Tattoos, Basketball, Ö

I’ll soon be teaching a course here on images of Native Americans as a form of cultural exchange in U.S. history. Often these exchanges were one-sided: Europeans and Americans made paintings and later photos of indigenous people that reflected back their own predilections. There have been times, though, in which people are fully immersed in another’s cultures.

One of the books I’ll use in the class is The Blue Tattoo by Margot Mifflin. It’s the story of a Mormon teenager whose family trekked, unwisely alone, into Yavapai territory in 1851. Yavapais attacked, and only Olive, her sister, and her brother survived. The two girls were later adopted by the Mohaves, who treated Olive as family for the next five years. When her return was finally brokered, her story became a sensation, as did her body when she went on speaking tours–her chin was tattooed to mark her inclusion in Mohave society.  The real story of Olive’s years with them is obscured, in part because her account was originally written by a pastor interested in condemning indigenous people as “uncivilized,” and in part because there was only so much a white woman could say in public.  Mifflin finds clues that Olive was deeply immersed in Mohave life, and that her transition back to white society marked her as deeply as her blue tattoo.

I’m also using Sherman Alexie’s young-adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianArnold Spirit (aka Junior), a Spokane Indian, opts to go to a white school off-reservation–he’s marked not by a tattoo, but by his skin color, his name, his poverty.  His choice  marks him at home, too–when his basketball team takes on the Spokane team on the reservation, he’s reviled.  Playing basketball for the whites is as bad as it would have been for Olive Oatman to admit her love for her Mohave family. When his team beats the rez kids in a later matchup, victory is tainted when he remembers that basketball wins are about all the rez kids have. He has to leave to find his way.

Both whites and Native Americans are far from perfect in both books. Both are loyal to their own, crafting stories and images that serve their interests, protect what they have, and blur the truth. But in Olive’s story as in Junior’s, the outsider is ushered in through shared rituals: tattooing, basketball. Junior sees the predicaments of his own culture (alcoholism, violence, poverty, early death) more clearly by leaving it. At the same time, he realizes how deep his ties go–he can leave, but he’ll never want to be not-Indian. Did Olive feel the same? How would 19th century gender conventions  feel to a former Mohave? How much did her tattoos remind her of how white she was?

Euro-Americans and Germans are likewise far from perfect, and we can easily point out each other’s imperfections. They’ve got a brutal past; so do we. But when I came here in late 2002, Germans asked me how we were all doing after 9/11; they expressed deep sympathy. Next week, I’ll see one of my oldest and dearest friends, a Schwartzwalder, who’s been working to baptize me into German culture since 1987 (How many times did we listen to Herbert Grönemeyer’s “Ö?“).  I think of other ways of being folded in; my great-grandfather’s steamer trunk is in my attic now. What was it like for a 14-year-old boy to leave his northern German home for America, back in the 1870s?  It took Junior-esque guts, I’m sure. My dad grew up with his grandfather living upstairs, having blended his Germanic self with an American one through work, church, and family. But his accent meant he always called my dad “Yimmy”–did it remind him, always, of who he was? 

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