Native American Fiction

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1531

Son of an Ojibwe judge and an Austrian Holocaust survivor, author David Treuer challenges the popular category expressed in his title: Native American Fiction. He not only questions the value (and validity) of the debates about authenticity literary critics take as a touchstone to discussions of any work designated “Native American” but also rejects the definition of Native American fiction as encompassing any works written exclusively by “Indians,” persons with some defined degree of native blood. Instead, he guides readers through a chain of reason, logic, personal anecdote, and stylistic analysis that seeks to redefine Native American fiction as any novel or short story that treats the Native American experience, no matter who writes it. In other words, he attempts to remove the classification from the political and cultural arena and place it squarely in the mainstream so that the works can be judged on their merit, not on the ethnicity of their author.

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As Treuer analyzes the stylistics and literary strategies of popular Native American authors, he draws on established writers such as Charles Baudelaire, Homer, Ernest Hemingway, Marcel Proust, and Gustave Flaubert to establish mainstream standards of judgment of writing style, characterization, and use of imagery and contrast and thereby provide new approaches to reading and enjoying the writings of Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch, and others. In fact, his subtitle, A User’s Manual, suggests that he is providing readers the type of guide to Native American literature that teachers often provide students as guides to the study of composition or style. His clear emphasis is on style as the distinguishing characteristic of good fiction. This is groundbreaking territory, for he is rejecting the critical assumptions that have dominated this genre and is offering new standards, ones he hopes will result in a more realistic understanding of what of value Native American fiction can offer. Knowing the furor his work could elicit, he tempers his criticism with high praise when he believes it is deserved but is also blunt in his denigration of approaches he finds racist and dishonest.

Treuer’s introduction asserts his thesisthere is no “authentic” Native American fiction anywhere. This, he explains, is because fiction, the purview of novel and short story, of complexity and multilayering, is not a part of any native oral tradition of which he knows. He then turns to the long history of literature about Indians, looking in particular at William Gilmore Simms, James Fenimore Cooper, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft as laying the foundation of Indian lore, providing strategies for distancing and re-creating the Other, and establishing a stereotypical image that lives in the collective American imagination. His methodology throughout the rest of the book is to alternate between chapters of literary criticism and more intuitive, personal chapters that make a sly, indirect comment on what has come before. His chapters of literary criticism examine four main Native American authors and reference nonnative authors he believes they “channel” or consciously or unconsciously draw on and imitate. He applies a close, critical eye but with the understanding and appreciation of a fellow artist.

In “Smartberries,” Treuer rejects the critical praise of Erdrich’s Love Medicine (1984) for its inherent culturalism and traditional Indian techniques and instead praises her skillful use of modern, mainstream literary techniques like intercutting (a style Flaubert used effectively), polyvocality, and metaphoric language, which together connect seemingly unrelated materials. He compares her stylistics with those of Vladimir Nabokov and William Faulkner and contrasts them with the simplicity of traditional stories, observing that Erdrich uses Ojibwe only as ornament. Set in contrast, “Lonely Wolf” provides a sad vignette: a Finn dressed as a Native American in full Plains Indian regalia seeking Treuer’s autograph at a book signing “To Lonely Wolf.” This example of playing Indian sums up a pattern of white fantasies that attribute sensibilities and sensitivities to Native Americans, attributions unrelated to reality. It also demonstrates a form of sickness, a psychological fantasy substitute for something missing in private lives. Treuer believes that a readership engaged in playing Indian and bringing to fiction their stereotypical preconceptions and wishes makes it difficult for genuine Native American voices and messages to be heard. At the same time, that readership makes it far too easy for Native American writers to fall uncritically into failed attempts to re-create a cultural identity that can never again be fully realized, especially since their models of how to do so come from white, colonial writers with clear-cut mainstream agendas.

