should comprise its wealthiest segment, both as an aggregate and individually.

Instead, we are as a whole the most impoverished by far, suffering the lowest annual and lifetime incomes, the worst housing and sanitation condi­tions, the lowest level of educational attainment and highest rate of unem­ployment. The single poorest county in the United States over the past seventy-five years has been Shannon, on the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.16 Counties on half-a-dozen other Indian reservations dis­tributed across a wide geographic area make regular appearances among the ten poorest recorded by the U.S. Departments of Labor and Commerce. That more do not appear in such listings is due mainly to the fact that non-Indians have long since infiltrated most reservation areas to monopolize such business, ranching and agriculture as exists there, thus skewing the data to a considerable extent.11

Correspondingly, Native Americans are currently afflicted with the most pronounced symptoms of destitution evidenced by any overall population group.

The Indian health level is the lowest and the disease rate the highest of all major pop­ulation groups in the United States. The incidence of tuberculosis is over 400 percent higher than the national average. Similar statistics show that the incidence of strep infections is 1,000 percent higher, meningitis is 2,000 percent higher, and dysentery is 10,000 percent higher. Death rates from disease are shocking when Indian and non-Indian populations are compared. Influenza and pneumonia are 300 percent greater killers among Indians. Diseases such as hepatitis are at epidemic proportions. Diabetes is almost a plague. And the suicide rate for Indian youths ranges from 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than for non-Indian youths; Indian suicide has become epidemic.19

In addition, "between fifty thousand and fifty-seven thousand Indian homes are [officially] considered uninhabitable. Many of these are beyond repair. For example, over 88 percent of the homes of the Sioux in Pine Ridge have been classified as substandard dwellings." One consequence is that Indians die from exposure at five times the national rate, twelve times the rate from malnutrition. The bottom line is that modern life expectancy among reservation-based men is 44.6 years; reservation-based women can expect to live only a little more than three years longer.

Indicative of the depths of despair induced among native people by such conditions are the extreme rates of alcoholism, drug addiction, familial violence and teen suicide prevailing in most indigenous communities. The governmental response has been to imprison one in every four native men and to impose involuntary sterilization upon about 40 percent of all native women of childbearing age. In sum, the socio-physical environment of contemporary Native North America far more closely resembles the sort of Third World colonial settings described by Frantz Fanon than anything one expects to encounter in the midst of a country enjoying one of the world's best standards of living.23 The situation of Canada's indigenous peoples is a veritable carbon copy of that experienced by those in the United States.

The vast gulf separating the potential wealth of Native North America on the one hand, and its practical impoverishment on the other, rests squarely upon what writer Eduardo Galeano has in another context aptly termed the "open veins" of the colonized. In effect, the governments of both the United States and Canada have utilized their unilaterally asserted positions of control over native property to pour the assets of indigenous nations directly into the U.S./Canadian economies rather than those of native peoples.

A single illustration may suffice to tell the tale: Very near the disease-ridden and malnourished residents of Shannon County, on land permanently guaranteed to the Lakota Nation by the United States through the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, the Homestake Mining Company has extracted billions of dollars in gold over the past fifty years.2 Multiplying the Homestake example by the hundreds of United States corporations doing business on Indian land barely begins to convey the dimension of the process. Stripped to its essentials, the "American way of life" is woven from the strands of these rela­tions. They comprise an order which must be maintained, first, foremost, and at all costs, because they more than any other definable factor constitute the absolute bedrock upon which the U.S. status quo has been erected and still maintains itself. Precisely the same can be said of Canada.

Semantic Subterfuge

As was suggested above, such things can never be admitted. On the contrary, it is most convenient from an elite perspective when they can be packaged to appear as exact opposites of themselves. A salient example, beginning with the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), has been the supplanting of traditional indigenous forms of governance by a "tribal coun­cil" model. Devised in Washington, D.C., it was imposed over the vociferous objections of those now ruled by it. As with colonial/neocolonial regimes everywhere, the IRA councils owe their allegiance not to their supposed constituents, but to the foreign power which created their positions and installed them, and which continues to fund and "advise" them.

From the outset, these councils accepted a tacit quid pro quo attending their positions of petty power and imagined prestige. Theirs have been the signatures affixed to resolutions extending "Indian" approval to leases paying their people pennies on the dollar for the mineral wealth lying within their lands, waiving environmental protection clauses in mining contracts and all the rest. Theirs have also been the "Indian" voices adding illusions of "consensus" to the federal/corporate chorus proclaiming every agonizing step in the ongoing subjugation and expropriation of Native North America as "giant steps forward" while denouncing anyone insisting upon genuinely indigenous alternatives as a "barrier to progress."

