The prose of many Native American authors concerns an unaffected American ethos juxtaposed against the history of their people’s subjugation. It may assist the reader to understand the issues promulgated as relatable to the warring cultures of old, yet they exist in the “modern” day. Native American authors seek to create understanding and explain the bulldozing of indigenous culture by expanding knowledge through the themes of Land Acquisition, Alcohol Abuse, and Violence, and ways these are attributed to colonial oppression. As a matter-of-fact, their stories of subjugation are consistently summed as Euromerican conquest and colonialism. This essay presents ten literary specimens in support of the afore mentioned themes which have been used to portray the Native American experience.
In Tracks, Ojibwe writer, Louise Erdrich introduces the reader to the tribal elder, “Nanapush,” who describes the way Native Americans in the late-nineteenth Century consider land issues as he says, “Land is the only thing that lasts life to life. Money burns like tinder, flows off like water” (33). When examining the works of Native American writers, they tend to follow the argument that native peoples were bamboozled out of their lands. Erdrich addresses this literary niche through her fictional narrative that supports the Native American cultural and political traditions concerning land. The exemplar of Native American precedent in land issues may be the Haudenosaunee “Great Binding Law,” legislating that, “[women] shall own the land and the soil” (Parker 42), however the land is also,
. . . the property of the people who inhabit it. [We Haudenosaunee] are the owners of the soil . . . and none other may hold it. The same law has been held from the oldest times. The Great Creator has . . . established different hunting grounds and territories and made boundary lines between them. (Parker 50)
Blackfeet writer, James Welch’s Fools Crow considers land holdings differently: as western lands undefined, save the geological boundary of the Rocky Mountains (Great Backbone), and the political boundary of the Canadian border, or “Medicine Line” (300). Thomas McGuane sums the land conflict as, “The whites wanted the real estate, the Indians wanted the rifles. Whiskey lubricated the transaction” (Welsch xiii). One of Welch’s characters exclaims that “The white ones steal our land, they give us trinkets, then they steal more” (61). The notion of sharing hunting grounds as described in Parker’s work is present in Welsch, as his “Rides-at-the-door” character discusses the encroachment of Euromericans upon Blackfeet lands:
. . . allow them some of our hunting grounds to raise their whitehorns. If we treat wisely with them, we will be able to save enough for ourselves and our children. It is not an agreeable way, but it is the only way. (Welsch 90)
Spokane-Coeur d’Alene writer, Sherman Alexi also brings the Native American land issue forward in “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” with his narrator playing the part of the government, saying, “. . . We’ll take Washington and Oregon and you get six pine trees and a brand-new Chrysler Cordoba” (Alexi 183-184). In The Inconvenient Indian, author Cherokee writer, Thomas King agrees that, “. . . the issue has that never changed, never varied, never faltered in its resolve is the issue of land” (King 217). For these authors, the holding and loss of land sums the Native American experience.
The ability to control lands communally in a kinship-centered manner carried spiritual significance for Native Americans whilst Euromericans (perhaps continuing to be guided by traditional European ideology) maintained a worldview that compelled private land ownership as the singular way to acquire the “American Dream” for their families. To understand this worldview, it may help to understand the historic (and corresponding) economic climate in England, where
The accumulation of property by a handful of landed magnates [had] been the central core of the landownership argument . . . Established families usually regarded further [land] purchases as a desirable investment for their capital, not only because of its intrinsic economic value . . . but also for the social prestige and political influence it generated. Furthermore, the debate about entails, which was as contentious in many continental states as in England, reflected the desire not just to own land but also to ensure that it remained in the family for future generations. Consequently, where the chief seats of the greater magnates were thick on the ground, owners were always likely to be found buying further property, since most were concerned with consolidating and extending their estates to provide a family inheritance whereby their heir would be both wealthier and more powerful than themselves. (Beckett 7)
This clash of culture and sociology between the U.S. Government and the Native Indian tribes takes place in the shadow of the generational European bourgeoisie that marched across the North American Continent. The individual and collective rights of Native Americans eroded with the zeitgeist of “Americanism” and private land ownership for profit. Lawyer Felix Cohen describes this clash of cultures and colonialism as one of racial privilege, harmful to the nation, and a danger to American Liberty as he questions,
