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  Nummer 3 - 18 september 2000


Genuine Imitation Replica

Av Paul Schreiber


"Well. . . I don't know. . . ."

I could see she was having a tough time of it. Which seems stupid to me. Either you want something or you don't. I don't haggle, least not much, and only then if I like you or really believe you want the thing.

"You're sure it's genuine?"

"Just like I said ma'am, I only carry genuine things here. I've been here for practically my whole life and no one ever came back saying that I did not sell genuine things." It was a turquoise and silver necklace in a thunderbird motif she was looking at. Then she put it down and walked over to the Indian head-dresses and warrior artefacts. She picked up one of the war-bonnets.

"What tribe is this one? I didn't think the desert Indians wore feather bonnets."

"That, ma'am is a genuine Chappaquoi Indian war-chief's bonnet."

"I've never heard of the Chappaquoi," she said, like she knew all about Indians. I wondered what she was asking me for then. She saw the $180 pricetag and kinda stared at it for a while. She obviously had never priced a war-bonnet before, and this was one of my better ones. It didn't have the very long ear-flaps that some of them got, but it had a full set of feathers that were pretty impressive.

Something about her told me that she felt a need to take part of the West back with her, to wherever she came from. She had come here looking for something and hadn't found it yet, or at least not exactly what she was looking for. And now she was settling for taking something back that reminded her of it but wasn't really it. I don't claim to be an expert on people's thinking, but I have seen enough of this kind to guess pretty close. They stop by my Last Chance Indian Curio Store after they have been to Los Angeles, Boulder Dam and Las Vegas, The Grand Canyon and Old Town Tucson, and they ain't got it yet, what they came to see or get. And I got some pretty good stuff here. It won't fill that empty space they come to fill, but they get something of the real thing when they come in here. They can smell it in the leather and the dust.

She's maybe forty-five, slim and kinda pretty, with her hair pulled up to keep her neck cool, white sleeveless blouse and a trickle of sweat running down just under her arms wetting her sides. I keep the air-conditioner running pretty strong, so she feels good now.

She's looking at the lining of the head-dress still.

"It says here Made in Malaysia."

"Of course it does. You can't get eagle feathers anymore. It's illegal. Down in Malaysia they got some bird that has the feathers most like an eagle's. So they make them down there. That, ma'am is a genuine replica."

"You mean the feathers aren't even real eagle feathers?"

"It's like I said ma'am, it has been illegal for years to collect eagle feathers even from dead birds. And there ain't many eagles left anyhow. Those feathers are genuine lookalikes to eagle feathers and have been selected for their authenticity. The style of the head-dress is carefully made to be a genuine imitation of a Chappaquoi Indian war-chief's bonnet."

"Where are the Chappaquoi Indians? I never heard of them."

"They live right here in Benson. That is the current chief in the photograph you see right there." I point up to the wall just above my counter. "Chief Arnold Bengtson is a good friend of mine and authorizes all genuine replicas."

"But I thought this area was made up of Navaho or Apache."

"Well, the Chappaquoi are an official tribe established by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1985, to run the casino and bingo businesses here. They are mostly made up of those who have at least one thirty-second Indian blood in them. Some come from as far away as Oklahoma and Oregon. This is all genuine and guaranteed by both the Indian Council and the Bureau of Indian Affairs."

"Chief Arnold Bengtson doesn't look very Indian." She was squinting at the eight-by-ten black-and-white just overhead. It is signed "Best of Luck Chuck, Chief Arnold Bengtson." As I said, he is a good friend of mine.

"That's because Chief Arnold Bengtson, of the Chappaquoi is an honorary Indian. He helped invest some money in the casino and they made him honorary chief too. You can see in the picture that he has on an exact copy of just that head-dress which you got right there."

She blinks, resettling her contact lenses, then she cocks her ear a little toward me and begins to look at me real careful, a little slantwise.

"You're not really from around here are you?"

"I was born right here in Benson."

"But your accent. . ."

"That's because I come from East Texas, just outside of Tyler. But I was born in my soul when I came here forty years ago, so I feel that I am really from Benson."

She looks at my face real keen now.

"You're not a real Indian then, are you?"

"Of course I am. As I said, I was born in my Indian soul when I came here. Besides, my mother's step-father was a full-blooded Seminole from St. John, Florida."

"But you're. . . well. . . so white!"

"As I said ma'am, it was my mother's step-father. Died before I was born. But he was a genuine Seminole, dark as tarpaper."

