16 October 2007

A Different Red Baiting Hits the Shelves

[Another entry from the American bureau of MTBE, again from lizzie b, written with some input from yours truly.]

Watching Martin Scorcese’s Bob Dylan biopic No Direction Home the other night got me all tangled up in blue wondering what happened to all the hopeful momentum of the 1960s and what do we do with Dylan’s legacy today. Bob himself, based on the interviews in the documentary, doesn’t seem to have all too clear of an idea, and I suspect that it’s not for lack of trying.

One recent piece of pop culture ephemera that wrestles with this issue is Scalped, a serialized graphic novel* by writer Jason Aaron and artist R. M. Guera, which takes the offspring of 1960s—both biological and political—as its central theme. Set on a Sioux reservation in present-day South Dakota, two of the main characters are 1970s Red Power veterans; much like the spirit that spawned their movement, they are estranged from their progeny. The gen-X descendents of radicals, like their parents before them, enter adulthood filled with unfocused rage and hurt. Yet unlike their parents, they find no answers in organizing, but instead turn to unrestrained violence, drug abuse, and anonymous sex, the depictions of which fill many pages of frames.

Protagonist Dashiell Bad Horse left the reservation as a teenager and returns as an undercover FBI agent. When he makes his ass-kicking, nunchaka-wielding skills public in local bars, he is quickly tapped for the tribal police department by Chief Lincoln Red Crow, a former radical turned corrupt authoritarian who is shepherding a luxurious reservation casino to completion. The tribal police force is something of goon squad, used to harass and assault Red Crow's political enemies, foremost among them the casino’s opponents.

The leader of these protestors is Red Crow’s ex from movement days, Gina Bad Horse, who also plays the role of Dashiell's estranged mother. Meanwhile, Red Crow's daughter, Carol, is a promiscuous cocaine-sniffer over whom Dashiell nurses a creepy voyeuristic obsession, spying on her sex bouts and then beating her partners to a pulp afterwards.

Lincoln and Gina's old organization is the Dog Soldiers Society, a semi-fictionalized version of the American Indian Movement (AIM).** And the traumatic kernel around which Scalped’s plots evolves is based on AIM's two-month occupation of the Pine Ridge hamlet of Wounded Knee in 1973 and the years of FBI-led fighting and murders that followed, leading to the deaths of two Federal agents, the acquittal of two AIM members brought for prosecution, and the framed-up conviction of Leonard Peltier .

The characters and plot all seem to spin out of this moment: a disillusioned older generation, a younger generation disappointed in their parents, and an FBI agent (Dashiell’s boss) intent on exacting revenge. In a flashback to a deadly stand-off, Gina vainly tries to prevent her comrades from firing the fateful shots that would sour their idealistic project. The reader is tempted into seeing the Dog Soldiers' turn to violence in 1973 as the tragic downfall that changes the destiny of the younger generation. But according to Dashiell’s self-assessment, his psychological damage stems from his mother's preference for activism: “Then, for my 13th birthday, I got to watch her on TV, getting arrested at a Redskins game. So the old bitch wants to talk to me now? She's only 15 fucking years too late.” Sixties radicals whose embrace of naïve idealism turned to violence, followed by a failure to tend to the moral upbringing of their children—I’m glad to see that Aaron and Guera didn’t just fall back on clichés.

Thus far, the positive responses to Scalped from a native perspective have celebrated the depiction of life on a modern reservation. As have the more critical responses. In part, this reaction is a testament to the paltry presence of contemporary American Indian life in a popular culture that tends to prefer its Indians roaming the plains or dealing with unwelcome colonists. But the setting of Scalped, like its protagonists, leans more on common myths than thorough research.

The fictionalized Pine Ridge seems to exist in that familiar alternate universe of the white imagination, where casinos in the middle of nowhere rake in hundreds of millions of dollars, organized crime is deeply entwined in tribal life and tribal government mismanagement has nothing to do with federal incompetence. The problem is that, first of all, organized crime is not a significant presence on most reservations. Organized crime gravitates toward money and Pine Ridge, the poorest county in the nation, ain’t prime pickings.*** Generally speaking, Indian casinos don’t make huge profits; many don’t even manage to stay in the black. Moreover, investment in and management of Indian casinos is tightly controlled by federal authorities.

The thing is, you don’t need some exotic conspiracy of brown folks, organized crime and failed radicals to fuel the violence and tragedy of contemporary reservation life. Instead, Scalped might have looked at multinational corporations like those that developed and managed the casino giants Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in order to line their pockets with would-be native cash. And the money squandered due to nepotism and incompetence (problems endemic to large influxes of cash to small, closely related communities) pales in comparison with the BIA trust fund scandal. Finally, Scalped relies for many of its plot points on the corruption and politicization of the tribal police force. But on many reservations, the police force is under partial or complete control of the BIA. While Red Crow’s police force does resemble the Pine Ridge tribal police of the mid-1970s that targeted AIM members, it’s worthwhile to note that this squad was funded directly and purposefully by the BIA.

Run-of-the-mill DC bureaucracy and apathy may not be sexy comic book material. The banality of evil seems to run counter to the super-hero aesthetic that Aaron and Guera seem unable to shake (though many of the noirs that supposedly inspired the authors do a wonderful job with exactly this problem). But Scalped, in its embrace of the late multiculturalist, post-vindicationist urge to present the positive and negative aspects of ethnic populations, has simply inserted positive and negative stereotypes into a familiar historical script of post-1960s disillusionment.

Criticisms aside, Jason Aaron has identified some rich veins for story-telling and I look forward to seeing how things develop. Ultimately, the series will be most compelling, I think, if it more accurately develops the complex history of American Indian radicalism and its fallout, and more imaginatively speculates on that history's meaning for the present.

*Issues 1 - 5 of Scalped were recently collected in book form, reviewed here. Book #2, collecting Issues 6 - 11, will be available in February 2008.

**You wouldn't know it from Lincoln and Gina, but AIM's founders were urban Indians, whose numbers surpass the number of reservation residents nationwide. In general, AIM was more active in cities than on reservations, with tactics and goals—and experiences with FBI suppression and infiltration—similar to the Black Panther Party. For instance, one of AIM's first projects, in the late '60s, sent patrols of observers to follow Minneapolis beat cops on the street and document police harassment of Indians.

***Among the few exceptions to this rule is Akwesasne, the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation in northern New York, where the reservation’s border location and the consequent opportunities for smuggling have attracted mobster attention.