Pan-Indianism (was Re: dream catchers)

thomas w kavanagh (tkavanag@INDIANA.EDU)
Thu, 31 Oct 1996 11:11:14 -0500

On Wed, 30 Oct 1996, Susan L. Nielsen wrote:

> Thomas K. writes (regarding my earlier comments):
> ><snip>
> >> there is a modern, pan-Native American movement which does look
> >> more and more like a unifying cultural thread. Not to say that
> >> Native Americans have become one undifferentiated group, but that
> >> they are identifying themselves as members of one, larger group.
> >
> >I beg to differ. It may superficially look like this, but there are
> >still major differences out there. Hopi is not Comanche is not Leech
> >Lake.
> You make it sound like I tried to say all Native American peoples
> are the same, and you know that isn't what I said at all. You also
> managed to snip or disregard my several qualifying comments that
> should have made that clear.

Rather than quoting your entire post, and wasting bandwidth, I did snip.
I will not do it here.

But you are arguing for pan-Indianism.

> The fact that there are still Hopi and Comanche does not in any
> way conflict with the pan Indianism occurring throughout North
> America. We can, and do, have both phenomena active at the
> same time.

No doubt. But what we have to do is come up with a name for the phenomena
that does not imply the universality implied by Howard's initial
discussion of pan-Indianism as "the process by which socio-cultural
entities such as the Seneca, Delaware, Yuchi, Ponca and Comanche are losing
their tribal distinctiveness and in its place are developing a non-tribal
'Indian' culture. Some of the elements of the culture are modifications of
old tribal customs. Others seem to be peculiar to pan-Indianism"

> >Moreover, there are several different kinds of "pan-Indianism" (see Hazel
> >Hertzberg, The Search for an American Indian Identity).
> Thanks, I have already.

Then what kind of pan-Indianism are we talking about?

> >> Go to any pow-wow,

Ah, here you managed to snip your sentence stating that "powwow is a
mixture of traditions" :-)

> >That a powwow is a mixture of traditions goes without saying (Culture is a
> >mixture of traditions).
> No, it does not go without saying. What an absurdity.

What is absurd? That powwow is a mixture of traditions?, that culture is a
mixture of traditions?, that we shouldn't have to say either? Perhaps we
should shout it to the ethnocentrics of the world: "CULTURE IS A THINGIE
OF SHREDS AND PATCHES!!! (apologies to Robert Lowie and Dan Foss).

> >But powwow is not a singularity. To say that there
> >is a single "pan-Native ethos" expressed in *the* (singular) powwow
> >ignores the tremendous variation that exists in powwows.
> This is a silly argument, and one you have constructed all by
> yourself.

I am (not) sorry, but it is you who is arguing for pan-Indianism as a

> You must note, however, that the existence of powwows,
> of any description, across the continent, speaks to some broader
> sense of cultural affinity than the local band or tribe.

No it does not. Once again, powwow is not a unitary phenomena. Although we
use the same word to refer to events ranging from a family honoring
their daughter on her graduation, to Comanche Homecoming, to the
Gathering of Nations, "Broad sense of cultural affinity" has only
the vaguest relation to family honorings.

> >Granted, meanings change. But remember that except for the most
> >vaguely worded statements, there is no such thingie as "a larger
> >group's tradition" (singular).
> What? Sorry, but you lose me here. I really don't understand what
> you are objecting to.

What I am objecting to is the assumption that just because there are
"powwows, of any description, across the continent, speaks to some broader
sense of cultural affinity than the local band or tribe" ONLY if that
"broader sense of cultural affinity than the local band or tribe" is
stated broadly, vaguely, and abstractly.

As an example, if you ask the question "What does the American flag mean?"
to a sample of Americans, the only way you will get consensus is if the
answer is stated in very broad and vague terms.

The same is true of pan-Indianism and the powwow.

Clark Wissler once wrote, "Many fieldworkers are prejudiced against these
modern ceremonies to such an extent that they do not gather data on them
at all, but we hope this discussion will show the folly of such an
attitude" (1916). Unfortunately in the 80 years since he wrote that there
has been very little research on how powwow operates in particular
communities. It has been assumed that that they function the same way,
i.e. promoting pan-Indianism, but that has not been established.

> >[? by "larger group" are you paralleling your above use of "pan-native,"
> >or do you mean the non-Indian population which is incorporating Dream
> >Catchers as "traditional"? If the latter, I might note that the only way
> >Dream Catchers are part of my culture is, as I noted in my post, as the
> >God's Eyes of the '90s.]
> I was really only suggesting that it is a hasty judgement to say,
> categorically, that there are not traits that can be identified with
> a Native American Culture, which did not exist in earlier times, but
> does now.

I never argued that cultures do not change, or that elements are not
added. However, I did want to make clear that in the original posting
about dream catchers, that their current use had little or no historical

> Dream catchers may seem frivilous to you, but they do not
> to all people, and they do come (even into non-Indian culture, and
> to craft classes), from Native culture. And much more certainly
> from recent pan-Native culture than from any older tradition.

That was my point exactly.