Confrontation of Cultural Imperialism in Native American Fiction

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21 min read

Published: Aug 1, 2022

Words: 4121|Pages: 9|21 min read

Published: Aug 1, 2022

Native Americans have distinct indigenous culture and oppressive, mainstream white culture failed to assimilate it, in spite of staunch desire and strenuous strides to do so. Native Americans are even today maintaining their specific cultural traits. This research intends to analyze the efforts of Native-American fiction writer, Sherman Alexie for the effective representation of Native Culture, which provided an impetus to the indigenous people to stick to their roots and reject the oppression and hegemony of the New Order. Marxism and particularly Cultural Imperialism in its epistemological scope serves as a theoretical/conceptual framework as well as the methodology of this research. Schiller and Adorno are the chief theorists of this research. The objective of this research is to highlight the impact of socio-economic and cultural changes and the insight of the Native-American writers in specific and general people as well, for the survival of their culture. The subject matter is of great significance as it points out imperial designs of the oppressive forces on one hand, and anti-imperialistic efforts of the oppressed for their emancipation on the other. The tentative conclusion of the research is that the white hegemonic culture with all its might and main failed to assimilate the Native-American culture for its vested interests. Native Americans resisted and rejected white cultural imperialism successfully.

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“I came, I saw, I conquered.” (Caesar, n.d)

The quote given is a very apt expression of imperialism, which means the control of a powerful state over the weaker one. Another well-known phrase is, “History is written by the victor, it is filled with liars”. Foreigners with dominant power come to a territory, observe the local population and after careful analysis of their strengths and weaknesses invade the territory and conquer it. After this conquest, they become the ruling masters and start enforcement of their own system of government and their own ideology. This all process is called imperialism. Imperial powers or states start their practices in three ways. First of all, they take political activities of the subdued states in their hands so the first kind of imperialism is political imperialism. Secondly, they control the economy of the state and all sources of production, in this way, the second form of imperialism is economic imperialism and as politics and economy of any state are directly linked with the people of the state, so they are deeply influenced by these acts. They are impressed by their habits of daily life, their language, their means of communication through the media. This leveling of the opinion of the people affects their culture as well and in this way, it becomes cultural imperialism. Cultural imperialism is evidently practiced in all those parts of the world which have remained at one time or the other, under colonial rule.

We know that culture is one of the most complex words in the dictionary to define. As Raymond Williams says, “Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language. . . . Colere had a range of meanings: inhabit, cultivate, protect, honor with worship”. It has a large number of denotative and connotative interpretations and from such interpretations, one is ‘to colonize’. Culture has overall various kinds. A few examples are corporate culture, which deals with the official life of any community or company. Marketization and production of marketable goods and catching the attention of the public towards these goods through the use of specific attitudes, values, attractive incentives, etc. enhance the impact of this type of culture. Popular culture comprises the acts of common masses living and practicing certain rituals, values, customs, and other activities. The vast majority of the public is in bond with the nation through this kind of culture, mostly controlled by popular media trends. Information culture is one of the most effective weapons to introduce this popular culture according to the will of the powerful state actors. Foreign culture is also a kind of cultural diversity in which a person observes and is attracted to the culture of a foreign social group either within the country or outside of it. All these kinds of cultures are intertwined and intermingled at one point or another.

Keeping in mind the above said sub-categories of cultures we may reach a conclusion that in general there are only two types of culture, material or non-material, real or ideal. Real or material culture comprises buildings, institutions, human beings, books, etc. which means that all tangible things are part of real or material culture and non-material or ideal culture comprises all non-tangible things like emotions, words, relationships of love or hate. The most interesting thing is that they are not separable from one and other. For example, man is material and words spoken by him are non-material, radio is material and its sound is non-material. School is material but education is non-material.

From the above discussion, it is deduced that cultures have physical existence and a related ideology. When a stronger nation subjugates a weaker one, it not only occupies its physical and cultural existence rather its ideology too. Cultural imperialism pierces through each and every weakness of the oppressed nation. Sometimes this oppression is taken for granted and is accepted as a positive progression as the biggest claim of all colonizer nations was to ‘civilize the brutes’ which was a pretext to destroy the existing order and impose a new order in the colonized territories. Most often this change was and even today is resisted and challenged through praxis as well as ideological discourse.

