American Indian Subjects

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 Books on American Indian Subjects

The Antelope Wife, by Louise ErdrichAmerican Indians get 'hot' about every twenty years. (Vine Deloria pointed this out about thirty years ago.) I'm not sure how long the flames burn, but ten years was about right last time. Between 1968 and 1978, Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Silko, and Vine Deloria were all hot literary properties, and a Mayan author (Miguel Angel Asturias) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in '67. A bunch of Anglo writers, worthy and naught, were caught up in the slipstream: Fred Manfred, Frank Waters, Peter Farb, Tom McGarth, Dee Brown. Anyway, it's 1998, and they're hot again, but mainly because of New Age connections I find a little embarrassing. [Note: The web is a strangely alive and dead place. The essay was first placed here in 1998, and has been trivially updated since then, primarily to fix typos and update formats.]
The weekend shamans and First Nation-adopted flautists make me sad, because their ersatz Indianness makes them a living while the real Indian stuff sits on the shelves. Non-Indians require mediators, and there will always be a pack of opportunists who help themselves by appearing to help others. Their names are not here.
That said, you know you aren't going to find books on the connections between the Abenaki and the lost tribes of Atlantis, the Blackfoot potter who taught me the Raspberries of Power, Kevin Costner's memoirs, or poetry in the Indian style by some darling of The New Yorker set. Ok?
In the General section I've identified books that don't qualify as 'literary' (whatever that means) but are useful for their information, insight, and speculation. In the American Indian Literature section you will find authors who are generally regarded as American Indian. (Who's an American Indian? Don't get me started.) If a writer has ten or so books to her credit, I may only list two here, and then if you click the open book next to her name (like Louise Erdrich), you will go to a complete, somewhat annotated list.
I've also added a separate section, 'In the Drum Circle,' on writers who are respected by American Indian readers for their understanding of their neighbor cultures. Here I will have a rotating featured book and a link to more, specifically to a page of 'good outsiders.'
If you didn't get here from my American Indian page, you might want to check it out. And for a lengthy essay on that peculiar genre created by Tony Hillerman, the "American Indian Mystery," read my "Crossover Genre" essay.

 General Titles

Reading Beyond Words:
Native History in Context

by Jennifer S.H. Brown, Elizabeth Vibert (Eds)
ISBN: 1551110709
Broadview Press, Hardcover
 Books on Canadian issues, especially books published in Canada, are hard to come by. This one is cited on NativeNet with a brief description by the publisher's marketing person, Risa Kawchuk:
... a collection of original essays on history and historiography by both American and Canadian scholars, such as Olive Dickason, Alice Beck Kehoe and Frederick Gleach. The essays in 'RBW' address many of the issues--such as voice and perspective, bias and context--arising from interpreting the Native North American past through documentary sources.

