The Infamous Indian Camp Scene

So this is the passage that got me off on this archaeology kick, I figured it’s time to discuss it here:  

“At last they went down into a the little hollow where the Indians had camped…there were ashes where Indian camp fires had been. There were holes in the ground where tent-poles had been driven. Bones were scattered where Indian dogs had gnawed them…Tracks of big moccasins and smaller moccasins were everywhere, and tracks of little bare toes…Pa read the tracks for Laura and Mary. He showed them tracks of two middle-sized moccasins by the edge of the camp fire’s ashes. An Indian woman had squatted there. She wore a leather skirt with fringes; the tiny marks of the fringe were in the dust. The track of her toes inside the moccasins was deeper than the track of her heels, because she had leaned forward to stir something cooking in a pot on the fire” (1).

The temporality of this scene is intensely complex. It is my conceit that the the nationalist feelings that Wilder evokes would be familiar to readers at the time of the novel’s publication, because they are heavily embedded within the historical context of New Deal archaeology.  But for the time in which the scene historically takes place, her description of the Indian camp creates anachronistic sentiment; archaeology had not yet attained widespread popularity in the 1800s. The temporal issues of the scene are also spacial in nature, not only because of the archaeology’s conception of an obviously physical history, but because Anglo-American manipulation of Indian time and temporality is always about gaining, preserving, or justifying property ownership and white occupation of native land. Throughout U.S history, attitudes towards Native people have changed in response to border shifts and land acquisition. Wilder’s startling and very resonant choice of the word, “squatted” to describe the Native woman’s presence comes very much out of the time period where, in order to ideologically resolve U.S. claims to Indian land, it was prevalent to conceive of Indian people as occupying a temporality without a future, a temporality without consistent cause and effect. Returning to the historical notion that Native land was wasted, that Indian people did not know who to best use, or take care of, their land, that they had no ability to make large-scale agricultural changes or create any longterm, or even short-term, temporal impact, it is important to realize just how out of place and time, culturally, an archaeological excavation is. At the time of Osage removal, it was very important to Anglo-American interest that Native people be conceived as lacking in temporal vigor, unable to keep up with American futurity, and lagging in past because of their fundamental inability to progress by making lasting environment impact. A Native archaeological site, by definition, threatens this paradigm because it studies enduring material evidence of human life.

When Wilder imposes one onto the time period of the other, the temporal implications are intricate and difficult to unpack. The recent departure of Indians from what was a temporary camp is obvious. The faint “tiny marks” of a leather “fringe [are] in the dust” still, fresh and undisturbed by wind or animal. The posture of the “Indian woman [who] squatted there” is also still perceptible from the depth and position of her moccasin tracks. The Indian camp is newly abandoned and the few instances of visible impact are delicately fragile and temporary. And yet the details fitting together like a puzzle to create a picture of another culture, the soft contemplative tone, and the literally concave depression of the camp all evoke the national feeling associated with an archaeological dig, an investigation into a very distant past. The land has not yet been stolen and the archaeological conception of Native temporality, in which Indians exist only in imagined antiquity, cannot do the work of justifying the actual moment of land seizure. Wilder wants to maintain the narrative relegation of all Indians to an ancient era contemporary to the novel’s publication. But she also needs to emphasize the Osage’s wastefulness of the land and the camp’s lack of far-reaching temporal impact. The camp needs to be both infinitely old and infinitely new/primitive simultaneously in order to carry the political and idealogical weight Wilder has entrusted to it. The second half of the scene signals yet more temporal complexity:

“Something bright blue glittered in the dust. She picked it up, and it was a beautiful blue bead. Laura shouted with joy. Then Mary saw a red bead, and Laura saw a green one, and they forgot everything but beads. Pa helped them look. They found white beads and brown beads, and more and more red and blue beads. All that afternoon they hunted for beads in the dust of the Indian camp…they looked all the ground over carefully. When they couldn’t find any more, it was almost sunset” (2).

The shift of interest towards the beads marks a shift in temporality as well. Unlike with the other material artifacts, Pa does not play the anthropologist, does not provide a meticulously detailed image of the person/or people who handled them. Relatedly, part of the archaeological sentiment conjured by the tone in the first half of the scene comes from the stillness of the images. While the moccasin tracks indicate movement, the direction or speed of that movement, which certainly Pa is smart enough to discern, is never mentioned. The imaged of the women in a leather fringed-skirt is also static. She leans forward, unshifting and maintaining the same ratio of heel to toe pressure long enough to leave the trace of her exact posture. At her most lively, she stirs the contents of pot. The beads, in sharp contrast, appear suddenly dropped, scattered across the camp in a way strongly suggestive of movement. Is it their too obvious recent motion then that excludes them from a distant antiquity? Do they belong to the other narrative of native temporality, one that has not future or causal relationship to space? Their role as souvenirs for the girls would seem to exclude them from that notion of temporality as well. That temporality emphasizes inadequate native labor and a general failing to keep up with onward progressing Western futurity. The problem is that the beads are actually too nice. The girls are delighted with them and clearly intend to keep them for future use. 