Herbert Schiller is one of the most prominent American scholars and critics. He is considered the founder of the theory of cultural Imperialism. He has criticized America for spreading its dominance over the other weaker countries of the world. He is known for the term ‘packaged consciousness.’ He is of the view that American media is under the hegemonic control of a few capitalist corporations which control the belief system, values and information throughout the world. This is true for the indigenous minorities also. So capital and imperialism are directly connected with each other. He says in Culture Inc. “The consolidation of power of big business was accomplished in a number of ways...the use of anti-communism to control labor as well as divert the general public from the expansionist policy of American business”. This consolidation of economic power is underpinned by a number of variables which are further stated by him in the words as, “the adoption of new farm technologies which increased output at the same time as it eliminated a good part of the independent farm population; the influx of a conservative immigrant stream; the spread of depoliticized living space; and twenty years of relative prosperity”.

He further establishes the relationship of material sources of production with those of symbolic goods and services in the words as:

These second-tier activities also provide symbolic goods and services...and are displayed in relatively permanent installations, instead of being produced serially. Using this measure, museums, art galleries, amusement parks, shopping malls, and corporate “public spaces” also function as cultural industries. So he relates to culture and industry by creating a relationship of mass media and culture. In his view culture is also an industry and information is socially constructed. Thus information also becomes a source of cultural domination. He says that the domination of capital over the market forces is a source of cultural and social domination. He says: “Whatever the unique experiential history of each of the many subgroups in the nation, they are all subject to the rule of market forces and the domination of capital over those market forces. This is the grand common denominator that insures basic inequality in the social order...” He is of the view that the capital forces have control over media which in turn controls culture and thus it assumes the shape of cultural imperialism which is astonishing and remarkable for him. He states: The presence of giantism and concentrated control in the media and allied cultural fields, though hardly a secret, now seems perfectly reasonable to most Americans – and certainly no cause for anxiety. The extent to which the public has been programmed to accept these conditions in the media, and in the economy overall, is remarkable.

He further states that information companies are also like private business centers where profit making is the sole objective. The difference is only that these centers are computer-driven. He says: Information companies are not different than private firms in other sectors in their single minded objective to engage in a profitable enterprise. In the information field, they advocate and promote a private and commercial context for outputs that either derive from or can be utilized by a computer-driven society. All the above discussion indicates that there is a strong relationship of culture, imperialism, media, politics, and history or dialectics of materialism. These principles set by Schiller can very aptly be applied to the socio-political, economic, and cultural conditions of the Native Americans, who are under the oppression of the powerful white domination.

Theodore Adorno is another well-known critic and philosopher, who favored the ideas of schiller with somewhat varied terminology and stance. Mark Twain has very aptly analyzed the actual imperialistic designs of the dominant white administrators of the USA by bifurcation of the accumulative society of the oppressive and oppressed forces into the captives and the liberators, as he says, “There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once captives new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land”.

Richard Van Alstyne has done a very important analysis of the vocabulary used by American foreign policymakers, which indicates aggression and imperial domination of the weaker nations of the world by America. He has in mind such “abstract formulae, stereotyped phrases, and idealistic clichés that really explain nothing” as the “‘Monroe Doctrine,’ ‘no entangling alliances,’ ‘freedom of the seas,’ ‘open door,’ ‘good neighbor policy”. These phrases are only the apparent layer of the hypocrisy of the state and the actual agenda is contrarily a different practice of illegal domination of the world. John Carlos Rowe says about the use of democratic vocabulary by the U. S. that the symbolic terminology like “American self-reliance,” “radical individualism,” “transcendental soul,” “isolato,” as well as “errand into the wilderness,” “city on a hill,” “virgin land,” “west-ward expansion,” “noble savage,” and “free-enterprise” complement her foreign policy rhetoric”. All this indicates that America has a dualistic action plan. On one hand, she shows that she is the greatest benefactor of mankind, liberator of the captives, an ambassador of human rights, and staunch advocate of the peace process in the world while on the other she acts totally contrary to it and becomes the biggest violator of all fundamental human rights.

Native Americans are the pre-historic inhabitants of the land, called the USA, but they are alienated from their mother earth very brutally by the followers of Columbus, who in pursuit of riches reached the territory and was greatly impressed by the presence of natural resources. He reported back to the state and peaceful American land was invaded by the colonizers and even today they are a dominating power over there. They oppress and hegemonize the native population even today in various ways. First of all, they started the worst genocide of the red- Indians to achieve their cultural dominance and to reduce resistance. They were made captives on one pretext or the other. They were forced to move to the reservations by dislocating them where there were scanty chances of survival because of the lack of natural resources. Their lands were snatched. A number of fatal diseases were introduced which wiped away a large population of Native Americans as they had no immunity against such diseases”. Linguistic imperialism was practiced by the colonists by keeping the Native children away from their indigenous language to eradicate any trace of their original culture”. They were forcibly admitted to the far off boarding schools and mostly were adapted by the issueless white parents who brainwashed them and created hatred in them against their indigenous culture. Native Americans started protests against this brutal treatment and atrocious physical and cultural genocide but they had to surrender against white imperialism. They could do little to preserve their Native identity and their number started reducing day by day.

