I loved it, an easy landmark, turn right at the Big Indian.
To me, a White woman, it was a familiar, welcome sight, a reminder of the native people of this land!
Of course, I also knew it was commercial, not authentic, not actually any connection here with Penobscot or MicMac, Passamaquoddy. I know immediately it’s a sort of a cartoon Indian, not an actual historic figure, it’s a BIG roadside attraction, and it comforts people: stretch legs, you’re on vacation now! Maybe you’ll buy a beaded hand-drum, or bow and arrows.
Big statues of men sell a variety of things across the country. I don’t see many big Black dudes. Not many women at all. When you look at roadside attraction giants, we’re reminded that human beings are weird animals. We can create reinforcers out of almost anything! And in this case, the shop isn’t even selling native-made merchandise. It’s selling an idea.
The impact that the FBI had on me was, it comforted me! It felt so good to see it, but why? I try to dig into the ways seeing it made me feel good … maybe it felt like… forgiveness. Like all is forgiven and now we are all part of the same community? But that feeling of closeness with the native people of our region isn’t real. The Big Indian isn’t bringing us any closer to native people. It isn’t bringing us any message at all from native people.
But what message is it sending, from the White community that made it?
I can feel how White people like me are evidently reinforced, that means we get a rush of oxytocin, when we see the Big Indian. It has felt good to many of us. Apparently, he looks like a nice guy, a good guy. A noble, defeated warrior? A once mighty Chief, who now has no power over these lands? I don’t know how native people, children, teens, adults, older people are impacted when they see this, but surely they don’t have the same burst of contented oxytocin that non-native people experience. Indigenous people might experience a surge of anxious adrenaline, rather than oxytocin, due to our violent, not cartoon, social history.
From a purely “art” point of view, roadside attractions are a funny lens on our cultural values. Zoom in and magnify THESE features. Is it supposed to be funny? Or serious? It’s interesting isn’t it the way we enjoy, we almost seem to need this cultural gawking. The shield, beads, feathers, the scarred face, a the familiar image of a cartoon Warrior … what childlike part of me is it that loves seeing it?
As a child, maybe I saw the Big Indian as a sort of permission, a blessing, welcoming us all to his land. But in reality, the “Big Indian” isn’t bringing us any message at all from Maine’s indigenous people. It’s a message from us, about us.