All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos

  • Catherine C. Robbins
  • University of Nebraska Press
  • 408 pp.

A journalist with deep roots in the Southwest offers snapshots of contemporary Indian life.

Reviewed by Colin G. Calloway

Demolishing stereotypes about American Indians has become a bit stereotypical. As evidence of popular misconceptions, writers usually quote dumb comments by tourists in Indian country (no shortage of examples there), cite gross misrepresentations by Hollywood (ditto) and invoke Vine Deloria Jr.’s famous skewering of white anthropologists in Custer Died for Your Sins (1969). Non-Indian authors must then explain why they are qualified to do better. Catherine Robbins has lived for decades in the Southwest, covering Indian stories as a journalist, attending ceremonials and powwows, and developing a long friendship with a Pueblo woman who has worked as her weekly housekeeper for almost 40 years. She also tells us that “the Native people I have met are some of the finest people I have known.” Her experiences and journalistic style provide some rich accounts, some interesting anecdotes and some valuable insights into contemporary Navajo and Pueblo life. At its best, rather than simply dispelling myths, All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees describes how Native communities, particularly in the Southwest, are effecting positive change.

Snapshots of Indian country today include repatriation of ancestral remains; relations between Indians and anthropologists; a portrait of the Navajo Nation built around conversations with a former tour guide aboard Amtrak’s Southwest Chief; Indians in Albuquerque; music, ceremonial life and powwows; Native values in the modern world; Native American art and museums, and more. The book relies heavily on interviews with Native people, and their voices sprinkle the narrative.

The journalistic approach makes for an easy read but presents some weaknesses. The book is anecdotal and episodic rather than comprehensive. Quoting an opinion or relating what someone said at a conference is not a substitute for digesting evidence and synthesizing research. The history is sometimes haphazard and a bit superficial; for example, a quotation from a Yankton chief (taken from Peter Nabokov’s selection of quotable extracts in Native American Testimony) is plopped into a discussion of the Navajo Long Walk to illustrate the genocidal agenda of 19th-century Americans. It is followed by a quick reference to “what Native Americans went through” after Europeans introduced new infectious diseases. But previously uninformed readers are left with little idea of just what it was that Native Americans went through or of the demographic catastrophe that is fundamental to any understanding of this continent’s history.

In a book that sets out to convey the realities and diversity of Indian country today, some passages tend toward romanticism, essentialism and sweeping generalization. For example, W. Richard West’s voice as he gave his speech at the opening ceremony of the National Museum of the American Indian was “a deep baritone with soft traces of his Oklahoma upbringing and a steady, measured cadence.” Of the many critical Native-American responses to the museum, many of them thoughtful and reasoned considerations of the role and impact of such an institution, only the dissatisfaction of Dennis Banks and the American Indian Movement is mentioned. Concluding a discussion of the power of the drum as an energizing force in Native ceremony, performance and community, Robbins tells us that today’s Indians have an internal drum that pulses in their individual lives: “From the individual businessperson to large groups, Native Americans carry a figurative drum through which they integrate the values of their heartlands and those of the larger society.” She does not say how she knows this, nor who she means by “Native Americans” in this instance — all Native Americans? those who self-identify in the U.S. Census as Indian only? those who self-identify as part Indian as well? Not all Indians live in casinos, the title informs us, but one would never know it in the Northeast, where only casino tribes receive more than passing mention.

All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees does offer timely stories and illuminating observations (like the irony of “the middle-aged teacher of Diné culture who can’t write Navajo and the younger, modern college student probably raised on computers and television who can”). Accessible to a general readership, it remains to be seen whether this book will reach its intended broad audience; the University of Nebraska Press presumably lacks the marketing reach of bigger publishing houses, and many of its core readers may be familiar with many of the things Robbins describes. As a demolition job on Native-American stereotypes, All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees is less hard hitting and provocative than Paul Chaat Smith’s Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong (2009). As an overview of Native-American resurgence it is less comprehensive than Charles Wilkinson’s Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations (2005). Unfortunately, it is likely to be overshadowed by both of them.

Colin G. Calloway is the John Kimball Jr. 1943 Professor of History and a professor of Native American studies at Dartmouth College. He has written many books on American Indian history.

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