These tactics of the colonists worked a little. By forced assimilation and coercive conversion, they could only reduce the native population but could not eradicate it and even today it has continued without any change but in the language of the colonizer, says Simon Ortiz. There is no denial of the fact that Native Americans were influenced by the white oppressors and there were drastic changes in their cultural, economic, social, political, and historical perspectives. However spiritually they are an inseparable entity with their cosmos. They still maintain the traditions of their forefathers and mock at the face of the colonizers

Speaking after the attacks of September 11, 2001, then-President George W. Bush presented two simple ideas to the U.S. populace: “They terrorists hate our freedoms,” and “Go shopping.” These twin ideas of personal freedom and economic activity are often held up as the prime exports of American culture. However, the idea that other local beliefs need to change may threaten people of other cultures.

Indian Killer by Alexie is a well-read novel about the cultural loss of the Native- Americans and the retaliation which is shown by them in order to perpetuate it. John Smith, the protagonist of the novel has become a sign of terror for the white colonists in America. He is suspected to be a serial killer, who beheads the white officers one by one and disappears. Till the end of the novel, he is not detected or arrested because of the exercise of traditional magic of the Native forefathers. He becomes a serial killer because of the hatred which has grown in him with the passage of time. As an infant of a few hours, he was stolen by a nurse from the hospital and handed over to an issueless white couple to a far-off place. His white parents brought him up in a somewhat luxurious circumstances but he always wondered that why his skin color was entirely different from his parents and he suspected that he was not the real son of the couple. So in order to know his real identity, he became vindictive and started searching his origin. Not being able to locate his roots he satiated his anger by killing the white.

The setting and pastiche of the story reveal two important issues. On the one hand we come to know that the white oppressed the native culture by various practices of dislocating the Indian origin. While on the other hand counter-hegemonic stance seems in practice. Characters like Smith totally rejected the white hegemonic enterprise and even committed violence in order to protect their own cultural heritage. The narrative of the novel goes as under: “The killer simply picked any one of the men in gray suits and followed them from office building to cash machine, from lunchtime restaurant back to office building”. He enjoys the unhappiness and nervousness of the white when Smith follows them from post to pillar to make them his prey in the words, “Those gray suits were not happy, yet showed their unhappiness only during moments of weakness. Punching the buttons of a cash machine that refused to work. Yelling at a taxi that had come too close”. But killer relishes the situation of the white when he attacks them and kills them in the following words, “A slight limp in uncomfortable shoes. Eyes closed, head thrown back while waiting for the traffic signal. The slight hesitation before opening a door, the men in gray suits wanted to escape, but their hatred and anger trapped them”. All the above-quoted text is reflective of the maltreatment of the white with the natives and then in retaliation, the natives exactly in accordance with their traditions enjoy the helplessness of these officers who are trapped by their own hatred and anger. The situation much appropriately explains the problem of the topic that Native Americans are presented by the white oppressors as cultural voids whereas they too, confront all the cultural aggression with a similar kind of reaction.

Alexie in his narrative rejects the claims of the writer Wilson, who claims that he has some quantity of Indian blood in his veins and represents the Indian culture in his writings truly and effectively. Alexie’s narrative says, “Wilson had never come to understand the social lives of Indians. He did not know that, in the Indian world, there is not much social difference between a rich Indian and a poor one. Generally speaking, Indian is Indian”. He explains the position of the Native Americans who have grown rich by dint of their intellect and hard work that the Rich Native Americans may have married the white women and made friends with them but they do not forget their origin and freely mix with the poor Indians. However a white cannot mix with the Indians easily because he is teased by the Indians. He states: “A few who gain wealth and power as lawyers, businessmen, artists, or doctors may marry white people and keep only white friends, but Wilson did not understand that the white people who pretend to be Indian are gently teased, ignored, plainly ridiculed, or beaten, depending on their degree of whiteness” This is a rebuttal of the cultural imperialism of the white. Smith has grown dislike for his white parents and has preferred to work as a skyscraper in Seattle instead going to college. But he likes Marie, a red-Indian college girl, and ties grow stronger. At one occasion he convinces her about his activities in the following words. These words are mouthpieces of Alexie’s narrative. These words reflect Smith’s stance about the deteriorating economic condition of the Native Americans. He says:

“Marie...It's not like we're planning a rebellion. We're just putting food in our cupboards. If eating is rebellious, then I guess we're the biggest rebels out there. Indians are just plain hungry. Not for power. Not for money, for food, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner”.

