Reading Reaction: Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™

Note: I deeply enjoyed reading “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” and in particular I enjoyed this version read by Levar Burton who also provides some analysis of his own.

Our protagonist is a storyteller who creates elaborate virtual experiences to share “an authentic Indian experience” to tourists. This story follows a nascent relationship he forms with a customer. This pair of indigenous men struggle to connect from behind walls put up by the historical legacy of systemic injustices perpetrated against indigenous cultures (and men more broadly).

In particular, settler colonialism is a major barrier which prevents the two men from deeply connecting. They first have to get past the influence of capitalism which is placing demands on the type of relationship they may have and what value they may find in one another. At one point the protagonist says he’s not allowed to fraternize with customers and must only play his “savage brave” role in the virtual experience without engaging honestly.

The protagonist dresses up like a stereotypical “savage brave” in order to sell self-discovery experiences to tourists. These experiences fetishize the history and culture of native people in order to objectify the protagonist as a commodity to be sold to tourists so they can “find themselves.”

The second major thing our pair has to break through is the patriarchal demands on what it means to be a “real man.” Once they get past these and other barriers, they are able to deeply connect and become good friends.

Eventually, our protagonist’s newfound friend succumbs to the pressures of settler colonialism and patriarchy. He takes advantage of a weakened protagonist who is recovering from sickness and decides to betray him. He steals the protagonist’s job and friends, and in classic toxic-masculinity-form, he even steals the protagonist’s girl. What would Alison Bechdel say? (The character of the object-girl has zero dialogue that is not about men.)

A confrontation ensues and ends with friend-antagonist explaining that this whole story has actually been a virtual “Authentic¬† Indian Experience” which HE the friend was selling to our protagonist. We end with the protagonist coming out of virtual reality.

The “Authentic Experience” seems to me to be the fact that those natives who have not survived the extermination of a hundred-million of their ancestors by settler colonists are forced to squeeze into the rigid set of demands placed on them by the capitalist cis-hetero-patriarchy. Two spirit traditions for example are erased by mainstream culture or renamed to some already-commodified and “close enough” phrase that white culture already has. The act of squeezing into these roles the white empire has created for indigenous people creates tension and strain, just like it does for every community. That tension boils over in conflict and trauma and infighting just like it does in every community. The Authentic Indian Experience is the experience of watching a hundred million of your people be exterminated and hearing the message of assimilate-or-die and being given the imperative to destroy anyone not assimilating hard enough.

What really jumped out at me personally in this story is the way queer culture parallels many of these challenges. People have to work through trauma and layers of shame and self-loathing before they can deeply connect. In many cases, there is also the threat of violence if you’re uncertain about whether the other person is really interested in taking this journey closer together with you. I had to listen to the story twice to really connect all these ideas and It’s something I’m going to be listening to and thinking about for a long time.