My mother asked me a question the other day. She has a friend that likes Indian art and is looking for some good Native authors to read. The friend has a room full of Native art. I have never met this person or seen the room and since “Native” art can range from mass produced dream catchers, mandalas, and Santa Fe style purple howling coyotes to hand crafted modern and replica items or even true artifacts I need to start from a theoretical zero point.
When the topic of Indians comes up most people have a rather limited pool of information to pull from. American schools are not very good with basic history much less Native American history. Most history classes for primary and secondary school children is more about instilling pride in America than a serious study of America’s past. Nearly every American history text books end their American Indian section with Wounded Knee and all Indians were placed on reservations, the end.
Further information is usually gleaned from popular culture movies, television, and books. These media sources usually have a limited set of archetypes.
The Heathen Savage
He is wild, aggressive, blood thirsty, thieving, and dangerous. They are impediments to the good clean, god fearing folk looking to spread civilization to the west. They attack, wagons, stage coaches, derail trains, we all cheer as the heroes pick them off their horses and they tumble into a cloud of dust. They are nameless and faceless, cruel and heartless. The figures are always male, if females are present they are always poorly treated servants dirty, silent, and marginalized by their overbearing and cruel husbands.
The Mystic Warrior
Mystic warriors are the exact opposite of the heathen savage. The mystic warrior may not even be a warrior at all. many times the role is assigned to the wise old chief or medicine man. They spend their time spouting bliss filled bull shit. Every word and every action has some deep spiritual meaning and or result. Everything around them is rainbows and butterflies. They spend the day running with the deer and wolves of the forest, peace, love, and harmony ooze from everything they do and say.
The Wild Lover
Wild lovers are usually confined to the trash paperback romance novels. Look in the western section of any bookstore and there will be racks full of paperbacks featuring dark skinned Fabios with long flowing black hair adorned with eagle feathers standing over or holding a white woman in his arms. Not only does the heathen savage have a heart he is fantastic between the buffalo robes.
The Half Breed
All half breeds have a few things in common. They are born of a White father and an Indian mother. Half breeds are usually the hero as they struggle to right some grievous wrong committed against them, their family, their tribe. DA TA DAAAA Halfbreed Man is here to save the day! They rescue who needs rescuing and they kill who needs killing. They can fit in the role of Mystic warrior, and wild lover. On very rare occasions they can fill the role of Heathen Savage but usually half breeds are there so that non-Native audiences have someone to connect with.
The Drunken Loser
The Drunken Loser is the shiftless down on his luck drunk. His name is almost always Chief and he is pretty much window dressing. Sometimes Chief can become the hero of the story but that is very rare. If the drunk is examined he is usually a failed half breed or mystic warrior figure, or the origins of the same archetypes.
Native authors rarely ever use the above caricatures unless they are making a point to be humorous or just stating how absurd they are. Sherman Alexie noted that “The only thing more pathetic than Indians on TV is Indians watching Indians on TV” These attitudes towards the popular cultural views of Native people can come as a shock to those looking to read Native Authors. They rarely follow the established main stream cultural norms. For those brave enough to dive into Native Literature the reader can find a new and unexpected world open to them. The first step in the journey is the harshest. The common myths and stereotypes must be destroyed, no matter how near and dear to the reader’s heart they are.
If you are ready to set aside Dances with Wolves, the Leather Stocking Tales, John Wayne movies, and Mary Summer Rain here are my suggestions.
The first Native author is…
Vine Deloria Jr.- There are two works from him that are essential reading. The books are not fiction but will serve as the sledge-0-matic that is necessary to shatter the common myths and preconceived notions provided by school and media. The titles are as tough as the writing
Custer Died for Your Sins
We Talk, You Listen; New Tribes, New Turf
My list of authors is limited; there are other great native writers out there. I will suggest authors I personally love and some comments about them.
Sherman Alexie is an author from the North West Coast. He is a gentile and very humorous writer whose works are accessible. One of his most popular books is Smoke Signals.
Joseph Marshall III – He has written a set of historical fiction from the Lakota nation’s perspective. The characters are human and the tales are well told. The Long Knives are Crying is about Little Big Horn. How Not to Catch Fish: And other Adventures of Iktomi are traditional stories.
N. Scott Momaday is one of the classic Native writers. I loved House Made of Dawn
Susan Power has one book but it is an absolute favorite of mine. The Grass Dancer, she is a great introduction to the Native narrative which can be rather non-linear and force the reader to put all the pieces together into a full story.
Louise Erdrich is another Native literary great. She has a strong native style. I would suggest. The Antelope Wife, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, and Love Medicine
Leslie Marmon Silko is Laguna Pueblo. I would suggest Yellow Woman
If you are up for a challenge pick up a copy of Riding the Trail of Tears by Blake M. Hausman
The above list should give any reader some good material to chew over. Native writers can be funny, and or heart breaking but what they really do is shine a light into cultures and people that are mostly unknown.
Enjoy the read. I actually envy all of those that are starting this journey of discovery.