. . . whether American liberty can be preserved. If we fight only for our own liberty because it is our own, are we any better than the dog who fights for his bone? We must believe in liberty itself to defend it effectively. What is my own, divides me from my fellow man. Liberty, which is the other side of the shield of tolerance, is a social affair that unites me with my fellow man. If we fight for civil liberties for our side, we show that we believe not in civil liberties but in our side. But when those of us who were never Indians and never expect to be Indians fight for the cause of Indian self-government, we are fighting for something that is not limited by the accidents of race and creed and birth, we are fighting for what de las Casas and Vitoria and Pope Paul III called our integrity or salvation of our own souls. We are fighting for what Jefferson called the basic rights of man. We are fighting for the last best hope of earth. And these are causes that should carry us through many defeats. (qtd. in Martin 178)
The theme of alcohol dependence and abuse is one of historic and social reality and is the second frequently utilized by Native American authors. In 1783, Samson Occom writes of the difficulties Native American’s have as he sees them failing to acculturate in the northeast region of the new Nation. And although some Indians are meagerly educated in the Euromerican syllabus of its time, Occom notes that,
. . . they Learn no trades, if any of them have Learnt, they follow it not—The [sic] have no Laws or Regulations ^Neither in^, every on des [sic] what is right in his own eyes, —Yet in general they kind [sic] to one another, and are not given to Lying, Cheating, and Steeling [sic] much what this way ^a^ is Trifling [sic] But they are much for Drink Strong Drink, Yet I Cant [sic] think that it is more Natural to them ^than other N^ [sic] their manner [. . . ]. (59)
In Fools Crow, the Euromerican practice of selling or trading alcohol to Indians is brought forward in his narrative as an ox team is described as carrying barrels of whiskey to “Canadian posts” with a portion “watered-down” for Native American consumption. The ox team carries “enough whiskey to make the Indians drunk and enough water to make it profitable” (195). After the men driving the ox team are murdered by Blackfeet Indians, one exclaims, “We will fill many shiny skins with the good whisky” (199). Alexi’s writing also echoes the issue, but by describing men living with alcoholism. In his “Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation,” the lament of the Native American alcoholic is glaring:
. . . I want to drink so bad that it aches and I cry . . . I nearly trip over Lester FallsApart lying drunk as a skunk in front of the Trading Post and I pick him up and he staggers and trembles and falls back down. (126)
Alcoholism and substance abuse is the second theme of Native American Literature because it is both a general symptom of the colonizer’s disease and the colonizer’s weapon; both tool and handiwork. Native American scholar and activist Andrea Smith points out that, “On reservations, American Indians . . . [suffer with an] alcoholism rate 579 percent higher [than the national average] (Smith 116).
Lastly, the third theme embraced by Native American authors is the theme of violence. Whether the perpetrator of violence is American Indian or Euromerican, violence is the one constant readers encounter. The genre is also embraces “ecological violence” through the feminist criticism of Cherokee activist Andrea Smith who proposes the
“colonial/patriarchal mind that seeks to control the sexuality of women and indigenous peoples also seeks to control nature . . . yet colonizers attempt to deny this reality by forcing those people who have already been rendered dirty, impure, and hence expendable to face the most immediate consequences of environmental destruction.” (Smith 55-57)
Sioux writer, Zitkala-Sa, Louis Erdrich, and others have written literary works which expose modern readers to the Indian boarding school program and the resulting trauma that many Native American girls and boys experienced from physical and psychological violence at the schools. On her experience in college, Zitkala-Sa writes,
“I hid myself in my little room in the college dormitory, away from the scornful and yet curious eyes of the students, I pined for sympathy. Often I wept in secret, wishing I had gone West, to be nourished by my mother’s love, instead of remaining among a cold race whose hearts were frozen hard with prejudice.” (101)
In Erdrich’s Tracks, the narratee in much of the novel is the young Ojibwe woman, Lulu, who resents her estranged mother for sending her away to an Indian boarding school. Tracks and other Erdrich novels were analyzed by scholar, Native American writer, Miriam Schacht may have voiced concern with some omitted content Erdrich’s novels; of which she says, “do not reflect the diversity of Indian boarding school experiences (63). Regardless, readers of Native American literature see a double-edged sword, as the character, Lulu was bussed-away “. . . from known threats at home . . . [yet] children in the boarding schools faced many other threats and did so in a place where their parents and other protectors had no power” (Schacht 72). Her criticism identifies “boarding school trauma” (72) in Erdrich’s depiction of Lulu, particularly through the character of Nanapush, telling Lulu about her return home from the school: “. . . your dress was a shabby . . . orange . . . that any child who tried to run away from boarding school was forced to wear . . . [your] knees . . . [were] scabbed from the punishment . . . and [they were also] knobbed . . .” (qtd. in Schacht 72).
