NATIVE AMERICAN WRITING TODAY
DRK used to always say that the most accurate book about being an “Indian” was Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land.” This link is to an essay that endorses that idea, in view of many listed and best-selling books that are both about indigenous people and about sci-fi concepts.
I want to carry on that idea and add to it the notion that too much of ALL our thinking is “boxes” — that is, boundaries around a concept that force things to be either “in” or “out,” requiring a dyadic system of debate and conflict. Now I am more interested in the idea of a point of origin which then expands without limits, but possibly with transformation. New thought can go in any direction.
Literary NA writing — Welch, Erdrich, Alexie, et al began with a “center point” named Momaday. Those writers — now gone or close to old age — had their short renaissance a few decades ago, but today’s sci-fi approach had a big injection of success with the popularity of television series about traditional spooky categories like werewolves, vampires, and teenagers — crossed with the temperate jungle forests near Neah Bay and the tribes like the Makah there. No horses or feathers. The images on Google are new, These are from “wallpaper” for computers. Probably not bought by many boys.
Many beloved books about Native Americans were written by “white” people: “Ramona,” “Laughing Boy,” “When the Legends Die.” Not all were anthropological — more like sociology and culture clash. The earliest writing “by” a non-English-speaking NA — who was therefore non-writing because his own language was exclusively spoken — was Chief Pokagon at the 1892 World’s Fair, which took as a theme the religions of the world. A sympathetic woman learned the language and used translators (usually religious) to help her write out Pokagon’s thoughts, which somehow sounded rather like a nice helpful lady of the times.
In fact, those two wide splits — one aggravated by the cultural split between a male tribal person and a female Victorian do-gooder and the other the troublesome art of translation between one worldview (oral) and another (not just written but also sentimental and Church of England) was preposterous.
Add to that the writing of the Cavalry, which wasn’t going to get any money out of Congress in order to pat Indians on the head, was committed to the worst possible portrayal of what they saw as war adversaries. Newspapers loved both sides, because a good fight brings readers. The success of “Longmire”, the series, is in part due to tribal actors capable of making charismatic both virtue and wickedness. Graham Greene adds comedy. Tantoo Cardinal pulls in the merry mystic. Writing doesn’t have the advantage of actors.
This is not a good time for print writers. Publishers are wiped out by self-publishing but also by antediluvian ideas about investing in something as old-fashioned as books. Once they tried publishing what they thought were “Indian” books and triggered a political onslaught.
Academic journals about “Indians” are often so full of French philosophy (the French love “les sauvages”) they are nearly unreadable. Or they are about things like material cultures and who owns ideas, which can translate into some very ugly legal controversies. Artifacts are more valuable than books. Museums, now paralyzed by pandemic, have tried things like inviting local tribal leaders to help shape exhibits and have run into a whole new set of intra-tribal wars over what and how things should be done.
The politics of indigenous people are shaped to their circumstances like being threatened by destructive coal mining or oil pipelines or flooding for dams — which has become military in the Canadian far northwest. The clearance of the prairies — quite parallel to the clearance of the British peasants in order to raise sheep — was recent enough for troves of correspondence to still exist, waiting to be organized and sometimes to be translated. The Jesuits alone generated whole libraries of material back to Rome, the headquarters of bureaucracy. Hudson’s Bay has now opened their archives. Few writers are determined enough to take on this material, but they are vital books.
In my own writing of occasional short stories with Blackfeet in them, I try to include dogs because what is a Blackfeet without a dog? Avoiding romantic or social indignation stories, I’ve tried to compose simple little near-vignettes about things I saw in passing. The one truly violent and bloody tale I wrote was in response to the rejection of a story that a publisher considered inappropriate for family reading because it had sex in it. I suggested that he was against sex but didn’t object to gory violence kids might read, and I was right — he published the story. (The French are the opposite — they don’t object to nudity, et al, but are wary of showing grisly crime in action.)
Spread over time, indigenous people become increasingly different from each other and more like a host of others. Then it is a challenge for them to relate to each other. Some have always been “hang around the fort” people who assimilate with whites but try to keep their cultural label. Now there are “hang around the book” people who have become lawyers, ace bureaucrats, and crafty wielders of deconstruction. Many sacred objects were destroyed by tribal Christian converts. Many more were saved by whites looking for profit or as signs of prestige.
These days I rarely read or write indigenous fiction. Maybe I’ll write a story about the dilemmas of a person who lives on the rez, knows many of the people of various kinds, honors the past but doesn’t hinder the future. But such a book wouldn’t sell. Who would read it? Books are supposed to arouse people. The more natural format for writing about a subset of the stubborn public idea like “Indians” is a blog, a kind of journal linked to other material that might or might not be be fiction or science fiction.
What do you suppose is the story of the girl from the wall paper image above, the one with all the cubs? Who could write it? A Blackfeet helper on a wolf refuge? Or an impossible Indian princess raised in part by wolves? In the Sixties my students would choose the second, but they would end it, “Then I woke up and . . .” Today they could continue with “the wolf mother had a dream.”