Peter Matthiessen
In the Spirit of Crazy Horse
ISBN: 0140144560
Penguin, Paperback
 Matthiessen's book is the definitive report on the incident at Wounded Knee that nearly broke the back of the American Indian Movement in 1973. If you finish this book thinking that Peltier is guilty (and Janklow isn't), you weren't paying attention.
Mary Brave Bird [Crow Dog]
Lakota Woman
ISBN: 0060973897
Harper, Paperback
Ohitika Woman
ISBN: 0060975830
Harper, Paperback
Lakota Woman, by Mary Crow Dog
 Mary Brave Bird, wife of Leonard Crow Dog, has written two books that, with Maria Campbell's Half Breed, should be required reading for anyone interested in the lives of contemporary Indian women. Lakota Woman won the American Book Award. While married to the spiritual leader of AIM, Mary Crow Dog was at the center of the political movement, and her woman's perspective is quite different from what you will hear from Russell Means.
This is one of many excellent books fostered by Richard Erdoes, a white writer who has done a great deal to keep in the public eye contemporary Sioux people who are fighting for their tribal survival. Erdoes' other books include Crow Dog: Four Gneerations of Lakota Medicine Men and Lame Deer Seeker of Visions.
Russell Means
Where White Men Fear to Tread
with Marvin J. Wolf
ISBN: 0312147619
St. Martin's, Paperback
 Russell Means' autobiography needs reading. I haven't gotten to it, except superficially, but it's on that endless list. Knowing Means, I expect it will be a bit self-aggrandizing, less than totally candid, and fascinating. Dennis Banks and Russell Means. When you saw them together? Russell was the gorgeous one, the one we wanted Crazy Horse to look like. Dennis was the Injun Joe beside him, homely and bit dangerous. And the doer, folks. Look for his autobiography someday.
Dennis Banks
Ojbiwa Warrior
with Richard Erdoes
ISBN: 0806135808
U. Oklahoma, Hardcover
 The rumors of this book began more than fifteen years ago, and those of us who understood that it was Dennis Banks, not the flamboyant Russell Means, who was the heart and soul of AIM, have been waiting patiently. It was worth the wait. Banks tells a truly Indian life story–it's no accident that more than half the pictures are of other people: his relations.
Don't look for startling revelations here. We still don't know who really killed the FBI agents at Pine Ridge. But if you want to know how it is to grow up Indian in today's America, this is the book to start with.
It would be great to see the University of Oklahoma Press with a deserved best seller. And Richard Erdoes has capped an admirable career as scribe to contemporary native peoples with his collaboration on this strong, true book.
[Note: Added in November, 2005]
Vine Deloria, Jr.
God Is Red
ISBN: 1555911765
NA Press, Paperback

In Memoriam: Vine Deloria, Jr.

Vine died in November, 2005, and within hours I started getting hate mail for this assessment. One called me a racist, the other an illiterate. So far, just the two, but we'll see.

I find the mud of "racist" especially ironic. I'll tell you what is "racist:" It's racist to condemn the Creationist mentality as fundamentalist stupidity when it's advanced by white folks and fawn over it when mouthed by Indians. This is the kind of intellectual double standard that saddled American Indians with people like Ward Churchill.

Vine was no Ward Churchill. Again, the big difference was his sense of humor. He was not a hater, and he worked hard for American Indian people. He knew who his relatives were. But this is not a recipe for sainthood. His books were never quite as good as his readers pretended. Not because he was Indian but because he preferred shocking and exaggeration to the boring reality of things. He made cheap targets of anthropologists, and however amusing the pot shots, most of them were friends of the Indian.

Perhaps that is was finally turned me away from Vine. There are two kinds of activist: the ones who fight their enemies and the ones who fight their friends. Friends need correction. But Deloria discovered, as many minority activists do, that friends are a lot safer targets than enemies. Radical chic with a tomahawk. I've lost patience with it.

I've revised the original text slightly, but only to elaborate what it said, not to withdraw a word of it. VIne was a keeper, a good guy that I liked, in spite of his faults; but that isn't enough for the dogmatists. So let the lynching of the heretic begin. Here, let me bow my head. How proud I am that American Indians have assimilated this essential American value!

