Given my interests in Native American literature and genre fiction, it is inevitable that I’ve also become interested in the ways in which the indigenous peoples of North America are represented in science fiction and fantasy. For the purposes of this particular article I’m thinking primarily of their representation in Anglo-American sf and fantasy, and I’ll be focusing on, so far as I’m aware, representations by non-Native writers. (Nor is this intended to be a comprehensive survey of appearances by Native Americans in sf though that may be a project for the future.)
I want to begin with Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country (2012), where we meet Crying Rock, described as ‘an old Ghost woman with a broken sideways nose, grey hair all bound up with what looked like the tatters of an old Imperial flag, and a face so deep-lined you could’ve used it for a plate rack’ (p. 55). A couple of pages later, one character says of another, ‘His Ghosts massacred a whole fellowship o’ prospectors out on the dusty not two weeks ago. Thirty men, maybe. Took their ears and their noses and I shouldn’t wonder got their cocks besides’ (p. 57). A few pages later, ‘[t]he old Ghost woman had the reins, creased face as empty as it had been at the inn, a singed old chagga pipe gripped between her teeth, not smoking it, just chewing it’ (p. 64). Only on the following page is Crying Rock finally introduced by name, having said a few words ‘[s]o slow and solemn it might have been the eulogy at a funeral’ (p. 65). And much later still, we see Crying Rock as tracker: ‘’Til that moment Shy had been wondering whether she’d frozen to death hours before with her pipe still clamped in her mouth. She’d scarcely blinked all morning, staring through the brush they’d arranged the previous night as cover’ (p. 301).
Those who’ve read Red Country will know that in this novel, Abercrombie takes on the stereotypes of the Old West, particularly as represented in film: its gunslingers and scouts, bandits and prospectors, its taciturn reluctant heroes and its young women struggling to make a go of pioneer life after the death of a parent. And, as we’ve come to expect of Abercrombie, he happily sets about demolishing the myths of frontier life much as he has previously devoted his time to undermining the idea of epic fantasy. It is all very enjoyable, except for one thing, perhaps implicit in the title, but undeniably explicit in the presence of Crying Rock. The Ghosts are clearly the Native American analogues in Red Country but whereas Abercrombie seems willing to stand every other stereotype on its head, that of the Native American remains mostly untouched. There might be some novelty in the fact that this Native American happens to be female rather than male, but if that is so, it seems to me to be a very small subversion. Many people are familiar, after all, with the story of Sacagawea, who travelled with Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery Expedition in the early 1800s.
Why, when Abercrombie had subverted everything else in sight, and often to great effect, he had nonetheless retained the image of the stoical, taciturn Native American?
All the way through the novel, I kept asking myself why, when Abercrombie had subverted everything else in sight, and often to great effect, he had nonetheless retained the image of the stoical, taciturn Native American, for that is what Crying Rock is, no matter her sex. Perhaps he had decided that writing Native American characters was something he could not undertake, and that to leave these Native American substitutes in silence was the simplest way of dealing with the difficulty. If so, I am entirely sympathetic to the problems that might be experienced by a white European man attempting to create acceptable Native characters but I nonetheless find it hard to be sympathetic to what amounts to a continued silencing of the Native American voice, first in the films themselves, and then through the perpetuation of that stereotype in Red Country.
Let’s think first about those westerns. There were Native American and First Nations actors in Hollywood almost from the inception of the film industry. However, within the mainstream film industry (there was also a small native film industry operating at this point) they worked mostly as extras, and were rarely if ever cast in speaking roles as Native Americans. There is more than one story of a Native American actor being refused a major role as an ‘Indian’ because he didn’t look ‘Indian’ enough, while non-Natives who looked ‘right’ got the work. Jay Silverheels (Mohawk First Nations) who played Tonto on tv and in film was something of an exception. Iron Eyes Cody, best known as the ‘Crying Indian’ in a 1970s environmental commercial, was despite claiming Cherokee-Cree ancestry, actually Tony Corti, the son of an Italian immigrant. Michael Zenon, who portrayed Joe Two Rivers (Metis-Ojibwe) in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s The Forest Rangers is Ukranian. Johnny Depp’s casting as Tonto in the recent remake of The Lone Ranger has also drawn criticism (despite and indeed because of his claim to Cherokee ancestry) and there are currently numerous protests about Rooney Mara’s being cast as Tiger Lily in the latest remake of Peter Pan.