Is it possible that the beads have somehow skirted temporal imprisonment, representing abundant production and Indian futurity? While perhaps not relegated to the past, their ominous unquestioned origin indicates that, while of Indian make, the beads’ futurity cannot be so easily equated with their crafter’s futurity. The scattering alludes to a sudden panicked flight, so perhaps the beads are the remainder of a violent act. 

If Wilder’s envisioned archaeological excavation of a recently abandoned Indian camp is read alongside Fabian as an example of allochronistic shaping of object and subject, then Pa’s role as wise anthropological subject is evident. He is the leader and teacher of a pedagogical exercise for Laura and Mary in how to feel and construct temporal distance between themselves and Native America. More than any clear picture of the past, what the girls dig up at the Indian camp is their future as white subjects. The beads, however, are still a temporal anomaly. If Pa is so well versed in allochronistic temporal imprisonment of Indian lives and culture, why does he not “read” the beads as he did the tracks, creating static image narratives for the girls to consume as fledgling anthropological subjects, themselves? What is overtly coeval is also what is excluded from allochronistic manipulation. Of the similarities between White’s poem and Wilder’s scene, the most striking one is the “strand of turquoise beads” in contrast to the “beautiful blue bead” that “glittered in the dust.” If the beads intertextually symbolize death, then it is wonder why Pa would not be able to adequately objectify an Indian body. But, returning to a previous question, what if the beads, in their ominous dispersal, actually mark violent death? Violence and war are, at their most obvious level, shared narrative; violence is, by necessity coeval for the parties involved. Pa’s inability to conjure and objectify a potential human agent in the bead’s narrative suggests an coeval experience which does not flatter Pa’s gentle paternal nature or inspire confidence that he does “not believe,” as he says, “that the only good Indian [is] a dead Indian” (3).

In that many of what are initially perceived moments of anachronism actually signal closer investigation for allochronistic temporal constructions, then some of the original temporal congestion in the sans Fabian reading of the Indian camp scene can now be cleared. To read for historical anachronism is boggling. Wilder describes the scene in a tone that evokes archaeological sentiment and which harkens nostalgically back to an imagined frozen antiquity. She not only inserts an anachronism of Indian presence, falsely characterizing it as existing only in the past, she also inserts that anachronism anachronistically as the predominant understand of Native people at the time was they existed futureless temporal narrative, stripped of causality and personal agency for affecting any long term impact, including enduring material culture for later archaeological objectification. Wilder’s layering of two forms of colonial temporality, also erases, somewhat ironically, part of the history of historical erasure of Native people, revealing a frenetic and dizzying system of revision and narrative manipulation that, perhaps unintentionally, begins a meta discourse on the history of historiography. 

However, if anthropological, rather than historical, praxis is prioritized in understanding the scene, then a less convoluted logic of sentiment emerges as a interpretive guiding principle. The depiction of the camp as both old and new shows a reasoned trajectory of Laura’s white American futurity. The distant past to which Native people are often banished in one several narrative methods of temporal imprisonment is not relative; it is always the same amount long ago from the present even as the present becomes past and moves into the future. The Native people relegated as distanced object to this hyper-constructed allochronism are especially prone to a fetishistic archaeological gaze. But just as this process objectifies Indians, it subjectifies the individual white American agents of expansionism. Expansion, the physical embodiment of Western notions of progress and futurity, is thus instantiated in Laura as she is taught to acquire to personhood through the temporal imprisonment and dehumanization of American Indians. At the abandoned camp, she becomes, by juxtaposition, a subject of Anglo-American narrative in the presence of a newly introduced object. The way in which she is taught to observe as an archaeologist is paired with another, more contemporary, more ethnographic, less historical (but no less objectifying) method of looking. 

While Laura is encouraged to view native presence as ancient, she is also encouraged to view it as barely enduring. “The tiny marks of fringe” left in the campground dust fit perfectly into this allochronism of a “weak” and less causal temporality. This particular temporality is conceived of as slow and lethargic. Anglo-American temporality, especially Western futurity, is linked closely with the notion of meaningful, continuously improving cultural progress. Native culture relegated to this slower temporality is figured as stagnant, but not completely dissipated, almost hovering in its inefficient motion. This notion of lingering inactive presence contributes a haunted feeling to the Indian camp and further supports the reading of the space as one of recent death and violence. Laura’s delight in the beads is then much more sinister. As she participates in pedagogical play, learning her inheritance of Western futurity, what she relishes most are the abundant tiny souvenirs, each marking the pointed lack of Native futurity in the predominant white-bolstering narrative of the United States. The dead Indian, the specter presence of the person or people to whom the beads belonged and who anthropologist Pa cannot speak of, exists as structural narrative support at the center of United States’ expansionist and nationalist rhetoric.  

The beads, though as a mark for coevalness are also a mark for the overt violence against American Indians by white Americans in order to construct and maintain the United States’ national body.

(1) Wilder, Laura Ingalls, and Garth Williams. Little House on the Prairie. Newly illustrated, uniform ed. New York: Harper & Bros., 1953., 174-176.

(2) Ibid., 177-178.

(3) Ibid., 303.


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