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Book review: Indians in Unexpected Places

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Reviewed by Karl Hele

Philip Deloria’s Indians in Unexpected Places is an excellent study of the interplay between white colonial expectations and Indigenous peoples’ challenges, purposeful or otherwise, to those expectations at the turn of the twentieth century. While speaking to scholars and academics who specialize in Indigenous studies and Indian-White relations in the United States, the work speaks to a wider audience. Each chapter combines marvellous examples and case studies of Indigenous peoples as actors, athletes, directors, singers, musicians, and simply as people living their lives in a changing world, with explanations of how these individuals and countless others served to contest, defy, and perhaps redefine white expectations while engaging with modernity. These lived Indigenous lives, Deloria notes, are seen as ‘unexpected’ both at the turn of the twentieth century and now, because of their ‘unexpected’ nature and inability to cement changes in ‘expectations.’ In short, it is an enjoyable read because it is a storytelling-focussed narrative of Indigenous engagement with the world as people.

The book consists of five discrete, yet linked, essays that explores violence, representation, athletics, technology, and music through the twin concepts of expectations and the unexpected. Deloria’s defines ‘expectations’ as a “dense economies of meaning, representation, and act that have inflected both American culture writ large and individuals, both Indian and non-Indian.” He defines ‘unexpected’ as something that “resists categorization, and thereby, questions expectation itself”(p.11). For instance, white society may chuckle at Geronimo in a Cadillac because expectations of a ‘primitive’ and ‘modern’ are juxtaposed with the unexpected. Based on his travels and experiences, Deloria shows that Geronimo was intimately familiar with cars – another aspect of the unexpected – while travelling and performing in various wild west shows. Geronimo’s Cadillac then expands into the exploration of the Indian relationship with the automobile (desirability, utility, and simple purchase thereof) – the unexpected – with expectation by whites that Indians could not appreciate or understand modern technology. Within the exploration of this dynamic, Deloria shows that Indians and automobiles are normal; it is the expectation of whites that created the unexpected which served to challenge white notions of race, primitiveness, mobility, and luxury.

Throughout Indians in Unexpected Places, Deloria convincingly illustrates how at the turn of the century a myriad of Indigenous peoples took advantage of emergent modernity to defy, overturn, and contest while attempting to create new expectations based on Indigenous-driven cultural meanings. Importantly, Deloria is casting Indigenous people as participants in and thoroughly part of  modernity, thereby contesting expectations of culturally backward primitives who were destined to either assimilate or disappear. Deloria contends that shifting white American perceptions and discomfort created and then reinforced the notions that removed us from the turn of the century history and shift to modernity.

While Indians In Unexpected Places is about cultural contestations in the early twentieth century U.S., the book does speak to similar expectations and the unexpected in the Canadian context. Like Indians in the U.S., First Nations faced expectations surrounding the primitive – think of the popularity of the Hiawatha Pageant founded c. 1900, or Quebec’s tercentennial celebrations in 1908, or representations of early Canadian film, art, and music, as well as Indigenous athletes. Individuals and communities in Canada, at the turn of the twentieth century, like those in the U.S. experienced white racism, economic adversity, forced assimilation, re-education of children in Indian Residential Schools, as well as adverse legal, legislative, and political decisions. As such, Deloria’s Indians in Unexpected Places is a readable important examination of Indigenous peoples at the turn of the twentieth century in the U.S., which offers a potential pathway to exploring the same period in Canadian society and history. It is a lovely read that contextualizes Indigenous peoples’ engagement with and movement into the twentieth century, not as anomalous primitives but as individuals and communities seeking to participate in the world around them to become ‘modern’.

Readers will enjoy Philip J. Deloria’s gifted storytelling.

Philip J. Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2004.

ISBN 9780700614592

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