The Power of Native American Narratives
From memoirs to novels to popular mainstream media—the latter increasingly produced, directed and starring members of different tribes—Indigenous people are realizing powerful opportunities to tell stories that authentically reflect their lives and cultures.
This kind of nuanced storytelling hasn't always been the case. For decades in the 19th and 20th centuries, most of the portrayals of Indigenous people were simplistic, often in Westerns, with Indigenous people playing the villains to the heroic white settlers or cowboys. The racist depiction wasn’t just entertainment, it created long-lasting effects on the general public's view of Indigenous people, says Professor Michelle Burnham, who specializes in early American and Native American literature.
“What the Western does is create a binary opposition,” says Burnham, “between white settlers, or cowboys, and Indigenous peoples, or Indians. You can find accounts of young Indigenous peoples who were captured and taken to boarding schools in the later part of the 19th and earlier 20th century, where they were shown Westerns (movies) and remember themselves rooting for the cowboys. Because that’s the way those narratives are structured, and emotionally built.”
But those narratives are slowly changing. Courses like Burnham’s that teach literature by Indigenous authors from the past 50 years represent a more dynamic depiction of a variety of Indigenous lives. So too do more contemporary films and television shows.
In honor of Native American Heritage Month, we sat down with Burnham to discuss the often problematic portrayals of Indigenous people in pop culture and why teaching the history of Native American literature—especially today—is so important.
What attracts students to your course on Indigenous literature?
The way that many students encounter Indigenous peoples and Indigenous history and culture is often through media that mythologizes and romanticizes it, and in other cases does the opposite of that.
I’ve found there’s a real hunger in students to be exposed to this literature and to learn more about it. It’s new for them. I’ve been here for 26 years, and I think in most cases they’re not exposed to much of it in their schooling before they arrive in college. I also think that many students recognize that generations upon generations of settlers on this continent have utterly transformed it. There is something at the nexus of curiosity, responsibility, and care that draws them to want to know about pre-colonial or anti-colonial perspectives.
In what ways do you think students benefit from your class?
The exposure to Indigenous literature, most of it contemporary, counteracts the false assumption that Indigenous peoples belong to the past, that they are not still existing, thriving, living and creating everywhere, all around us.
The Western genre, from popular novels by Zane Grey to films like “Stagecoach” and television shows like “Wagon Train” tell the stories of cowboys, settlers, and outlaws exploring the western frontier and taming the Wild West—which also meant erasing Native Americans, their cultures, and seizing their land. Those narratives got their start back in colonial times with the genre called “captivity narratives.” What are those narratives and why are they important?
Captivity narratives were accounts that were written most frequently, but not exclusively, by women who were English settlers, and who were taken captive in the context of warfare or conflict between Indigenous peoples and English settlers. Several things could result: these captives might escape, or get ransomed, or they might not survive. In some cases they actually stayed and integrated into the tribes and families that captured them, especially if they were younger. These narratives were initially encouraged by ministers or politicians to be printed and circulated as anti-Indian propaganda in the context of colonial settler warfare. These captivity narratives begin on the East Coast in the 17th century and later emerge from the Midwest and the West.
Sometimes these narratives succeeded as propaganda and later became the archetype for popular Westerns. But they were often much more complicated than that, and wittingly or not depict the humanity of the Indigenous people in them, so it’s hard to know whether it was the intended propaganda or its inadvertent backfiring that drew readers to them. Often the narratives are filled with surprising cross-cultural understanding. For example, sometimes captives will learn the indigenous language enough to include words in the narrative that are, for example, in Narragansett, rather than in English.
And often the captives spent enough time to really understand how the Indigenous culture operated, in terms of traveling or eating or sharing the food they ate. Later, because they were so popular, people began making these stories up, essentially fictionalizing them into romantic frontier-type narratives that served the settler colonial agenda and also created fantasies of escaping into the wilderness and surviving—stories like those about Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone, and the novels of James Fenimore Cooper.
On the first day of class, you ask students if they know which Indigenous tribe/s were located in the areas where they grew up. How many already know?
Surprisingly, often they don’t know. I tell them there’s an interactive global map they can pull up and put in their address or zip code, and it will take them immediately to their location and show them the tribes that are native to that particular place. It also offers links and opportunities from there to learn a little bit more about the tribes and about their history. In my class, we absolutely talk about the Ohlone and Muwekma Ohlone land that we’re learning on and sitting on and living on at Santa Clara University—people, again, who are continuing to exist and thrive, and whose culture persists.
In terms of Indigenous contemporary literature, who are some of the authors included in your course?
There’s a lot of exciting new work by Indigenous authors coming out all the time, and I have always tried to include at least one California Indigenous writer, who has often been Greg Sarris. I also teach Tommy Orange and one or more of the best-known, most highly recognizable names like Louise Erdrich or Leslie Marmon Silko. It varies each year.
The emphasis of the course is reading more contemporary fiction by Indigenous writers, imaginative works that are quite wide-ranging. Some of them are set in earlier historical periods. I strive to have the reading represent different regions as well as different tribal and cultural traditions and different genres, which builds a richer sense of the landscape of Indigenous writing. Some books are set in the present or the very recent past. Some are extremely humorous and some play creatively with narrative form. For example, I teach a novel by Thomas King called “Green Grass, Running Water,” which is very comical and involves a lot of interwoven narrative strands. It is what I would describe as a trickster novel. In Native American traditions, the trickster takes many forms and stories about tricksters can be challenging to make sense of, so teaching this book requires having students learn a little bit about what trickster stories are, and helping them to gain some understanding of what trickster discourse is.
Hollywood seems to be investing in more stories and scripts that not only focus on authentic and nuanced portrayals of Native Americans, but feature Native Americans behind and in front of the camera. How do these types of works change some of the perceptions of Indigenous people “being in the past?”
I’m a big fan of “Reservation Dogs,” which is about Indigenous teens in rural Oklahoma. I think it offers an important antidote to perceptions that many non-Natives may have about Native Americans. Even though it does depict poverty, and there are some tragic circumstances, the narrative of “Reservation Dogs” is not tragic. It’s an extremely joyful show that celebrates and offers viewers of all kinds an understanding of a present day, Indigenous community. I hope we see more shows like this one that are written and directed by Indigenous people.
I have also seen “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which is a true story many Americans, including myself, were not previously aware of. The story takes place in Oklahoma in the 1920s, around the same time as the Tulsa Race Massacre (also known as the Black Wall Street Massacre), another incident of racial violence driven by white supremacy that was until fairly recently also not widely known. So there’s always more for us to learn and get exposed to and understand.
We’re seeing more places in the United States banning books, some of which are written by Indigenous people. Why do you think that is?
That’s a good question, and a very important one at this particular historical moment. I would say that some powerful people do not want to read certain kinds of stories about American history and do not want others—including children and students—to read those stories either.
What is holding us back depends on where you’re sitting. It might appear that some people do not want to be confronted by the unpleasantness of the violence that has been enacted on marginalized groups in American history, with often terrible brutality. But Westerns and captivity narratives are filled with such violence, and they aren’t being banned. The books that are being banned are critical of that violence, and of the white supremacy that justifies it. Some people do not want to hear that truth. The force with which these stories are being suppressed, however, should tell us something about how important it is to tell them.
Main cast of “Reservation Dogs.” Photo courtesy of Shane Brown/FX.