Cultural performance: The personal and collective negotiation of ethnic identity through powwow and taiko drumming in Chicago

by Williams, Jay McKay, Ph.D., THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO, 2013, 355 pages; 3595994


This dissertation project grew out of my personal participation in Chicago's powwows of the late 1990s. The heart of the project revolves around nearly a decade and a half of ethnography and participant observation, originating before the project design began.

Native identity is contested on all sides, socially constrained by the legacy of the vanishing red man and manifest destiny. Wrestling in the shadows of Wild West shows and Hollywood period pieces, mascots, scholarly assimilation scales, resultant in-group sensitivities, and the power of the ethnic imposter that is conjured by the collective American imagination in lieu of empirically based notions, contemporary Native identities are enacted in an abyss of negation.

My ethnographic activities brought me before countless instances of contested authenticity regarding Native Identity claims, both expected and absurd.

Rooted in these concerns, in my project's infancy, I sought to investigate retribalization, promote as much first voice as possible, contribute to the discourse around Native Identity issues, and assess the usefulness of nigrescence theory in a new context. In an effort to unify the perspectival strengths of nigrescence theory and Fogelson's total identity, allowing for a richer, fuller understanding of contemporary ethnic identity development, I began to identify their points of intersection. Best represented with a visual metaphor, nigrescence theory identifies the possible train tracks individuals travel during their ethnic identity development. In this context Fogelson's total identity (feared, claimed, real, ideal) represents the engine, actual location on the tracks, and desired destinations, respectively.

Rather than way stations or depots, the destinations of this model are social roles or statuses such as head singer, drum keeper, lead singer, among others. Each role offers a new vantage from which to negotiate ethic identity development. The efforts to assume and secure these social roles, the bestowing of the roles, and failing to assume desired roles, illustrate identity outcomes (often temporary) as well as the personal agency that impacts ethnic identity development. Extremely difficult to parse out and assign degrees of relative importance, numerous factors seem to contribute to an individual's likelihood of successfully assuming a particular social role.

Dr. Terry Straus's theory of retribalization also proves a useful approach to understanding the ethnic transformations experienced by many of my fellow singers. Distinct from the requirements of belonging to most ethnic groups, tribal affiliation is nearly requisite to assuming a Native Identity. New arrivals to the Chicago community invariably face an inquiry regarding their tribal affiliation, most often expressed as: "What nation are you?" Before officially commencing fieldwork, it occurred to me that many of Chicago's powwow singers were new arrivals to the community. I initially assumed Chicago's powwow singers were well versed in Native ways and embedded in the American Indian social network of Chicago. This only proved true for a fraction of the performers. Numerous singers were newly arrived to Chicago or grew up in Chicago but were isolated from Native social networks outside of their own kin group. Others had recently returned to the community or arrived from another Native community

Witnessing the return to ethnic community of numerous people previously assimilated into the American mainstream or a large racial minority group exposed the incomplete nature of each of the competing metaphors of American diversity, the salad bowl and the melting pot. Neither metaphor accounted for reconstitution, ethnic communities reclaiming their mixed-race offspring formerly lost to the mainstream. The process does mirror the classic and cliché American story of going back to find your roots. More precisely in this case individuals chose cultural performance, drumming to both build cultural competence and establish bonds within their ethnic community.

Successfully acquiring this cultural knowledge is advantageous to, but no guarantee of being able to enact a cultural competence, which hinges to a great degree on the acceptance of community members. Although it is only a few of the long standing community members who nurture and train new powwow singers, the general community emphasis on the big drum is evident. Native events in Chicago, ranging from chili cook-offs to powwows to wakes, as well as countless other functions all include the big drum and a circle of singers. Powwow groups and dancers also unofficially represent Chicago (the Chicago Indian Princess is the official representative at powwows) in the regional powwow circuits, facilitating social bonds among singers and members of numerous reservation areas and urban Indian communities.

In an effort to determine if ethnic communities respond with similar identity strategies in the face of social settings like Chicago, I turned a portion of my focus to the taiko drummers of Chicago's Japanese-American community. (Abstract shortened by UMI.)

AdvisersRichard P. Taub; Raymond D. Fogelson
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsAmerican studies; Asian American studies; Native American studies
Publication Number3595994

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