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Enacting Community


In the articulation of the question I have been asked to respond to, community is a central term. In many ways notions of community are often trafficked without much critical attention. Especially within the discussion of politics and activism, community is undoubtedly a deeply effective term, one that becomes an essential attachment as community is regularly deployed as a site of hope in an increasingly difficult world. To be sure, this is not a critique of community. Rather, as I began to really grapple with how I would respond to this question it became clear to me that for the community I first called home, the Kiowa tribe of Southwestern Oklahoma, the notion of community itself has posed something of a political struggle. Turning to Miranda Joseph's Against the Romance of Community, in which she analyzes the practices of community formation, I found that my first task in answering this question was, indeed, to begin to understand communities not as organic occurrences but as performatively constituted social formations. This is not to imply or launch the label "inauthentic" at any community, for as Joseph makes clear, the crucial function of thinking critically about notions of community is certainly not to "suggest that…communities are false or inauthentic, as if there were some more authentic form of community to be found in some other time or place," (ix). More willingly, the promise of such thinking is to consider the range of forces, such as the implementation of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, which actively contour and create community formations. The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 (IACA) essentially sought to rid the American Indian community of imposter and imitation Indian art. Upon being signed into law on November 29, 1990 by former President George H. W. Bush, it became a federal felony for any persons not formally recognized as an American Indian to sell, or even display in a retail environment, any handicraft as Indian or Native American. The IACA was initially viewed as a threefold success, in that the law would economically assist Native artists and craftspersons, safeguard the Indian handicraft industry from an erosion of consumer confidence, and protect the procurer of authentic Indian art from inadvertently purchasing imitation goods. Nevertheless, the Act raised (and continues to raise) the question of how Federal Indian law creates the viable, or legally visible, Indian.

For the Kiowa, community belonging has generally been based on participation, and therefore many artists without Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) cards suddenly found themselves in the precarious position of being Kiowa according to the internal logic of the tribal community but not according to the letter of the IACA. The gap between these two definitions of communal belonging results in an occasion when persons of Indian ancestry can cease to be (legal) Indians. The response by those in the Kiowa community to this imposition, however, was not to advocate for the removal of the Act or even the removal of the clauses concerning what constituted the legal definition of Indianness. Rather, the reaction was decidedly intimate: more and more elders in the community took up storytelling (especially origin stories that emphasized shared beliefs), artists who sold their wares at powwows took to hanging little signs saying "Indian Maid" within their booths (an obvious and humorous inversion of the indictment that consumers be assured that the products be made by Indian persons), and powwow emcees often quipped as they announced the Round Dance that you did not need a BIA card to participate. I have always understood these acts as an efficacious move to continually reassert and place value on what belonging means within the Kiowa community. While I understand the limitations of these acts in bringing about large scale Political change, such as legal structures, I cannot help but find these embodied gestures as a beautiful articulation of, perhaps, a politics with a little "p." This invocation of a little "p" politics to my mind, nonetheless, need not diminish the efficacy of the embodied gesture, for in all fairness, changing the letter of the IACA would not have truly resolved the problem. Any definition of the "authentic" Indian subject will not only necessarily fail to include all Indian persons but will create a body of persons now deemed "inauthentic." That is the performative power of the letter of the law; the law creates the viable Indian in the same movement that it abjects the newly deemed unviable Indian. The critical promise of retorting through performance, storytelling, and participation in powwows is not simply that it allows the Kiowa community to assert their presence to the non-Indian world (which is always overtly political when one's vanishing has been predicted from the start) but, more so, that in the action of performance we are reconstituting how we understand belonging through participation.

Tina Majkowski is a doctoral candidate in the Performance Studies department at New York University. Her work currently focuses on contemporary Native American performance and performance practices.



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