 Deloria is a clown and, like Russell Means, a shameless self-promoter. The difference is that he has a sense of humor. Most of his book's are upside-down right-wing rants, filled with bad logic and dishonest arguments. He gets credit for setting the recent wave of Indian literature in motion, along with Scott Momaday, when he published a book of essays expanding a Playboy article called "Custer Died for you Sins." This "Indian manifesto" was clever and iconoclastic, a loud, boistrous voice that would not be shushed. Today its arguments seem parochial and dated, even though the issues are still unresolved.
This was followed by two excellent books, We Talk, You Listen and God Is Red. The first, like Custer Died for Your Sins, was a wake-up call to non-Indians and, implicitly, a rallying cry for Indian activists. The second brilliantly re-examined the intellectual history of the United States. Then began a stream of publications ranging from the scholastically frivolous to ponderous–not a "range" to be proud of. Beginning with Red Earth, White Lies, he has aligned himself with fundamentalist Christianity by defining "truth" as "what I want to believe." He has lately taken to trivializing American anthropology in terms that are, in a word, so hypocritically Luddite as to be contemptible.
The best of his books, in both the quality of the argument and the significance of the thesis, is God Is Red, which takes as its key recognition the idea that a "God" has a connection to place, and what is wrong with American Christianity is that the God of a Middle Eastern desert cannot cope with our country. It is a religious, philosophical, and historical expansion of Robert Frost's brilliant insight about the core of White American alienation: "The land was ours before we were the land's."
It is, like so much of Deloria's writing, peppered with provocative half-truths and more rhetorical than accurate sometimes, but nonetheless it is an essential book for anyone who wants to understand how we got to this place and what is wrong. One indispensible book is a good legacy for any writer.
Leonard Peltier
Prison Writings
ISBN: 0312203543
St. Martin's, Hardcover
 And while you are waiting to hear from Dennis Banks, read Leonard Peltier's memoir of his twenty-five years as a political prisoner of the United States government. Hailed by American Indian writers and international crusaders for justice like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, and lawyer Gerry Spence, it is a wonderfully complete portrait of the man behind the slogans and protests. Peltier's imprisonment may be the darkest blot on American justice in the last half-century. This book will not prove his innocence (for that, go to Peter Matthiessen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse), but you will come away understanding that he has been in prison long enough.
Prison Writings is also available in paperback, but for only a few dollars' difference in price. Buy the hardcover, if you can; it's a couple of bits worth of additional royalty, some of it for Peltier and his family.
Frank Waters
Masked Gods
ISBN: 0804006415
U Ohio Press, Paperback
 There was a Cheyenne holy man named Frank Waters. This isn't him. Ironically, it's quite likely that Frank (he was a dear friend and mentor for nearly thirty years, so bear with me) was as much as a quarter Cheyenne himself, though he grew up in the Anglo culture of Colorado Springs. He is the author of the first piece of canonical fiction about the American Indian, his novel The Man Who Killed the Deer. In the Hippie years, Masked Gods and Frank's other "non-fiction," The Book of the Hopi were mini-bestsellers.
Masked Gods was commissioned by the University of New Mexico, which rejected it because it wasn't "scholarly enough." Assessments by scholars like Clyde Kluckhohn persuaded them to change their minds, and the result is a classic mediation on the ceremonialism of Navajo and Pueblo peoples. (Ironically, the high-minded university press keeps in print a ridiculous hoax called The Education of Little Tree.) Frank was so insulted by their treatment that he once told me, when we were discussing where his papers should go, that UNM (my alma mater) was not an option. A further irony; he relented, and his papers ended up there after all, unpublicized and uncatalogued on the web.
Ironically, Kluckhohn's assessment appears as the introduction to the book. It should be read. It describes the strengths and limitations of Masked Gods too brilliantly to need repeating. Waters was not a scholar, and his excursions into scholarship are embarrassing for their naive willingness to find expertise where it validates his preconceptions. Go to this book for ideas, not facts, and respect the Indian readers who want to tell you how he got it wrong.
Frank's books ranged from The People of the Valley, a novel that John Nichols shamelessly imitated in the faddish Milagro Beanfield War, and his brilliant novel on the development of the atomic bomb (The Woman at Otowi Crossing to oddball biographies of William Stratton, Arthur Rochford Manby, New Age tracts like Mexico Mystique, and a charming last work (not counting the posthumous memoir, ) that tells the stories of great historical Indian figures, Brave Are My People. Respected by Vine Deloria, Jr, Rudolfo Anaya, Leslie Silko, as well as a host of his peers, students, and fellow Westerners, he was a good writer and a whole human being. He anticipated the good and bad of our modern Indian obsessions and his interest in the Orient gave him an empathy for non-white thinking that enlivens and inspires such potential barren tomes as his history book, The Colorado. Like Rodin, when he was good, he was very good indeed; and when he wasn't, well so what?
Nicholas Black Elk
Black Elk Speaks
ISBN: 0803261705
U Nebraska Press, Paperback
Black Elk Speaks
 Finally, my take on the quintessential Indian book, Black Elk Speaks. By John G. Neihardt? The question has generated a whole academic cottage industry. Neihardt retold the story a number of times, such as in his novelization, When the Tree Flowered, and never with the power this book manifests. Anthropologically accurate? Perhaps as much as any book on the Lakota produced before 1950. Representative of Lakota religion? Well, yes and no. The Lakota don't have a Vatican issuing orders to burn heretics or a body of ancient ambiguous manuscripts to nail dogma to. Nicholas Black Elk died a Catholic, which proves nothing, either. A great book? Without question. The Black Elk who emerges from this book is a whole and complete man, uncertain of his calling, self-effacing, strong in his faith in the world if not in his own merits. And his voice, true and authentic or not, has inspired a whole generation of American Indian writers and thinkers to political, religous, and literary activism. As true as gospel.

