Writing about Native Americans: The Native and the Non-Native Critic/Author

Article excerpt

AS A TEACHER of American literature, I have often asked myself who should be writing about Native American culture. Does it depend upon one's race, political viewpoint, or particular creative style? Tentatively, I have concluded that anyone interested can (and perhaps should) write about American Indians, as long as the person writes well, has something significant to say, and is accurate in doing so. Still, there is some questionable fiction out there, and certainly some noted critics profoundly disagree over how American Indians are represented in literature. What I would like to do in this essay is propose a few of the problems that certain writers have created. Then, after surveying some of the ways Natives have been represented historically in literature, I want to comment on some recent fiction, modern and postmodern, as well as some telling differences between critics. Finally, I'll conclude with several observations on contemporary novelists I think are the most provocative writers writing about Native Americans today.

Recently, I attended a regional history conference in which a woman from the University of North Dakota, Bridget Hans, presented a paper on Karl May. He was a popular 19th-century German writer who wrote numerous novels about American Indians in German. Of his 73 novels, 29 were about American Indians. Bridget grew up on these novels and gives him credit for her interest in American Indians. Still, she stressed that Karl May, who never visited the U.S. until two years before his death in 1912, plagarized much of his material. So his landscapes are more or less invented, his characters one-dimensional, and his plots formulistic. There are several ironies in this story. First, though his novels are misleading and often erroneous, to this day many Germans get their understanding of Native Americans from Karl May. Second, though Hans gives May credit for her interest in Native Americans, she now knows the difference between authentic and inauthentic fiction and teaches this difference; she is now the head of American Indian Studies at the University of North Dakota. Third, she wanted us to know that, though May may be an exciting writer, his stereotypical and over-romanticized novels are a big reason that Natives distrust white Europeans writing about Indians. Such writing is not only misleading, it is unfortunate and demeaning.

But let me back up and look at some of the history of the way American Indians have been represented in literature. From the time of the Mayflower until about 20 years ago, American literature, largely white European, has pictured Native Americans as almost sub-human. An early Puritan writer, Mary Rowlandson, in her famous captivity narrative popularized the word "savage," and ever after American Christians have used terms like "pagan" or "heathen" to describe Indians. In the 1700s, a century after the Puritans, Natives like Samson Occom, a Mohegan, and Hendrick Aupaumut, a Mahican, learned English and became Christians. Occom became a preacher while Aupaumut fought in the Revolution, later functioning as a diplomat for the U.S. government on the western frontier. The narratives of these two are now anthologized, but perhaps less because they were Indians than because they helped popularize "The Great Awakening," a widespread 18th-century religious movement, or helped America defeat the British. Ironically, Aupaumut's involvement may even have facilitated the demise of the Plains Indians as white Europeans moved westward.

Later still, in the 1800s, James Fennimore Cooper, writing from his drawing room in France, began to put a positive spin on Natives in Last of the Mohicans. Uncas, for example, has amazing woodland skills, but Cooper says little about any intellectual or spiritual values among the New England tribes. And unlike his less-popular contemporary Catharine Sedgwick in Hope Leslie, he avoids any intermarriage between the races. Even Mark Twain, in the late 1800s, though he undercut white racism with his characterization of Jim, the Black slave, and Jim's loving relationship to Huck Finn, could not do the same for Indians--either in Tom Sawyer (cf. …