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Telling about Whites, Talking about Indians: Oppression, Resistance, and Contemporary American Indian Identity

Essay Excerpt

Stories about encounters with whites provide good grist for the mill of everyday conversation for members of the Salish and Pend d'Oreilles tribes living on Flathead Indian Reservation in northwest Montana.[3] Most often, these stories document instances of the disrespectful or biased treatment of Indians by whites. Such stories could be analyzed fruitfully for what they have to say about the apparent events of the stories per se, that is, the behaviors of whites in encounters with Indians. Yet to confine an analysis to the referential level fails to account for the fact that some stories, like Sam Dumont's encounter with the patrolman, are told and retold in a variety of settings by members of the Flathead community. Nor can a strictly referential analysis capture why stories about the perceived prejudice of whites predominantly evoke, not condemnation, but amusement from Flathead listeners.


Following Taylor and Bauman, I argue that repetitive storytelling at the Flathead reservation about encounters with whites must be seen as more than simply the communication of factual information about a set of empirical events. Instead, the repeated telling of such stories must be seen as a creative and potentially empowering act in the service of the construction of a positive group identity for members of the Flathead Indian community.4 Specifically, these popular narratives represent an attempt to transform the negative messages of prejudice into positive images of Indian identity through implicit contrast with the reprehensible behaviors of whites (95).

O'Nell, T. D. "Telling about Whites, Talking about Indians: Oppression, Resistance, and Contemporary American Indian Identity." Cultural Anthropology 9.1(1994): 94–126.

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