Caison and Whitney on Phillips, 'Staging Indigeneity: Salvage Tourism and the Performance of Native American History'

Katrina M. Phillips. Staging Indigeneity: Salvage Tourism and the Performance of Native American History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021. 262 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-6231-2.

Reviewed by Gina Marie Caison (Georgia State University) and Gracie Whitney (Georgia State University)
Published on H-AmIndian (June, 2022)
Commissioned by F. Evan Nooe (University of North Carolina, Charlotte)

Printable Version:

Performing the Past: Salvage Tourism and Indigenous Self-Determination

Katrina M. Phillips (Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe) offers an exciting first book for those interested in the history of theater and tourism as it affects Indigenous communities and the way non-Natives see (or don’t see) Indigenous peoples. Working from three case studies—The Happy Canyon Indian Pageant in present-day Pendleton, Oregon; Unto These Hills in Cherokee, of present-day North Carolina; and Tecumseh! in what is currently known as Chillicothe, Ohio—Phillips outlines what she terms “salvage tourism.” The phenomenon “combines the theoretical framework of salvage ethnography with the practices and yearnings of heritage tourism” and “is tied up in trying to salvage American Indian culture before Indians, in the minds of non-Natives, die off, change, or degenerate for their ideals of a pristine Indian past” (p. 7). As Phillips carefully demonstrates, very little about salvage tourism is actually interested in saving the so-called “‘vanishing Indian’” (p. 11). Rather, as she articulates, it “centers on saving Euro-American idealized ideas about Indians” (p. 11) and “us[ing] American Indian history to help rescue regional economies” (p. 7). This combination of boosterism, historical interpretation (to put it mildly), and theater gives Phillips a rich ground to cover with her innovative methodological combining of first-person observation with traditional historical analyses.

The first two chapters outline the performance history of the Happy Canyon Indian Pageant and Round-Up in Pendleton. In chapter 1, Phillips offers background on how the performances associated with the Round-Up came to be, and she walks the reader carefully through early twentieth-century history and local non-Native’s anxieties about their town’s relevance for history. In chapter 2, Phillips takes us with her to Round-Up Week, and we follow along as she experiences the spectacle. Phillips outlines how and why Indigenous peoples in the area, including the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, came to be involved in the process even though they did not themselves see a significant share of the economic benefits from Round-Up Week. Going beyond an easy explanation of exploitation, she takes the time to consider multiple generational factors that might lead Indigenous peoples to participate in this instance of salvage tourism.

The next two chapters outline the history of the outdoor drama Unto These Hills, which has been staged on the Qualla Boundary located in present-day western North Carolina since 1951. Unlike the Happy Canyon case study, until recently Unto These Hills has very little direct participation or leadership from Indigenous people, in this case the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. As with her analysis of Happy Canyon and Round-Up, she begins chapter 3 by outlining the historical context of the drama’s inception and composition by author Kermit Hunter. She gives an excellent synchronic analysis of how the emergence of the outdoor drama and the Cherokee Historical Association (CHA, notably not initially led by Cherokee people) coincided with Public Law 280 and House Concurrent Resolution 108 (also known as Termination policy). She follows in chapter 4 with an updated analysis of the play’s recent revisions over the last ten years, including the Eastern Band’s much-needed takeover of the CHA, the initial revision by Hanay Geigomah, and the 2017 return to Hunter’s original script. She places the performance in the context of the surrounding Eastern Band tourist economy that has long been tied to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park and now more directly to the Tribe’s lucrative Casino and Resort. Again, she forgoes easy answers about participation and viability, focusing instead on the complicated dynamics that emerge when Indigenous communities’ insistence on self-determination clashes with non-Natives’ expectations of the specious histories that endorse their own comfort.

The last two chapters focus on the outdoor drama Tecumseh! performed on traditional Shawnee lands in present-day Chillicothe, Ohio, just south of Columbus. Phillips places this outdoor drama in the context of two others in the state, Blue Jacket and Paul Green’s Trumpet in the Land, outlining how Tecumseh! has maintained a relatively more robust attendance over the years. More interestingly, as with the first two examples, she interrogates how the late 1960s and early 1970s creation of these plays worked within and against the actions of the American Indian Movement and Red Power movements more generally as well as bicentennial celebrations for the United States. In chapter 6, Phillips examines the outdoor drama in the present-day, narrating her visit in 2015. She rightly dwells on the almost complete absence of Indigenous participation in Tecumseh! and the fact that unlike in Pendleton or Cherokee, the Shawnee do not have a proximate physical presence to their lands in Ohio, resulting in an incredibly loose, non-Native interpretation of their history. In this final chapter, Phillips makes the strongest analytical case for how for Euro-Americans, history becomes property that can be modified at will to suit their contemporaneous emotional needs for absolution from the guilt of settler colonialism.

Across the case studies, Phillips offers deft historical analyses that truly excel at synchronic context for each performance’s inception. Her analysis of the intersection of battling Termination policy and the staging of Native history via these performances is especially thought-provoking. The only area of analysis that the book does not quite deliver on is a diachronic analysis of regional economic and historical factors. While the book rightly builds on Phillip Deloria’s work in Playing Indian (1998), it does not dwell long enough on the regional analysis promised in the opening. The historical context for Native nations and their non-Native counterparts of the Northwest is not the same as that of the Southeast or the present-day Ohio valley. There are brief gestures toward local histories of white supremacy in Oregon, segregation in the US South, and economic fallout of the rust belt that might inform why salvage tourism becomes a tool of settler colonialism in specific ways in specific places, productively extending Deloria’s concept of an unfinished American identity. This is indeed less of a weakness of the project than a desire to hear more from Phillips about how regional factors affected—and continue to affect—Indigenous communities’ work for self-determination in the representation of their histories.

Ultimately, Staging Indigeneity contributes important historical and methodological interventions for how one can engage the history of the past and present. While some theater or literature scholars might desire more engagement with the performances as performances, it is important to remember that is not the story Phillips is telling. She is both working as a historian and creating her own history as a visitor and participant in the tourist economy that she examines. This innovation in voice, honesty, and method is invigorating for historical criticism, and readers should eagerly await her next project.

Citation: Gina Marie Caison and Gracie Whitney. Review of Phillips, Katrina M., Staging Indigeneity: Salvage Tourism and the Performance of Native American History. H-AmIndian, H-Net Reviews. June, 2022.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.