Volatile Objects: Manipulating Heritage

Barbara Leftih

This paper explores the significance of ethnically marked objects and their authenticity for the process of identity shaping and the politics of representation. More specifically, it looks at the ways in which material culture enables or undermines the individual’s or the ethnic group's location and conscious self-definition against the other, located within or outside the ethnic group, as presented in “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker, Love Medicine and Bingo Palace by Louise Erdrich. I would like to argue that objects in these works are being charged with meaning and turned into symbols which enable the characters to represent themselves or form their identity. Authenticity seems to be vital in that process; it bears political messages, legitimizes self-definition, and underscores the personal or group achievement. I was influenced in my choice of the area of study and the method of research by Brian Spooner's “Weavers and Dealers: The Authenticity of an Oriental Carpet” and James Clifford's “On Collecting Art and Culture”.

            According to Spooner, one's identity “is expressed through choice in the material world” and objects are used “to say something about who one is in relation to others. Authenticity, though stated in terms of objects, bears implications about the person” (Spooner 226-227). In the West, as  Spooner suggests, authenticity became an issue only in the mid-nineteenth century when ”native handicraft gave way to the industrial revolution” (219). As a concept, Spooner remarks, authenticity is not canonical, but depends heavily on cultural, economic, social and historical processes which a given group undergoes, and thus it is a renegotiable notion. Still, Spooner compiles some common criteria according to which authenticity is usually determined by Westerners. The most important factors he mentions are the artifact’s age, its being handmade, its quality and uniqueness, as well as connoisseurship needed to appreciate these qualities (understood as a cultural choice and knowledge of objects of interest) (195-23).

            Clifford takes Spooner's analysis further and offers a map of objects in Western culture, which comprises labels under which objects are stored and mechanisms that are used to define authenticity. In his diagram, he introduces four categories: 1) Art, which stands for authentic masterpieces (museum and gallery art); 2) Culture, which denotes authentic artifacts (objects of cultural and historical value, ethnographic museum exhibits) and embodies history, folklore and craftsmanship; 3) Non-Culture, which stands for non-authentic masterpieces; and 4) Non-Art, which denotes non-authentic artifacts (tourist art, items of everyday use and mass-produced objects). According to Clifford there exists a constant two-way movement between the categories of Art and Culture, and an upward movement between the Non-Art and Culture categories, in the process of which everyday objects are turned into collectors' items and treated as unique representatives of a given time (“On Collecting Art and Culture” 56-59). Clifford also suggests that many contemporary non-Western objects have not yet been assigned to a specific category and their status varies from tourist art or cultural artifact to gallery art object (59). He employs the paradigm to exemplify how non-Western objects are contextualized and evaluated in Western culture. I will try to use his model as a tool for literary interpretation and a source of terminology, and I will then proceed to analyze how this paradigm is used or subverted by Walker and Erdrich.

            Furthermore, Clifford emphasizes that the concept of authenticity may differ depending on our location defined by Gina Wisker, in a different context, as “places or contexts from which we experience and speak, where we place ourselves ideologically, spiritually, imaginatively” (8). Therefore, authenticity is entangled in the power relations discourse. Imposing the mainstream concept of authenticity on a minority group can put a strain on the continuous process of identity shaping within the community as well as on the external representation of this group, as the case of the Mashpee Tribe, on which Clifford reflects in The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art revealed. While Clifford discusses the case from an ethnographic point of view, Gerald Torres and Kathryn Milun, whose essay “Translating Yonnondio by Precedent and Evidence: The Mashpee Indian Case” has also informed my study, adopt a juridical stance to review the case. In 1976 the Mashpee Tribe, the Cape Code community, followed a number of tribes who from the late 1960s to the end of 1970s filed land rights suits in federal courts (Clifford The Predicament of Culture 277). By suing the Town of Mashpee on the basis of the Indian Non-Intercouse Act of 1790, which precludes the sale of Native tribal land to non-natives unless the federal government permit is secured, the Tribe attempted to reclaim tribal lands which they lost to the Town of Mashpee between 1834 and 1870. The lands were transferred, as the plaintiffs stated, without the assent of the federal authorities (Torres and Milun 54-55). The Town defended itself by arguing that the Mashpee are not a tribe and thus undermined the legitimacy of their claim. Consequently, in order to have their case heard, the Mashpee first had to corroborate their status. The trial required the Mashpee to comply with the mainstream definition of a tribe which diverged drastically from their own. The mainstream perception of what it means to be an authentic Native American led to the jury's verdict that the Mashpee Tribe is not a tribe and the dismissal of the case (Torres and Milun 54-55( .

