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Who Believes in Indians?


Suzanne Kite – <em>Pahá kiŋ lená wakháŋ.</em> (These hills are sacred.) Carbon fibre, video, sound, sonar sensor. Image still.

American contemporary mythologies spring from American founding mythologies. The events of Columbus’ arrival, the American revolution, and the signing of the Constitution washed away terra nullius to reveal the American nation. The enduring desire to avoid facts or truths is evident in America today via the fervor for conspiracy theory.1 Nearly fifty per cent of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory.^2 Aliens, Illuminati, National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance, the Kennedy assassination, hauntings, Pentagon Papers, 9/11 was an inside job; theories only remain theories for as long as it takes to prove them. For Native Americans (Indians) and other peoples targeted by the United States Government, theories prove true. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was embedded in the American Indian Movement, just as the FBI has targeted ‘black identity extremist groups’. Those targeted, Native and otherwise, are well aware that as the violence of American mythology pours across the continent; it was and is ‘assimilation or death’. ‘Manifest Destiny’ is the term used to describe the continental takeover by settlers and their surveillance. While it is often interpreted primarily as symbolising ownership of space, Manifest Destiny also articulates taking ownership over time and reconfiguring it into a linear, one way street: progression towards apocalypse.

The term ‘destiny’ suggests a natural (or perhaps divine) unfolding of events. The term ‘conspiracy’ works similarly, implying a figure working in secret, an enemy or aid towards an unseen goal. The epistemology which makes Manifest Destiny possible presumes multiple layers of linear thought: a vision from East to West coast, a beginning in divine intervention to an ending in the fulfilment of American destiny. Caroline Woidat writes in her essay The Truth is on the Reservation:

Accounts of the first encounters between European colonists and American Indians emphasize the need for constant vigilance, and this narrative continues to retell itself centuries later. American Indians have clearly been feared as conspirators: as skulking enemies threatening settlers, as fierce challengers to Custer at his last stand, as militant activists occupying Wounded Knee, as unfair business competitors operating casinos and gas stations under different tax laws, as aggressive plaintiffs in land-claim cases threatening to rob white citizens of their property. At the same time, Native Americans have themselves been subjected to government conspiracies to take away their land, their children, their livelihood, their culture.3

Woidat points out that even in analysis of American conspiracy culture, the Indians are left out of the discourse almost entirely. ‘Examining so-called “paranoid” narratives of American history—both fictive and “real”—illuminates the shadowy presence of Native people in America’s conspiracy culture.’4

American mythologies of the paranormal blend with the realm of conspiracy theory. Thirty seven percent of Americans believe in ghosts, if not other forms of paranormal events or experiences.5 The phenomenon of Tumblr witches6 (non-Indigenous neopagans developing animist or herbalist relationships with the land) or the post-1970 desire to invent American Indian ancestors,7 speaks to the desperation of the American to create their indigeneity. The desire for an Indigenous history possesses Americans, from the spiritualist angle or by local legends, imagining a supernatural connection to place. In Mythologies of an Undead Indian, Jackson 2bears writes, ‘Living as a Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk) person means I have had to learn to live with ghosts—the hauntological experience of ancestry is a spectral landscape populated by a multiplicity of spirits, phantoms and apparitions.’8 If ghosts populate the American landscape, the space Indian-ghosts occupy haunts the terrified American unconscious.

It is not a coincidence that ‘alien’ defines a political class in the United States, often descendants of people indigenous to the Americas, while at the same time referencing beings indigenous to outer space. While forty-seven per cent of Americans believe in aliens (the extra- terrestrial life forms), a horrifying number of Americans see so-called ‘illegal aliens’ as invaders.9 Cosmic pluralism (where man is not the centre of the universe) is still a nearly inconceivable concept for the Judeo-Christian worldview, taken up by science fiction writers after the Industrial Revolution and the end of the era of rapid colonial conquest.10 Their renderings of aliens, like God making man in his image, created lifeforms from the Euro-American mythos.

Who believes in Indians? Archaeologists and pseudo-scientists alike have an obsession with refuting the length of time and origin of Indigenous people on the North American continent. Perhaps they imagine that, if we arrived from Asia thousands of years ago, it could justify genocide, that we wouldn’t be ‘from here’ in the first place. This displacement of Indigenous people in American archaeological histories is replicated in American schools. ‘When education professor Sara Shear looked at academic standards for elementary and secondary schools in all 50 states, she found that a staggering 87 percent of references to Native Americans portrayed them as a population only existing before 1900.’11 It is not surprising when even an educated person believes all Indians to be dead. America clings to any ‘proof’ of our lack of Indigeneity provided by science, the same science that measured our skulls and dubbed us child-like and unfit to govern ourselves or spend our own money or leave our reservations.

