And this was not the only contradiction undergirding the nation's history and sense of collective identity: what of the constant collisions between personal liberty and social order? the distance between the rhetoric of egalitarianism and the reality of slavery and class struggle? Disjunctures like these are the stuff of which most nations and societies are made. And yet, while its citizens created the United States around such dissonances, many of them found that playing Indian offered a powerful tool for holding their contradictions in abeyance. Indianness gave the nation a bedrock, for it fully engaged the contradiction most central to a range of American identities - that between an unchanging essential Americanness and the equally American liberty to make oneself into something new. (182)

Playing Indian offered Americans a national fantasy--identities built not around synthesis and transformation, but around unresolved dualities themselves. Temporary, costumed play refused to synthesize the contradictions between European and Indian. Rather, it held them in near-perfect suspension, allowing Americans to have their cake and eat it too.... As it did so, playing Indian gave white Americans... a jolt of self-creative power. (185)

Playing Indian, then, reflects one final paradox. The self-defining pairing of American truth with American freedom rests on the ability to wield power against Indians--social, military, economic, and political--while simultaneously drawing power from them. Indianness may have existed primarily as a cultural artifact in American society, but it has helped create these other forms of power, which have been turned back on native people. The dispossessing of Indians exists in equal tension with being aboriginally true. The embracing of Indians exists in equal tension with the freedom to become new. And the terms are interchangeable. Intricate relations between destruction and creativity--for both Indian and non-Indian Americans--are themselves suspended in an uneasy alliance. And so while Indian people have lived out a collection of historical nightmares in the material world, they have also haunted a long night of American dreams. As many native people have observed, to be American is to be unfinished. And although that state is powerful and creative, it carries with it nightmares all its own. (191)

Playing Indian (1998)
Philip Deloria