Thomas King tackles this phenomenon head-on in his novel Green Grass, Running Water, one strand of which tells the story of Portland Looking Bear, who becomes a wildly successful Native American actor only after he dons a false nose, to make him look more ‘authentically’ Native American, and takes on a more Indian-sounding name, Iron Eyes Screeching Eagle. When Portland and his son, Charlie Looking Bear, go back to Hollywood to start afresh, they find themselves dancing in strip shows or, in Charlie’s case, standing in front of Remmington’s steak house, waiting to park cars (the waiters needless to say are the cowboys). And, to make matters worse, his father reminds him, ‘Remember to grunt. […] The idiots love it, and you get better tips’ (p. 235). Grunting is of course what Indians are supposed to do, that or speak pidgin English, if indeed they speak at all.
When not being taciturn, Hollywood Indians are busy being savage, which brings us back to those Ghosts who ‘[t]ook their ears and their noses and I shouldn’t wonder got their cocks besides’. I’d be lying if I said that, so far as I’m aware, Native Americans never, ever mutilated the bodies of those they killed any more than Euro Americans never, ever mutilated the bodies of the Native Americans they killed. Scalping was less common than westerns would have you believe: if anything, the ear was the favoured trophy, taken by Euro Americans, seeking to claim a bounty for those Native Americans they’d killed. However, films about Native Americans, made mostly by white men, tell us that Native Americans scalped white men; and for many Europeans, pretty much all we have ever learned about Native Americans we learned from westerns. Consequently, Native Americans either look like Chuck Connors playing Geronimo, or else they are busy attacking wagon trains. For a little light relief, elderly Indians might provide a comic chorus, sitting wrapped in their blankets, smoking, wryly observing the white men. If you’re lucky, a film such as Little Big Man provides a more nuanced account of Native American life, or of the interactions between Natives and white settlers – (The Searchers would be a prime example (drawn from the novel of the same name, based in part on the kidnapping of Cynthia Ann Parker by Comanches in 1836) – but some of Hollywood’s more recent attempts to move away from Native American stereotyping nonetheless end up giving us Kevin Costner singlehandedly saving the Sioux Nation, or else we get Johnny Depp’s deeply problematic Tonto. (For a Native view of Native American stereotypes, the much-loved Smoke Signals is probably the best film to see.)
In the same way that Hollywood relegates Native Americans to the Old West, so the Ghosts exist mainly in the Empire’s past. They have no present, and apparently no future either.
As if all this weren’t enough, I am disturbed by the name that Joe Abercrombie uses for these Native American analogues: Ghosts. Within the context of the novel the name seems to come from the whiteness of the Ghosts’ skins, or perhaps from the way they appear and vanish, but I think inevitably of two things. First, there is the simple implication that they are a dead or dying race. Rather as the federal authorities sought to exterminate Native Americans, removing what they regarded as little more than vermin, and taking over their territories, so it seems that the Ghosts have little agency in this novel. We learn that Sweet and Crying Rock have been together for many years, the Lone Ranger and Tonto of this reworked western landscape, but it is difficult to avoid noticing just how few Ghosts actually appear in Red Country. They are mentioned in passing, and almost always in the past tense. In the same way that Hollywood relegates Native Americans to the Old West, so the Ghosts exist mainly in the Empire’s past. They have no present, and apparently no future either.