America is obsessed with displacing our bones in both time and space. In the case of the Kennewick Man, ancient Native American bones were reported to have ‘caucasoid traits [and a] lack of definitive Native-American characteristics,’ and further ‘the anthropological term “Caucasian” was confused by some members of the media and public, who interprets it as meaning ‘white’ or “European”.’12 Even stranger, it was said that Kennewick Man resembled Patrick Stewart.13 Vine Deloria suggests the fervor to hold our bones is an extension of the desire for our deaths: ‘If the propensity of whites during the summer of 1971 to grasp some bit of authenticity by locating, excavating, and embracing Indian skeletal remains can be interpreted as an attempt to discard their own physical, cultural, and spiritual heritage, then the collective psyche of white America was indeed in deep trouble.’14

As the American public panics over what has been dubbed ‘post-truth’, it is worth recalling that, for Native people, American mythologies have always relied on post-truth, i.e., lies. Manipulation of fact comes as no surprise to those whose genocide is so easily glossed over. America’s corrupted epistemology feels like a deep and dark pool, where we swim in words like proof, truth, story, fact, and conspiracy. In their essay, ‘Truth and Native American Epistemology’, Lee Hester and Jim Cheney write that the difference between Indian ‘ceremonial worlds’ and Western ‘ceremonial worlds’ is the intention of these worlds to be ‘responsibly true’, and that Indigenous worlds are ‘built on the basis of an ethical-epistemological orientation of attentiveness (or, as Native Americans tend to put it, respect) rather than an epistemology of control.'15 The divergence of post-truth and responsible truth occurs at the rejection of ethics in favor of ownership.

Americans believe brown people (ancient Egyptians to ancient Indians) are too stupid and savage to invent technologies. Aliens are the (white) Americans of the future. Twelve seasons of History Channel’s television show Ancient Aliens is testament to this belief, as shown by the repeated appearances of ‘expert’ David Hatcher Childress. Historical archaeologist Charles E. Orser criticises Childress, writing:

David Hatcher Childress, one of the most flagrant violators of basic archaeological reasoning, has provided perhaps the most outrageous racialized vision of Atlantis. In discussing Tiahuanaco in Bolivia—as a palace built long before any Native South Americans were present—Childress proposes that the majestic site could only have been constructed by the “Atlantean League.” e league was composed of mythic seafarers who “sailed the world spreading a megalithic culture, and wore red turbans over their blond hair”. Nowhere did Plato, the only actual source on Atlantis, mention the blond hair of the Atlanteans. Plato did mention that the men and women of Atlantis, being semi-divine, were inherently good ... The correlation between goodness and whiteness is thus obvious in Childress’s formulation and in much else that has been written about Atlantis.

Americans’ belief in aliens is not unlike their belief in Indians. I am not arguing that aliens and Indians play equivalent roles. Rather, that they are imagined within the same American mythology, both of them feared and revered. Americans, obsessed with progress, believe they will advance their civilisation further through contact with aliens, just as Indians ‘progressed’ after Contact and assimilation with Europeans. This belief in progress stems from the fact that, as John Rieder writes, ‘evolutionary theory and anthropology, both profoundly intertwined with colonial ideology and history, are especially important to early science fiction from the mid-nineteenth century on.’ Natives are seen as the uncivilised past, contemporary Americans as the truly human present, and aliens as the ultimate ascension of the future human. ‘Here is the anthropologist’s fantasy: Although we know that these people exist here and now, we also consider them to exist in the past—in fact, to be our own past.’ Rieder proposes that ‘the way colonialism made space into time gave the globe a geography not just of climates and cultures, but of stages of human development that could confront and evaluate on another.’ The colonial sense of progress is indelibly fixed to an unrelenting linear timeline, with only one possibility for escape.

Time hurtles forward towards apocalypse. The Christian eschatological obsession is achieving an apotheosis of its rejection of the facts of ecological destruction and the refusal to acknowledge climate change. Perhaps the end is desired. However, the deepest, darkest fear of the American consciousness remains: Native Americans might exist. Ownership, the highest of American values, is threatened by the possibility of the Indigenous and everything we could take away. Nothing is more terrifying. They seem to have no use for us but as museum pieces while violently destroying our lands. But, in the darkness of today, the coming environmental apocalypse or imminent collapse of capitalism or destruction of white supremacy, who is a better post-apocalyptic guide than the Indian?

There is no figure more conspiratorial or paranormal or alien in the American consciousness than the Indian in America. Out of time and out of place, the American mythology of the Native embeds us in the earth and sky: everywhere and nowhere, forever past and never-present. American time imagines itself as a now and future of ever-expanding land and resource ownership, while Lakota time folds in and beyond itself in relation with animal nations.

