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.


  1. Fascinating post, Troy. Good to have that insight.

    How about Grey Owl, the conservationist and writer, who was born an Englishman, Archibald Belaney? He married an Iroquois called Anahareo and became world famous. When he died his English roots became known and it was said that he had perpetrated a huge hoax, which apparently detracted somewhat from the good work that he had done in conservation.

    But had he, or had he effectively become a member of the tribe? Had he psychologically become Grey Owl? Am I reading it correctly?

    Also, I find it interesting about John Ross and his Scottish ancestry. The Scots are also tribal, in that we have clans and one wears the tartan of one's clan.

    After the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692 and then again after the Uprising of 1745, many Scottish clansmen emigrated to America. One wonders if coming from one tribal society and joining another would have seemed very natural?


  2. Interesting post Troy.

    So now I've got to figure out what the heck I am. Great-grandfather was Cherokee, grandmother was 1/2, mother was 1/4, and I thought I was 1/8. I guess since it started with my great-grandfather, I'm still an 1/8th from that side. Not sure of the steps on the other side. I really should take some time and research.

    I really enjoy these informative blogs.

  3. Keith- the question is, whether Belaney self-identified as Indian or not, how did Indians view him? I'm not sure if he interacted with his Mohawk wife's people or to what extent, but I do know that -long before he married her -he had been officially adopted by the Ojibwe band among whom he worked as a trapper. The real problem was, the general public didn't care how Indians viewed him, to them he was a white guy trying to pass himself off as Indian and "that ain't right." The same thing happened with John Ross- his critics (most notably Andrew Jackson), all of whom were his critics because he resisted Indian Removal, referred to him as a slick white con artist who had fooled the simple Indians into trusting him. A very important Supreme Court case, United States v. Rogers (1846), extended this into a legal reality... a white guy named Rogers killed another white guy in Indian Territory, specifically in the Cherokee Nation. Both men had been adopted into the Cherokee tribe. When the U.S. arrested Rogers, he said -and the Cherokee Nation backed him up -that they had no jurisdiction over him, because everyone involved was actually Cherokee and so it was an Indian matter. The Court ruled, basically, that if you're physically white then you're white, no matter what anyone else says. So back to Grey Owl- the Ojibwes, who gave him that name, accepted him as one of their own. On the matter of Scottish clans... the largest number of colonial settlers in the mountainous areas of the Southeast were either Scottish or Scots-Irish. For them as don't know, Scots-Irish were people whose ancestors were from Scotland and were settled in Ireland for a few generations, so in many ways they were culturally more Scottish than Irish. Anyhow, that contributed to the clannish nature of Appalachians (Hatfields and McCoys, anyone?) I would imagine that one of those folks would probably adapt more easily to Cherokee clan/tribal thinking than someone from some other European countries.

  4. By the way, all these explanations are for the traditional Indian viewpoint about tribal membership. At the time of the Dawes Act and alllotment (1890s) the federal government made blood quantum the basis of tribal membership, no matter which side it was on... and they had been working for a long time to quash those "silly" Indian notions of matrilineality and teach them that good old fashioned patriarchy is the American way. So in the 21st century, one becomes a Cherokee citizen by virtue of "Cherokee blood", on either side of the family... but matrilineal cultural notions have persisted in many ways anyhow.

  5. Another ost-script: the fact that Indians tended to think in tribal, not racial, terms is a huge factor in the fact that they never unified to oppose the whites. Tecumseh actually came the closest to doing that, putting together a large coalition of tribes... but even in his case, he had little success getting the Southeastern tribes to join his cause (though he did inspire a large portion of the Creeks to do so.) When I was a kid I thought it was weird that the cavalry had Crow scouts in the Sioux wars. But the Crows weren't thinking "we're all Indians, we need to stand together", they were thinking "we're Crows, and the Sioux are our ancestral enemies, and man they suck." And, of course, even individuals from tribe to tribe would cross over to the US side against their own people... because they were human, and therefore often acted in their individual interests.

  6. "ost-script"? You knew what I meant. :-)

  7. In my, A Man Called Breed, Wolf Wilder is half Cheyenne (father an unknown white man) and survivor of Sand Creek as a lad. Taken in by an Irish sergeant, earned a medal of honor as a scout out of Camp Verde (under Al Sieber). But whites still called him "breed." The Jicarilla Apaches, however, made no mention of his race. Maybe I got something right.

