Monday, April 20, 2009

In Honor of We Shall Remain: A History of White Folks Telling Indian Stories

Of all the things we lost after contact, one of the most important and overlooked was our loss of agency; the ability to speak for ourselves, to say, "This is who we are. This is what we believe."

Kevin Gover, Pawnee/Comanche
Former Assistant Secretary BIA; current Director NMAI
Quoted in Indian Country Today
April 1,2009

In his address at the RES09 Economic Conference, Gover was referring to history, but the same could be said for fiction. With a few well-known exceptions like Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich––two Native American authors who have appeared mulitiple times in The New Yorker and been chosen for Best American Shorts––and older writers like Leslie Marmon Silko and N. Scott Momaday––who, for all I know, may not be read anymore outside of college lit classes––the majority of Native authors listed at the Internet Public Library site are hardly household names to most readers.

Yet stories about Indians by non-Indians have been popular since first contact. There is, of course, the legend of Pocahontas as originally told by her supposed lover, John Smith, and re-told most recently in a Disney version and the epic box office failure, The New World. James Fennimore Cooper initiated the idea of "the noble savage" in The Last of the Mohicans a great adventure story, I'll admit, but a little confused on the facts, most significantly the title, since the Mohican tribe is still with us. Ironically, around the time of the campaign to finally corral the remaining "hostile" Indians onto reservations that would end at the Little Big Horn, a play about Tecumseh as a tragic hero was all the rage.

Even among Native writers, the publishing industry acts as gatekeepers in deciding what is authentic. Alexie, and Erdrich to an extent, pulled off a major coup by portraying Indians with a sense of humor. There's a lot of humor in much of the NA literature I've read, but most of what is more widely read are the tragedies, albeit well-written, that usually end with the main character's death––often suicide. In 2001 the late James Welch had a bestseller with The Heartsong of Charging Elk. He was essentially commissioned to write this story based loosely on the life of Black Elk, and it turned out to be a pretty cliche story about an Indian overwhelmed by the big city. There's a reason imposters like Nasdijj make it through that gate. They write the way white America thinks Indians should write.

I remember a very heated discussion in the Poets & Writers forum a few years ago, about "appropriation" in writing. I took the stance––for which I was roundly criticized by many––that I was dead set against white writers taking on the POV of American Indians or African Americans. I do, in fact, believe that writers should be extremely careful about any ethnic POV outside their own unless they have some "standing"––such as marriage or immersion in the culture––that would allow them to know it well. However, African Americans and American Indians are two groups that have historically been denied a voice. Until recently the literary world looked at African Americans much as they do Indian writers now. They oozed over a couple accepted names like James Baldwin and Richard Wright, while little other writing about African Americans was by African Americans. In the field of history, even today, the majority of African American history, like Indian history, is written by whites.

There is no doubt that taking on different persona is the art of great writing. Women take on the POV of men and vice versa. Hemingway won his Nobel for taking on the persona of the aged Cuban fisherman, Santiago. I've complained here more than once about the tendency in contemporary literary short ficton for the main characters to be loosely disguised versions of the author. I'm all for authors stretching themselves a bit, but not to the extent that we drown out the quieter voices.

Right now African Americans have gained a stronger voice, though they still have a ways to go. American Indians have barely begun to be heard. Until these voices become common, I believe we have moral obligation to step aside and allow them to speak for themselves.

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