The expression of time through language is most clearly understood through the expression of tense. In Lakota, past and present tense are indistinguishable. To refer to an event historically, to say ‘long ago’, you say ehanni, but to say ehanni is also to say ‘always’. To say ‘I went’ is also to say ‘I go’: -ble means ‘I went / go’ and -mni kte- ‘I will go’. The past and present could exist interchangeably, with the vision of now expanding into an infinity that stretches too far back to account for. Lakota visions, dreams, and prophecy constantly form and reform the future, knowing beyond simple belief in the ability to know the future. Just like Wovoka and Black Elk, our people can still dream beyond. As Mark Rifkin writes about the well-known Indian prophecy:

“the Ghost Dance suggests less unbroken continuity than complex cross-temporal communications, impressions, and relations that exceed the unfolding of a timeline. Such cross-time proximity, the sense of direct implication across the apparent gulf of chronology, might be described as prophetic temporality”.16

In another famous prophecy, retold in The Sixth Grandfather, Standing Bear writes, ‘Black Elk thinks that the highest peak in the Black Hills — Harney Peak — is the one to which the spirits took him in the vision to see the whole earth. The spirits had told him that the people would prosper there.’ This vision bridges land now and land in the future, showing sovereign possibilities terrifying to Americans. Lakota language, prophecies, and visions defy linear time.

Lakota epistemologies in particular reflect the enfolding of time, space, and especially personhood, collapsing American mythology. ‘The distinction between natural and supernatural, so basic to European thought, was meaningless in Lakota culture,’ writes David C. Posthumus. ‘Humans are not superior’ in Lakota ontology, they are ‘pitiful and helpless’ younger siblings of the animal world. The Lakota sense of being and personhood is so immensely different from the colonial ontology it others an epistemological exit. Concepts of an enfolding past and present, the knowledge of the complex spiritual personhood of beings other than humans, even aliens indigenous to other worlds, and the connection to place inherent to Lakota epistemologies, mark them apart from American mythologies, even as our timelines collide. Lakota epistemologies are just the beginning of an infinity of truths, responsible truths, which we offer as alternatives. Though you may not believe, the truth is already here.

The new map of reported UFO sightings in the US was created by Data Solutions Engineer Adam Crahen of the Data Duo, using data from Kaggle UFO sightings.

Kite aka Suzanne Kite is an Oglala Lakota performance artist, visual artist, and composer raised in Southern California, with a BFA from CalArts in music composition, an MFA from Bard College’s Milton Avery Graduate School, and is a PhD student at Concordia University. Her research is concerned with contemporary Lakota mythologies and epistemologies and investigates the multiplicity of mythologies existing in the contemporary storytelling of the Lakota through research- creation, computational media, and performance practice.

1. Peter Knight, ed. Conspiracy Nation: The Politics of Paranoia in Postwar America. New York: New York University Press, 2002.

3. Caroline M Woidat, ‘The Truth is on the Reservation: American Indians and Conspiracy Culture’. The Journal of American Culture, 29, 4, 2006 pp. 454–467. doi:10.1111/j.1542-734x.2006.00422.x.
4. Caroline M Woidat, 2006.
5. Gallup Inc, ‘Three in Four Americans Believe in Paranormal,’ Gallup.com, accessed February 5, 2018, http://news.gallup.com/poll/16915/Three-Four-Americans-Believe-Paranormal.aspx.
6. The Establishment, ‘A Brief History Of e Tumblr Witch,’ The Establishment, July 10, 2016, https://theestablishment.co/a-brief-history-of-the-tumblr-witch-8f30657849f.
7. Vine Deloria Jr, Leslie Silko, and George E. Tinker, God Is Red: A Native View of Religion, 30th Anniversary Edition, 30 edition, Golden, Colo: Fulcrum Publishing, 2003, 15.
8. Jackson Twobears Leween, ‘Mythologies of an (Un)Dead Indian’ 2012, https://dspace.
9. Alejandro Rojas, ‘New Survey Shows Nearly Half of Americans Believe in Aliens,’ Huffington Post (blog), August 2, 2017, https:// www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/new-survey-shows-nearly-half-of-americans-believe-in_us_59824c11e4b03d0624b0abe4.
10. John Rieder, Colonialism And The Emergence Of Science Fiction. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, Middleton, 2012.
11. Alysa Landry, ‘All Indians Are Dead?’ At Least That’s What Most Schools Teach Children,’ Indian Country Media Network (blog), November 17, 2014, https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/education/native-education/all-indians-are-dead-at-least- thats-what-most-schools-teach-children/.
12. Adam Khalil, Zach Khalil, Jackson Polys, The Violence of a Civilization Without Secrets, 2017, https:// vimeo.com/217342747.
13. ‘Kennewick Man,’ Wikipedia, 1 February 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Kennewick_Man&oldid=823442997.
14. Deloria, Silko, and Tinker, God Is Red, 15.
15. Lee Hester, Jim Cheneyl, ‘Truth and Native American Epistemology: Social Epistemology’: Vol 15, No 4, accessed 5 February 2018, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/
16. Mark Rifkin, Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination, Duke University Press, 2017.