Altogether, this structure of "Indian self-governance" had become so entrenched and effective by the mid-1970s that it was cast under the rubric of "self-determination." This inherently anti-colonialist concept, fully explained in black letter international law, was thus stood neatly on its head." Advanced in its stead was a statutory formulation wherein all policy decisions affecting Indian Country would forever fall within the sphere of federal authority. Implementation of these policies would, to the maximum extent possible, be carried out by native people hired specifically for this pur­pose. In many ways, since Canada shortly followed suit with its own ver­sion, this maneuver represented a consummation of the internal colonization of Native North America.31

As indigenous people were rendered increasingly self-colonizing dur­ing the 1980s and '90s, it became ever more possible to neutralize native opposition to internal colonization simply by juxtaposing it to the postur­ing of the growing gaggle of IRA "leaders" or preferred native employees within the federal bureaucracy. All of them were prepared at the drop of a hat to confuse critics through their own avid endorsement of the system. Additionally, such "professional Indians" have proven themselves quite will­ing to publicly dismiss bona fide native rights activists, usually in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, as "self-styled and irresponsible renegades, terrorists and revolutionaries" who lack standing or credibility within their own communities.

Within this painstakingly fabricated framework of duplicity and false appearances, all potential for coherent non-Indian understanding of the situa­tion becomes increasingly difficult to realize. Consequently, the prospect of non-Indians developing any form of serious opposition to the internal colo­nization of Native North America has been diffused and dissipated, even among those committed to combating U.S. neocolonial activities in Latin America, Southern Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. In effect, the officially sponsored scenario fosters "mainstream" perceptions that, since we Indians ourselves can­not agree on the nature of our oppression, or even whether we are oppressed, then non-Indian intervention on our behalf is pointless at best. Worse, based on contentions put forth by the government and its "cooperating" cast of Indians that Native America is already self-governing and self-determining, non-Indian efforts to bring about U.S./Indian—or Canadian/Indian—relations can be interpreted as presumptuous and counterproductive.

In the end, although each of the North American settler states has retained and perfected "sharp end" mechanisms of repression, the primary means by which they maintain their mutual internal colonial order has proven to be that of sheer sophistry.33 Their joint deterrence of even the possibility that native rights will be defined in anti-colonialist terms resides mainly in their successful peddling of the ridiculous notion that their structures of colonial oppression no longer "really" exist, if in fact they ever existed at all.

Culmination of the process will rest on inculcation of the population at large with an "understanding" that the only "genuine," "authentic," "represen­tative," and therefore "real" Indians are those who have elected to "fit in" most comfortably. "Real" Indians, in other words, conform most closely to the needs and expectations of the "larger society." "Real" Indians provide "voluntary" and undeviating service to those "greater interests" associated with the Euro-American status quo. All who resist will be, to that extent and by the same definition, relegated to the status of "fakes," "frauds" and "phoneys."

Fantasies of the Master Race

Elsewhere, I have delved much more deeply into the form, substance and history of the official subterfuges and misrepresentations addressed above. In the present volume, it is my objective to explore the modes, literary and cinematic, through which these officially sanctioned "interpretations" have been polished, popularized and foisted off upon the public at large.

To this end, several essays, most of them focusing on literature, have been retained from the first edition (two are substantially revised and expanded). These include "Literature and the Colonization of American Indians,""Carlos Castaneda,""Hi Ho, Hillerman...Away""A Little Matter of Genocide," "It Did Happen Here," "The New Racism," "Interpreting the Indian" and "Beyond Ethnicity." Also retained from the first edition are two essays on cinema, "Fantasies of the Master Race" (which is also substantially revised and expanded) and "Lawrence of South Dakota." To these have been added a third essay on cinema called "And They Did It Like Dogs in the Dirt..." and a new essay on literary criticism entitled "In the Service of Empire."

Taken in combination, although they for the most part consist of a sequence of "case studies," the assembled essays are meant to provide an overview of how literature, whether fictional or ostensibly non-fictional, academic or poetic, has interacted with film to reinforce the hegemony by which the colonization of Native North America has been simultaneously denied, rationalized and, implicitly at least, legitimated. Taken as a whole, the book's objective, to borrow from the quotation of Noam Chomsky offered at the outset of this introduction, is to speak the truth and thus to facilitate a constructive alteration of the circumstances described herein.

Ward Churchill

Boulder, Colorado

May 1998


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