Murder on the Reservation: American Indian Crime Fiction

By Fishwick, Marshall W. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), June 2005 | Go to article overview

Murder on the Reservation: American Indian Crime Fiction


Fishwick, Marshall W., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Murder on the Reservation: American Indian Crime Fiction Ray B. Browne. Madison, WI: Popular Press, 2004.

Let us now praise famous men. But first, before the author, let us examine the book, the first book-length study of crime fiction by and about Native Americans.

In Murder on the Reservation, Professor Ray Browne, distinguished university professor emeritus of popular culture at Bowling Green State University, starts with a belief and a thesis. Within the genre of crime fiction, all people are equal, and the increasing role of Native American characters in criminal fiction proves what an important role this genre plays as a powerful democratizing force in American society. Browne endeavors to both analyze and evaluate the individual works of the authors, and at the same time to provide a commentary on the various attitudes toward race relations in the United States that each author presents. Some Indian fiction is intended to right the wrongs that the authors feel have been leveled against Native people. Other authors use Indian lore and locales as exotic elements and locations for the entertaining and commercially successful stories they want to write. Browne's analysis includes Native and non-Native authors of first-class murder mysteries set on and off the reservation.

Dr. Browne, who has written and edited books and journals for decades, tells us how the "writers were chosen: through the quality of their novels and their backgrounds. Some are mixed-bloods, some whites. Some carry in their hearts the leaden sins of their ancestors and are dedicated to trying to repay the Indians for the injustices they have suffered in the past. Others, because they know Indian cultures from having lived among them, write about them because they know Indian peoples and ways to make good settings and characters. These authors have a primary purpose of writing to entertain and to sell. But regardless of the leading purpose, all are doing all elements of American society a great service. Through the most elemental kind of fiction, they center attention on one of the many cultures of our society. They realize that crime gives little distinction to social or cultural identity; it is more interested in vulnerability and accessibility. All people are vulnerable. All blood is red. In Indian crime fiction, Indians are like others, and all others are like them. The authors try to picture the truth as they see it, and through it free us of prejudice and negative opinions. If they only partially succeed, their efforts have been helpful and, perhaps equally important, we have excellent crime fiction in the bargain.

At its best, ethnic crime fiction can provide great cultural and social satisfaction other than airing the just demands of people who have been culturally mistreated. It dramatizes the conflicts between cultures, reveals the rift of threat to the safety of the dominant society, provides humor, and finally, covertly or overtly re-establishes the reader's feeling of safety from and superiority over other groups of people.

In his suggestive book Playing Indian, Philip J. Deloria observes that Americans have for two hundred years been "playing Indian," and "there was, quite simply, no way to conceive an American identity" without Native Americans (37). Playing in all forms is an anthropological ritual that is part of the process of growing up. So as whites have played Indian, they have also been growing up with regard to their feelings about the Indian. In this process of white maturation, the Indians have perforce grown too. Authors are always straining to write different kinds of literature with the conventional type: a new type of play, an experimental poem, canon-smashing conventional fiction, the "great Americana novel," as author Tom Wolfe does in A Man m Full (1998). …

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