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by Kenneth Moore Startup

The Persistence of Indians: In Search of Native America

In search of Native America

Of all the great cultural shibboleths that have bedeviled the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere," writes W. Richard West, director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian, "perhaps the most ultimately destructive is that the first citizens of the Americas were but no longer are." West, the son of a Cheyenne father and a non-Indian mother ("the daughter of Southern Baptist missionaries to China," he adds), is one of the contributors to the phototext Indian Country, published last fall by Grove Press, featuring superb photographs by Gwendolen Cates and brief accompanying texts by many of the Indians who are pictured.

Cates picks up West's theme and adds another—the extraordinary diversity of Native American cultures and peoples—in her preface. "The current Native population of this country is 2.5 million," she writes. "There are 561 federally recognized nations and tribes, 314 reservations and 226 Alaskan Native villages. Each is unique in its identity and its individual history."

The subject is a minefield, and those who make their way through it often end up contorting themselves in the effort to avoid explosions. The Native American writer Sherman Alexie, drafted to introduce the book, is usually sharp-tongued and sharp-eyed, but here he turns uncharacteristically pious: "most important, these subjects cease to be objects when they are given the typographical and spiritual space to comment on their images." The comments are various, and some are penetrating or deeply moving or witty, but many are way over the top into mutual self-indulgence, even when the speaker is the estimable N. Scott Momaday, whose books are a rich legacy. American Indians, he writes, "are innately spiritual. Their understanding of the world, in all its dimensions, is based upon a recognition of the sacred. Every step they take and every breath they draw are the making of a prayer."

You can read those sentences and follow the progression from suggestive insight ...

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