I think too of the Ghost Dance, a religious movement led by the prophet Wovoka, which arose in the western states of the USA in 1889, eventually spreading far beyond it. Wovoka argued that dancing would reunite the spirits of the dead with the living and lead to peace and unity among native peoples. This came at a time when tribal groups had already been forced onto reservations, given the poorest land to work, had their children taken from them and sent to residential schools, and it is no wonder that the Ghost Dance was taken up with such enthusiasm; it offered an opportunity, however illusory, for change. Officials began to take tribal leaders into custody in an effort to stop the practice, precipitating what is now known as the Wounded Knee Massacre, in which around three hundred mostly unarmed Lakota Sioux were shot dead. Wounded Knee symbolised for many, including a young L Frank Baum, what ought to happen to all Native Americans, advocating total extermination. As General Philip Sheridan, veteran of the American Civil War, allegedly remarked in 1869, ‘The only good Indians I ever saw were dead’.
This is by no means a new trope, needless to say. James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, one of the first novels featuring Native Americans, immediately presents the idea that they are dying out (as they inevitably must in order to facilitate the manifest destiny of the white settlers). It is, though a pity to see it being implicitly perpetuated in a novel that otherwise interrogates the myths of the West with considerable vigour.
The catch here is that people have gone into space, only to discover that Mississippian Indians were there long before them, having discovered a ‘mental trick’ which means they could take their canoes into space.
To pick an older and actually rather curious example, we might turn to Tony Daniel’s Warpath, set in a far future in space which nonetheless looks suspiciously like the western frontier of the mid-1800s, as indeed the narrator himself freely admits. Oh yes, and the Indian village is called ‘Doom’. The catch here is that people have gone into space, only to discover that Mississippian Indians were there long before them, having discovered a ‘mental trick’ which means they could take their canoes into space. The inference here seems to be that the mound-building civilisation of Cahokia in the Mississippi river valley vanished because everyone went into space, which is in its way a pretty conceit. However, what is significant to my mind is that after 1400 years, the Mississippians are still using birch-bark canoes, and in many respects living much as they did back on Earth. Yes, there is sophisticated technology at work here – spears that explode – but we are encouraged to see the world of Candle and its inhabitants as though they were a little part of pioneer America transported across light years. As if we were in any doubt, an early event in the novel features an Indian raid, complete with a massacre.
We might also look at Orson Scott Card’s Red Prophet, one of his Alvin Maker novels, an alternate history in which Alvin meets Ta-Kumsaw, a Native American who wants the white man to leave the western lands to the ‘red men’. One might ponder the irony of Alvin’s curing Tu-Kumsaw’s brother, Lolla-Wissiky of his alcoholism (how did that alcohol get there in the first place?), but there is something especially pernicious in his being positioned as the one person who can keep Ta-kumsaw alive, playing into the idea of Native Americans requiring the blessing of the white man in order to survive.
Alternatively, we might look to Andre Norton’s Beastmaster series, with Hosteen Storm, the Navajo in space, in part a ‘noble savage’ who speaks to animals and controls them, and who has the ability to bond with the Norbies, the indigenous people he meets on the planet Arzor. Having said that, Storm is interesting in that he begins the series as a former soldier, acting as a reminder for all those Native Americans who have served in the armed forces. Earth has gone but unlike the other soldiers who can’t return home, Storm has not suffered a nervous breakdown, which seems intended to imply that he was from the beginning a loner, detached from the world (though this is a stance at odds with, for example, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony and N Scott Momaday’s A House Made of Dawn, both of which feature former soldiers and lay emphasis on their need to reconnect with the land as part of their healing). Similarly, Storm has elements of the ‘magical’ Indian about him, not least his ability to communicate with animals.
‘“That my valley be always wide and flourish and green and such stuff as that!” he orated in Pawnee chant style. “But that it be narrow if an intruder come.”’