"Uh huh. . . but isn't that a wig on your head?"

"Yes. This is genuine Indian hair, and you can have a scalp like this for about a hundred and fifty dollars." I take it off, which is pretty easy since I don't pin it on or anything. I only have a little hair around the sides now anyhow, and it's the white peeking out that doesn't really go with the wig. She feels the hair as if it weren't real. I'm kinda used to that. It really doesn't bother me since I know they have seen so much bogus stuff in some of those other curio stores along the highway. Just down the road they got an Indian museum that claims to have Hitler's own limosine there that you can look at for three dollars. What the hell Hitler's limo has to do with Indians I wouldn't know. Same with the London Bridge out there on Lake Havasu. If the Havasu Indians have sold out, I at least have not. So I understand people's scepticism, but I get tired of making explanations after a while. Anyway, she fondles the scalp for a few minutes.

"It says here Made in India."

"Like I said ma'am, it is a genuine Indian scalp."

"Ohhn. . . . Do people buy these?"

"You bet. Sometimes I get Chappaquois coming in here just to buy these scalps."


"Well, most Chappaquois look pretty much like Chief Arnold Bengtson, so they wear these to give the customers at the casino and bar the feeling of genuine authenticity. I gotta place in Calcutta that makes these to genuine Chappaquoi specifications. You can buy them in different lengths -- the longer the more expensive -- and different styles, all the real thing, real Indian hair."

She looks doubtful, gives me back the scalp, which I put back on. Then she goes back to the war-bonnet. There's a distant look in her eyes now that makes me begin to think she is buying it for someone else maybe, a man maybe. After about five minutes she asks, "If the Chappaquois have been a tribe only since 1984. . .

"1985," I repeat.

". . . since 1985, what would they do with a war-bonnet?"

Now I figure this is leading nowhere, but no one else has come in since the lunch bus stopped on its way to Fort Huachuca, so I keep on answering. I still have her pegged for buying something, wanting to take something real back to Pittsburgh or Elmira or Chicago. "Well, most of the replica relics we got here come from designs authorized and copyrighted by the Chappaquoi Elder Council, of which I am an honorary member. We get many of our design ideas from the scene shop at Universal Studios, where my brother-in-law worked till he died last year. Now these designs are guaranteed to be based on actual head-dresses used in the actual Indian wars that ended with the struggle at Wounded Knee in 1889. We chose that fancy one there, which would cost you three hundred and fifty, from a design said to look like one found in a museum near Little Big Horn. It might have belonged to Sitting Bull himself."

"This one here might have been Sitting Bull's?"

"No ma'am, the museum original from which the genuine idea of that one was taken at Universal Studios. You see it is all authentic."

She puts the one in her hand down carefully on the dummy head, which is styrofoam but painted up to look like an angry Chappaquoi in war-paint. These foam heads stick out from the walls on wooden poles I cut from broom handles. Pretty scary really.

I am pretty proud of my place here, which is fourteen hundred square feet of floor space under one roof. This was an engineering achievement since the building is made up to look like a big Appliance White teepee, about sixty feet at the top. That really catches people's eye from the highway, which you gotta do if you are going to get them to stop on I-10 when they're doing ninety-an-hour just to cross the desert. I don't know anything that says genuine Indian more than a teepee. But then I also got signs all the way back to Tombstone and down to Fort Huachuca, with the silhouette of a dancing Indian, and big red letters guaranteeing only genuine imitation replicas. Those items which are not genuine or of Indian nature I display outside on folding tables, so as to keep them separate from the real things in here. Out there's where you can find cups with your name on it and a picture of the Arizona state flag on the other side, or coffee mugs shape like big titties that say "I'll take mine with milk." You know, the tacky stuff. And it bothers me that that stuff sells like hotcakes when real Indian things collect dust, right here in the heart of Indian country.

Anyway, after dallying through the Indian acetate-silk shawls, running her hand through the big bowl of arrow heads, and holding up at arm's length the Indian papoos style Gore-Tex baby carriers, she finally walks over to the soda machine that whirs away there by the back wall. I know people come in from the desert heat for a soda so I keep the machine back there where they will get a good chance to look at all my curios and jewelry on the way. She comes back by my counter, smiles a little guilty for taking my time, and walks into the bright glare outside. She took a Diet-Coke, Caffeine-Free. That's alright with me. They say Coke's the Real Thing.


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