 American Indian Literature

Louise Erdrich Booklist
Tales of Burning Love
ISBN: 0060928360
HarperCollins, Paperback
ISBN: 0060972459
Harpercollins, Paperback
 Tracks is my personal favorite of Erdrich's novels, Tales of Burning Love is wonderful too. Click on her name, above, or the open book, to go to a complete list of her books in print and available at Amazon.Com, including the rest of the Love Medicine set, with notes and some additional links. I have also posted reviews of her novels, The Antelope Wife and The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.
Tom King
Green Grass, Running Water
ISBN: 0553373684
Bantam, Paperback
Medicine River
ISBN: 0140254749
Penguin, Paperback
 Tom King is a very funny man. Green Grass, Running Water may not be the funniest book ever written by an Indian, but it's one of the funniest books not written by Mark Twain. If Coyote had read Twain and then decided, "Hey, I can do that kind of writing!" this is what we'd've ended up with. A middle-aged man whose girlfriend can't decide who she wants to father her child and then hit the grit (her biological clock just started clanging), a bunch of old guys who may have escaped from a senior citizens' home, a polyester sleazeball who isn't all that bad, and a dam that may provide more running water than we expected in our flat. Nice mix, lots of fun, some things to tell you about being Indian in Canada. He has a new novel coming in November, 2000, Truth and Bright Water. Watch for a review here.
Adrian Louis
Wild Indians and Other Savages
ISBN: 0874172799
Univ of Nevada, Hardcover
 It's no accident that this book was published on April 1. Louis is one of a new group of American Indian writers that includes Tom King and, in an odd way, Jim Welch. Louis adopts the role of Coyote to tell stories that better be funny, because if they're not, things are a lot worse than we ever imagined. The stories in Wild Indians are set primarily in the Lakota country (Dakotas and Nebraska) where Louis lives these days; he is a Paiute from Nevada (like Wayne Newton. I couldn't resist). They are funny, in a nervous sort of way.
Scott MomadayBooklist
House Made of Dawn
ISBN: 0816517053
Univ of Arizona, Hardcover
 After thirty years, I guess Scott gets to be the Dean of American Indian Letters. Certainly he is the class act one can trot out for the folks who prefer their ethnic lit with a 'canonical' flavor. House Made of Dawn is an extraordinarily literary novel, with allusions to Faulkner and Hemingway, an eye to New England Transcendentalism, research courtesy of Elsie Crewes Parsons, and the paternal spirit of Mandarin critic Yvor Winters hovering over it like the Paraclete. And one of my favorite novels. It was a miracle it won the Pulitzer; at least as big as the miracle that Leslie Silko won a MacArthur Grant. Oddly enough, the obscurities of the novel are more related to Umberto Eco than to Indian culture. For a real sense of cultural alienation, try Ray Young Bear some time.
The Way to Rainy Mountain
ISBN: 0816517010
Univ of Arizona, Hardcover
The Way to Rainy Mountain, by N. Scott Momaday
The best starting place is not House Made of Dawn but The Way to Rainy Mountain. This, between you and me, is the one that should've gotten the Pulitzer. It is one of the two essential texts of American Indian literature (the other being —So shoot me— Black Elk Speaks). The weaving of text and image, the place of myth and history, the web of structure, the sheer beauty of the language: all combine to make a nearly perfect book, neither 'white' nor 'Indian' and both. If you haven't read it, buy it, read it. If you can't afford it here, hit the used book stores and find the little Ballantine reprint or the original university press paperback. It won't change your life. Probably. But you'll read it again.
Simon Ortiz
Men on the Moon: Collected Short Stories
ISBN: 0816519307
University of Arizona, Paperback
 [ Search at Powell's Used Books]Simon J. Ortiz, from Acoma Pueblo, is one of the well-kept secrets of American Indian lit (along with Peter Blue Cloud and Ray Young Bear). He is a fine poet (look for Going for the Rain in used book stores) and short story writer (another out-of-print one is The Howbah Indians). His stuff has an authenticity about it that is at once its strength (truthbearer) and a weakness (white folks don't get it).
