Here is the text of 'Indians in Fiction.' It appeared in the May '95 issue of Ransom Notes, the Los Angeles Sisters in Crime newsletter. I added the editor's headings. They help clarify the structure of the article. There are a couple of ideas that deserve footnotes, notably the occupied lands statement and the notion of Indians used as symbols to depict the anti-civilized, but their inclusion and the rest of the paper are my responsibility. I attempted to obtain as much community input as time allowed, but any errors are again my responsibility.
Indians in Fiction
Indian mythology and Indian characters have been a part of fiction for hundreds of years. A quick perusal of your bookshelf will show many examples from Caliban in Shakespeare's The Tempest to Chief Broom in Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to Eva Broussard in Abigail Padgett's Strawgirl. In spite of agents reminding writers of the salability of ethnic characters, Indian characters are often overlooked. This is probably due to a sense that Indian characters are difficult to develop.
What should a writer know in order to bring realism to an Indian character?
Is it enough to say he was dark-skinned with a braid and a stare that could curl the hair of a Dutchman? That she was a savage beauty with obsidian eyes, reflecting the story of all before her? The answers to these questions depends on whether your Indian characters are symbols or not.
In the past, and continuing to some extent today, Indian characters were used as symbols; savages manufactured to depict the anti-civilized. They were the great white whale against which a foreign civilization had to struggle for economic prosperity, the manufactured savage that had to be conquered for technocracy to flourish. But when economics are stripped away, all that remains is the struggle against nature. The contemporary usage of Indians as symbols in the post-western world remains anti-civilized, but it is now seen as that part of us we long to embrace, the savage power we fear we've lost forever.
Films and Books
We need only watch Dances with Wolves to illustrate this point. In this much-acclaimed movie, we see a cavalry officer, Dunbar, who almost loses his leg to war, a civil war. He is then assigned a post at the edge of the frontier where he lives an idyllic life, dancing with wolves, and is befriended by the Lakota. After months of freedom with the Lakota, he is accosted by white troops. The government has reached out and taken his freedom. In fact, the government has threatened every person who is free. The Indian is used as a symbol for right wing paranoia. Is this a serious revision? No. Why? The Pawnee. Some Indians are free, right-minded and loving, some are murderous, the very people that should have been wiped out. For the non-Indian, this myth fits their rationalization. The only positive aspect of the film is the portrayal of Indian families. Kicking Bird actually makes love to his wife.
Hollywood has singularly failed to present Indians accurately. Women haven't fared much better. Still, there are a few examples of success: Pow-Wow Highway, and Thunderheart deserve mention. Of the two, Pow-Wow Highway is the closest to an ideal depiction, but the author of the book would disagree. They share three major reasons for the success of their characters:
- historically accurate context,
- full character development and
Writers have sometimes succeeded where film makers have failed. However, most of this success has been relatively recent. And like many of the most interesting mystery writers over the last twenty years, it has been a woman author that has touched the heart of the Indian character. However, there isn't an Indian character that has transcended fiction to the collective consciousness. Doing a survey of Indian literature would yield a character analysis both broad and deep. Unfortunately, that is a task beyond the scope of this overview. Simply, the most important trait is an Indian character's understanding, or lack thereof, of the context of their existence.
Most contemporary mystery authors strive for realism. Accepting that literary realism is as much an artifice as semiotics, being a manufactured depiction of a particular world view and all, contemporary mystery writers create characters that are substantial rather than amorphous, that are not based on a point of view, but simply have a point of view. Although modern writers use allegory and symbolism, continuing the potential for misusing Indian characters, it is only when the symbol is more important than the character that fault is found. And that is the trick. To create an Indian character, a writer should follow the same guidelines they would for any other character. Indians are not symbols nor should Indian characters be symbols, although it may be impossible to fully escape these dated notions. While it is challenging to create a character that we may not be as familiar with, the pay-off is illumination.
Knowledge of the Past
There are important considerations for Indian characters that flow from history. Although thought, action and motivation may be similar, there are fundamental differences. Just as smart men and smart women may be alike in many ways, there are differences at the core that cannot be ignored. For Indian characters, the greatest among these is the past. Few Indians can truly escape history nor do they want to. Indian characters that have no knowledge of the past will not ring true. Their knowledge of history will often be clouded with anger at government sponsored genocide, but the deeper truth is a profound sense of grief rooted in a lost freedom. The Indian character recognizes that their lands are occupied and there is no one on earth prepared to liberate them. This grief and anger often leads to the bottle or some other libation.