            The trial was then “the confrontation between irreconcilable systems of meaning produced by two contending cultures” (Torres and Milun 52). Furthermore, the trial was a clash between two competing views of authenticity; between two competing ”imaginings”, to use the term Benedict Anderson proposes in Imagined Communities, of who is (not) a Native American.  From the Native American perspective, as Clifford argues by refering to Ralph Coe's Lost and Found Traditions: Native American Art, 1965-1985, a work presenting new trends in Native American art, authenticity is to be found in a process of continuous creation rather than in the attempts to save traditional modes of expression in their unchanged form (The Predicament of Culture 268-269). To ensure continuity and survival, a tribe, like artists, needs to adapt itself to the new reality by combining new elements with the traditional ones. This view was not shared by the court – the authority that expected the witnesses  to produce some authentic tribal tokens of identity, such as, jewelery, hair accessories and clothing. Ironically, however, the awareness of expectations others may have raises possibilities for manipulation. This awareness can become a powerful manipulative tool, as both Alice Walker and Louise Erdrich show in their works. 

                        Dee's quilt

            In Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” (1973), Dee's ethnographic interest in her roots is generated by the Black Power Movement of the late 1960s. She evolves from a girl ashamed of her origin into a woman who is proud of it. When she comes to visit her mother and sister, who still live in their old house in the South, Dee digs out old objects her ancestors produced, such as, the churn and quilts. It is the first time in her life that she expresses her curiosity about and admiration for them. When Dee went to college, her mother offered her a quilt; then, however, Dee refused the quilt on the grounds that it was “old-fashioned [and] out of style” (Walker 33). Now Dee's “taste” has changed and she asks her mother whether she could take these objects home with her, because she plans to exhibit them in her flat as decorative objects. The mother allows Dee to have the churn, but denies her the quilts, because she promised to give them to Maggie, the other sister, on her wedding day. Maggie, on the contrary, plans to use them as objects of everyday use, which triggers Dee's anger. Dee's attitude, her newborn pride in her ancestry and appreciation of the culture she before apparently disparaged, seems to be problematic. Is her interest in her grandmother's old handmade quilt a fad triggered by the revolutionary times she lives in or a way of expressing her identity and embracing her heritage?

            Her interest might be seen as a political statement. She consciously defines herself as Afro-American as opposed to white. She no longer feels the need to belong to the mainstream culture, because she has her own, which she celebrates and elevates; she acts in accordance with the tenets of the Black Power Movement that asserted that “blacks had to discover and take pride in their own idenity rather than beg to be admitted to the society of whites” (Fuchs 177). To assert her identity and to legitimize her self definition, Dee seems to need something material and tangible, something she could show to others – a symbol. Thus, she seeks out cultural artifacts that have been produced by blacks. Dee might feel that in the times when the image of the black community is being forged in the mainstream political arena, manifesting the group’s art and culture is an important political strategy, because, as Marianna Torgovnick states in Gone Primitive, in the eyes of the mainstream “a group without an 'art' and 'aesthetics' can be thought to lack 'culture' and 'political integrity'; it can then be 'discovered' and 'developed' by 'superior' groups, that is, those who possess both 'art' and 'culture'” (83). Therefore, Dee changes the status of the quilt from an object of everyday use to an authentic artifact and eventually promotes the quilt to the Art category and views it as an authentic masterpiece that deserves to be hung on a wall, like an exhibit in a museum.

            In search for an object on which her identity could rest, she “constructs”, to use Kopytoff's term, the quilt to suit her needs. She manipulates the biography of the quilt: what was supposed to be an item used on a daily basis in the household, now becomes a fine art masterpiece. To assess the value of the quilt, Dee exploits a museum process of shifting the status of ethnographic objects from cultural artifacts to fine art. Ironically, as far as material culture is concerned, she uses the mainstream institutional, Anglo-American, criteria to proclaim her identity.

