Saturday, August 10, 2013

Writing about Indians When You're Not One, part 3: Indians Are People

by Troy D. Smith

Notice I said "Indians are people," not "Indians were people." That is an important distinction. In this blog I'm going to talk about some enduring stereotypes about American Indians, and that's one of the biggest ones: that they are extinct.

The U.S. American Indian population declined precipitously between 1800 and 1900. But it is now back to those 1800 levels, or higher (though nothing like it was before Europeans and their diseases first arrived.) There are numerous vibrant -and very much alive -American Indian communities around the country.

Ah, some would counter, those aren't authentic Indians so they don't count.

A) What is an "authentic Indian"? B) What gives you the right to decide who is one?

Those of us who work in the western genre, or just enjoy it, are very familiar with Indian stereotypes and how they have changed over the past century. For decades, the Indian was the fierce savage in western tales -the threat, the obstacle to be overcome. Sometimes he (or she) was still treated as having an innate nobility, but that nobility was doomed because the Indian, being "uncivilized", was doomed to fall before the advancing tide of "progress", for the good of everyone (well, except them.)

Then, sometime around 1970, the Indians became the good guys. Their lifestyle was presented, not as inferior, but rather as superior to the wasteful, hateful ways of the white folks (much of this was a reflection of the counter-culture and a reaction against Vietnam, even movies based on books that predated that conflict.)

In that one year, in fact, three movies were released that featured a white character who comes to appreciate, perhaps even prefer, the Indian lifestyle. Two of them are justifiably classics, and one of them sucks (see if you can tell which one I mean by looking at the posters!)

A year later, people in my hometown were lining up around the block to see BILLY JACK, about a half-Indian karate-fightin' hippie-lovin' Vietnam vet who took on the establishment, kicking butt and taking names.

My point is, Hollywood's view of Indians shifted away from the traditional view of them as animalistic, evil savages, and never shifted back. But both approaches are still stereotypes, because they treat Indians as symbols rather than as human beings.

Side note:  You ever notice how, in the 1950s and 1960s, in movies that did portray Indians positively, and make them the hero, the lead Indian was always played by a white actor?

Then in the 1970s, you started seeing Indian actors playing Indian characters (Jay Silverheels, of course, was way ahead of the curve on this one)...

But ever since then... with Indian actors finally playing Indian heroes... all of a sudden, even in movies ostensibly about those Indian heroes, the Indian character is never the main character anymore? (Notice how Wes Studi, playing Geronimo, has fourth billing in a movie CALLED GERONIMO.)

But I've let myself be sidetracked by one of my biggest pet peeves. My point is -both positive and negative stereotypes are still stereotypes. And they're not new- both the "Red Devil" and "Noble Savage" tropes go back to the sixteenth century.

In Hollywood... and many traditional western novels... Indians are always portrayed as stoic and wise, unless they are angry young men. Sometimes, as mentioned before, they are portrayed as natural aggressors (do we ever find out why the Mohawks in Drums along the Mohawk decided to side with the British?) or as inevitable victims.

I have sort of a love/hate relationship with Dances with Wolves. I think it is a great story, well-written and directed -but also see it as one of a long line of "white savior" movies in which a white guy decides to ally with some minority culture and just naturally rises to a leadership position within it. That's probably a topic for another day.

But one thing I absolutely love about this movie (and also about Little Big Man, which I think is far superior)... the Indians act like honest-to-goodness real human beings. They LAUGH. They have sex together, and enjoy it. They tell jokes. They cry. They are PEOPLE. That is the single biggest thing, I believe, that non-Indian writers miss when writing Indian characters. Do you know any real Indians? They can be funny as hell, and fun to be around.

And in history, Indians were not always either viciously, unreasoningly evil, or passive, saintly victims. They had what academics like to call agency... maybe, in the long run, not enough, but they had it just the same. They made their own decisions, based on their own human motivations... and often on their own internal politics. On their individual or communal best interests. They were people, in other words. Sometimes they were good, sometimes they were bad... sometimes they were alternately both. Just like everybody else. They weren't all the same.

I'm going to close with the story of Squanto. I bet you've heard of him. He was a Patuxet Indian from what is now New England. He was captured by English slavers, and sold initially to Spaniards, then winding up in England, where he learned the language. By the time he escaped slavery and made his way back home, working on an English ship for passage, he learned his entire village had been wiped out by disease. Then some weird new Englishmen showed up, calling themselves Pilgrims, and clearly had no idea how to survive the winter... so Squanto helped them, taught them a few agricultural tricks, and served as their interpreter when dealing with the powerful Wampanoag Confederation of Indians... some of whom came over to the Pilgrim settlement for a feast, as you may have heard.

And, so far as most people know, that was the end of the story. Except it wasn't.

You see, Squanto got kind of full of himself due to his close relationship with the Pilgrims, and started pushing the other Indians around...and they resented it. Nor did they completely trust his interpreting... they suspected he was trying to help the Pilgrims screw them over.

So they killed him.

You probably haven't heard this story (and that was an extremely oversimplified version of it, by the way), because you only know Squanto (real name: Tisquantum) as the "good Indian," or "noble savage," that American folklore has enshrined him as.

But, truth to tell, Squanto... was human.

I'll have more next month.