In contrast to the Indian anger is the non-Indian fear or guilt. It is a collective thing faintly felt. Some will argue it does not exist, but most Americans that know the true history of this land feel remorse. Others feel justified.
Anger is an emotion that usually develops between characters arising from some failing or another. Sometimes it is much deeper. Indian anger is a deep sense of betrayal not unlike the African American anger or the Jewish anger. But, there is a singularity that defines Indian anger; the rape and defilement of the earth, the Indian mother. It is the same feeling a person would experience watching their own mother being kidnapped, raped, tortured and, finally, murdered. This kind of anger is so extreme that characters fully involved in it are apt to destroy everything around them in a blind fury. Combined with the sense of enslavement that accompanies the loss of freedom and the knowledge of the genocide since contact and you might wonder why more Indians aren't mass murderers. But for the power of their spirituality and the sense of their responsibility to the circle of life, they might be.
Often, contemporary Indian characters are concerned with finding their spiritual path or walking in balance in a world gone crazy, a world not of their making. One of the common myths taught from the first grade is that Columbus called the people of the Americas Indians because he thought he was in India, but India didn't exist then. Hindustan was the name of India then. In Dios, people in God, is what Matthiessen and others proffer as the inspired utterance that led to the collective noun, Indian. In these politically correct times, Native is the term often applied to indicate aboriginal ancestry. In Canada, First Nations is the collective noun.
All Indians have a term in their language for themselves, which usually means original people or the people. At the tribal level, Indians refer to themselves by nation. A character may say I am an Iroquois but more likely would say I am a Mohawk, unless they didn't know their nation. If they were dealing with someone in a political arena, they might say I am a Haudenoshonee, a person of the Longhouse, or an Ongwe onwe, original person. Many will also identify by clan if they know.
For many reasons, from employment opportunities to forced relocation, Indians found their way to cities. For some parents, passing their history down was the same as condemning their children to a life of terror. As a consequence many people lost their tribal connection. For a generation or more, they found no way back to their roots. Eventually, some of these city transplants came together at friendship centers, Pow-wows, and gatherings and formed a community. Based on a mixture of traditions, songs and etiquette, this became recognized as Pan-Indian belief. Therefore it's quite possible for a Pequot Indian of the Northeast to perform a pipe ceremony in a Lakota Inipi (sweat lodge) singing a Chumash spirit-welcome song.
A reservation Indian character likely will know a version of history that is much different from the American myth or the Hollywood fantasy and much different from his urban relatives. Some reservation Indians may feel that urban Indians are less connected and therefore may be critical of their urban siblings' search for balance. Others may rely on the urban Indian for guidance as they overcome their feelings of being outsiders, their fears of a different culture.
Generally, a traditional Indian character will speak their language and will know a number of requisite ceremonies. A Christian Indian character may or may not be exposed to or be a part of traditional Indian ceremonies. Christian Indian characters are more likely to be assimilated and less likely to have the deep anger mentioned above. However, juxtaposition often creates characters that are much more interesting.
Character naming is one of those funny aspects of writing that often defies logic. Indian character names can be difficult. Sioux Indians, the Lakota people, tend to have colorful names, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse as an example while other nations do not. Some names may be offensive and unsuitable for some nations. For example, to name a character Blind Owl could be extremely offensive for some nations because the owl is seen by these nations as a messenger of death.
Warning. There are four predominant cliche characters:
- the Indian medicine person waiting for a non-Indian to save the nation,
- the noble savage befriending the settler and saving them,
- the evil savage hunted and killed by the heroic white man and, finally,
- the Indian woman, often called a princess, which some hunk carried away to tame in the same manner that he tamed the frontier.
Most westerns use one or more of these characters, even as recent as The Last Mohican, Squanto and the forthcoming Pochohontas. Just look at the dress of Pochohontas and wonder what the Disney animators were thinking.