I’ve focused deliberately on the ways in which Anglo-American writers, intentionally or otherwise, represent Native Americans using certain stereotypes, and in particular stereotypes that are recognisable from portrayals of Native Americans in film. To turn the tables a little, I’ll finish with a brief consideration of R.A. Lafferty’s masterly ‘Narrow Valley’. It’s a clever, knowing tale about a Native American family’s efforts to deter a white family’s attempts to settle a piece of land under the Homesteading Act. The story begins with Clarence Big-Saddle’s determination not to pay tax on the land allotted to him, which he anyway regards as his own. He performs an incantation: ‘“That my valley be always wide and flourish and green and such stuff as that!” he orated in Pawnee chant style. “But that it be narrow if an intruder come.”’ As he himself acknowledges, he’s not entirely sure of the incantation’s veracity as he’s used the wrong plants and the wrong words, but the point remains that no one else seems able to find the Narrow Valley, as a result of which Clarence doesn’t pay taxes, and nor, in turn, does his son, Clarence Little-Saddle.
And so things continue until the arrival of the Rampart family, led by Robert, who is determined to settle the piece of land that Clarence occupies. Except, of course, that Robert can’t see it. He can see where it should be, and the locals all know about the oddity of the valley that seems to be folded in on itself. Robert’s wife and children can walk down into the valley but somehow Robert himself just can’t enter it. What I find particularly interesting, though, is the way in which the Rampart children challenge Clarence, refusing to believe that he is Native American: ‘If you’re an Indian where’s your war bonnet?’ And the way that Clarence responds: ‘How come you’re not wearing the Iron Cross of Lombardy if you’re a white girl?’ before delivering a brief lecture on which tribes wear war bonnets – the Oglala Sioux, according to Clarence (a Pawnee), and again, it’s the Sioux we so often see in film (and, in the UK, in Buffalo Bill’s wild west shows). In fact, all through the story, Clarence challenges the Rampart family’s stereotypical notions of how a Native American looks and behaves, and this in a story published in 1966. It is a comic story but even the comedy reminds me strongly of the humour found in the work of people like Sherman Alexie and Thomas King, and the Fus Fixico letters; as many writers have suggested, there is a distinctive ‘Indian humour’ and Lafferty seems to be au fait with it.
But entertaining as this is, ‘Narrow Valley’ deals too with serious issues, about the allotment of their own land to Native Americans, the rest to be sold off to white settlers. For all the comic window dressing of spells that aren’t spells, it’s Clarence’s intent that is important; his desire to keep his land, and his cattle, for himself, and outside a federal system he clearly doesn’t recognise. In all, he is practising tribal sovereignty in miniature, and Lafferty’s story is clearly arguing in favour of his continuing to do that.
There is no easy way to deal with this, other than to be mindful of the ways in which a story might be interpreted and to be cautious in approaching it as an outsider.
There are so many directions we could go in from here. What about Native writers writing sf and fantasy? As a starting point, I’d suggest Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction, edited by Grace L Dillon, and [Mothership]: Tales From Afrofuturism and Beyond, edited by Bill Campbell and Edward Austin Hall. The problem is, of course, that not all fiction written by Native writers is intentionally written as fantasy or sf. That is, it may read as such to outsiders but a text such as Louise Erdrich’s The Antelope Wife, winner of a World Fantasy Award as it is, is still dealing with beliefs that are important to Native American lifeways; to read it as fantasy is, in a way, to appropriate its content. There is no easy way to deal with this, other than to be mindful of the ways in which a story might be interpreted and to be cautious in approaching it as an outsider. Having said that, neither are Native writers simply here to educate Euro American readers about their cultures. Reading The Antelope Wife will not give you a particular insight into a culture. How can it begin to?
Similar problems arise for outsiders who choose to work with Native American stories. The history of their gathering is often fraught: anthropologists and ethnologists often collected the stories in secret or through duress, and then published them against the wishes of the indigenous peoples. Often these stories were not meant to be heard outside the tribal band, or were reserved for particular situations. Often they formed part of a ceremony but have been stripped of context. To use them without understanding, to use them even with some sort of understanding, is to tread on dangerous ground. Whatever the portrayals of Native Americans and First Nations people in genre fiction might suggest, they are not all dead nor are their cultures simply exhibits in our museums. They are not Ghosts.