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I finished the short Thunder Rides a Black Horse: I'm Not Going to Bother Transcribing the Lengthy After-Colon Synopses Academic Authors Put on Their Titles, about the four-day Apache "Changing Woman" ceremony by which teenage girls are formally recognized as adults. The book is useful but significantly flawed, and I had trouble with aspects of the culture under observation.

For one, to start this review off on a racist note, the book was written by an Anglo professor who lives outside the reservation. I'm only just now beginning to realize what an issue having the history of vanishing peoples written almost exclusively by outsider academics is in anthropology, but man, oh, man: the professors get bogged down in office politics; the natives are polarized by their history being read through a usually-white filter; the real story doesn't get put down. The author of Thunder claims to be on familial terms with a Mescalero clan, a claim that seems to check out, but I'd rather these stories be told be the people themselves.

For another, I'm not convinced that the Apache cultures were as forward-thinking in the tribal role of women as has been charged. The girls ostensibly being celebrated are just dolls throughout the ceremony; each is under the direction of an older male "singer" who instructs her throughout her girlhood "to be chaste, not to be seen alone around boys, not to cut her hair, to behave only in certain rigid way" and during the ceremony to "not stare or even look most people directly in the eyes." When the girls are told "you are a mother of a people; let no man speak ill of you," it's not meant as "you are a person of worth, deserving of respect," but instead "don't get out of line, or the men will call you a slut, ho." I'm not sure this is different from the "look pretty but don't do anything" place women have occupied in every culture ever since only very recently. The culture may be matrilineal, but the Apache men are still the power brokers.

(There're other reasons I could never be Apache, though. If the author's claims are correct, direct questions & requests are discouraged in Apache culture; instead of asking directly, the speaker makes roundabout statements implying the need ("I was wondering if Biff had gotten back from Safeway yet..."; "it's hard for us to get shoes for all the kids, what with the roof repairs and grocery bills this month") and the listener is presumed to pick up on the speaker's implicit signals automatically and provide the needed information or assistance. I could not abide an entire lifetime of "if you don't know, then I'm certainly not going to tell you.")

Also, the Chinese artist who painted the cover got neither credit nor recompense, because he signed his name in Chinese characters and Chinese is a moon language that no one else in the author & artist's home of California can speak, apparently.


( 3 pithy comments — Say something pithy! )
Mar. 11th, 2012 06:45 pm (UTC)
I hear you on the issue of reading books about Native peoples by non-natives. I've started a list of books *written by* Native peoples, specifically the native people of Michigan, since that's where I live. I can share it if you're interested.
Mar. 11th, 2012 08:49 pm (UTC)
I think that's an excellent idea. I know there's an issue of sheer population - it's sometimes hard to find someone equipped to record these stories at length among just a couple thousand folks - but it's best to record the history without an outside filter.
Mar. 12th, 2012 01:47 pm (UTC)
This is my rough draft list, not all strictly ehtnographies or anything - some popular fiction, some memoirs, etc. All below are by Native American authors, most Chippewa and/or other Great Lakes tribes:

Books and islands in Ojibwe country / Louise Erdrich.
Last Standing Woman / by Winona LaDuke. (Ojibwe author)
Walk in peace : legends and stories of the Michigan Indians / by Simon Otto
The sound the stars make rushing through the sky : the writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft
Fearless warriors / Drew Hayden Taylor.
Rez Life : An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life by Treuer, David
Survivor's medicine : short stories / by E. Donald Two-Rivers.
Walking the Rez Road / Jim Northrup.
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