Michael Dorris Crazy Horse Malt Liquor



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Michael Dorris

Crazy Horse Malt Liquor
People of proclaimed good will have the oddest ways of honoring Amer­ican Indians. Sometimes they dress themselves up in turkey feathers and paint to boogie on fifty-yard lines. Sometimes otherwise impeccably credentialed liberals get so swept up into honoring that they beat fake tom-toms or fash­ion their forearms and hands in to facsimiles of axes European traders used for barter and attempt, unsuccessfully, to chop their way to victory. Presum­ably they hope that this exuberant if ethnographically questionable display will do their teams more good against opponents than those rituals they im­itate and mock did for nineteenth-century Cheyenne or Nez Perce men and women who tried, with desperation and ultimate futility, to defend their homelands from invasion.

Everywhere you look such respects are paid: the street names in woodsy, affluent subdivisions, mumbo jumbo in ersatz male-bonding weekends and Boy Scout jamborees, geometric fashion statements, weepy antilittering pub­lic service announcements. In the ever popular noble/savage spectrum, red is the hot, safe color.

For five hundred years flesh and blood Indians have been assigned the role of a popular culture metaphor. Today, they evoke fuzzy images of Nature, The Past, Plight, or Summer Camp. War-bonneted apparitions pasted to foot­ball helmets or baseball caps act as opaque, impermeable curtains, solid walls of white noise that for many citizens block or distort all vision of the nearly two million contemporary Native Americans. And why not? Such honoring relegates Indians to the long ago and thus makes them magically disappear from public consciousness and conscience. What do the three hundred federally recognized tribes - with their various complicated treaties governing land rights and protections, their crippling unemployment, infant mortality, and teenage suicide rates, their often chronic poverty, their manifold health problems - have in common with jolly (or menacing) cartoon caricatures, wistful braves, or raven-tressed Mazola girls?

Perhaps we should ask the Hornell Brewing Company of Baltimore, manufactures of The Original Crazy Horse Malt Liquor, a product currently dis­tributed in New York with packaging inspired by, according to the text on the back, "the Black Hills of Dakota, steeped [my italics] in the History of the American West, home of Proud Indian Nations, a land where imagination conjures up images of blue clad Pony Soldiers and magnificent Native Amer­ican Warriors."

Whose imagination? Were these the same blue-clad lads who perpetrated the 1890 massacre of two hundred captured, freezing Lakota at Wounded Knee? Are Pine Ridge and Rosebud, the two reservations closest to the Black Hills and, coincidentally, the two counties in the United States with the low­est per capita incomes, the Proud Nations? Is the "steeping" a bald allusion to the fact that alcohol has long constituted the number one health hazard to In­dians? Virtually every other social ill plaguing Native Americans - from dis­proportionately frequent traffic fatalities to arrest statistics - is related in some tragic respect to ethanol, and many tribes, from Alaska to New Mexico, record the highest percentage in the world of babies born disabled by fetal al­cohol syndrome and fetal alcohol effect. One need look no further than the warning label to pregnant women printed in capital letters on every Crazy Horse label to make the connection.

The facts of history are not hard to ascertain: the Black Hills, the paha sapa, the traditional holy place of the Lakota, were illegally seized by the U.S. government, systematically stripped of their mineral wealth - and have still not been returned to their owners. Crazy Horse, in addition to being a patriot to his people, was a mystic and a religious leader murdered after he voluntar­ily gave himself up in 1887 to Pony Soldiers at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. What, then, is the pairing of his name with forty ounces of malt liquor sup­posed to signify?

The Hornell brewers helpfully supply a clue. The detail of the logo is focused on the headdress and not the face; it's pomp without circumstance, form without content. Wear the hat, the illustration seems to offer, and in the process fantasize yourself more interesting (or potent or tough or noble) than you are. Play at being a "warrior" from the "land that truly speaks of the spirit that is America."

And if some humorless Indians object, just set them straight. Remind 8 them what an honor it is to be used.


1. CONSIDERING MEANING: Identify the reasons Dorris feels that pairing the name Crazy Horse with a forty-ounce bottle of malt liquor is inappropriate.

2. IDENTIFYING WRITING STRATEGIES: Where does Dorris use comparison and con­trast to evaluate popular culture images of Native Americans?

3. ANALYZING THE WRITER'S CHOICES: Do you think Dorris's sarcastic tone strength­ens or weakens his argument? Why do you think he chose this approach in addressing his readers, many of whom may have previously been comfort­able with the popular Native American images he is denouncing?

4. EXPANDING VOCABULARY: What are apparitions (paragraph 3), and how do they create" solid walls of white noise" (paragraph 3)? How are these walls imper­meable (paragraph 3)?



5. MAKING CONNECTIONS: Compare and contrast this essay with Toni Morrison's ("On the Backs of Blacks," p. 528). What point does each writer make about racial identity and the dominant culture?

6. List as many uses of a Native American word or custom that you can think of. In your opinion why are these words and customs popular?


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