“Plain Binoculars” quotes critics praising Welch’s accurate portrait of an authentic past in Fool’s Crow (1986), but Treuer finds Welch’s novel better understood as a well-crafted construct in the style of Marcel Proust and Homer. He calls it an illusion that mirrors all the early literature about Indians to evoke nineteenth century native life, not as it was, but as we have come to think it was. Welch’s techniques, Treuer notes, include adjectival constructions, shifting registers of speech, and an invented Indian-English language to create verisimilitude and a sense of the Other, as well as epic spareness and epic concerns to create cultural and historical distance. The result confirms Welch as “the bravest and most experimental of Native American novelists,” asserts Treuer. “How to Hate/Love an Indian” begins with a racist advertisement from a 1999 South Dakota newspaper to explore the grim realities of modern Native American life and to highlight the irony of being hated for not being what others imagine one to be and loved for what one is not.

“The Myth of Myth” takes Silko to task for not being fully honest about her works, for claiming that her techniques are truly native techniques drawn from the patterns of antiquity when in fact they are not and for claiming that they embody ancient myth when what they really embody is cultural nostalgia. Treuer argues that Silko almost single-handedly established the standards for defining Native American fiction (dislocation, nonlinear structure, use of landscape and traditional materials, a mix of storytelling strategies, a search for self), and yet he declares that she is absolutely wrong, for myth, culture, and language are only stage props; the real play must be found elsewhere, he observes. What he does find of greater significance are the mainstream stylistics of her writing, as she takes lessons from Ernest Hemingway and from François-René Chateaubriand’s Atala (1801; English translation, 1802) but also from Luke Skywalker of Star Wars movies fame (the irony of her native techniques being so clearly literary and filmic is inescapable). “The Spirit Lives On” finds modern Indian artists (like the collection of Minnesota Native American artists exhibited in the Weisman Art Museum in 2000) still weighed down by the cultural burdens of the past.

“Indians/Not Indian Literature” returns to the “playing Indian” theme, beginning with a discussion of the enthusiastic critical praise elicited by Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree (1976) as Native American authorities proclaimed its authenticity, until, to great embarrassment, they learned that the author was not only a false Cherokee (in the tradition of Grey Owl and Buffalo Child Long Lance), but also an active member of the Ku Klux Klan. Treuer then segues to Sherman Alexie, whom he sees as working in the Carter tradition, having attacked The Education of Little Tree in Indian Killer (1996) and then, perhaps unconsciously, following a similar pattern in Reservation Blues (1995)a novel Treuer dismisses as poorly written, dependent on hyperbole and abstraction rather than grounded in the concrete, and racist in its distortion and dehumanization of white characters and its depiction (like Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales) of cross-racial lovers being punished. Treuer finds ironic the fact that Alexie uncovered the infamous hoax of Tim Barrus, a gay, white man from Michigan who pretended to be Navajo, publishing an ode to his adopted son in Esquire and the memoirs The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams (2000), The Boy and Dog Are Sleeping (2003), and Geronimo’s Bones: A Memoir of My Brother and Me (2004). Alexie distrusted a supposedly brilliant and authentic book because it sounded too much like his own writing to be the work of a real Native American.

Ultimately, Treuer concludes that modern Native American short stories and novels are limited and doomed if judged as cultural artifacts rather than as literature. Thus, his goal in this text is to provoke his readers, to incite them to critical debate that will lead modern fiction writers with Native American themes to reconsider their function, to decide whether their books are saddled with a moral cultural mission or can be read the way literature should be read: as a challenge to the mind and spirit. For Treuer it is the power of language that raises a work above the mediocre and that makes Welch, Erdrich, and Silko great writers, not their authenticity or cultural uniqueness (both of which he questions by placing them in a literary tradition and literary patterns of long standing). His challenge to his readers is to judge Native American writers by the literary quality of their effort, their originality, and the power of their language, not by their origins or by any attempt to discover authenticity.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15

Booklist 103, no. 2 (September 15, 2006): 16.

The New York Times 155 (August 19, 2006): B9.

The Washington Post, September 17, 2006, p. BW4.

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