            Dee's hunt for material artifacts appears to be an exponent of a discussion concerning black cultural roots and identity that raged in the 1960s (Christian “Introduction” 11). Black Power movement, as Barbara T. Christian comments, advocated that African-Americans should embrace “African cultural past as [their] true heritage” rather than define their identity on the basis of the culture they created in the North America (“Introduction” 10). The affirmation of African cultural roots, which were earlier demeaned by both Anglo-Europeans and African Americans, took the shape of renaming, “slaves names” were discarded in favor of African ones, or wearing African style garments and hair styles (Fuchs 179, Christian “Introduction” 10). Recovering the link with the cultural roots that were to be found outside of the U.S, like many other ethnic groups, was an attempt at redefining black ethnic identity and divorcing it from the oppressive experience in North America (Fuchs 174-189). Dee, though she seems to be a typical follower of the Black Power Movement (she changed her name and she wears African clothing), goes against the grain. Contrary to the prevalent ideology, she attaches value to the Southern black culture. Dee's fascination with the quilts mirrors Alice Walker's effort, as explicated in In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, to bring to light the Southern black women's cultural heritage that was suppressed by both the white racist discourse and the black political discourse of the late 1960s.

            By coming back to her mother's house on an ethnographic collection trip, Dee acknowledges her grandmother and aunt, and, by the same token, all black Southern women, as artists. The quilt becomes “a symbol of Southern women's creativity”, of spiritual heritage, of valuable ancestry, which is exactly what Dee is looking for (Walker 1974, hooks 1990, Showalter 1994). Authenticity, which reinforces the value of her mother culture, is for Dee of the outmost importance: she chooses only those quilts that are old, unique, handmade, and evocative of the family history; she rejects the ones with machine stitching.

            However, Walker's and Dee's views on heritage drastically differ. Even though Dee shows interest in her mother culture, her attitude seems ambiguous: while claiming her heritage, she actually disclaims it (Christian “Introduction”10-15). Dee divorces quilts from everyday southern rural life, the life of her mother and sister. By elevating the quilt to the status of an authentic masterpiece, she distances herself from her background, in which the quilt is an artistic but functional object. She would hang the quilt on the wall, but would not put it on her bed. Furthermore, by the change of the name, she renounced the link with the Dees in her family, as Barbara T. Christian argues in “Alice Walker: The Black Woman Artist as Wayward”, “Dee has changed her name to Wangero, denying the existence of her namesake, even as she covets the quilt she made” (129). And finally, Dee does not acknowledge her sister as an artist, and ironically accusses Maggie of misusing their heritage. She says, “Maggie can't appreciate these quilts!... She'd probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use” (Walker 33). For Dee, heritage is something to be saved, not something to be created or used, “which is precisely what, Walker suggests, one needs to do with one's heritage” (Christian “Introduction” 15). She forgets that it is Maggie who is the preserver of quilting art and who will pass it on to a new generation; she forgets that art remains “a living art only if it is practised” (Showalter 164( .

            At first, also for Maggie the quilt made by Grandma, her teacher, is an object from which she draws a sense of identity, but later she realizes that she does not need objects to remember, to feel the connection with her ancestors, because she possesses the very knowledge of quilting. Unlike Dee, Maggie has always known the value of the quilts, but “she understands [them] as a [creative] process rather than a commodity” (Showalter 165). Moreover, she does not feel she needs to prove anything to anybody. By contrast, Dee strives to promote the quilt to museum art status in order not to feel ashamed of her roots and to uphold her self-definition.

            Walker, using the mother as her mouthpiece, seems to punish Dee for being a “perpetuator of institutional theories of aesthetics” and a fashion follower, for manipulating heritage to fulfil her own agendas, and for divorcing the quilt from its context (Baker and Pierce-Baker 161). As Barbara T. Christian aptly points out, by making the mother, a black woman without institutional education, a narrator, Walker “gives voice to an entire maternal ancestry often silenced by the political rhetoric of the period” (“Introduction” 11). The author symbolically tries to hand back to the quilt makers the power to decide to what uses the quilt should be put. Moreover, Walker's short story plays out the tension between a formally educated and politically conscious member of the family and those who stayed at home and now are looked down on as backward (Christian “Introduction” 14). Dee is castigated by the mother for her ethnographic attitude. Taught the black pride only at college, Dee comes home and suddenly starts teaching her family about the importance of their cultural roots which she did not want to acknowledge before. However, neither the mother nor the other sister seems to need the lesson in pride: they have been proud of their family, the one who had to cope with racism, oppression and poverty, in the North America, all along.

