Playing Indian

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

A few weeks ago, No Doubt’s “Looking Hot” video (featuring Gwen Stefani as a white Indian bound and writhing for the delectation of hunky hostiles) revived a centuries-old tradition of captive fantasy art just in time for Native American History Month. There was John Vanderlyn’s 1804 “Murder of Jane McCrea,” John Mix Stanley’s 1845 “Osage Scalp Dance,” Erastus Dow Palmer’s full frontal “The White Captive” (1857-8, allegedly inspired by Olive Oatman), and this priceless lesser known piece, “The White Captive,” by Astley D.M. Cooper:

A California artist with a drinking problem and a penchant for painting semi-clad ladies, Cooper was an erratic talent (but you have to hand it to him for this 4 x 8 foot piece of sheer high concept brilliance). Though it was painted in 1902, his captivity scenario is positively postmodern: the natives look like they could be Indians from a whole different continent, and the chubby little devils—wearing angel wings and carrying spears, tomahawks, and bows and arrows–merrily menace a blissed out androgyne who’s about to get roasted and float to heaven.

This painting always struck me as a little late in the day for captivity fantasy art. But No Doubt has extended the timeline by over a century. After hearing from outraged viewers (and receiving an open letter from UCLA ‘s American Indian Studies Center), Interscope pulled the video and the band issued a formal apology (as did Victoria’s Secret for dressing this model in leopard skin panties and a floor length Indian headdress):

One particularly offensive aspect of the No Doubt video, the AISC letter noted, is that one in three Native American women is raped (primarily by non-Indians). Perhaps as penance for singing “Do You think I’m Looking Hot?” in redface during Native American history month, Stefani should read Louise Erdrich’s The Roundhouse, a novel about the rape of an Ojibwe woman, which just won the National Book Award. It was written, said Erdrich, to honor “the  grace and endurance of native women.”


Oatman Redux: Hell on Wheels

Monday, December 5th, 2011

If tattooed Eva on “Hell on Wheels” seems to have stolen Olive Oatman’s chin tattoo, it’s because she’s based on her, as the HOW blog explains (with a quote from The Blue Tattoo). Eva’s Oatman has been tweaked: she’s a prostitute, which Oatman never was; she’s blunt and outspoken, which Oatman never was; and in 1865 when the show is unfolding, Oatman was a national celebrity, newly married to a wealthy Michigan cattle rancher and living in Texas during what she called the happiest period of her life. Eva’s the latest of more than a dozen tributes Oatman has inspired in art, film, theater, fiction, t.v. and music over the last 150 years, from Elmore Leonard’s “Tonto Woman” to Phantom of the Black Hills’ “Olive Oatman,” a song that, come to think of it, would work beautifully on Hell on Wheels. What’s AMC waiting for?

True Lies, Beautiful Fakes

Monday, August 29th, 2011

Fans of the Museum of Jurassic Technology will enjoy artist Scott Serrano’s lovingly meticulous, faux period installation in a show called “Hudson Valley 2011: Exercises in Unnecessary Beauty” at the Samuel Dorsky Museum (SUNY New Paltz).

In “Picturesque Flora: Wallaceana,” the chronicle of a mock botanical expedition, Serrano imagines an island on which each plant mimics the tragic life of a modern or 19th century figure. That includes Olive Oatman, who inspired him after he read The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman. Serrano’s mythological Oatman cactus is surrounded by wildflowers named for her family members, most of whom were killed in the 1851 Oatman massacre. The desert bloom, Serrrano tells me, represents “a symbolic ghost awakening.”

The flower’s changing colors mark the phases of Olive’s life, shifting from white (she was raised in Illinois) to red (she was adopted by Mohave Indians) back to white (she was ransomed back by the U.S. government). And the lined petals echo her chin tattoo (which was in fact applied with cactus needles). Fittingly, the bloom retains a red center, denoting, as the placard reads, “the past history of the flower inscribed upon the very petals of the blossom.” It’s a touching, nuanced tribute to America’s only white Mohave.

Decimation Nation

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

In which I discuss mad Methodists, monomaniacal Mormons, and tattooed Mohave Indians on the expressway to Manifest Destiny (and my research for The Blue Tattoo). Violent Encounters (U. of Oklahoma Press) includes interviews with nine authors about major massacres like Sand Creek and Mountain Meadows along with lesser known incidents like the 1871 Camp Grant massacre in Arizona, in which Anglo-Americans teamed up with Mexican Americans and Tohono O’odham Indians to slaughter over a hundred Pinal and Aravaipa Apaches—mostly women and children.

From the introduction by the authors: “Violent Encounters allows the reader to reconceive what it means to conceptualize a historical event, the ways in which history is used to as a political tool, and the need for the incorporation of multiple viewpoints when reconstructing past events.”