Ortiz' stories have been available in journals, anthologies, and rare paperbacks (Howbah Indians, Fightin'. Arizona, which is doing a fine job of making his work available, published this collection in 1999. No one writes better about the contemporary Indian experience. Also hardcover.
After and Before the Lightning
ISBN: 0816514488
Univ of Arizona, Paperback
 A book in the Sun Tracks series at the University of Arizona. A memoir of a winter Simon spent in South Dakota, while teaching at Rosebud. Very evocative of the place. Also in hardcover.
From Sand Creek
ISBN: 0816519935
University of Arizona, Paperback
Aside from Harper and Row's Going for the Rain, decades out of print, Simon J. OIrtiz has had no attention from mainstream publishers. The University of Arizona has made a great effort to put his work in print, and this, a reprint of an early poetry book, is an excellent example of their work.
Speaking for the Generations
ISBN: 0816518505
Univ of Arizona Press, Paperback
 New collection of essays on writing by Native American writers, edited by Ortiz for the Sun Tracks series. Also hardcover.
Leslie Silko
ISBN: 0140086838
Penguin, Paperback
 Ceremony, House Made of Dawn, and The Man Who Killed the Deer offer three superb tellings, set in the pueblos of New Mexico, of what is for many people the essential story of contemporary American Indian life: The American Indian caught between two cultures, unable to find an identity. The landscape of House Made of Dawn is literary; that of The Man Who Killed the Deer is folk; and both are essentially the observations of outsiders. Only Ceremony takes us inside the culture and leaves us to look out, suddenly disoriented by our new eyes, groping to make our own way through the canyon-turns of myth and 'reality.' What is imaginary, what real? The answer we come to is that it is all real: witches, katchinas, the Bataan Death March, the poisoning of the Laguna uranium miners who made Trinity possible....
ISBN: 155970005X
Arcade, Paperback
Storyteller, by Leslie Marmon Silko
 In some ways, Storyteller is my favorite of Leslie's books. It fits in no category. It's a novel, sort of, made up of short stories (one of them by Simon Ortiz, however, and some by Silko's granny and her aunts) and poetry, and photographs and letters, and talk about the how and why of telling stories. As formally experimental as The Way to Rainy Mountain, although it is superficially more similar to The Names, Momaday's less successful attempt at a memoir.
Almanac of the Dead
ISBN: 0140173196
Penguin, Paperback
 Almanac of the Dead is a slouching beast of a book. Not so much a 'best novel of the last n years' as simply an essential and irreplaceable addition to American fiction. It's noisy, vulgar, horrifying; reading it is like surviving a train wreck: You're better for the experience. And of course, it's not as dangerous....
Gardens in the Dunes
ISBN: 0684863324
Touchstone, Paperback
 I delayed reading Gardens in the Dunes until the paperback came out, and it was an odd experience, reading it a few weeks after Jim Welch's new novel, The Heartsong of Charging Elk (which Silko praised on the jacket). Reviewers complained about Silko's "agendas" (NYTimes BR) and her "hatred" of white people. The twit claque at Kirkus Reveiw allowed as how it wasn't too bad, given that Silko is "not a novelist...." (Who are these guys at Kirkus? Somebody's sister-in-law's nephews?)
So I was expecting fireworks like the grand frenzies of Almanac of the Dead. This talk of Silko's "hatred of white people" has always struck me as a stupid analysis of her broader understanding of civilization's failures and discontents. The novel is, in fact, a quiet thing, like the canyon gardens it celebrates. Silko deserves her own page. Now that I've read this book it's time.
Gardens in the Dunesis still available in hardcover.
Laguna Woman
ISBN: 0614016312
Flood Plain, Paperback
Sacred Water
ISBN: 0140173196
Flood Plain, Paperback
Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit :
