Wednesday, August 20, 2008


What we have here is either a slippery slope or an entering wedge. I’m not sure which, but maybe I can get the slant right.

When the first Euros encountered the Native Americans they got them wrong straightaway by calling them “Indians,” because they thought (hoped) they were in India. So the first Euro writing was about Indians, to let everyone back home know what they were like.

When some Euros learned Indian languages and Indians learned Euro languages, the Euros reported what the Indians said, but they were translating so they might have gotten it wrong. Indians who could speak English or French or Spanish might not have said quite what they meant either.

Simon Pokagon
wrote what is identified as the first book by an Indian, but some say his lawyer’s wife helped quite a bit. When Black Elk told his fabulous tale to Joseph Epes Brown, he began a genre, the mystical as-told-to.

For quite a while as anthropology began to take shape, there was an absolute craze for authentic Indian myths which has never quite abated. Some collectors of these stories, like Ulenbeck, were careful to get them in the original languages so they were “right.” The idea of natural variants was not appealing to these scientifically minded folks, so the pattern that developed was “you write something and then I’ll tell you whether it is right.” First the stories were meant for children, so they were expurgated, but then authenticity became important so the “colorful” stuff was restored.

Then along came the enthusiasts like James Willard Schultz who never heard a story too good to touch up a bit, and that led to the “rural myths” that involved Indians facing new-fangled stuff in a blundering way, like building a fire in the oven of an electrical stove. Then came the wild picaresques, prompted in part by the effects of alcohol.

There was a romantic movement in which hippies and traumatized veterans went to the rez to be inspired and healed, writing about their close relationships to Indians as a sign of their initiations and deservingness.

In the Post-Colonial Theory period everyone had a great hunger to read stories by “real” Indians who had presumably been suppressed all this time, prevented from writing novels. But then along came purists who said novels were a Euro-invention and “real” Indians could produce only traditional tribal orally-transmitted stories or maybe their own experiences, tragic as they indubitably were.

After that it was considered that any non-Indian who wrote an “Indian” book was stealing bread from Indian writers because there was only so much market and a non-Indian crowded out the Indian and prevented him from winning prizes. Telling his story (clearly there was probably only one: like, fighting one’s way on the rez) better than he could would keep him from selling his own version. The exception might be the genetically-white person raised by an Indian family.

But it was all right for non-Indians to critique non-Indians who wrote Indian books, even though it would be pretty hard for them to judge what was authentic and what was not if they’d never been around Indians. The judgments became increasingly harsh, justifying scorn and maybe some retribution, in much the same pattern as PETA, the people who defend poor helpless animals by encouraging folks to throw paint on fur coats.

Critics split about non-Indians who grew up on reservations. Maybe it comes down to whether a person is more shaped by genetics or by environment, but a genetic Indian might argue that a white person on a reservation was privileged and therefore didn’t have an Indian experience. Why it would be a privilege to be white on an Indian reservation, why Indians wouldn’t privilege themselves over whites, didn’t come clear for a while. Now we know: Indian are husbands, white people are wives. It used to be the other way around. There were some exemptions for people like Tony Hillerman, because criticizing him makes one very unpopular.

So now the ground rules are laid out:

Only Indians can write Indian stories, unless they are myths. Then they can be written down by white anthros, esp. if they are written for children and prettily illustrated but absolutely the definitive version.

Whites who write Indian stories but admit they are white are better than whites who pretend to be Indians and write Indian stories. No Indians pretending to be white and writing white stories have been detected, nor Indians pretending to be white and writing Indian stories. Maybe there’s potential left here.

But the best thing to be is a white professor who writes about why white writers who write stories about Indians are very bad. In fact, such writers should be exposed and put out of business. In fact, they should be persecuted [sic] and prevented from ever writing again or ever teaching again. In fact, they should be stalked on the Internet, and their families as well. In fact, if you ever meet them, you should punch them in the nose. Because what a white professor of Indian literature should oppress is white people who write about Indians -- because Indians have miserable lives and only the privilege of telling the story themselves to compensate them.

This might not work if Indians get good enough to write as well as white folks and compete on a level playing field, as they say, but a white college professor can control that playing field by ghettoizing Indians, insisting that only Indians can write Indian literature. If there are a bunch of liberals hanging around, insisting on an Indian professor, hire a “ringer” they way they do in Colorado: a guy who SEEMS to be an Indian but isn’t academically qualified. Then if he gets to be a nuisance you can express shock and horror as you wave goodbye. If you accidentally hire a REAL Indian who is REALLY qualified but becomes troublesome, you have two choices. Either put so much pressure on him to produce that he buckles and maybe even commits suicide, or just find that your budget has come up short and eliminate his department.

If all else fails there’s always the death threat: jihad. It works for the Muslims. They can drive famous people into hiding, take books off the market. Why can’t it work for Indians? Don’t go too far. Shooting a phony Indian would be like shooting an abortion clinic doctor for destroying life. Someone might think it was terrorism. The law might finally get involved. Just dink around on the Internet and made yourself a stalking shadow.

The above is satirically stated but I could name real life examples of every sentence. It would make this post too long.


win blevins said...

I LOVE this bit of satiric criticism, which is all too accurate.

However, the notion that Columbus's sailors called the native people "Indian" because they thought they were in India isn't right. India didn't exist in 1492--it was called Hindustan. The sailors thought they were in the Indies (and they were, but the West Indies, not the East Indies). Maybe the original diaries and logs called them "Indios," residents of the Indies.

khare said...

Hahahahah...Love it ....absolutely. What do you think about IWE? I just visited a Indiaplaza and they are running an award for Indian Writers called the Golden Quill (, found a few interesting books. So I just wanted to know your stand on the Indian writers writing in English.

d SINNER!!! said...

loved the sarcasm...

agree with it...