Native Americans In Western Novels
Cowboys & Indians and Native Americans
In elementary school, we thought of "Indians" as people living in the Old West in teepees surrounded by bison. That was about it.
I discovered my pwn Native American background sometime in my 30s, after studding various indigenous nations for several years. There had been some vague references during my early childhood to one of my grandfathers -- He had reportedly disappeared before my mother, was born and he was said to have been French and lNative American.
Before that, at age 19, I visited Washington DC to see the National Pow Wow and was able to stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as a 19-year-old Southwest Native American USMC officer stationed in Viet Nam was introduced a few steps below me. He left shortly and returned in full regalia to perform a traditional dance.
I witnessed the maturity of someone who had just returned from war and had the courage to don his traditional outfit and perform traditional customs without any thought for hecklers. I didn't hear any hecklers, because everyone was silent as they listened and watched.
Discovery of Native Heritage
Later on as an adult, I worked with employees that had been injured on the job, in a state-operated health facility. It was during this period that I met a wonderful gentleman who was a Native American that was coming through this particular health system. Through several conversations, it was discovered that my grandfather's surname had also belonged to an earlier full-blooded Native American man who translated French and an Iroquois language at the Battle of Fort Pitt.
I became more interested in Native Americans and started reading everything in the state university and public libraries about them. I even discovered that one Iroquois language or dialect is related to the language of the Zulu in Africa, the marker for that connection being the identical work for "cousin." One day, I opened a large history of the tribes of the mid-west and become so surprised by a photograph and that I literally dropped the book.
I picked the book up and studied the picture for 10 minutes. There on the page was a photograph of a 5-year-old Iroquois female child in Native outfit. She was a full-blood Mohawk. She looked 100% like my sister, but that was impossible, because my sibling was born many years after that picture had been made. Now I understood why everyone in the family had black hair except me - someone married a blond at some point to create my light-brown hair and my cheekbones only gave away Native heritage if my hair was pinned up a certain way. I was always very pale, while the other females on the maternal side of the family had olive, almost orange, skin tones. One day I'll be able to trace the lineage back completely and work on it as I can.
Native North American Flute Music
Portrayal of Native North Americans
Native Americans have been portrayed both falsely and in a more positive light in books, on TV, and in the movies. I am always surprised by prejudice and racism, because I never understood why people would feel those horrible things about others. Prejudice against Native Americans really took me aback, though, when I witnessed it against our Native populations in my hometown. After my initial shock, I learned to have some fun with bigoted people.
Mind you, I have always worked at least two jobs, done community service, coached sports, etc. and have a masters and two bachelor's degrees, blah, blah, blah. Often I would listen to friends and new acquaintances spew negative comments to me about Native Americans, always ending with, "And they're lazy, won't work, and are all thieves and alcoholics!" -- to which I would reply, "Oh, like me?" They would ask me what I was talking about and I would tell them that I am probably 3/8 Native American, and then listen to them sputter. It was a good object lesson, I think, and funny for me.
Hiawatha and Minnehaha
Classic Epic Poem of Native Life
James Fenimore Cooper is said to be the first American writer to seriously consider Native Americans as subject matter. Daughter Susan Cooper wrote in Small Family Memories (1883) that James talked with Pawnee and Sioux people and researched many tribes extensively. After The Last of the Mohicans (1826), Cooper thought of a romance novel about Great Plains Native Americans. Another author, Helen Hunt Jackson, wrote seriously about Native People.
They were the first American novelists successful in about Native People. In addition, Literary History of The United States: Bibliography by Lewis H. Morgan, the Father of American anthropology, shows that he began his research with Native Americans. The characters in Cooper's novels are individuals living in community in the forests of America, making a life for themselves and expanding their territories for the future. Cooper also establishes cooperation between Natives, African Americans, and Caucasians all at once.
In reality, the Mohawk nation was able to assimilate itself into white society and take up business and trade in such a manner as to leave few on its one reservation straddling New York-Quebec.