In the case of the Cherokee removal in 1837, truth is more violent than fiction as the literary audience reads Captain B. B. Cannon’s notes concerning his assignment “to lead a detachment of 365 Cherokees from Charleston, Tennessee, on an overland route to the new Cherokee lands set aside in the West” (Rozema 79). Canon’s notes from the forced march, later known as part of “The Trail of Tears,” include fifteen deaths—mostly women and children—and recorded “considerable sickness” due to disease, fatigue, and harsh winter weather (81-92).
Blackfeet writer and scholar, James Welch’s novel, Fools Crow depicts violence committed by the Crow and Blackfeet tribes. His tale includes a Blackfeet man “emptying his rifle into the limp body” (218) of a farmer, and then assaulting and violently raping his wife. Welch describes how the Blackfeet men,
” . . . held her while Star slapped her face and ripped her dress down to the waist. He clubbed her below the ear with his fist and she fell to the ground . . . They dragged her inside the small cabin, shutting the door on the two children, who held each other and sobbed . . . [after they raped her] Owl Child looked at her and felt nothing at all . . . Perhaps they should kill the woman, thought Owl Child . . . she is ugly.” (218)
Another of Welch’s Blackfeet characters describes his rape of a Crow child; how he, “found her there between the legs and entered her — not without some difficulty, for she was only on the verge of becoming a woman. When I had had my pleasure, I rolled away . . . ” (76). Physical and emotional violence against both man and nature is the common thematic point of much Native American literature. As in many stories, the villain is written as that person, place, or thing which oppresses the “othered.”
When reading the works of Native American authors, it may be wise accept,
that an important aspect of a life narrative is selection, determining what is included and what is left out; this is how meaning is created. For the critic, awareness of who or what is absent and why they are absent is essential to any comprehensive reading. (Jacklin 140)
Readers should seek to understand the texts and the authors’ motives. Specifically, when scholars read creative writing, they encounter natural embellishments of actual occurrences for thematic effect, and scholars are well-served to perform their own research in the subjects. In telling their stories—the histories—of their people, Native American authors stand upon the shoulders their own giants of storytelling.
This paper briefly examines three themes present in the literary works of four Native American writers: Alexi; Erdrich; Welch, and Zitkala-Sa. The loss of land through government acquisition, alcohol abuse, and violence are the three main themes these authors (and others) communicate to the reader because they carry a shared experience, and these issues have (and continue to) occurred in many communities. What many Native American authors are saying is that these issues are present with them at a rate far greater than other ethnic groups. The intent, through their stories and historic accounts is to shed light where there is darkness, and for the reader to gain understanding of what is considered by many to be an institutionalized pattern of governmental abuse.
Alexi, Sherman. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Grove P, 2005.
Beckett, J. V. “The Pattern of Landownership in England and Wales, 1660-1880.” The
Economic History Review, vol. 37, no. 1, 1984, pp. 1-22. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2596828. Accessed 21 Apr 2017.
Erdrich, Louise. Tracks: A Novel. Harper Perennial, 2004.
Martin, Jill. “The Miner’s Canary: Felix S. Cohen’s Philosophy of Indian Rights.” American Indian Law Review vol. 23, no. 1, 1998-1999, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20068878. Accessed 14 Apr 2017.
Parker, Arthur. “The Constitution of the Five Nations.” New York State Museum Bulletin, no. 184, 1916.
Rozema, Vicki, editor. Voices from the Trail of Tears. John F. Blair, 2003.
Schacht, Miriam. “Games of Silence: Indian Boarding Schools in Louise Erdrich’s Novels.” Studies in American Literature, vol. 27, no. 2, 2015, pp. 62-79.
Smith, Andrea. Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. South End P, 2005.
Welch, James. Fools Crow. Penguin, 1986.
Zitkala-Sa. American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings. Penguin, 2003.