Friday, May 24, 2013
Writing About Indians When You're Not One
Writing western fiction often means writing about cowboys and Indians. Now, some of us have direct ranching experience and others do not. For those of us whose ranch experience is limited, there is clearly a need to do a lot of research so we at least have some idea what we're talking about. And that does require a good bit of effort. But at least, for most of us, it is only a specific profession and lifestyle, and subculture, we have to learn, not an entire culture that is foreign to us.
Not so with Indians, unless we happen to be one. It is possible to do a large amount of reading and research, and get many technical details right, and still misinterpret or incorrectly characterize some very basic cultural elements of how Indians think and act. Some western/historical fiction authors, nonetheless, have done an excellent job of writing "from the outside" about indigenous peoples. It's a very long list, and includes people like Don Coldsmith, Win Blevins (who, if I recall, does have some Cherokee heritage), Lucia St. Clair Robson, Terry Johnston, Michael Blake, Douglas Jones, and many others -including several of our WF members.
I am not an American Indian, but I have done a lot of research on the subject, including writing a dissertation and earning a Ph.D in it. I teach American Indian history at Tennessee Tech University. I also know a lot of Indians, some of 'em pretty well -some of them also academics, but many of them not. Which is all just a way of getting at the subject of this blog: my goal today is to share with you some basic facts about Indianness that a lot of us wasicu writers miss when we write about them.
I'm going to start with the term "Indian." Sometimes people hear me talking about Indians, and feel the need to correct me- "You mean Native Americans! They are not from India!"
Well, no, they are not from India, and they are native Americans. Since about 1970, Americans have been taught -initially by anthropologists -that calling indigenous peoples "Indians" was both insulting and inaccurate, and we should call them "Native Americans" instead. So, for the most part, we have learned to do just that.
Thing is, around 1995, a poll was taken of people who had self-identified as indigenous on the census, asking which term they preferred. 37% said Native American, but 50% said American Indian (the remainder had no preference.) From what I've seen, I'd say the tilt toward "Indian" has become even more pronounced since then. Since that is the case, scholars who study indigenous peoples have begun using Indian much more than Native American, as a reflection of the actual desires of the people in question. Most Indians, of course, prefer to be called by the name of their tribe or nation; but sometimes, especially for legal purposes, there is a need for a term describing them as a larger group. Why on earth, one might wonder, would they object to "Native American"? The most common reason I've heard is that none of the well-meaning white folks who decided their name should be changed ever bothered to ask them what they thought about it, so Native American is every bit as much an externally imposed generalization as Indian -at least, some say, they were used to the first one. So now academics have the well-deserved task of convincing people it's okay to switch back to a terminology they only dropped in the first place because academics told them to.
Now, on to some things that are more likely to come up in our western fiction.
It is difficult for us non-Indians to understand just how important tribe is to tribal members, in the past and in the present as well.
What is a tribe? It is, essentially, a group of related people. More specifically, a group of clans. In fact, most Indian tribes traditionally placed a great taboo on marrying within your own clan, as a way of keeping the gene pool sufficiently broad. It is KINSHIP, then, that defined (and continues to define) Indians. That kinship was usually literal -even if very extended -but it could also be fictive. That is, a person could enter into your kinship circle without being literally related to you -usually by an adoption ceremony.
In many tribes, only the people within your kinship circle were actually people, or at the very least, it was possible to have peaceful dealings with someone only if they were within your kinship circle (this is why many tribes gave themselves names that translated as The People, The Real People, or The Human Beings.)
Sometimes captives could be adopted into the tribe. At any rate, in order to have diplomatic or trade dealings with outsiders, they had to become insiders somehow.
Let us consider Pocahontas and Captain John Smith.
We all know John Smith's side of the story. He was captured by Powhatan Indians, and their chief was all set to have him executed... but then the chief's daughter, clearly smitten with the dashing English captain, begged for his life and her wish was granted (remember, we know this story because Smith recorded it. Modesty was not his strong suit.)