Many Indian nations are matriarchal. Leadership is passed through the women. Stories are passed through the women. Names are passed through the women. Women are the life givers. Women announce the Thanksgivings. They are the teachers. They are very demanding of young people. As the teachers, they never take time off. They are always watching.
Traditional Indian women characters can provide a strong moral underpinning as well as great narration from their constant observation. Far from their home, they may lose their direction in a world of the senses. So important are women in Indian life, many ceremonies for men involve recreating some aspect of the woman's life. The Inipi is a womb, the Sun Dance represents the woman's pain giving birth as examples.
Other ceremonies are usually a thanksgiving, although some are for healing and others for enjoyment. They are timed to coincide with important events in that nation's calendar, because they are timed to harvests and moon phases. These are times of family and friends and festivity is in the air, which brings the Indian character to life. Iroquoian people are taught to be thankful and enjoy life. It is in this enjoyment that they find their purpose, caring for the land and pleasing their creator.
Indian people consist of many nations united in two respects: their tie to Turtle Island, the Americas, and their tie to their Creator. Indians almost universally have a strong sense of humor, a strong sense of family that extends beyond the boundary of bloodlines, and a deeply held belief in the spirit world. Following these few suggestions will result in a more realistic depiction of the Indian as an individual than many of the savage portraits common in early works of fiction and Hollywood.
Do Indians cry? Yes, especially after a good laugh.
Are all Indians dark-skinned? Not since Columbus.
Do Indians have beards? Since Columbus and some before.
Did Indians come over the land bridge? No. In much Indian mythology, Indians have always been here. The Cherokees are an exception in that their stories tell of a migration north as do the Delaware who tell of a migration south.
What is a squaw? It is an impolite word implying whore.
Are there Indian princesses? Only at Pow-wow beauty contests.
What is an Indian? A person who can trace their lineage to an original habitant of North America before Columbus. Color of skin is unimportant. Some believe that religion is.
Recommended Readings - Non-fiction
Recommended Readings - Fiction
- Indian Country by Peter Matthiessen. Tales of the continued encroachment of Indian lands.
- Indian Givers by Jack Weatherford. Details of contributions to European society from Indians.
- American Indian Women eds. Bataille and Sands. A series of articles about Indian women.
- In the Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen. A history of the Lakota struggle in the 1970s with a particular focus on Leonard Peltier.
- Exiled in the Land of the Free eds. Lyons et al. A series of academic articles documenting the Iroquoian contribution to the American Constitution. The Native in Literature eds. King, Calver and Hoy. Commentary on Indians in fiction. Used in the preparation of this overview.
- Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance by Gerald Vizenor. An academic exploration of the myths of Indianness. Used in the preparation of this overview.
- and recognized texts on a particular nation such as Parker on the Iroquois. A history of the Iroquoian people.
- Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko. A MacArthur Grant work of fiction epic in scope.
- Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. The saga of two Indian families and the medicine that heals them.
- Spider Woman's Granddaughters edited by Paula Gunn Allen. Stories and poetry of Indian women.
- Tonto and the Lone Ranger Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie. Humorous short stories from Yakima country.
- Green Grass, Blue Water by Tom King. A fantasy of Indian characters from TV and elsewhere and others making sense of nonsense or nonsense of sense. Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris. The story of three generations of Indian women who struggle to know each other and themselves. Poignant and beautifully written.
- House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday. A classic.
Beware of books by Sun Bear, Wabun, Lynn Andrews and Carlos Castenada. These writers are considered devoid of merit by many traditional Indians for many reasons. Read if you must, but keep both eyes open.
We have a story many of you have heard that illustrates this point. For those that haven't, it goes something like this. A young boy, walking down a snowy mountain path, heard a forlorn cry in the snow. "Help me," it begged. "Help me." He stopped to look and discovered a rattlesnake. "I can't help you. You're a rattlesnake and you'll bite me." "No, I promise. Save me and I'll not bite you." He gently lifted the snake, placed him in his warmest pouch and carried him down the mountain. Whereupon, the snake promptly bit him. He fell down, dying, and cried, "You promised you wouldn't bite me. You promised." "You knew what I was when you picked me up," the snake hissed and slithered away.
Return to Indigenous Peoples' Literature
Compiled by: Glenn Welker
This site has been accessed 10,000,000 times since February 8, 1996.