Off the Literary Reservation
“What does it mean when you never see yourself in the reading you are provided at school? Does it mean you don’t exist, you don’t count, you are not important?”
James Blasingame, a professor at Arizona State University, wonders. He works at the intersection of two genres constantly on the defensive: Native American literature, forever overshadowed by the Little House on the Prairie’s of the world, and young-adult literature, trashed regularly as a non-entity invented to market Twilight. He shrugs off the young-adult literature naysayers. “Scholars, teachers, librarians, people who actually work with young people every day and know what reading can mean in their lives do not question its value.”
But with regard to Native American literature, he worries that students in Arizona are being shortchanged. The state’s sizeable population of Native students rarely encounter characters like themselves in the books they read at school. This lack of representation, Blasingame says, “robs the young reader of the power of literature to do what books and reading are so good at: to provide readers with a means for making sense of the world and their place in it.”
To help meet that need for representation, Blasingame teamed up with fellow ASU professor and renowned poet Simon Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo) to design and implement a Native American literature curriculum at Westwood High School in Mesa, Arizona. The pair worked with Timothy San Pedro (a resident of the Flathead Indian Reservation), then an ASU doctoral student and now a professor at Ohio State University, and Westwood literature teacher Andrea Box, as well as other scholars, teachers, and tribal members to craft the course. Besides the curriculum’s cornerstone―The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (Spokane and Coeur d’Alene)―Box chooses from a recommended reading list of approximately 70 works by Native American young-adult authors like Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee), N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), and Joy Harjo (Muscogee). Box now teaches the course every term as part of the school’s regular literature offerings.
Blasingame outlines a concern common among educators in an increasingly diverse America. Teachers must dig out from under distantly crafted standards to re-engage with cultural traditions long neglected in American life. They seek to understand their students’ contexts not as a barrier to be overcome on the way to assimilation, as in the past, but as a vital asset in expanding what American literature―more literally, the American story―really is.
“I think most Native American literature is unreadable by the vast majority of Native Americans,” Sherman Alexie said in a 2001 interview with the Iowa Review. “If it’s not accessible to Indians, then how can it be Native American literature?”
Educator Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo) has similarly remarked at her blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature, that appropriate literature is in low supply. An overwhelming majority of the books published for young people about Native Americans every year are historical fiction taking place on tribal lands, for instance, despite the fact that there are about five million Native Americans living today and 61 percent of them reside in cities. In the American imagination, the Native population is confined not just to physical reservations but to the historical reservation of the past.
Non-Native authors have also confined Native Americans to a more nebulous cultural reservation, allocating them only two typical representations: the noble savage and the romantic mystic. The menacing, violent Native Americans of Little House on the Prairie―the phrase “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” appears in the children’s classic three times―became by the 1980s the grunting, naïve “chief” of The Indian in the Cupboard. The suspiciously environmentalist Native Americans of Dear America books, “retold” myths, and Disney movies have spawned a commercialized “native” spirituality that offers little in the way of relevance to Native Americans today. Taken together, the noble savage and romantic mystic tropes, alongside a sports mascot or two, are often the only images of Native Americans that young people, Native and non-Native alike, get.
Kenan Metzger and Wendy Kelleher, researchers in curriculum development and teacher training, explained the significance of relatable contemporary characters for students in a 2008 article for The ALAN Review:
Over-generalized, arrested forms of representation created by sports mascots, Thanksgiving and Columbus myths, non-Indian literature, and Hollywood movies perpetuate the perception that American Indian/Alaska Native/Hawaiian Native people still look and act the same as they may have hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Imagine an Indian child, watching Dances with Wolves or reading James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans looking in a mirror. His mother tells him he is an Indian, but he sees neither feathers, nor war paint, nor other accoutrements associated with the Indians he sees in these visual and literary media. In his confusion, he may ask himself, ‘Are you a real Indian?’
Metzger and Kelleher represent the burgeoning academic community seeking to promote literature by and for Native Americans, not just about them. Most popular books about Native American subjects ― from history to beliefs to ethnography ― are inaccurate accounts by white authors. Sherman Alexie has characterized these books as “colonial literature,” akin to any outsiders’ view of their conquests.
Alexie’s description is politically charged―but so is the literary market of non-Native writers who presently dominate the Native American narrative. In his book God Is Red, Vine Deloria Jr. wrote about this displacement of contemporary Native voices by voices out of the past in the context of the 1960s pan-Indian civil rights movement:
it seemed as if every book on modern Indians was promptly buried by a book on the ‘real’ Indians of yesteryear. The public overwhelmingly turned to Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and The Memoirs of Chief Red Fox to avoid the accusations made by modern Indians in The Tortured Americans and Custer Died for Your Sins. The Red Fox book alone sold more copies than the two modern books. … Each takeover of government property only served to spur further sales of Brown’s review [Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee] of the wars of the 1860s. While the Indian reading public was in tune with The New Indians, The Tortured Americans, The Unjust Society … and other books written by contemporary Indians on modern problems, the reading non-Indian public began frantically searching for additional books on the Indians of the last century.