Essays on Native American Life Today
ISBN: 0684827077
Touchstone Books, Paperback
Two books of poetry and a collection of Silko's essays on various subjects. Laguna Woman is a reprint of her first book. Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit is also in hardcover.
James WelchBooklist
Winter In the Blood
ISBN: 0140086447
Penguin, Paperback
The Death of Jim Loney
ISBN: 0140102914
Penguin, Paperback
Fools Crow
ISBN: 0140089373
Penguin, Paperback
The Indian Lawyer
ISBN: 0140110526
Penguin, Paperback
The Heartsong of Charging Elk
ISBN: 0385496753
Anchor, Paperback
 Jim Welch's first two novels, Winter in the Blood and The Death of Jim Loney, were the first serious fiction to capture the bleakness of contemporary (1970-1980) reservation life. A trivial irony: it was Jim Welch who pointed out with some exasperation that being referred to as the best American Indian novelist is patronizing. He's a good writer who happens to be (no, is also) Indian. Like his Indian lawyer.
His historical novel Fools Crow is one of a kind: a detailed, check-your-dates historical novel about the Indian Wars both written from and imagined from an Indian point of view. Most novels produced by American Indian authors are on contemporary subjects. There's a sound political reason for this. For most non-Indians. "Indians" means 'history' (or it means new-age cartoon flute players. Kokopelli lives, and Disney got him licensed!). So movies like Powwow Highway and Journey to Rosebud bomb and Dances With Wolves is a big hit. That circumstance, plus the fact that most serious writers write what they know, means there aren't many truly historical fictions by Indian authors.
The Indian Lawyer, by James Welch
The Indian Lawyer is my own favorite (along with his poetry, which has been reprinted in a new, revised editon of Riding the Earthboy 40, though both editions are currently out of print) because of the subject matter. The Indian lit 'canon' is glutted with novels, mediocre or excellent, by Indians and white folks, male and female, on the failure of an Indian protagonist to make it in the contemporary world. Welch's Indian lawyer is successful, and aside from the details of his personal life as a tribal person, his story is not about being Indian at all. Sort of. Read it.
His most recent novel, The Heartsong of Charging Elk, combines the cultural sensitivity of Fools Crow with the painfully secular themes of Welch's contemporary fiction. The blend is not as satisfying as the pure example of each mode (Fools Crow and The Indian Lawyer, respectively), but it is an excellent work nonetheless.
Ray Young Bear
Black Eagle Child
ISBN: 0802134289
Grove/Atlantic, Paperback
Remnants of the First Earth
ISBN: 0802115810
Remnants of the First Earth, by Ray A. Young Bear
Reviewers wrote about reading Young Bear "patiently" when his 'Facepaint Narratives' hit the mass market bookshelves. They called Black Eagle Child and Remnants of the First Earth 'fictionalized memoirs', fumbling for a category to put them in. One wonders if a category would have needed inventing if Thomas Wolfe were an Indian. They are narratives, stories, neither memoir nor novel, just like Leslie Silko's 'memoir,' Storyteller which is a long story about being a writer with stories.
Young Bear is a Mesquakie Indian who made a brief stir in the early seventies with some brilliant and almost unintelligible poetry. He wrote so completely from inside of his cultural milieu (the Sac and Fox people of Iowa) that a non-Mesquakie was as out-of-place in front of his page as an anglo tourist at the Hopi Snake Dance.
He disappeared for nearly a decade from the literary scene (a poetry collection, The Invisible Musician, appeared in 1990). Rumors had him writing books for the Mesquakie schools, keeping the language alive. It seemed appropriate that his talent would be extended only to those who could read his native language. Then the Facepaint Narratives appeared, as uncompromising and inaccessible. And as brilliant, like the apparent chaos of a fancy dance. There is nothing else like these books.
Black Eagle Child is still available in hardcover from the University of Iowa.