             Dee might have condescending manners. She might be called a fashion follower. However, she is the one who tries to change the order of things, to enact the changes that her times offer her. She lives in a new dimension and she seizes at new possibilities. She preaches to her family, “You ought to try to make something of yourself, too, Maggie. It's really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you'd never know it” (Walker 34-35). She tries to advertise her culture, to manifest it to the world, but refuses to live the life of the producers of that culture. She may not hate the people she was brought up with, as her mother used to suspect, but she definitely hates their fate: institutional inferior status, poverty, lack of education, and poor housing conditions. The quilts she desires are products of that fate, but she herself rebels against it. She has always fought to liberate herself from the fate that kept down her ancestors.

            Lyman's pipe

                        Like Dee, Lyman Lamartine, an astute enterpreneur, in Erdrich’s Bingo Palace (1994), covets something that does not belong to him - the ceremonial pipe of Nector Kashpaw, a tribal leader and a skilled businessman. For the time being the pipe has been deposited by the community’s elders into the care of his nephew, Lipsha Morissey, a prospective medicine man:

He [Lyman] wanted that pipe with a simple finality that had nothing to do with its worth as  a historical artifact. Although he didn't examine all his motivations, he knew that the desire had something to do with his natural father, for when he imagined himself smoking the pipe that had once belonged to Nector Kasphaw, he saw himself drawing the sacred object solemnly from its bag and also presenting it to friends, to officials, always with the implication that it had, somehow, been passed down to him by right. (85)

For both the uncle and the nephew, illegitimate children and thus troubled identity seekers, the pipe has personal significance. For Lyman, who is Nector's unacknowledged son, the pipe means birthright and prestige. He tries to reclaim his ancestry and legitimacy. He tries to define himself within the community as a carrier of his father's genes: a leader and a successful businessman. He needs the pipe to assert his identity and state who he really is, and most significantly, it is the authenticity of the pipe that legitimizes his self-definition. For Lipsha the pipe is his inheritance from Nector, the foster grandfather; the sign of the elders’ recognition of Lipsha’s healing powers and medicine man’s potential; and a personal way of legitimizing his existence in the tribe (he is an abandoned child in search of his true parents).

            Initially, Lyman tries to buy the pipe from Lipsha. Having failed, he turns to business-like persuasion, assesses the pipe according to the institutional criteria for evaluating art and changes the status of the pipe from a family object into an authentic artifact, an object of cultural and historical value that should be saved and treated as an ethnographic museum exhibit, and nominates himself a keeper of the tribal material heritage. He says to Lipsha, “Consider it this way – you would be donating the pipe back to your people .... I'd keep it on permanent display ... Put it out where the public could look at it, in a glass case maybe, right at the casino entrance” (86). In light of Lyman’s business plans, the development of a gambling complex at the Matchimanito Lake – the old Pillager land replete with Chippewa spirituality and history – his museum-curator's attitude strikes an ominous chord. His aggressive future-oriented outlook threatens the historical continuity of his people. His idea of placing the pipe behind glass, as a metonym for the old Chippewa culture, signifies an attempt at severing the links with the past in order to embrace new commercial possibilities.

            Further on, Lyman, like Dee in “Everyday Use”, when his persuasion gains momentum, accuses Lipsha of mistreating the pipe, “Only you'd rather keep it your leaky trunk, or stuffed in your footlocker. Somewhere like that. You don't deserve it!” (87), and promotes the pipe to the status of an authentic masterpiece, “it's a work of genuine art” (87). Finally, Lyman manages to borrow the pipe from his nephew. Ironically, almost immediately afterwards, he succumbs to his gambling passion and is forced to deposit the pipe temporarily at the pawn shop in order to buy a ticket home. The pawnbroker, acquainted with the assessment criteria of ethnographically marked items, accepts the pipe, a pawn now, as a worthy guarantee for the money lent. Consequently, the pipe becomes a commodity, as bell hooks suggests, “often in contemporary capitalist society ... 'folk art' is an expensive commodity in the marketplace ”(125).

            Lyman may infuse the pipe with personal, familial, institutional and monetary value, but at the same time, both grudgingly and humbly, he is conscious of its ceremonial and sacred dimension. After he recovers the pipe from the pawnbroker's, an episode of which he is ashamed to speak, he feels that the pipe has been violated. Lipsha says, “He tells me that he has the pipe back, but asks if I mind if he keeps it for a couple more weeks ... He says he has to have it exorcised, has to have it reblessed, but no matter how much I prod him he wil not tell me what has happened” (Erdrich 99). Lyman comes to realize what he has always known but was not ready to admit: that the pipe is above all a sacred object. Ultimately, by giving the pipe back to Zelda, his half-sister and Lipsha's aunt, who is the informal linchpin of the community and predictably a future leader, Lyman admits that he has misused the pipe. Lyman’s gesture might possibly be interpreted, though it is not sure, as his resignation from the previous business plans. It also differentiates him from Dee, who treats the quilt as a metonym for the past and rejects the quilt as an object to be used on an everyday basis. Lyman, on the other hand, accepts the pipe as “an everyday” object (in this case “everyday” comes to signify an object used within the community not exhibited(.