Until the 1960s, literary representations of Native Americans were found mainly in “as told to” autobiographies, a form in which non-Native writers convey personal narratives supposedly transcribed from real-life encounters. The genre is exemplified by John G. Neihardt’s 1932 Black Elk Speaks, in which an amateur white historian unsurprisingly had problems accurately relating the life of an Oglala Lakota medicine man.
“The truth is, the ‘as-told-to’ lives (even that of the primogenitor Nick Black Elk) are the margins of Indian history, not the center of it,” scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn (Crow Creek Lakota) wrote in Anti-Indianism in Modern America. “The reason for that is they are based in sociology, not the literature of the people.”
Some are based in even less. One of the most popular of these white-written “Native autobiographies,” The Education of Little Tree, was in fact a literary hoax perpetrated by Asa Carter, a Klansman and a speechwriter for George Wallace. Masquerading as a Cherokee memoirist named Forrest Carter, he told of the lessons he learned as a young boy with his (fictional) Indian grandparents in the Appalachian Mountains, all generally related to harmonious living and personal independence. Though Native scholars pointed out the book’s stereotypes, invention of Cherokee words and customs, and overall romanticized picture of Native life, only the author’s objectionable personal history pulled it off Oprah’s shelf of recommended reading and pushed it from the New York Times’s nonfiction list onto its fiction counterpart. The masking of white supremacist beliefs with romanticized Indian narrative had never been so literal, and the non-Native literary world’s indifference to accuracy and relevance had never been so blatant.
The book also exhibited a subtler problem. The Education of Little Tree is about a supposedly “Native” approach to life, a sort of idealized indigeneity that serves as a vehicle to pass down a vague libertarianism to a new generation. It does not try to be a book about Native Americans, but about Native Americanness, or at least the way Carter perceived it.
Metzger, a professor at University of Missouri–Kansas City, says that avoiding stereotypes is just the beginning of a culturally relevant curriculum. “As young-adult literature develops and as it represents more diversity―ethnic diversity, but also gender identity, disability, and other things students are dealing with―we hope to see, as educators and researchers, that we have books that are about young people’s experience wherein characters just happen to be diverse,” he explains. “The book isn’t about Native Americanness, it’s about a teenager or young person who happens to be Native American. That’s a more helpful kind of representation in literature for young people because they can identify with the characters.”
S.D. Nelson (Standing Rock Sioux), a children’s author with 28 years of teaching experience in public schools, emphasizes contemporariness above all. “Here in the 21st century we still perpetuate this romantic revision of Native Americans with feathers in their hair, riding painted horses … and that’s all fine and well at traditional ceremonies, and we want to keep those alive, but along with that we need to recognize that time continues to move forward. As an author I am speaking to young people today. One of the important things I hope to pass on to young readers, young Native American readers, is a sense of hope and a sense of their importance in the world and in America―today.”
That’s a heavy sense of purpose to attach to a genre. But the Native American novel has always had intense implications: the first Native American novelist was John Rollin Ridge, a Cherokee leader in the mid-1800s who called his philosophy of assimilation for survival simply “civilization.” Ridge saw the Native adoption of the English-language novel as a way to preserve Native storytelling in a world dominated by European narrative.
While today the Native American novel is no longer necessarily an assimilation technique, it is not purely entertainment either. As children’s author Christopher Myers has put it, stories are not just mirrors of life as young people live it―they are maps for the road ahead of them.
Sherman Alexie has embraced this role as “cartographer” in defending his books’ occasionally violent material. As he wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2011:
When some cultural critics fret about the ‘ever-more-appalling’ YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. … I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons—in the form of words and ideas—that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.
The contemporary Native American young-adult novel is not just about Native storytelling traditions or European colonial art forms, then. It is about finding a way to speak to the contemporary reality of American minority youths. Perhaps, as James Blasingame suggests, the key is simply to hand over the microphone. The most important feature of Andrea Box’s Arizona curriculum, Blasingame says, is “a frame of mind that human history has been recorded most often from only one perspective, and literature is also written from one perspective, often an inaccurate and biased one. If we would have the true story of a nation of people, we must hear their story from them.”
Catherine Addington is a TAC editorial assistant.