Americanitus: Diagnosis for the People

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

Proust suffered from it. Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Perkins Gilman took “rest cures” for it. And though it’s been retired from The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, we all surely have a touch of it: Americanitus (or “neurasthenia”), a nervous condition triggered by the stresses of modern life (which, said Freud, also caused flatulence).

San Francisco artist Alison Pebworth has launched a cross-country research project called “Beautiful Possibility” in which she explores contemporary manifestations of Americanitus by interviewing people about what ails them and why. Her historical research focuses on the intersection between European and Native American history and how it shapes American identity today. Pebworth’s wry, postmodern, and stunning circus-style tour banners combine folk, historical and political icons (including Olive Oatman, who, she says, elicits more questions than anyone in the series).  One of my favorites, “Claim Your Demons,” shows Dick Cheney hunkered down in a basket next to the Sauk Indian chief Black Hawk (to her credit, Pebworth forces you to figure out why Black Hawk was once considered a demon of Cheneyesque proportions).

Pebworth’s multimedia road show is interactive on many levels: she’s out there taking the pulse of the nation now; you can browse around to see where the northern leg of her tour is taking her here, learn what happened at previous stops here, or take her Americanitus survey here. Better yet, track her down and tell her how you’re feeling. Next stop: Aberdeen, SD.

Arizona Death Trip: Phantom of the Black Hills

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

Since she was ransomed back from Mohave Indians in 1856 wearing a tribal chin tattoo, Olive Oatman has inspired a sculpture by Erastus Dow Palmer, two biographies, two novels, a play starring John Wilkes Booth’s brother, a 1965 episode of “Death Valley Days” (featuring Ronald Reagan), four children’s books, a 1982 short story by Elmore Leonard, and an Oscar-nominated short film (2008), but never a song.

Until now. Last month the country grindcore band Phantom of the Black Hills released a fittingly Deadwoodesque tribute to America’s first tattooed white woman on “Ghosts,” tweaking some interesting themes, like whether or not Oatman, a Mormon, lost her religion as a white Mohave. If the facts in “Olive Oatman” are iffy (twisted as they’ve been for over a century), the mood is right: Here’s the Oatman clan heading west:

Her and her family prayin’ to the moon
Piled in a wagon, rolling to their doom
Bones of the past rattlin in the back
That’s when the mountain roared

Indeed, the Yavapai Indians who killed Oatman’s family in southern Arizona (then Mexico) were mountain dwellers. (Note to Governor Brewer: back then, the state was filled with nativists–none of whom were white). Phantom nails it in saying Oatman, who was taken captive, then traded to the Mohave, “had to bend but she never bowed.”

The song’s gritty vocals and driving rhythm–slow in the intro, then double time–evoke Oatman’s ride on a prairie schooner driven by a reckless and monomaniacal father of seven, bound for California (the place, wrote Didion, “where we run out of continent”). A banjo traces jittery lines of fingerpicked beauty across this well-worn gothic narrative. Though Phantom of the Black Hills’ website is damnably uninformative (perhaps a masked dude aiming his banjo at you like a loaded weapon is all you need to know), I’m glad an L.A. band with a pistols-at-dawn attitude was the first to claim this California dreamer.

Olive, Britney, Hillary, and Michelle

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

When a journalist asked me if the Oatman story sheds any light on expectations of women today, my first impulse was to talk about how far we’ve come since the 1850s when she became a public figure whose story was written by a man, who was concerned about remaining in her proper sphere on the lecture circuit, and who had to conceal her body even as she discussed her tattoos. But there is a striking continuity: people were fascinated by Oatman largely because of her body: they lined up to see her and pondered her physical violation both sexually and through the tattoo. Her story gave them permission to stare at a woman and allowed her to present and even refer to her body in public.

As in Oatman’s day, when women were forced into body-modifying clothes involving corsets and bustles, we’re still obsessed with women’s bodies in terms of shape (whether they’re too fat or thin or old or mannish or cosmetically reconstructed or in need of reconstruction) and in terms of behavior (whether Britney’s wearing underwear in public or not, whether President Hillary Clinton would have aged in office to Rush Limbaugh’s satisfaction, whether Michelle Obama’s arms have semiotic significance, and so on). Oatman had to be very careful about discussing her tattooed body in public, reinforcing the notion that whatever her physical experiences had been with the Mohave, she was their victim. Today, women are much physically freer, but our culture is equally obsessed with the body and what women do with it.

The difference is that now, showing is not only permitted, it’s expected. I sometimes wonder if centuries from now people will look back at public rituals like the Grammys and the Academy Awards and marvel that exposure is virtually a requirement for women in formal wear, while men’s bodies are fully concealed. The same applies to Esquire’s Women we Love entries (of eight photos posted in this page right now, two women are naked, two are topless, three are wearing lingerie, and one wears a tank top). And Elle’s best loved men? A hairy forearm is as racy as it gets.