            When it is returned to the community, the pipe, an ancestral sacred object, acquires a contemporary communal meaning. It appears to play a great role in the Chippewa imagining of their own community; more precisely, it facilitates this imagining and provides a base for identity. As Benedict Anderson claims in Imagined Communities, “all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined”[1] (6) . The recurrent first person plural narratorial voice, every other chapter, simultaneously, embodies and constructs the community.

             The pipe leads both a diachronic and synchronic existence. It is a link with the historical past, Anishinaabe ancestry and traditional arts and crafts[2]. It is historical, because the pipe was present at all the most important events in the community’s history, that pipe is that very same one smoked when the treaty was drawn with the U.S. Government.... This is the same pipe refused by Pillagers who would not give away our land, the same one that solemnized the naming ceremony of a visiting United States president's wife, but it is also the pipe that started the ten-summer sundance. It is a kind of public relations pipe, yet with historical weight. ( Erdrich 39).

It also has a cultural and artistic value: “The stem is long as my arm, double barreled, one of a kind. It is quilled the old way, and the bowl is carved by some expert long forgot, the red stone traded from South Dakota” (39(.

            The pipe not only lies at the core of Chippewa historical continuity, history being the knowledge the community reveres and strives to retain, but also shapes present day representation and Chippewa identity: the pipe’s authenticity accentuates Chippewa religious independence and modern political self-determination. The North Dakota community presented by Erdrich appears to be self-governed: it makes crucial business decisions on its own, leads a distinctive spiritual life (inside the community a ceremonial significance is added to the multiplicity of meanings assigned to the pipe.

             Moreover, the pipe, like the objects analyzed by Kopyttof, is “[a thing] that [is] publicly precluded from being commoditized. Some of the prohibitions are cultural and upheld collectively” (73). By reserving for itself the right to stipulate who will use the pipe, and to choose the object that cannot be treated as a commodity, the community affirms its power (Kopyttof 73). Lipsha received the pipe, because the elders believe that he has a medicine man's potential. By borrowing or rather exchanging the pipe to gain “rights” to the woman both he and Lyman love, Lipsha misuses the object that has been entrusted into his care. Lyman misuses the object even further by placing the pipe in the pawn shop. The pipe is not a commodity: it cannot be bought, it can only be passed from generation to generation. By placing the pipe in the last scenes of Bingo Palace in the hands of Zelda Kasphaw, a propelling force behind the community, and Xavier Toose, a practising medicine man, Erdrich seems to suggest that the pipe should belong to the community, that the pipe’s primary value is that of a sacred and communal object, and that is the community that has the right to decide about the use of the pipe.

            However, as Erdrich implies, there is a conflict of imaginings between Chippewas and outsiders to the culture. Museum people evaluating objects from the mainstream secular perspective, as Clifford suggests, perceive items of religious significance, be it of Western or non-Western provenance, either as art masterpieces, folk art, or cultural artifacts (“On Collecting Art and Culture”59). Lipsha is aware of that fact and suspects that Lyman might have lent the pipe to a museum: “I think maybe a collector has approached from a museum, like they do” (Erdrich 98). For a guard on the American-Canadian border, the pipe is just an ordinary object, “The pipe hung from his hand, backwards, casual as a bat” (35), and an indication that Lipsha might be a hashish smoker, which results in Lipsha's temporary detainment. When the guard handles the pipe caresslessly and tries to connect the bowl of the pipe with the stem, Lipsha awaits the end of the world, “It seemed ... that there, in the little border station, in the hands of the first non-Indian who ever attached that pipe together, sky would crash to earth” (35). That which for generations of Chippewas was a spiritual ceremony, for the non-Indian guard was a casual movement, a mere examination of a proof. That which for the guard was an ordinary object, for a Chippewa was a sacred one.