[ Search at Powell's Used Books]To understand how extraordinary Ray Young Bear's talent is, you will need to track down his poetry. During the last round of 'Indian Mania', a collection called Winter of the Salamander went in and out of print a couple of times: Try BiblioFind, or Powell's for a used copy.

 In the Drum Circle

There is a very small group of authors who are not Indian themselves but have written with such wisdom and empathy about American Indian cultures that their books are accepted by many American Indian writers and readers as worthy adjuncts to the body of American Indian literature. I am choosing my words carefully, because I don't intend to include here white writers who have painted up their prose, like Boy Scout 'eagle dancers', whether they did it for good motives or bad, nor do I intend to include white writers who have been popular with American Indian readers for what I consider the wrong reasons.

Let me explain. When the first of the 'soulful' New-View Indian movies came out, Winterhawk, the Michif and Lakota students in my classes at the University of North Dakota insisted that I should see it because it was so good. It sucked. Big time. But it romanticized the Indians in a positive way and told a good story. Would the average guy in a Dublin pub before World War II have picked James Joyce as the "conscience of his race"? I doubt it. And Vine Deloria's endorsement of Claire Huffaker's The Only Good Indian as one of the best books about Indians does not oblige me to agree.

The irony of the drum circle gang is that everyone of them has been anathemized as well as welcomed. That club is a big one, too. I once heard a graduate student who later published her way into the front of the American Indian scholar line explain to a panel that 'as an Indian,' she felt that Scott Momaday didn't really qualify as an American Indian writer. Scott Momaday?!! Too intellectual, too 'Western....'

Who is Indian? Scott once said (I paraphrase, however), that a person is Indian if he thinks he is for a good reason. Big help, Scott. Who knows if little Dougie 'Spotted Eagle' really thinks he's Indian as he trundles his wheelbarrows of royalties to the bank (I have my suspicions)? 'Jamake Highwater' had the good fortune to 'discover' that he was Indian right around when it was a sure thing, publicity-wise (a little later, 'gay' became all the rage, and Indian rage got a little close to his butt, so he shifted minorities a bit). And Ward Churchill? If only he were a joke. Let's see, he's "Indian" because his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather mighta been and well, no, he didn't grow up Indian, just sorta discovered it when he came up for tenure....

And then, there are the real Indian writers. Leslie Silko is part white. Louise Erdrich is much white. Depending on how you count it, Scott is no more Indian (or less) than Frank Waters, who never claimed to be, in spite of his father's Cheyenne heritage. The scholar in question above? She is less than half Indian genetically, and that a mixture of two tribes a thousand miles apart.