  1. Liked A Man Called Horse. Didn't like Little Big Man. Didn't like Dances with Wolves (but then, I'm not a great fan of Kevin Costner). I liked the Mountain Men (I think that was the title) with Charlton Heston and Brian Keith. But at the WWA convention in Bismarck SD, I got the idea from the panel of Indians, one of whom ran the Little Big Horn battlefield park, that we white-eyes can never get it right. I often have Indian characters in my novels. As with the whites and the blacks, they are figments of my imagination and may or may not be like some living or historical person.

  2. On the one hand, I would say that none of us non-Indians can ever get it absolutely 100% right. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try -and it doesn't mean writers should be restricted to writing only about characters from their own racial, socio-economic, and gender background. If that were the case, I could only write about poor white Appalachian males. That's not the case. But when I DO write about poor white Appalachian males, I can write about them with a bit more authenticity... and about 100 times more authenticity than someone who knows nothing about that group of people, and doesn't want to learn, because they already have a pretty good idea from watching The Beverly Hillbillies and Honey Boo Boo. I sincerely hope no one who has been reading this blog series thinks I am saying "Look at what we've all been getting wrong -boy, we suck." My goal is to say "Here are some things we can think about, and get right in the future." Because we SHOULDN'T be restricted, as writers, in who or what we write about; the whole world we weave is our own creation. But as writers, I believe, we have an obligation, when writing about other cultures, to get it as right as we can.

  3. How right you are. I could never write Bound for Promise-Land. Never. Not that I wouldn't want to, but that I don't have the experience to do it. That book could not be written (my opinion) with just book learning. My Monty McCord has a scene where a young white kid learns that young Indians can have the same feelings as he does. I hope it works.

  4. How right you are. I could never write Bound for Promise-Land. Never. Not that I wouldn't want to, but that I don't have the experience to do it. That book could not be written (my opinion) with just book learning. My Monty McCord has a scene where a young white kid learns that young Indians can have the same feelings as he does. I hope it works.

  5. Well said Troy. Hollywood has certainly done its share of providing stereotypes which were accepted as the norm. Those of us that live with or near Indians know different. People are people. Someone that lives in a metropolitan area, where there is no access to anything but what is provided by Hollywood, could easily form a false opinion. Fiction is fiction but the truth of history trumps all.

  6. Another great post, Troy, you militant revisionist historian you. ;-) (I hate even having to mention this, but there's never a guarantee online comments will be taken in the spirit they were intended. Just to be safe: That one was sarcasm.)

    Mankind's history is full of stereotypes -- partly because the winners of any conflict get to write the historical record. Typically, both sides of a conflict portray the other as irredeemably evil. Such characterizations dehumanize "the others," which I suppose is necessary in order to conscience wholesale slaughter, enslavement, and other brutal treatment: "Evil people get what they deserve. Once we defeat them, we'll 'save' them by making them embrace the right way to view the world."

    Long after the wounds of conflict have turned to scars and historians begin to examine the historical record more closely, cultural myths are difficult to dispel -- especially from outside the affected group.

    In the same way women and men, with significant effort, may approach a genuine understanding of the opposite gender's experience but never quite get all the way there, the Indians who spoke on the WWA panel may be correct: Non-Indians will never understand.

  7. That sounds like a good story, Charlie, I look forward to seeing how it turns out! Thanks for the kind words, y'all.

  8. Another truly insightful post. Living in Colorado I have been blessed to spend time with the Indians who live in this area. While I may never understand them completely, I will also never understand my best friend completely. We are all human and unique. That is our curse and blessing.
    Also I have always loved 'Little Big Man', I find it brilliant. Doris

  9. Troy,

    Well done.

    Kathleen, well said.

    We all come from the same genetic source, and we all are human. We have the ability to be empathetic.

    As writers, we put ourselves into the lives of our characters, do a lot of research, and try very hard to get it right. No matter who or what we are writing about.

    That's the way I see it. AND, a good story, no matter what, is a good story.

    I do however, believe, intuitively we as a people can and do understand---if we really want to.

    Charlie Steel

  10. Troy, I just had to read this before I turn in for the night after being out of town. Kevin Costner, God love him, did the same thing in The Postman. Remember how he saved humanity singlehandedly by delivering the mail again? Okay, I'm being facetious. Dances With Wolves was a good movie. (BTW, didn't he do the same thing in Waterworld? And what about Field of Dreams?)LOL

    Yes, you are so right--we have to write about other groups of people in our stories because we are all a part of the human race and we DO have things in common with one another, no matter who we are, as Charlie S. says. And you're right--we have to get it as "right" as we are able. I think it's a lot easier for those of us who have been raised in/near the culture we are trying to include in our story, but it's not impossible for other authors who don't have that advantage to make their characters realistic by reading, studying and learning about that culture. As devil's advocate, I guess we could say that not every single white man is like the next, therefore, the same can be said of men and women of any race--and if we want to make up a character, who's to say that such a person couldn't exist in reality? It's also a fine line between writing someone who is too "off the wall" to be believed and writing someone who is too stereotypical to be believed. Great post. I now have more food for thought!

  11. Troy, I really enjoy this series. I've been frustrated with the depiction of Indians in movies and books, too, although I couldn't have told you why exactly since I didn't understand.

    In our neck of the woods, we grew up with the story of Chief Joseph and the incredible escape he led. These weren't warriors--mostly women, children, and older men--yet their strong sense of independence and family gave them strength to do what few others could. I've always admired their courage and stamina under such adverse conditions. Only strength of character could get them through a 1100-mile trek through some of the roughest country in the US while being relentlessly pursued.