Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 29, No. 2, Spring 2009, pp. 157-158
The central metaphor of Joshua David Bellin's study is an intriguing one, that the BOOK REVIEWS 157 interaction between "sacred performance by Indians and the performance of Indianness by Indians and whites alike" functions as a kind of cross-cultural repository, or Amedicine bundle," for the emerging America of the nineteenth century. His argument, in a nutshell, is that the co-opting of Indian sacred performance by the dominant white culture has shaped the evolution of both Indian and white notions of spirituality and cultural identity these performances help create. And while this is unquestionably true, the argument in the end seems somewhat strained, depicting the emergent understanding of "the sacred" as giving way almost entirely to the forces of commodification and commercialism that have come to define it.
Bellin's book opens with a discussion of the life and career of George Catlin and his attempts to exploit the ritual performances of the Mandan Indians. Here Bellin aptly describes the process of commodification of Indian performance for commercial gain and also makes a good case for Indian cultural influence on white society, especially in the early nineteenth century. He also, quite rightly, points out that Catlin's authority hinges almost entirely upon the premise that the Indians will soon "vanish" and a need to preserve these performances and practices quickly before they are gone. But Bellin's definition of this white co-opting of Indian identity for commercial gain goes too far at times (he levels a few particularly questionable accusations at Thoreau's motives, for instance) and doesn't seem to take into account the larger context of Romanticism, whose primitivist tendencies are more philosophically rather than commercially motivated.