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Native Americans In Western Novels

Updated on June 15, 2017
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

A descendant of Mohawk Nation and trained in anthropology, Patty has researched and reported on Indigenous Peoples for over four decades.

Dance celebrations and competitions at national pow wows.
Dance celebrations and competitions at national pow wows.

Cowboys and 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.

Caricature parts for cowboys and "Indians." Even the circus of the 1960s sometimes features Cowboys and Indians.
Caricature parts for cowboys and "Indians." Even the circus of the 1960s sometimes features Cowboys and Indians. | Source

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

Portrayals of "Indians"

Pocahontas in England
Pocahontas in England

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
Hiawatha and Minnehaha | Source

Native Americans in Classic Literature

James Fenimore Cooper is said to be the first American writer to seriously consider Native Americans as subject matter.

His 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. 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.

Recommendations about Western novels in 1936, from the Metropolitan Library System of Chicago:

Readers Advisory from, "Westerns and 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."

Source mls.lib.il.us/consulting/ra/ra_westerns.asp Retrieved May 14, 2007.

Dreamcatcher of the Eastern Woodlands nations.
Dreamcatcher of the Eastern Woodlands nations. | Source

Native Americans in 20th Century Media

TV's Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman gave a more accurate portrayal of Native North Americans than did many portrayals of the 18th and 19th centuries.

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, stereotypical 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.

Western Novels and Movies with Native Americans

Graham Greene DocuDrama

Last of His Tribe, The
Last of His Tribe, The

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.

 

Zane Grey (Novels)

  • The Zane Grey's West Society. The Zane Gery western novels are classics of the genre.

Death Valley Days (Radio and TV series)

  • Debuted on radio in 1930. "Brought to you by 20 mule team Borax"...and Ronald Reagan on TV.

Rawhide (TV series)

  • With Clint Eastwood as Rowdy Yates

The Last of His Tribe (Film, 1992)

  • www.imdb.com/title/tt0104690

Longarm (Novels)

  • 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 (Radio and TV series)

  • http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041038/

Lone Star (Novels)

  • 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 (TV Series)

  • http://www.drquinnmd.com/

Dances with Wolves (Film)

  • http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0099348/

Who Have Power (Novel)

© 2007 Patty Inglish

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    • Daniel Greenfield profile image

      Daniel Greenfield 10 years ago

      a very interesting hub and I'm glad you're also exploring your roots

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
      Author

      Patty Inglish 10 years ago from North America

      Thanks, Daniel. It has really been interesting looking into all of this. I've never read many western novels, but I'm going to read a couple of those, too.

    • profile image

      Manfred 9 years ago

      Bury my heart at Wouded Knee by Dee Brown in reckognision of Nicolas Brave Wolf printed by Vintage ISBN 0099526409 Cox @ Wyman,Reading Berkshire

    • profile image

      Just_Surfed_In 9 years ago

      WWow! Really interesting links. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is very important.

    • dudley1 profile image

      dudley1 9 years ago from Belleville, IL

      Thank you Patty for touching on racism when it comes to Native Americans. I have faced this racism because I am half Athabaskin Indian, my mother is full blooded. I have been told that we are greedy, lazy, drug-addicted, alcoholics and all we want to do is lure the white man to our Casinos so we can steal their money! Yes our Nations have drug addicts and alcoholics but it is not a cultural thing, it spans all races, creeds, cultures, and socio-economic backgrounds.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
      Author

      Patty Inglish 9 years ago from North America

      Thank you so much for the comment, dudley1. I am sorry this has happened to Native Americans and to any peoples at all. I was not told of my ancestry as a child, but I would have liked to have known then. I always liked "Indians" anyway and had a collection of books about Native Americans. I college, I took a series of courses in indigenous peoples and still read all I can.

    • profile image

      Pachuca213 8 years ago

      When I was 13 I read a novel (based on the life of Pocahontas) Her life seemed to be quite different than the Disney Version...and I also read a book about Sacajawea's life as well...those stuck to me all these years...even today I recall these as two of the best books I have ever read besides my all time favorite about a Mexican Native called "Leona" which was a true story and was great as well.... Books about the lives of native americans and Mexican natives are powerful , and they inspired me!

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
      Author

      Patty Inglish 8 years ago from North America

      Thank you for commenting, Pachua213. I am moved to read the work about Leona. he others, I had no access to until i attended college, and was pleased to learn about htem at that time. The Disney version of Pocahontas is very different, isn't it?

    • profile image

      Mary Sheeran 8 years ago

      Raised on popular TV shows, I later realized how "invisible" certain peoples were, and that includes women. I addressed this in my novel published two years ago, "Who Have the Power: A Legend of the West," the story of a progressive and talented woman who, in the period just after the US Civil War, discovers she is half Washo (the tribe for whom Lake Tahoe is a sacred home, if you can find your way through the gated property and casinos). Elisabeth Barclay struggles with her sense of justice and her scorn for her mothe's people, which eventually develops into respect. I must also admit that I poked criticism at the series "Bonanza", set near Lake Tahoe and even with its good intentions, quite sexist and patronizing!

      "Who Have the Power" is available on line, and other information about it, including reviews, are available at the web site www.whohavethepower.com.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
      Author

      Patty Inglish 8 years ago from North America

      Thank you Mary! I appreciate the information and the book -- I've emailed you through your website.

      Patty

    • Ginn Navarre profile image

      Ginn Navarre 7 years ago

      Thank you Patty,for this powerful read. Just maybe if more people explored their roots a little deeper, they may not be so prejudice?

    • mquee profile image

      mquee 7 years ago from Columbia, SC

      I don't know how I missed this one but you make a lot of very good points. I love westerns both movies and novels. I have always looked at them as entertainment and not factual. The fact that Native Americans were forced off their land and denigrated by those that stole that land, was always obvious to me. I imagine to make these acts more palatable to the average person,the character of Native Americans was attacked and misrepresented. This is a very useful and educational hub. Thanks.

    • Ben Zoltak profile image

      Ben Zoltak 5 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA

      As soon as you said you were related to Pocahontas and Hiawatha I could hear the hawk cry out in my heart. This is such a well written piece in that it clarifies, and retells a lot of truths, not the least of which is the romanticized portrayal of Turtle Islands original people.

      Gitchie Manitou smiles at you sister.

      Ben "Red Cloud" Zoltak

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
      Author

      Patty Inglish 5 years ago from North America

      I am enchanted by the name "Red Cloud"! We have two hawks in my area of the city that I enjoy sitting and watching - I listen for that cry. Thanks for commenting, Ben. I love to listen to the foundation stories.

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