In 19th Century America, the civilized move westward was enabled by the doctrine of "Manifest Destiny" that resulted in taking land away from Native People and relegating them to reservations, circuses, and Wild West Shows. The Wild West Shows depicted Native People in a stereotypic fashion and gave rise directly to the "Western" novel and movie in which "Indians" are often portrayed as blood-thirsty savages and vicious or goofy drunkards. They scalped white men and stole their women, but could be distracted with whiskey while white men did the same to them.
In actuality, Europeans first attempted to enslave Native Americans before Africans. However, the male Native People simply stood in the fields and stared at the white men, even when they were whipped. The "braves" walked home at the end the day. When the Europeans next stole Native wives and children for enslavement, the Native males came and took them back. Then the Europeans turned to enslaving Africans, more easily subdued since they were sick, chained, and nearly starved to death on the voyage over. All this would not sell many Western novels, however.
Some of Western tales showed a few "Indians" as loyal guides for "good white men" or evil guides for the enemies of the US in the wars of the times. These "good Indians" were like the "nice" aliens from outer space like Mr. Spock and Mr. Worf who helped the United Federation of Planets in the Star Trek saga. One of these types of Western stories resulted in The Lone Ranger show on radio and TV and I respected Jay Silverheels, as Tonto and as himself, very much. One very famous Western series is called LongArm and a spin off series called Lonestar pits a young cowgirl and her trusted Asian martial arts grandmaster - bodyguard against whites and Indians alike.
Here is a good situation summary found in the following excerpt from recommendations about Western novels dating back as far as 1936, from the Metropolitan Library System of Chicago:
Readers Advisory - Westerns & Novels Set in the West
Westerns could be as formulaic and romanticized as any romance novel. One participant referred to them as "men's romances." Westerns, or other novels set in the west, could also be spare and unsentimental. Racism existed toward Native Americans and Mexicans, but unlike other marginalized groups, there was often a respect and admiration for Indian culture. Humor was not a prevalent element in these books. There was sometimes humor in the books we read, but it was seldom a primary ingredient. Humor was often of a rough and ready sort.
(Link accessed from: http://www.mls.lib.il.us/consulting/ra/ra_westerns.asp)
20th Century Advancement
In the 20th Century, the TV series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, gave a more accurate portrayal of North American Native People.
Today, we can see Graham Green in movies like Dances with Wolves as well as on The New Red Green Show comedy reruns. The first is a serious role and the second is totally comedic. However, the comedy does not portray a stereotypical "Indian", but just a man that likes to blow things up. He could be any ethnicity and it would still be a funny character.
In my opinion, stereotypic Western novels are like the minstrel shows that the African Americans endured for years -- shows in which they were made to look stereotypically foolish. However, the genre did offer some recognition, even if negative, to minorities. Roots, White Man's Burden, in which the plight of whites and blacks are reversed, and Hollywood Shuffle have paved the way for better fare.
Canyon Flute Melody
Death Valley Days TV Theater
Graham Greene DocuDrama
Starring Jon Voight, Graham Greene, David Ogden Stiers, Jack Blessing. Greene plays the last Yahi person, discovered in 1911 in California by an anthropologist. 85% positive votes on Rotten Tomatoes website.
For an assortment of Western novels and shows, try these:
Zane Grey novel series
- The Zane Grey's West Society. The Zane Gery western novels are classics of the genre.
Death Valley Days
- Debuted on radio in 1930. "Brought to you by 20 mule team Borax"...and Ronald Reagan on TV.
- With Clint Eastwood as Rowdy Yates
The Last of His Tribe (1992)
Longarm novel series
- Adult Westerns (1978 - present) by Tabor Evans (publishing house pen name for a number of authors).
- A spin off of the series became Lone Star (see below)
The Lone Ranger
Lone Star novel series
- Adult Westerns (1982 - 1995) by Wesley Ellis
"THEY CALLED THEM THE LONE STAR LEGEND: Jessica Starbuck -- a magnificent woman of the West, fighting for justice on America's frontier... and Ki -- the martial arts master sworn to protect her and the code she lived by... Together they conquered the West as no other man and woman ever had!"
Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman
Dances with Wolves
Who Have Power
- Novel's complete review and synopsis - Native peoples and settlers around Lake Tahoe, and an interesting television show to go with the story.
© 2007 Patty Inglish