Anthropological guilt (Yes, it's about Robert Johnson)

John Stevens (8859jstev@UMBSKY.CC.UMB.EDU)
Thu, 23 Feb 1995 15:30:01 EDT

I just read Dawson Her Many Horses' heartfelt, heart-rending letter, and it
moved me deeply. Also, I came close to crying, not because of Dawson's words,
but because yet again a native person's thoughts and feelings were appropriated
by a foolish academic so that he could aggrandize himself. Mr. Johnson's posts
have fascinated me because he has woven for himself a cloak of invulnerability
from the very world he believes he is critiquing. Obviously, he is not out
there in the world working on these problems; instead, he is gnawing at our
ankles with cheap nips to our consciences. I would love to know what Mr. John-
son is doing for Native Peoples that will actually accomplish something. I
would also like to know what his connections are (if any) to the Native comm-
unities. Basically, I want to know where the expletive deleted he gets off
preaching like a frothy-mouthed evangelist about that which I suspect he has\
little firsthand knowledge of.

This issue affects me very deeply because I hope to work with Native
Americans and work against the bad press and scholarship that has shaped their
images in American discourse since the Pilgrims ran aground here. I have spent
most of my undergrad career angsting over issues of appropriation, authority,
and representation. But the Native folks I have interacted with generally seem
pleased to see a whiteboy trying to get his voice heard in this cacophony, esp.
since I wear my suppositions on my sleeve (one of the few things I find appeal-
ing about Mr. J.). I am not going to go to a reservation and document the
charming folkways of the natives. I tend to think that James Mooney is my guide
here; combine meticulous work with a heartfelt desire to figure out "what the
devil is going on" and propose some new perspectives and solutions.

Mr. Johnson himself has yet to do this, IMHO.

In the spirit of (a) healthy discourse and (b) of stirrin' thangs up,

John H. Stevens
University of Massachusetts at Boston