"Playing Indian" by Philip J.              Deloria

Playing Indian Philip J. Deloria

Yale Historical Publications Series
Publication date:
10 Sep 1999
Yale University Press
262 pages: 235 x 156mm
27 b-w illus.
Sales territories:

The Boston Tea Party, the Order of Red Men, Camp Fire Girls, Boy Scouts, Grateful Dead concerts: just a few examples of white Americans' tendency to appropriate Indian dress and act out Indian roles

"A valuable contribution to Native American studies."—Kirkus Reviews

This provocative book explores how white Americans have used their ideas about Native Americans to shape national identity in different eras—and how Indian people have reacted to these imitations of their native dress, language, and ritual.

At the Boston Tea Party, colonial rebels played Indian in order to claim an aboriginal American identity. In the nineteenth century, Indian fraternal orders allowed men to rethink the idea of revolution, consolidate national power, and write nationalist literary epics. By the twentieth century, playing Indian helped nervous city dwellers deal with modernist concerns about nature, authenticity, Cold War anxiety, and various forms of relativism. Deloria points out, however, that throughout American history the creative uses of Indianness have been interwoven with conquest and dispossession of the Indians. Indian play has thus been fraught with ambivalence—for white Americans who idealized and villainized the Indian, and for Indians who were both humiliated and empowered by these cultural exercises.

Deloria suggests that imagining Indians has helped generations of white Americans define, mask, and evade paradoxes stemming from simultaneous construction and destruction of these native peoples. In the process, Americans have created powerful identities that have never been fully secure.

Philip J. Deloria is assistant professor of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a coauthor of The Native Americans.

"[A] convincing study. . . . Deloria, builds his case with caution and precision, careful to avoid sweeping claims." —Michael Kenney, Boston Globe

"Deloria argues [that] nothing is so ideologically weighted as a seemingly innocent pleasure. Playing Indian speaks volumes, and it says much more than 'How!'"—Jeremy MacClancy, Times Higher Education Supplement

"'What, then, is the American, this new man?,' asked J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur in 1872. Every American generation since has asked the same question. And, according to this lucid, nimble and occasionally, frolicsome re-examination of the history of the United States, it is one that Americans have often tried to answer by 'playing Indian.'"—Jim Boothroyd, Times Literary Supplement

"Deloria demonstrates how 'Indian play' has always taken on new shape and focus to engage the most pressing issues of a particular historical moment, and he notes that American views of Indians tell us much more about Americans than they do about Indians. . . . Americans need Indians in order to define themselves as Americans, asserts Deloria. Beginning before the Boston Tea Party, and continuing into the present, Americans have adopted Indian attire, images, and traditions for both political and individual needs. This important book belongs in all American history collections."—Library Journal

"Playing Indian is a wonderful book. . . . Playing Indian is valuable not only for its skillful, critical reading of a part of American history and identity construction, but in the ways we can use these histories to expand our awareness of the lasting, contradictory—at times painful, at times healing—effects of 'play.'"—Naomi Adelson, Transcultural Psychiatry

Winner for the 1999 Outstanding Book Award given by the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights in North America

"Not since I first read Michel Foucault, Fredric Jameson, or bell hooks has a text crackled with so much theoretical frisson. Its historical insights are rich and political repercussions profound. American culture will never look the same."—Joel Martin, author of Sacred Revolt and Native American Religions

"Playing Indian adds importantly to our understanding of how the American Indian has been, and is, perceived by non-Indian Americans. For anyone who is interested in the subject, Mr. Deloria's study is all but indispensable. It is impressive in its learning, its objectivity, and its clarity."—N. Scott Momaday

"Playing Indian will help the reader understand why, from the revelers at Merrymount to the Berkeley tribes of the 1960s, every oppositional current in America has found its way to the people called 'Indians,' and why, though (as D.H. Lawrence said) the Red Indians will never again possess the broad lands of America, their spirit will."—Noel Ignatiev, author of How the Irish Became White, and co-editor of Race Traitor

"Exciting, persuasive, and unlike anything else in the literature, Playing Indian offers new insights into the interplay of identities in American society."—Richard White, University of Washington

"Through hard-edged interchange between historical description and razor-sharp analysis, Phil Deloria is able to show how the phenomenon of Indian-playing has operated in the United States since before the founding of the republic. It is a terrific book, well worth reading and wonderful to teach."—Robert Warrior, Stanford University