Pendleton writer Bette Husted read from her new novel, All Coyote’s Children, at the Josephy Center last week. It’s the story of a white family living on the Umatilla Reservation, surrounded by and ultimately intertwined with the Indian families around them.
Writing Indian characters and stories in fiction—or non-fiction for that matter—is a tricky business. Having historically used power and privilege to take away land, language, and culture, Euro-Americans should be and mostly are cautious in telling Indian stories now. We’re mindful of guilt for past actions—some of them not so far in the past, as boarding schools and the last efforts at assimilation in the 1950s are in living memory for many—and struggle with speaking “for” others whose experience we Euro-American writers do not have.
A quick survey of the literature finds much that is marked by prejudice and stereotyping (take a look at some old Zane Grey’s!)—and much that is romanticized. And some that explores the complexities of Euro-American—Indian relationships from the beginning. I’ve written before about the attraction of Indian life for colonial women described by Benjamin Franklin and turned into literature for girls in Indian Captive, published by Lois Lenske in 1941. This book is based on the autobiography of Mary Jemison, who was captured by the Seneca in 1755 in the back and forth between British and French and the Indian allies they pursued. Jemison watched her family be killed, but eventually assimilated with the Indians, married and had Indian children, and told her story towards the end of a long and adventurous life. The story has had many retellings, but Lenski’s book for girls sprung in the 1940s—and is still in print, now considered a children’s “classic.”
The capturing of white families in the early years of European colonization—and the capture of Indians and trades of prisoners—was not unusual, and did not end with New England and the 18th century. There is a literature of white captives in the Southwest, and in 2016 Paulette Jiles published News of the World, a page turning novel of a young girl captured by the Kiowa and the 1870 effort of an itinerant “news reader” to return her to her German-American family. She of course does not want to return, and the novel does let her work out a kind of compromise of her two lives.
In both of these cases, the protagonists are Euro-Americans, but the authors also found empathy for the Indian peoples who the captives unwillingly joined and willingly stayed with. They found it in connections to the living earth, the extended family support systems, and the relative freedom of women in tribal societies.
People have lived, married and raised families across racial divides forever. In Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen reminds us of mixed black-white families, and reminds us that principled people who spoke for human rights for black slaves were with us from the beginning of that national tragedy. Until recently—maybe as recent as the 1950s—mixed families have been forced into one community or the other, and the people who stood up for them have been silenced or ridiculed. Decades before that as African-Americans moved north and west to find opportunity, black workers, athletes, and musicians worked and played for white audiences—and then went home to segregated lives.
Ditto for Indians—but with the curious addition of pride attached to tribes and tribal leaders. The current exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian displays over 300 objects of commercial appropriation of names of Indian tribes, tools, and chiefs: “Pontiac,” “Seminoles,” Jeep “Cherokee,” “Apache” and “Chinook” helicopters, “Tomahawk” missile, and the plain old Cleveland “Indians.”
How many times do we hear “my great-grandmother was Cherokee,” or some other story of distant Indian relationships—with no notion that there was a true story there, and no attempt to relate it to contemporary Indian-white affairs.
What Bette Husted and a few other writers are doing is teasing out the real stories of Indian-white interactions, of living together. The title of her memoir, Above the Clearwater: Living on Stolen Land, tells a story. Bette grew up on land in Idaho that was part of the original 1855 Nez Perce Reservation—a part scrubbed away with the discovery of gold and another, “liars’ treaty, written eight years after the first. The memoir explores poverty and guilt; the new novel explores interrelationships.
Luis Urrea takes on the huge complexities of Indian-Mexican-White interrelationships over centuries in Hummingbird’s Daughter and Queen of America. Closer to home, Pam Steele’s Greasewood Creek sits on the edge of the Umatilla Reservation and its people, and Warren Easley dares to take on the flooding of Celilo in a mystery novel, Not Dead Enough. That story was told in an incredible musical drama composed by Thomas Morning Owl and Marv Ross, “Ghosts of Celilo.”
In other words, it’s now ok to chip at the edges of White-Indian relations in books, as we struggle to get along and work together over salmon, water, dams, and economies. Hope is that the books—and their writers, Indian and non-Indian—are settling old history and part themselves of a new, more inclusive present.
# # #