Culture-to-culture encounters between "natives" and "aliens" have gone on for centuries in the American Southwest—among American Indian tribes, between American Indians and Euro-Americans, and even, according to some, between humans and extraterrestrials at Roswell, New Mexico. Drawing on a wide range of cultural productions including novels, films, paintings, comic strips, and historical studies, this groundbreaking book explores the Southwest as both a real and a culturally constructed site of migration and encounter, in which the very identities of "alien" and "native" shift with each act of travel.
Eric Anderson pursues his inquiry through an unprecedented range of cultural texts. These include the Roswell spacecraft myths, Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead, Wendy Rose's poetry, the outlaw narratives of Billy the Kid, Apache autobiographies by Geronimo and Jason Betzinez, paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe, New West history by Patricia Nelson Limerick, Frank Norris' McTeague, Mary Austin's The Land of Little Rain, Sarah Winnemucca's Life Among the Piutes, Willa Cather's The Professor's House, George Herriman's modernist comic strip Krazy Kat, and A. A. Carr's Navajo-vampire novel Eye Killers.
One U.S. leader who turned enthusiastically to the Southwest was Theodore Roosevelt, whose tenacious global mobility linked his physical and ideological codes of athletic and interventionist vigor. Roosevelt found himself at the Grand Canyon in May 1903, where he delivered a presidential address in which he asked his listeners to "keep this great wonder of nature as it now is" (Hart and Ferleger, eds., 216). He remarked that he was "delighted to learn of the wisdom of the Santa Fe railroad people in deciding not to build their hotel on the brink of the canyon." (Their hotel, El Tovar, was in fact built on the canyon's brink during the following year and opened for business in January 1905.) He exhorted his audience, "I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel, or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is" (216). To what end? "What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children's children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American if he can travel at all should see" (216).
But how exactly, one may wonder, will the canyon stay unmarred and unmolested while generations of people stream to its rims? Particularly given that this was 1903, one phrase to highlight here is certainly "if he can travel at all": the Grand Canyon was, after all, quite remote, six hours and 128 miles (round-trip) from the nearest train stop, and much of that terrain punishing (see Hyde, 269-271). The availability of vacations and leisure time also informs Roosevelt's qualification.1 But as the quick construction of El Tovar Hotel (and more direct, efficient train lines) implies, the site's scenic value and popularity were already being promoted. Roosevelt's benign invitation to visit the canyon contains, in fairly straightforward early form, a contradiction or paradox that remains active in the Southwest for many years: "man can only mar it," yet as many people as possible should go there. The exhortation to go contains the justification for not going. And the changeless beauty of the southwestern scene hinges on its changing status as American cultural icon: taking the upkeep of that changelessness into their own hands, Americans unwittingly risk overimproving it and marring it permanently.
Tangled up in these southwestering processes and yet also often extracted from them, American Indians undergo a corresponding, paradoxical treatment that combines elements of "overimprovement" with elements of "preservation." Some Euro-American observers liked to reinvent particular Indians as generalized or even allegorized types, as examples more than people, and it is crucial not to overlook these racist strains.
"I know of no other book that ranges as widely over the field of the 'Southwest,' understood as an aesthetic construct.... At its best (which is almost always), Anderson's writing is lively, witty, engaging, provocative, readable."
—Robert M. Nelson, Professor of English, University of Richmond