                        Lyman’s tomahawk factory

            In Erdrich’s Love Medicine (1983), in the chapter “The Tomahawk Factory”, which appears only in the new and expanded edition of 1993, Lyman Lamartine decides to “set in motion a tribal souvenir factory, a facility that would produce fake arrows and plastic bows, dyed-chicken-feather headdresses for children, dress-up stuff” (Erdrich 303). When Lyman's natural father, Nector Kashpaw, first introduced the idea, the tribal factory's products were supposed to compete on the market with “low-priced Taiwanese goods” (303). His plan was never put into practice. However, when Lyman's mother, Lulu Lamartine, a representative of the tribe's traditional faction, comes to power, the plan is resurrected and the product changed from tacky souvenirs to “'museum-quality' artifacts” (303). As oppossed to the quilt and the pipe in the two previous subchapters, the tomahawk is not used by Lyman or Lulu to underscore their identity; they do not need to do it as they know exactly who they are. They rather try to gain financial benefits from their own material heritage and reassert influence over its represention outside the ethnic group.

            Erdrich sets “The Tomahawk Factory” in a complicated, historically and politically charged, landscape of the ethnic art market, which developed in the United States in the last decades of the nineteenth century and continues in changed forms to the present day. As Edwin Wade notes in “The Ethnic Art Market in the American Southwest 1880-1980, The rapid rise of ethnic art markets in the twentieth century represents a dynamically interactive form of culture change, wherein native peoples, grasping for cultural legitimacy and survival in the industrialized West, accept the economic option of converting culture into commodity ... The products of their aesthetic impulse, first as artifact and then as art, become the currency of an 'irreducible triad' ... - the art market, art collecting, and art scholarship .... If one considers the evolving role of certain native artists, then a fourth component is added to the triad, creating a volatile quartet. (167(.

The changing dynamics and politics of the ethnic art market, especially its incipient (at the turn of the twentieth century) and preservationist (from the 1920s to the late1960s) periods, as discussed by Edwin L. Wade, left an indelible mark on the Native American material cultures. These two periods, influenced by different political situations, can be characterizedd by a far-reaching intervention into the indigenous material culture: first, dealers encouraged mass-production and commercialization; next, patrons – scholars advocated the “return to the roots policy” and pure “traditional” forms, if no pure tradition to be found, they set on purification mission. Both groups appropiated the Native American agency, stifled artistic creativity of the producers, falsified and arbitrarily altered the indigenous material cultures and even further complicated the issue of “authenticity” (Wade 167-189).

            Wade's informative essay, even though it describes the cultural situation of the Southwest and Erdrich's characters live in the northern states, seems to expose some universal patterns in the relationship between anthropologists and tribal communities. Vine Deloria jokingly writes in the chapter of his Indian Manifesto which is ironically entitled “Anthropologists and Other Friends” that “some people have bad horoscopes, others take tips on the stock market ....  But Indians have been cursed above all other people in history. Indians have anthropologists” (78). Deloria multiplies examples of the anthropologists' intrusions into tribal cultures, for example, attempts at regulating authenticity or governing artistic production. In light of Deloria's Manifesto, the conclusion that at some point the cultural heritage of almost every tribe has been tinkered with by anthropologists might not be far from thruth. 

            In the expansive period, to come back to Wade's research, “which has witnessed the reorientation of both market and scholarship toward a fine arts posture“ and which began, according to Wade, in the late sixties and probably continues to the present, though Wade ends his analysis in the year 1980, problems concerning authentic Native American creativity, such as marketability of ethnicity, (in)compatibility of ethnic art and the mainstream ‘fine arts’ still persist (168). Currently, the ethnic art market faces new threats: it needs to cope with the deluge of cheap fake Indian crafts manufactured abroad and, ironically, the new legislation, such as the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (1990), instigated to protect the “authenticity” of the Native American cultural production, but which at the same time reinforces the same blunders committed in the previous acts (The Native American Fine Art Movement: A Resource Guide 22). Today, it seems that Native American artists need to reconcile multiple imaginings: their own, mainstream American, and those of commercial industries outside the U.S.

