In the very beginning of the invasion from Europe in the sixteenth century, the people on the North American continent did not write things down but the invaders did. In fact, the invaders governed themselves with pieces of paper signed by important people. Because the people already on this continent had no paper documentation -- just their own living experience -- this made the Euro people sure that they themselves were “better” and that there was no problem with them “owning” this land. In fact, using paper, they sold big chunks back and forth among themselves in Europe -- kings signing papers with the occasional Papal Bull. (There can’t be a Papal Cow.) But the people already here went on living their lives the same as always while Louisiana was purchased and repurchased. There was no change in the land.
Until the code written in the cells of the Euros, transferred there as zoonoses from cows (cowpox) ten thousand years earlier, swept across this continent and wiped out huge percentages of the People. Then the land WAS empty. The first writing was about Indians, colonists writing back to Europe about these curious fragmented People.
In the earliest years the autochthonous people (misnamed Indians), on this new land (misnamed America), studied the Euros carefully and decided to learn writing and printing. They did. Benjamin Franklin had them working with him in his print shop. He used some of their ideas and they wrote and some even went to college before they died of euro-diseases. Then came the Prairie Clearances where the Indians were nomads and used to war, documented in pictograms, and had nothing to lose except themselves. The Cherokee had learned to write and had their own printing presses, but all that was dispersed. The Indians had to go underground on their own land.
Journalists, then as now eager for sensation and horror, wrote about the Indian Wars, building an image of Indians as little more than animals or maybe supernatural devils. But the do-gooders, as aways, set out to throw their weight the other way and began to write about Indians as human beings, noble and childlike. The religious people, esp. the Catholics, saw the advantage of Indians as souls. A woman sat down with what she took to be a chief (Pokagon) and wrote down what he told her. He was very careful what he said.
Oppressed and stigmatized people have always been careful to protect their inner lives and their level of understanding, because the less they are seen as a threat the better spies they were (are) -- the better chance for survival they had (have). After many decades Indian books were still “as told to” and often slightly (ahem) “improved” by sympathetic exploiters. Few are aware of the yawning gulf between the celebrators of the 19th century Indians who love James Willard Schultz, thinking his tales are about “real” Indian life, and the actual 20th century Indians who despise Schultz, seeing him as a drunken exploiter. When the academic historians come upon this, they try to change the subject.
Often the first writing that comes directly from a stigmatized and hidden people is full of rage. White writers as benign as Hillerman, as prize-winning as LaFarge, as sympathetic as McClintock, were set upon with firestorms. The early Indian writers were those who did well in school and made white contacts -- often mixed bloods or people displaced to the city by Eisenhower’s policies after WWII. This enraged the full-bloods who really KNEW what it meant to be stigmatized and oppressed. That became a huge issue. The internal war between the lesser-quantum and total-quantum people overwhelmed issues of truth, witness and change as bewildered liberals tried to find a way into an argument that had nothing to do with them. Finally most ran for cover.
For a while Native American writing was fashionable and it was considered a Renaissance, a triumph of progress and education. But it was merely a ploy on the part of a publishing industry desperate for some new wave (women? YA’s? shocking drug use? ethnic minorities?) to drive up sales so the acquiring conglomerate would get its usual ten per cent profit. These Indian books were not meant to be read by Indians. As a publisher told Vine Deloria, Jr., people on reservations don’t read. There are no bookstores there. Liberals and academics were supposed to read and praise these books, and they did, but it wasn’t enough.
So now, here I am, wanting to encourage Native Americans to write, to support those who can and do write. But the publishing industry has gone to smash and that’s both an advantage and a disadvantage. The revelations about secret ordeals and mystical visions are gaining a little juice again, but I have no taste for them. My friend Rolland Nadjiwan says now the Indians are writing for Indians. Does that mean I have no part to play?
There is no good history of the Blackfeet in the Twentieth Century. Should I begin to write it? Should we divvy up the territory/time-frame and write about it in class? I’ve already been gathering evidence and posting it on lulu.com. Should I be pushing self-publishing? But the people here, like all the rest of us (including my cousins and Tim), don’t feel as though that’s real publishing. They want the validation of a proper Manhattan publishing house taking out ads or at the very least an important movie star taking an option. Would Charlie Rose interview us? Otherwise it feels as though it never really happened, that our writing is not worthy of respect.
Whose point of view should be represented: the ones who quietly got their teaching certificate, attended church, washed their cars and grew grass in the yard? Some would consider that contemptible collaboration with the enemy. The ones who lived high and wide, drinking, drugging, roaming the pow-wow highways in the night, growing braids and whooping it up? The ones who quietly lived in their grandparents’ old log cabins back in the foothills, preserving the old ways but sunk in poverty and depression and hating themselves, thinking it is their own fault somehow, accepting the stigma of the blanket? We need testimony from first-hand, people who can put their experience out on the table. But they are afraid. How do we encourage them? Or maybe the real question is why? When they know that, then they can speak and write, documenting on paper their living experience.