But let's try to look at it from the Indian perspective.
Chief Powhatan had been working at establishing hegemony in the tidewater region. Along come these new folks, the English... they might be a serious threat. On the other hand, they might be potential allies or at the very least trade partners. But they are outsiders and thus enemies. How to rectify that?
Captives are often adopted as members of the tribe. It is the women of the tribe, not the men, who decide which captives would live and which would die. Sometimes elaborate rituals were acted out, in which potential trade or diplomatic partners were symbolically adopted and brought INTO the kinship circle.
That interpretation actually makes more sense than the one John Smith believed, and which has been passed down to all of us... because of some very basic cultural misunderstandings.
Another important factor to consider is that about three-quarters of North American tribes were matrilineal, not patrilineal like Europeans. That is to say, their lineage was traced through the mother, not the father. When a couple got married, the husband left his clan or tribe and joined that of his wife. Of course, the other one-quarter of tribes WERE patrilineal. For example: Creek Indians were matrilineal, and Shawnees were patrilineal. If your mother were Creek and your father were Shawnee, you would actually have a valid claim of membership in both tribes. But if your mother were Creek and your father were Cherokee (another matrilineal tribe), then you were Creek. Not half-Creek... there was no such thing. Because it's all about the kinship circle. Either you are IN it, or you are NOT, you cannot be halfway.
I like to explain it this way. Let's say you are a Creek man in the 1700s, and you have two sisters. A runaway slave comes to your village, and your people decide to welcome him in... and he marries your sister. He is now a member of your tribe. Then later a white trapper comes into the village, perhaps a man who is unhappy with life in the settlements and prefers to live on the frontier- and he marries your other sister, thus also becoming a member of your tribe.
Now, to a European/American colonist, there would be three men: a red man, a black man, and a white man. But to the Creek Indians, there would simply be three Creek Indians. They look different from one another, but they are all inside the kinship circle, so they are all Creeks and so are their children.
This would change by the mid-19th century, as Southern tribes became "civilized", and terms like mixed-bloods and full-bloods would come into play. But that was not those tribes' traditional way of looking at things. Nor was it the way Plains tribes looked at things, until well after they were forced onto reservations.
Here's another historical example: the first French colonists who dealt with the Choctaws (like all those nations later called the Five Civilized Tribes, they were matrilineal.)
"We come to you from your Great White Father across the waters," the French said, because to them a father was the ultimate authority figure. "We give you these gifts." The gifts were to prove how wealthy and powerful the Great Father was, and instill both a sense of fear and a sense of obligation in the Choctaws. "We gave you this stuff and you accepted it, so we expect you to do what we tell you."
The Choctaws happily took their gifts, and didn't do a single thing the French told them to.
Because in the Choctaw worldview, the greatest male authority figure in your life was either your mother's eldest brother or your maternal grandfather. You're in THEIR clan/tribe, not your father's. (Ever notice how many stories have Indians being taught by their maternal grandfather? This is why.) Your father, on the other hand, was this guy who came around now and then and gave you presents and was your buddy, not the guy who laid down rules and punished you if you disobeyed them. The French are from the Great Father? Then of course they are giving us presents, that is a father's job. It's not his job to tell us what to do -so take the gifts, smile politely, then ignore him. But if the French had said they were from the Great Uncle across the water, there might have been a clearer understanding on the Choctaws' part of what the French were trying to do.
Now, here's something that bothers me sometimes. When discussing Cherokee leader John Ross, textbooks always say things like "Even though John Ross was only 1/8 Cherokee, he was accepted as their leader." That simple statement displays a basic lack of understanding about how Indian tribes worked at the time being discussed. Especially that "even though" part... and the "only"...because adding those words makes it seem very extraordinary indeed that such a man would become the leader of the Cherokee Nation. In fact, some people in the 19th century (and since) have believed that Ross's "white" blood gave him an intrinsic superiority that allowed him to rise to the top- the same thing was said of other Southern Indians, including the Creek leader Alexander McGillivray.