There is no French Academy for picking American Indian writers. Gratefully, I add to see if you wince. The American Indian, even more than the Irish patriot, is an invention, after all. What could the decadent literature of the Toltec princes have in common with the demotic, haiku-like text of a '49 or a Mediwiwin song, or the contemporary fictions of a woman who grew up with her Chippewa gran'ma on the rez? Is there really a difference of kind between The Man Who Killed the Deer and Ceremony? And if so, is that difference 'Indian-ness'? I don't know. I don't think so. Patchouli is an essence. "Indian" isn't.
Frank Waters
The Man Who Killed the Deer
ISBN: 0671555022
Pocket Books, Paperback
 Back in the days when I had scholarly ambitions, I meant to write a biography of Frank. It was to be called Koshare. What an amazing book The Man Who Killed the Deer was in 1942! So yes, Momaday and Silko were better at their craft, and perhaps D'arcy McNickle's The Surrounded or John Joseph Mathews' Sundown were written more unambiguously from within American Indian culture (I don't think so). But here is a book that, more than fifty years later, still holds up while so much that was written about Indians even twenty years ago is now relegated to the dustbin of the anachronistic and obsolete. Read this book, and Ceremony, and House Made of Dawn, and decide for yourself who did what best. I wouldn't give up any of them.

Frederick Manfred
Conquering Horse
ISBN: 0803281196
Univ of Nebraska, Paperback
The Manly Hearted Woman
ISBN: 0803230923
Univ of Nebraska, Hardcover
 I miss Fred. To me he never seemed the Bunyanesque, roarin', Earth-eating giant of his folklore. What I saw, the twenty years I knew him, was the lizard, the eternal, dry, ageless observer, more condor than bear, the reporter, the rheumy unflinching eye, the bony, scrawling claw, the bold nose and sly grin. His two "pre-White Indian novels" are simply the best of their kind, in some ways a more extraordinary act of imagination that Jim Welch's Fools Crow. If you care about the West, you should have read the entire Buckskin Man Tales, starting with Manly-Heart (the unofficial prologue that was actually an afterthought).

His pre-white Indians are imagined with extraordinary sympathy and detail in Conquering Horse, which is a naturalist view of the subject, and again, with a completely different effect, in the finely crafted mythic fable of The Manly Hearted Woman. And while we are on the subject, what more brilliant tour-de-force than his hairpin about-face in Scarlet Plume, which begins with an "Indian massacre" as horrifying as Larry McMurtry at his worse or the McCarthy gent writing a note to his milkman and ends, 250 pages later, with a symmetrical horror in which the Indians are the innocent victims and the whites the bloodthirsty savages. Whew. I miss him, my grand old grandfather. The soil is richer for his bones.

Lucia St. Clair Robson
Ride the Wind
ISBN: 0345325222
Ballantine Books,Paperback
Ghost Warrior
ISBN: 0312871864
Forge, Hardcover
Ride the Wind, by Lucia St. Clair Robson
 Do not be fooled by this book's cover, so evocative of the "Indian lover" bin of Historical Romance. Robson is a serious writer who has pulled off a couple of great pieces of work. Her account of Cynthia Ann Parker, Quanah Parker's mother, is a classic. Robson produced a sympathetic and accurate portrait of the nineteenth-century Comanche. She neither softens the brutality of their lives nor sensationalizes it. The book begins with the Comanche massacre of the Parkers and concludes with the Texas Ranger's committing similar atrocities on Cynthia Ann's Comanche family many years later. Ride the Wind is a keeper.

Her latest novel, Ghost Warrior (Here's my review), pulls off the same virtuoso trick, helping us identify with and understand what may be the most stereotyped people in all of American history, the Apache. It is at once a relentless narrative of a shameful period of American history and a charming, mature love story.

And if you like these, try Fearless, the story of Texas frontierswoman Sarah Bowman, who figures in Ghost Warrior.

On a related topic, see my essay, "'American Indian Mysteries': A Crossover Genre Not Quite There." It discusses the genre of mystery novels with American Indian themes, identifying the best of the writers and books.
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