  8. My friend Hank Real Bird, of the Crow Tribe, has a one-liner relative to the term "Native American."

    "I ain't no Native American," Hank says. "I'm F.B.I.--Full Blooded

    Works for me.

    Stan Lynde

  9. I've heard FBI as "&%^% Big Indian."

  10. Troy-Most instructional. I feel as if I've been sitting in on one of your lectures. Fascinating but key information you've provided--something I don't think could be Googled successfully. The details you provided represent a textbook example (sorry, I couldn't resist) of the complexities involved in writing about Indians, and the kind of knowledge or inside details a writer should be equipped with in order to lend historical authenticity to a story. Thanks for saving me the cost of matriculating to Tennessee Tech for the class.

  11. Thanks for clearing up some of the misconceptions, Professor. Some segments of American society have the irritating habit of insisting their worldview/lifeway is the only correct way to organize the cosmos. My own research (not anywhere near as extensive as yours) led to the discovery that a goodly number of native peoples in the U.S. prefer to be called "Indian," "American Indian," or "AmerInd." (Without debating the group's more radical acts, the very name of AIM -- American Indian Movement, founded 1968 -- should have been a clue. ;-) )

    In several traditional Apache dialects, the People call themselves "ndee," "nde," or "indeh." Surprisingly similar to the English word "Indian," no?

    I'm looking forward to more in this series. :-)

  12. Thank you for the information. I lived in Wisconsin for a few years near the Ojibwa reservations. It was a blast to talk to the older ones and compare how they viewed things compared to the Southern views I grew up with. Some, like the view of family were very similar. Others were like getting a glimpse of another world.

    One thing they wanted remembered was that they are not a historical group, they are still around.

    As for attitudes toward other tribes, it varied. One friend spoke of when he was younger, the only thing a Sioux was good for was to slap up side the head.

    The whole cultural difference between them and various white cultures is something I find fascinating. Thank you again for sharing.

  13. I loved that post. I wish I still lived in NC so I could hop across those mountains to Knoxville and sit in on some of your lectures!
    Most of us in Europe first learned about Indians through the writings of the 19th century German author Karl May. It is fascinating how he managed to get several details right, even though he never visited the West. I am looking forward to this series. Sounds like it could be material for a fascinating new book too.

  14. Troy, as always, a WONDERFUL post. We are Cherokee and Choctaw, from what I've learned through genealogy research. Most people here in Oklahoma refer to themselves, as you say, by tribe. But I don't know anyone who objects to the term "Indian", and in fact, very few that I know call themselves "Native American"--it's usually "He's Choctaw," etc. I think you should consider doing some on-line lectures on the side--we'll PAY YOU! LOLLOL This is all fascinating stuff, of course, and there's no way to cover it all in one post--I'm so glad you are going to make a series of it.

  15. Excellent. You will do a great service, Troy, by expanding like this on each of your bullet points. And this is timely, too. Cherokee writer Robert J. Conley was just over at my blog talking about the need to fully research a tribe before writing an Indian character into a western story.

    Following the subject of race in early western fiction, you routinely come across the belief that a "half-breed" embodies the worst traits of both races. Thus they are often villains. And white men who cohabited with Indian women, called "squaw men," were deemed unworthy of the company of respectable white women. The attitude toward them comes very close to the regard in which sex offenders are held today.

  16. Excellent, excellent post, Troy. Wow, how many mistakes have I made already, about my Native Am...excuse me, Indian characters, and me living and writing right here in "The Nations." The good news is, you made me understand that I am Cherokee, my way-back lineage having come from my mother's side. And, even though I'm "un-documented" on the white man's rolls, I'm still all by God Cherokee. Thanks for that, and, by all means, make your bullet points a series.

  17. Excellent post, Troy! For many years I thought I was being "sensitive" using the term Native American. Then I took a Native American studies class in college and the professor was Assiniboine. Her first statement: "Raise your hand if you weren't born in America." When no hands went up she went on with her lecture. We were told if at all possible use their tribal name, but if we don't know which tribe they belong to use American Indian or Indian. Then it took forever to stop using Native American.