So let me tell you a little bit about John Ross's ancestry.
In 1740, a 20-year-old Scottish fur trader named William Shorey married a 15-year-old Cherokee girl named Ghigooie, from the Red-Tail Hawk Clan. It was common for Cherokees to marry their daughters to fur traders, because that brought the trader into the kinship circle and made it permissible to have dealings with him. Well, that couple had a daughter, and later she was married to another Scottish fur trader. THAT couple had a daughter, and SHE was married to yet another Scottish trader. And that couple had a son that the mother called Guwisguwi, which was the name of a mythical bird, but that the father called John Ross.
Now, the average American at the time looked at John Ross and said "how is this guy chief of the Cherokees? He's actually 7/8 Scottish!" And, in fact, Americans STILL say that, whether in history books or in the classroom.
But here's how the Cherokees saw it.
Ghigooie of the Red-Tail Hawk Clan of Cherokees had a daughter, Anna. Since the Cherokees are matrilineal, Anna was... Cherokee. Anna had a daughter named Mollie. Since Anna was a member of the Red-Tail Hawk Clan, so was her daughter. Not a 1/4 member; you were either a member, or you were not. Mollie had a son named John Ross; his mother was a Cherokee of the Red-Tail Hawk Clan, and therefore so was he. In fact, it was some of the most traditionalist members of the Cherokee leadership that endorsed Ross for Principal Chief... because he, like they, was Cherokee.
This was not just a Southeastern Indian phenomenon. Quanah Parker was the son of a Comanche man and a white woman who had been captured and adopted as Comanche when she was a child. Quanah's followers did not consider him "half-Comanche," but Comanche, like them. The list could go on.
My point is this. RACE WAS NOT AN INDIAN CONCEPT. It was a white concept. Race only became an Indian concept after any given tribe/nation started adopting the white man's way of thinking about things.
Consider the Lakota word for white people: wasicu. It literally meant "grabs the fat", as in someone who comes into your camp and with whom you are therefore obligated to share your food, but who rudely immediately grabs the very best for themselves. The word had nothing to do with skin color, and everything to do with perceived cultural attributes.
There has been a long tradition in western fiction and drama of portraying the "half-breed" as someone who was part-white and part-Indian, but accepted by neither, because he was not fully one or the other. This IS how white people would have considered him, because they had such an investment in the idea (especially in the 19th century) of "purity" of race. But it is unlikely that his own tribe would have considered him that way, especially if it were a matrilineal tribe and his mother was Indian, or if his white parent of either sex had been adopted into the tribe. It would be very non-Indian for a writer to assume that Indians would feel the same way about racial purity that white people of the time did. That's just the sort of cultural misunderstanding I was thinking of when I mentioned how easy it is for us non-Indians to make mistakes; heck, western writers have been making that mistake for generations.
As an example of how we can try to be more aware, I offer my Wolf Creek character Charley Blackfeather (Plug!! Book 5 is due out very soon!) Charley's father was a runaway slave who married a Seminole woman in Florida. This makes Charley, to his own people, a Seminole, since his mother was one. But to the average American he encounters in and around Wolf Creek, he is a "half-breed." In fact, he confuses some of them, because they're not sure whether he's a black man or an Indian. He is both -but culturally, he is Seminole.
Note: Of all the "civilized tribes", the Seminoles were the most reluctant to develop a racialized hierarchy that debased blacks. Why? Because they were the least "civilized" (mostly because their swampy homeland enabled them to resist domination by whites for the longest of any Southern tribe.) Nineteenth century reality: being "civilized" meant learning to treat blacks as inferiors, thus the more "traditional" a tribe was, the less likely they were to pay much attention to wasicu ideas about race.
I had intended to cover several subtopics in this post.... but so far I've only covered my first bullet point. I guess I'll have to make this a series... that being the case, I'll wrap this one up and await your comments.