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This review is taken from PN Review 253, Volume 46 Number 5, May - June 2020.

Cover of How to Dress a Fish
David C. WardPalimpsest of Ghosts
Abigail Chabitnoy, How to Dress a Fish (Wesleyan) £11.50
In 2018 the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) opened an exhibition called, with nicely understated but pointed humour, ‘Americans’ that dwelt on the paradox that Indians are everywhere in American culture but nowhere are there actual historical or contemporary Indians. In fact that should be ‘Indians’ because they appear as subjects of cultural and economic appropriation, deracinated and de-historicized so that they appear only as symbols: trade marks (Indian motorcycles), sports nicknames (most odiously the Washington Redskins), or brand names (Tomahawk missiles) and so on. Indians only have a currency if their actual Indian-ness is whitewashed away, sometimes literally, as in the portraits of the Indian maiden Pochantas. NMAI, in its other exhibitions, has a curatorial policy of preferring not to display images of Indians or Indian life by non-Indians. As an historian I think it’s instructive to interrogate how the oppressor conceived or visualized you but for a relatively new museum the imperative to have Indians define themselves is politically and emotionally understandable.

Yet the question, which is not singular to the history of American Indians but shared by many groups that history has rolled over, of how one recovers and reconstitutes past time, remains a vital question. Abigail Chabitony, an Aleut who lives in Alaska, in her remarkable book, How to Dress a Fish grapples with her family history, and by implication the history of all Native Peoples, to reassemble the unstable and conjectural fragments of a past that has left only archeological tracings. Her book centres around the recovery of ...


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