Shape-Shifting: Images of Native Americans in Recent Popular Fiction

Shape-Shifting: Images of Native Americans in Recent Popular Fiction

Shape-Shifting: Images of Native Americans in Recent Popular Fiction

Shape-Shifting: Images of Native Americans in Recent Popular Fiction

Synopsis

This study of the Native American in the western, romance, detective, horror, and science fiction genres examines how even historically accurate representations distort and bias the Native American figure to fit European-based traditions and modern agendas. The authors provide critical approaches for evaluating the literature. They argue that while popular fiction conventions determine and limit authentic portraits of Native American cultures, successful popular fiction writers approach literary quality by fusing authentic Native American culture with the standard genre conventions. Approximately 200 books are discussed and evaluated, and true Native American stories and writings are contrasted with mainstream versions of Indian culture.

Excerpt

Our title might be read to mean that this is a book about real Native Americans, but our true concern is the American Indian, a somewhat different figure. The Native Americans were the indigenous people whom the Europeans colonized and whom immigrants to North America first encountered; the American Indian is the generalized figure the Europeans immediately began to create, sometimes as a merely distorted version of the original Native Americans, sometimes as an almost entirely fictionalized Other Being set up to serve colonial and national agendas.

Since the first encounters of precolonial times, Europeans have shaped, changed, and distorted the indigenous people to serve white people's needs. The very word "Indian" is a conflation of hundreds of tribes, languages, and cultures into one emblematic figure: the Other, the Alien, the generalized Non-European. This figure soon outgrew its very real progenitors to serve the needs of whites: of Puritans seeking certification of their own favored status even as they encountered friendly Natives sometimes regarded as God's unspoiled children; of other Puritans finding in Indian hostility the Antichrist's opposition to their City on a Hill; of French Jesuits seeking support for missions to train childlike innocents; of new Americans of varied ideological stripes who needed wild and free New World symbols or dramatic foils or credible bogeymen to advance their own agendas and projects. The one unchanging historical truth about the impressively varied and complex Native American people is that they were almost always cast by the popular imagination in the singular, as "The Indian," a figure of transcendent simplicity and consistency.

While popular culture is now institutionalized, enjoying a position far more pervasive and developed than in the early years of the republic, its treatment of Native Americans is still much the same. Despite two hundred years of expe-

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