             Erdrich is aware of the mechanisms that govern the evaluation of objects in the mainstream culture and she manipulates them. Her characters know perfectly well that tourist art (Non-Art) is not a profitable source of income. A producer can charge more for cultural artifacts (Culture), which have a higher value according to the mainstream standards: “The product now was 'museum quality' artifacts, and the price had gone up, in keeping” (Erdrich 303). The advertisement for tribal products, such as tobacco pouches, hair ties, deer calls, cradle hoards, moccasins or birch bark, reveals what shrewd and self-aware businessmen Lyman and Lulu are:

An attractively framed symbol of America's past. Perfect for the home and office. A great addition to the sportsman's den. All authentic designs and child-safe materials. Crafted under the auspices of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Anishinabe Enterprises, Inc. Hand produced by Tribal Members. (310(

On the other hand, Lyman and Lulu's production stategy might also be read as an attempt at gaining influence over their own representation: they employ tribal consultants to oversee the production and ascertain authenticity, and the final product is not a plastic plaything for tourists. Still, by choosing tomahawk as one of the objects to be produced, they cater to the need of the exotic, the unique, and simultaneously appeal to the deep-rooted stereotypes about Native Americans – peoples arrested in progress, still following the traditional ways, not adapted to civilization. They market only their history and tradition – using modern marketing strategies such as advertising, mail catalogues, promotional copies etc. – because they realize that nobody is interested in buying their present. Moreover, everybody expects them to remain in their art pursuits within the realm of their culture and tradition. As Clifford suggests, before an item of tribal art is promoted to the Art category and labeled an authentic masterpiece, it must first be a cultural artifact. Only surrounded by the halo of its culture can it become art (“On Collecting Art and Culture”58( .

            Erdrich, however, ironically undermines the validity of all slogans that are employed to advertise the factory's production. The products are marketed as authentic but they appear to be authentic only in that they are manufactured by the members of the tribe. If Native Americans no longer use tomahawks as everyday objects or wear moccasins or feather headdresses on a daily basis, are these objects authentic? The products are promoted as handmade. They are, if one unorthodoxly defines handicraft as moving an item from one part of an assembly line to another. In the “handmade” production process, machines are involved, items are assembled from ready-made parts manufactured from modern materials. The need for innovations appears to be economic: some element of industrialisation was necessary, as Lyman says, “I could not have my workers sit around nibbling, dental benefits wouldn't cover it” (Erdrich 310). The outcome is the production of as many pieces of birch bark in one day as a hundred of Chippewa women used to be able to produce in one winter. Are these products still unique and handmade or rather commercial and mass-produced?

            In the closing tragicomic part of the chapter, Lyman's two consultants, his mother Lulu and his late father's wife Marie fall out. Their quarrel starts off a tribal civil war, all past and present grievances are aired and, as a result, the factory is demolished and closed down. The demolition seems to be an expression of the workers' disparaging attitude towards the whole production,

Open your eyes, Lyman”, she [Lulu] cried out.“People were desperate for work in the beginning, now they're caught up on their car payments. Pretty soon they'll look at the junk they're making. They'll look at what's in their hands.”

I'm proud of our products,” I said.

Ka-ka! It's nothing but ka-ka!” (314(

            If the workers themselves realize that the tomahawk, an item of their material culture has been appropiated by the mainstream and turned into an anti-identity symbol, a stereotype; if they realize that manufacturing tomahawks is “a form of [mental] colonization”, why have they decided to take part in such an enterprise in the first place? (The Native American Fine Art Movement: A Resource Guide 22) Erdrich signals that for her characters one of the ways to earn a living, sometimes the only one on a reservation, is to market their ethnicity. Marketing, though, is a complicated process: they need to cater and yield to the expectations and stereotypes others may have about their identity and ancestry. The expectations and imaginings, not identity, are saleable. However, if they are clever enough, they can manipulate them. Nevertheless, whatever they do, they are being silenced with their own acceptance because they cannot determine for themselves what objects express their identity.

            Erdrich questions the mainstream definition of authenticity heavily charged with history and politics: she points to the fact that authenticity is entangled in power relations. The mainstream grants itself the right to judge arbitrarily what is authentic in other cultures and establishes the criteria of authenticity. The imposition of the mainstream definition of authenticity leads to oversimplification and falsification of the Native American image. Outside the minority culture, it arrests the process of identity formation, perpetuates stereotypes and spreads a falsified image. Is then the acceptance of the mainstream standards conformity, survival or manipulation strategy, a trick played on the buyers? Initially, in Love Medicine it might be all three, but the demolition of the factory might be seen as a rebellion against the ruling standards, an outspoken refusal to comply.

