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Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong

2009
Author:

Paul Chaat Smith

Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong

Forceful and eloquent essays on the American Indian in culture and history

In this sweeping work of memoir and commentary, leading cultural critic Paul Chaat Smith illustrates with dry wit and brutal honesty the contradictions of life in “the Indian business.” In his journey from fighting activist to federal employee, Smith tells us he has discovered at least two things: there is no one true representation of the American Indian experience, and even the best of intentions sometimes ends in catastrophe.

In Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong, Paul Chaat Smith pulls no punches and delivers not a few body blows. Smith’s clear and at times sardonic voice expresses everything Indians might have wanted to say but up to now didn’t feel they could. Through references to contemporary and popular touchstones he sweeps away generations of sentimentality, nostalgiz and accommodation that mark the relationship of Indians to the mainstream. We may flinch at his analyses where there are no innocents, no villains, but we cannot hide. Smith pushes the ‘minority experience’ past victimhood and infantilization to self-agency and determination.

Lowery Stokes Sims, curator, Museum of Arts and Design

In this sweeping work of memoir and commentary, leading cultural critic Paul Chaat Smith illustrates with dry wit and brutal honesty the contradictions of life in “the Indian business.”

Raised in suburban Maryland and Oklahoma, Smith dove head first into the political radicalism of the 1970s, working with the American Indian Movement until it dissolved into dysfunction and infighting. Afterward he lived in New York, the city of choice for political exiles, and eventually arrived in Washington, D.C., at the newly minted National Museum of the American Indian (“a bad idea whose time has come”) as a curator. In his journey from fighting activist to federal employee, Smith tells us he has discovered at least two things: there is no one true representation of the American Indian experience, and even the best of intentions sometimes ends in catastrophe.

Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong is a highly entertaining and, at times, searing critique of the deeply disputed role of American Indians in the United States. In “A Place Called Irony,” Smith whizzes through his early life, showing us the ironic pop culture signposts that marked this Native American’s coming of age in suburbia: “We would order Chinese food and slap a favorite video into the machine—the Grammy Awards or a Reagan press conference—and argue about Cyndi Lauper or who should coach the Knicks.” In “Lost in Translation,” Smith explores why American Indians are so often misunderstood and misrepresented in today’s media: “We’re lousy television.” In “Every Picture Tells a Story,” Smith remembers his Comanche grandfather as he muses on the images of American Indians as “a half-remembered presence, both comforting and dangerous, lurking just below the surface.”

Smith walks this tightrope between comforting and dangerous, offering unrepentant skepticism and, ultimately, empathy. “This book is called Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong, but it’s a book title, folks, not to be taken literally. Of course I don’t mean everything, just most things. And ‘you’ really means we, as in all of us.”

Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong

Paul Chaat Smith is associate curator at the National Museum of the American Indian of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He is the coauthor, with Robert Warrior, of Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee.

Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong

In Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong, Paul Chaat Smith pulls no punches and delivers not a few body blows. Smith’s clear and at times sardonic voice expresses everything Indians might have wanted to say but up to now didn’t feel they could. Through references to contemporary and popular touchstones he sweeps away generations of sentimentality, nostalgiz and accommodation that mark the relationship of Indians to the mainstream. We may flinch at his analyses where there are no innocents, no villains, but we cannot hide. Smith pushes the ‘minority experience’ past victimhood and infantilization to self-agency and determination.

Lowery Stokes Sims, curator, Museum of Arts and Design

If you like the western absurdities of William Eastlake and the beautiful brutalities of Evan Connell, you're going to love the 'histo-ironics' of Paul Chaat Smith's Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong. As for me, I'm just pissed off that I didn't write this goofy, profound, and wonderfully mean-spirited book.

Thomas King

After reading Everything You Know about Indians is Wrong by Paul Chaat Smith, I said, ‘A clever connect!’ Wounded Knee Massacre—winning of the West! Movies, an American past time—all that Indian land stolen—all those Indians killed! Celebrating liars, thieves, killers—a literal cultural force? Just to make movies? I then re-read a passage where Smith refers to Indigenous artists at Venice Biennale: ‘This symposium won’t be measured by how many Indians are in Venice. It will be measured by something much harder to quantify. What matters is . . . whether we can build new understandings of what it means to be human in the twenty-first century. It isn’t about us talking and you listening; it’s about an engagement that moves our collective understanding forward.’ Truly, that’s what will acknowledge, validate, and confirm our Existence as Indigenous peoples. And this may even help us to rethink the word-concept of ‘Indian.’ Smith’s very articulate book is highly recommended!

Simon J. Ortiz, author of Out There Somewhere and Woven Stone

Amusing and enlightening.

Publishers Weekly

With acerbic wit and unflinching honesty, social critic Smith offers a collection of essays that were written over approximately a 15-year period. It is an eclectic collection that chronicles the evolution of his views on the politics of being a Native American, beginning with his obvious naivete as a committed activist within the American Indian Movement to his present employment with the federal government. No target is safe from his pointed barbs, not even himself. The explanation of how quickly his views toward the creation of the National Museum of the American Indian changed when the practicality of needing employment entered the equation is alone worth the price of the book. In addition to being an entertaining read, this book gives one much to consider as Smith challenges many of the tropes that too many authors utilize when writing about native peoples.

