In Playing Indian, Philip Deloria investigates Americans’ long history of dressing up and acting like Indians, and he discovers that Americans use Indian play to work through who they are as individuals and as a nation. This argument – that pretending to be something you’re not helps you figure out who you are – is not terribly innovative, but in Deloria’s hands, playing Indian connects particular kinds of representation with particular politics. Thus, playing Indian is not just about representing “American ideas about Indians;” it’s about putting ideas about Native Americans at the center of what it means to be American, even as Native Americans themselves are quarantined and hidden from white view.
To make this rather complex argument, Deloria traces the American game of playing Indian from the Boston Tea Party and other Revolutionary War incidents through 19th century societies, early 20th century Boy Scouts and Campfire Girls, post-WWII Indian hobbyists, and “new-age pseudo-Indian spirituality.” In each of these instances, he shows how Americans played Indian to define themselves: Tea Partiers (the first ones) wanted to imagine themselves as part of the continent’s ancient history and to separate themselves from England; 19th century secret societies wanted to show that they possessed secret, authentic, uber-patriotic knowledge; Boy Scouts and Campfire Girls embraced Indian play as an escape from modern consumer society and a return to the primitive and the authentic; Cold War hobbyists sought out real Indian objects and people in the hopes of becoming Indian; new-age multiculturalism turns Indians into fashion statements and distracts cultural attention from the poverty of the Rez.
Because this is a history of American images of Indians and not of Indians themselves, the book focuses on the development of these American institutions and identities more than on the plight of the tribes as they were relocated and forced into reservations, though the real-world history of Native Americans underpins his argument that Indian play does serious cultural and political work. In doing so, he places himself not just within the literature on relationships between Indians and American culture, but also in a growing body of literature on whiteness and othering. Like Roedgier and other whiteness scholars, he draws on a wide variety of cultural sources to show how the other is key to the construction of the self; by viewing Indians through the lens of American Indian play, he also shows how incorporation by a dominant culture always constructs and shapes an oppressed one, politically as well as culturally.