Both Walker and Erdrich are concerned with the “use and misuse”, to use Christian's terms, of the material heritage of their cultures (Christian “Alice Walker: The Black Woman Artist as Wayward” 129). They analyze the processes their characters employ to read meaning into objects and promote them to the rank of symbols. Authenticity is a determining factor in the choice of these objects. Each character has a different agenda to fulfil. Dee elevates the quilt, a product of a culture she was previously ashamed of, to the status of fine art in order to persuade herself and others that her roots are valuable. It makes a considerable difference for her to have an artist rather than a labourer for an ancestor, though the second does not preclude the first. Still, she distances herself from her heritage by relegating the quilt to the status of folk art, to be converted to fine art, and by refusing to put it to every day use. Similarly, Lyman Lamartine, a Bingo Palace character, needs an object to assert his legitimacy and achievement. He switches the meaning of the pipe at will: in his hands it becomes an heirloom, a tribal artifact, a work of art, a commodity, and finally a sacred and communal object. It seems that for Walker and Erdrich, Dee's and Lyman's treatment of their respective cultural artifacts is an instance of heritage exploitation.

            Simultaneously, both authors expose the mechanisms that govern the functioning of cultural artifacts in the mainstream culture and question the very notion of mainstream authenticity. They examine the validity of dominant standards and the implications they bear for other cultures. The denouement of “Everyday Use” and “The Tomahawk Factory” chapter in Love Medicine might be seen as a refusal to follow the dominant criteria: Dee's mother refuses to give her the quilts she has chosen and Lyman’s factory is demolished.

            The discussion on the misuse of material legacy and authenticity appears to be entangled in political and cultural discourses. Erdrich shows a futile struggle to intercept Native American material heritage from both the hands of cultural appropiators and the dominant mythology, which reduced it into a mere plaything. Using Barthes's terminology, the dominant mythology has choosen various items of Native American heritage as its vehicle and, by incorporating them into the wider cultural context, it has naturalized the tragic history of Native American peoples, the European-American colonialism, hegemony and expansion as Laura Browder and Shari M. Huhndorf suggest in “Staged Ethnicities: Laying the Groundwork for Ethnic Impersonator Autobiographies” and Going Native: Indians in the American Cultural Imagination  respectively. The processes, initiated in the nineteenth century, that facilitated this naturalization have been commoditization and commercialization of Native Americans (Browder 47-74) and the “redefining Native Americans as part of [the collective American] past” and “claiming Indianess as part of [American] collective identity” (Huhndorf 15, 19-78), as enacted in the form of Wild West Shows, ethnic performances or as presented at the World's Expositions. Native American material culture ceased to belong to Native Americans; it has become the national heritage.

            Also Walker's engagement in the political and cultural discourses in “Everyday Use” is self-evident almost from the beginning of the story. Walker differentiates between two types of heritage: the African and the Afro-American one. She argues that instead of reaching outside to embrace the unknown, to the majority, African roots, Afro-Americans should rather look inside to appreciate the value and uniqueness of the culture they created in the U.S. under most difficult circumstances (Christian “Introduction”10-11). Walker's short story is seen by many critics, such as Barbara T. Christian, as a fictional argument for the importance of the functional, rather than institutional, heritage of the Southern black women, which used to be overlooked by the black and white dominant discourses (“Introduction”7-16, “Alice Walker: The Black Woman Artist as Wayward” 128-131). As Barthes would phrase it, Walker creates black cultural mythology, in which the quilt is promoted to the rank of symbol. However, Walker does not write from a  hegemonic position: she uncovers, even though she mythologizes, the marginalized forms of creativity. Her mythology should be rather read as a rightful claim to incorporate Southern black women's material heritage into wider cultural contexts. 



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[1] I am indebted to dr Bärbel Tischleder (Institut für England- und Amerikastudien, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität, in Frankfurt am Main) for pointing out to me the community’s power to change the meaning/status of objects and refering me to Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities.

 [2]Louise Erdrich refers to her characters as the Chippewas, the Ojibway, or the Anishinaabeg. The name Anishinaabeg appears in The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse which recounts the events that took  place at the turn of the twentieth century. Erdrich's “younger characters” call themselves Chippewas. The names mirror the history of Native American – Euro-American relations, as Gerald Vizenor writes in The People Named the Chippewa, “the families of the woodland spoke of themselves as the Anishinaabeg, until the colonists named them the Ojibway and Chippewa. The word Anishinaabeg, the singular is Anishinaabe, is a phonetic transcription from the oral tradition” (13).

Barbara Leftih, is a Ph.D student at the Faculty of Philology, Institute of English Philology
at the University of Wrocław, Poland. Her thesis deals with mapping ‘the culture of the gaze’ in American culture and literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

New Approaches in Contemporary Curating, Spring 2006