Library Journal

While making sometimes heartening and at other times unsettling critical observations on conditions surrounding American Indians in historical and modern contexts, [Smith] conveys his observations in a casual, frequently funny and smart conversational form. Reading the book is almost like listening to a well seasoned, somewhat cynical old friend talking about something for which he deeply cares.

Win Awenen Nisototung

In this rigorously insightful collection of essays written between 1992 to 2008, Smith, a wry, sharp-edged cultural critic, and associate curator for the National Museum of the American Indian, addresses the myriad ironic complexities of American Indian reality.

Washington Post

Within Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong . . . is a call to native artists to refuse to play the invented romantic, mythological and other clichéd roles assigned to them by others, and to demand ‘honesty in their own work and that of others that truly honors the outrageous story of our continued existence.’

Washington Post

It’s a very entertaining read; while it does critique at times the (often) disputed role Indians have had in the U.S., it also explores with dry wit and humor how today’s media portrays ‘the noble savage.’ The book walks the line between skepticism and empathy, and at the end the reader has to admit that the book title is indeed, accurate.

WeLoveDC.com

The book is a nice, wild ride on Smith’s stream of consciousness as he shares his stories of an aching, but thankful heart.

Cherokee One Feather

Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong, a satisfyingly complex book by Paul Chaat Smith, who maintains that although we are considered somehow primitive and simple we are actually oceans of terrifying complexity. And this book, too, is so complicated that I found my emotions were all mixed up. Irony, laughter, rage, weariness. A mixture—a complex character trait but as one of my character flaws is a vague obscurity I appreciated the harsh wit and intelligence in these essays. A recommendation with many stars after it.

Louise Erdrich, Birchbark Books Blog

This book achieves a balancing act that will be the envy of Indigenous authors, myself among them. Its articulate demonstration of the utter absurdities, past and present, of the culturally embedded representations of Native Americans charms rather than alienates its (non-Indigenous) audience. . . . His expose uses razor sharp observations, clarity of language, self-deprecating authorial tone and clever juxtapositions of humour and tragedy to blunt the power to take umbrage as a dismissive response. The book makes its searing critique engaging and irrefutable.

International Journal of Critical Indigenous Studies

His lively prose, which shifts from the scholarly to the colloquial (sometimes within the same paragraph), and his insistent engagement with and awareness of his audience make this a compelling and vibrant collection of essays that should find a broad reading audience.

Sarita Cannon, Neomaricanist

Smith provides an engaging and direct commentary about the experiences and history of Native Americans.

Multicultural Review

If Paul Chaat Smith ever needs another job—he’s currently a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian‚ he would make an excellent stand-up comic. Unexpectedly, his latest book, Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong, is a funny and painful collection of essays about a deeply serious subject: the ways in which Indian stereotypes infiltrate culture, damaging Indians and Non-Indians alike.

High Country News

It’s lucky for us that Smith, a Comache born in West Texas, refuses to shut up. His insights on film are sharp and startling.

High Country News

Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong is engaging, relevant, and sometimes humorous.

Studies in American Indian Literatures

By pulling together 24 brief essays into a single publication with a singularly provocative title, culture/art/politics critic Paul Chaat Smith is inviting engagement: engagement with readers, with cultural workers, with academics and perhaps most vigorously, with our understanding of the history of the Americas.

Socialist Studies

Smith practices what he refuses to preach: agility of the written word; anti-essentialist thinking; deadpan goofiness; and honest and disarming self-knowledge. Everything You Know about Indians is Wrong is a not-so-random collection of Smith’s essays and a call to action. Everyone should read this.

Native Studies Review

Smith’s observations about the current and historical state of Indian representations are astute and thought provoking.

Great Plains Quarterly

Those who enter here may not escape unchanged. That’s the covert power of the delightful Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong. Overall it is a good-natured, if pointed, analysis of Native America and mainstream society past and present.

Indian Country Today

If it’s possible to be scathing and gentle at the same time, Chaat Smith is. His mixture of facts, dead-on observations and commentary, and wicked but also patient, eye-rolling humor lead us on a clearer — and certainly more enjoyable — journey toward a better understanding of contemporary American Indian life.

Chicago Reader

Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong

Contents

Every Picture Tells a Story

Part I. States of Amnesia

Lost in Translation
On Romanticism
After the Gold Rush
Land of a Thousand Dances
The Big Movie
The Ground beneath Our Feet
Homeland Insecurity

Part II. Everything We Make Is Art

Americans without Tears
Delta 150
Luna Remembers
Standoffin Lethbridge
Struck by Lightning
Meaning of Life
States of Amnesia

Part III. Jukebox Spiritualism

A Place Called Irony
Life during Peacetime
Last Gang in Town
From Lake Geneva to the Finland Station
Ghost in the Machine
Afterword: End of the Line
Acknowledgments
Publication History