Saturday, February 8, 2014

It's Complicated

I've been thinking quite a bit lately about the position of Native Americans in US history. One reason is because I'm reading On the Rez by Ian Frazier, which is mostly about Frazier's experiences with a friend, Le War Lance, an Oglala Sioux. Another is because I'm involved in a serious editing read-through of my second novel, which has the struggle between whites and the Cherokees over land as a major plot point. I'm also outlining a third novel that includes the famous Trail of Tears. As I'm reading both books and pondering the third, I find myself struggling with exactly how I should portray the Indians as I write.

On the one hand, there is the tendency to make the Indians the noble victims of history, overrun by greedy white settlers who snatched up the best land and pushed the Indians onto pockets of the least desirable land. Certainly, there's plenty of evidence to support that view. All the history around which I've built my second book supplies examples of treaties made and then renegotiated and then renegotiated again, always to the benefit of the white settlers. I haven't finished Frazier's book yet, but I read a section the other night filled with depressing statistics. For example,

  • Forty percent of Indian homes are overcrowded or have inadequate space, compared to six percent among the general population.
  • Indians are twice as likely to be murdered, and the suicide rate among Indians is high.
  • Indians are four times more likely than the national average to die from alcoholism, and fetal alcohol syndrome is 33 times higher among Indians than among whites.
How much of that misfortune comes from being people whose culture was uprooted and transformed by hostile action by American soldiers on behalf of my ancestors and people like them? While doing the research for my novels, I'm ashamed of how Cherokee leaders were held in Washington, DC as virtual hostages until they agreed to give up their land in Arkansas. I just recently read shocking accounts of how the Choctaw suffered cold and starvation in Arkansas Post during the first wave of removal from Mississippi. Just as with slavery, the US treatment of Native Americans is a giant, guilt-producing scar on our national countenance.

Yet, as I'm reading Frazier's book, I am annoyed at the self-destructive and irresponsible behavior of Le War Lance, behavior that is apparently not uncommon on the reservation where he lives. The Indians routinely drive while drunk. I'm not even halfway through the book, and I've already read about two or three people who were killed while walking along the highway because they were hit by drunk drivers. This is a silly thing, but it really bothered me that Le planned to use a propane-fueled oven both as a cookstove and as a heater for his house. Everyone knows you don't do that! As for the statistic above about fetal alcohol syndrome, the link between drinking while pregnant and FAS is undisputed, yet pregnant Indian women are still drinking at a rate that makes their babies 33 percent more likely to have FAS. (Sorry if I'm misusing that statistic, but you get my point.) These are behaviors that are not noble, based on personal choices made now, not in the nineteenth century. Le War Lance seems to almost relish the danger he puts himself in, and to treat that attitude as a commonplace among Indians.

That's where things become complicated, especially for a writer. I want to be fair to my Cherokee characters (and to the Choctaw ones of the future). How do I navigate that line between showing the truth of the ways the Indians were mistreated and yet avoid the temptation to turn the Indians into "noble victims"? I get the sense from reading Frazier's book that Indians want recognition that they were treated badly, very badly, yet they don't want to be seen as "victims" to be pitied. One thing the book is bringing home to me is what variety there is among the individuals Frazier encounters. For every Le War Lance in the story, there is a Charlotte Black Elk (who engaged in some pretty technical scientific research to try to prove the Sioux have an ancient link to South Dakota's Black Hills). Each of the Sioux Frazier has encountered so far is unique. The big insult, I'm thinking, is not in showing the weaknesses of these individuals, but in lumping all of them together into a stereotype, even if that stereotype makes someone else out to be the bad guy. Does it honor the humanity of a person more to portray him/her as he/she really is, even if some of that reality is not too pretty?

I may think that, but I'm not so sure I'm carrying my philosophy through in my writing. Honestly, I'm intimidated by taking on the subject of Native Americans and their history. I surely don't want to bring down the wrath of the Cherokee Nation on myself for my speculation about what happened nearly 200 years ago. And I hope in my effort to avoid offending and to appease the guilt my forefathers laid on me that I'm not giving my protagonists attitudes that are far too 21st-century to be realistic for 19th-century folk. Sigh...As my title says, it's complicated.


Anita said...

This is a very interesting post because I have always been interested in the history of the Native Americans. Have you read the story of Quanah Parker and his white mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, who was taken captive by the Comanches when she was a girl? There are many other captive stories that are quite interesting to read and some that are horrific. Glad to find someone with similar interests. Good luck on your book!

Augustina Peach said...

Thanks, Anita! I've heard of Quanah Parker and his mother, but I've never read anything about them. Would you have any book to suggest as a good starter on their story?

Ann Turnbull said...

This post really resonates with me, especially your last paragraph. I had the same anxieties when writing "Seeking Eden". I feared I might offend Quakers by portraying them as slave-owners(even though they were, back then). And I felt I didn't know enough about African cultures to write convincingly about them. But I think in the end you have to be brave and go where your story takes you.

Anita said...

Hi Augustina, you may want to read "Empire of the Summer Moon" and "The Last Comanche Chief". I have also downloaded "Texas Ranger Tales: Capture of Cynthia Ann Parker" on my Kindle. This story has fascinated me since visiting old Fort Sill when we lived in Lawton, Oklahoma when I was a child. The Indian history and culture was so rich that I had to learn more. Hope this helps.