A very realistic interpretation of the socio-political and cultural circumstances prevailing in the New order is given by Alexie in the words:

“If you kill a black man, the world is silent. You can hear a garage door opening from twenty blocks away. You can pick up a pay phone and only hear the dial tone. Shooting stars sound exactly like the soft laughter of a little girl in Gasworks Park. If you kill a white man, the world erupts with noise: fireworks, sirens, a gavel pounding a desk, the slamming of doors.” 

The quote is really a true analysis of the cultural hegemony of the white in the Americas, where there are different reactions on the same treatment of the blacks, the whites and the red Indians. This sad situation is regretted by the writer and calls for the attention of the world powers for the correction of the dual standards existing there. This once again shows that Alexie has created his characters which show that cultural aggression is inflicted on them and they refute it in favour of their indigenous culture. All above said sorry situation creates anger and hatred in the Native population against the white. This is reflected from the words spoken by Smith, who says:

“All the anger in the world has come to my house. It's there in my closet. In my refrigerator, In the water, In the sheets. It's in my clothes. Can you smell it? I can never run away from it. It's in my hair. I can feel it between my teeth. Can you taste it? I hear it all the time. All the time the anger is talking to me. It's the devil. I'm the devil. If I could I'd crawl into a hole if I knew God was in there. Where's the hole?” 

This confrontation of the white oppression and hegemony on the Native American culture is evident from Marie’s statement in Dr. Mather’s class in the college where she is a student. Dr. Mather always tries to eradicate Native American culture from the innocent minds of the young students by caricature of the Native American heroes. He is challenged by Marie in the following words: Dr. Mather, if the Ghost Dance worked, there would be no exceptions. All you white people would disappear. All of you. If those dead Indians came back to life, they wouldn't crawl into a sweathouse with you. They wouldn't smoke the pipe with you. They wouldn't go to the movies and munch popcorn with you. They'd kill you. They'd gut you and eat your heart.”

Reservation Blue is another important novel by Alexie in which there are evidences of cultural imperialism and anti- imperial strands. Reservation Blues is actually a Rock n roll musical band, comprising Native American members from Wallpinit Reservation. The band gets famous and popular because of its mysterious guitar of Thomas. However, when the band is invited by the New York musical company for a performance out of Reservation, it fails badly to convince the company of their performance and lasts in the destruction of the members. In Reservation Blues, Alexie certainly questions, revises and subverts as he explores and exposes the interplay between the ongoing 'conquest narrative' expressed through neocolonial exertions of power and the ways that Natives resist and live alongside subtly expressed, yet nevertheless, oppressive power structures.

In the one hundred and eleven years since the creation of the Spokane Indian Reservation in 1881, not one person, Indian or otherwise, had ever arrived there by accident. Thomas thought about all the dreams that were murdered here, and the bones buried quickly just inches below the surface, all waiting to break through the foundations of those government houses built by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Finally, the horses stopped screaming their song, and Big Mom listened to the silence that followed. Then she went back to her work, to her buckskin and beads, to CNN. The horses' silence lasted for minutes, maybe centuries, and made her curious. All she heard were the gunshots, singular at first, and then in rapid plural bursts that she could not count. Big Mom ran to the rise above the clearing where the horses gathered. There, she saw the future and the past, the white soldiers in blue uniforms with black rifles and pistols. She saw the Indian horses shot and fallen like tattered sheets. Big Mom stood on the rise and watched the horses fall until only one remained. One corner of the Trading Post was devoted to the gambling machines that had become mandatory on every reservation. The Tribe had installed a few new slot machines earlier that day, and the Spokanes lined up to play. Junior and Victor shrugged their shoulders, walked into Thomas’s house, and looked for somewhere to sleep. Decorated veterans of that war between fathers and sons, Junior and Victor knew the best defense was sleep. They saw too many drunks littering the grass of the reservation; they rolled the drunks over and stole their money.

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In the end, we can say that Alexie is a true representative of Native American culture. In his fiction he has rejected all the imperialistic designs of the white against his indigenous culture. We can safely say that all characters of his fiction show that they are true Indians and assimilation policies of the white failed here badly.


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