    I look forward to future lessons.

  18. An excellent explanation of a serious misconception then and now. Look forward to future posts on the subject.

  19. Thank you, Troy! I'm looking forward to your future posts in this series.

    You've hit on the exact reason why there's not a single Indian in any of my westerns. I've never figured out how to reconcile the truth with the myth that western readers seem to expect--so I avoid it. This confusion came about when I was very young and my g-uncle was talking about his best friend. He and his friend were inseparable for well over 50 years--they hunted together, socialized, everything two men who are best friends do. But his best friend was 3/4 Shoshone, and my g-uncle made it clear that he was only friends with the 1/4 white part of him--the rest was "about the same as a dog."

    You can just imagine how shocked and disgusted I was. And confused. Why would his friend put up with that attitude? A 50+ year friendship! Clearly, the racial prejudice was one-sided. Just as clearly, I knew my understanding and concept of the various Indian cultures was sorely lacking.

  20. Wonderful information Troy. I've been visiting with and writing back and forth with the tribe I write most about and have learned some of what you have in your post. It is a fascinating culture.

  21. Most interesting, Troy. Thanks for confirming my use of Indian rather than NT. One of my Indian correspondents once said, "Hell, you're a Native American, aren't you? Isn't Texas still in the United States?"

  22. A well-written, informative post, Troy. I hope many, many people read this and learn, not just to write...but to understand what others have written. History has been skewed because of the accidental and often intentional misrepresentation of "race" vs. "tribe." East TN students are very fortunate to have you as a professor.

  23. Having spent a lot of years working as a member of an Indian owned Architectural/Engineering firm who consulted for the BIA and IHS, I found myself fortunate to make some really good friends on reservations throughout the US. The differences among the tribes -- the history and mystery of tribal conflicts -- has always amazed me. It also impacted my job, because getting various tribal members to agree on important issues was no easy thing. Feuds that occurred centuries ago are carried forward through oral tradition, and it could really make things interesting. What I did discover though, is that Indians have a keen sense of humor and really enjoy skewering non-Indians.

  24. Thank you for taking the time to delve more deeply into the subject. Like all mis-understood concepts it takes time and patience to undo all the years of mis-information. Great start. Doris

  25. My thanks to everyone who read and/or commented- I'm glad you enjoyed it, and I look forward to more. And I wish you COULD all sit in on my classes!

  26. I hope you do make this a serial post. I've already gleaned some great facts to use from this post. I like your explanation of the cultural concepts of American Indians as opposed to the white concept of racial differences. I actually took notes.
    I look forward to your future posts, Troy, because this one was sensational.

  27. Valuable and insightful, Troy. I saved this blog on paper and in my Evernote files, as well as sent it around the universe via Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn. Wish you were closer to Texas, New Mexico or Arizona. This is one gal who would be in the front row of any of your Indian lectures.

    Dang! It's really going to be hard to quit saying "Native-American." I've said it a long, long time.

  28. My closest friend is Cherokee. She told me about Indians preferring to be called Indian. That "Native American" was just another "white people's thing." I get dirty looks sometimes when I say it, but I'd rather be true to what Indians want to be called than politically correct.

    Looking forward to the rest of the series!

  29. My inclination to NOT refer to American Indians as Indians has more to do with knowing more Indian immigrants than Mohawks. The term irritates the hell out of them.

    That being said, I'll call anyone what they want to be called. Usually it's their name.;)

  30. This is interesting information. However I would say as far as Indian versus native American is concerned, "Indian and "Native American" are not one in the same in terms of the original Inhabitants of "America" for the sake of this conversation could be considered "Indian", however someone like John Smith is a "native American". Not because necessarily because of his "Indian" heritage but because he was "European" who was born in and inhabited the America's just like the rest of the "Europeans" at the time. "Cherokee", not being the original/actual name of the people he shares a small lineage with is a translation error used as a way to create a "federally" recognized group of people separate from the original people. The idea if John Ross being a chief of the original people is interesting but seems unlikely. However creating a group of people, and using the lineage of the original people to separate yourself from the common settler gives you a unique advantage in many aspects of the newly formed government.