All My Relatives: Diversity, Destiny,
A few years ago, a book was published to honor the folklorist Barre Toelken, and when it came out, a bunch of us got together a surprise party for him. After all the speeches, he got up and said to the group “Mi takuye oyasin.” It’s a Lakota phrase; in English it would be “all my relatives.” At the gathering, there were Lakotas, and Anglos, and Navajos, and folks of Japanese ancestry—because he has family and friends in all of these groups. There were also historians and folklorists and writers and academics, too. Mi takuye oyasin, he said. All my relatives. It was an affirmation of the group—saying he feels a family relation to all who were there in that special moment. He used it to honor us and to thank us.
James Welch is a good place to begin, because he’s one who writes historical fiction, and he does it from the perspective of his Native American characters. One thing we see in his use of the phrase Mi takuye oyasin / all my relatives is the communal orientation of the Lakota (and of many Native American cultures). While they obviously have a robust concept of the individual, of competition, many First Nations do generally tend to emphasize connection with others more than European-American cultures do. You could also say they have a generally more ecologically integrated world view than EuroAmericans have. That is, their traditions tend to treat not only others in their family, clan, and nation groups as relatives, but they see the animals that way, too—as relatives. And they extend kinship to the world of plants, as well, even to the earth itself.
I’m not here to do a primer on "the Native American worldview." I’m not qualified to do it, and anyway to imply that you can generalize about Native Americans with one world view would be more than misleading. But I mention this to raise a couple issues that we meet when reading (or writing) young adult historical fiction about the West.
One is the issue of mere diversity; that is, I want us to face the fact that too much historical fiction about the West is too lily-white in its perspective, and we need to acknowledge other point-of-views, other narratives than the dominant one we’ve been telling ourselves. This isn't news, but we still haven't dealt with it. Secondly, I want to raise a question that Native American writers are quite engaged with, and that is the matter of who gets to represent whose cultures. Or, we could ask, may I---and how can I---as a White writer, represent the narrative of a culture that is not my own. What I will argue is that those of us who want to create Native American characters (or any characters from a culture not our own) have very complex intellectual issues and very challenging ethical issues to face.
First of all, you are certainly aware (but it bears repeating) that, here in the 21st century, we are still selling YA fiction about the West that retains the 19th century romantic fantasies we told ourselves while we were colonizing the West. We White people, that is. My own tribe. Some very popular books that address cross-cultural issues in American history still purvey the comfortable idea that Whites acquired this continent through a generally humane process of bringing order to wilderness, education to savages, and economic advancement to all. (“So they only wanted 24 bucks for Manhattan; is that the Pilgrims fault?”) Call it settlement or development. Call it Progress or Manifest Destiny. Call it compassionate conservatism. It’s really the same self-serving narrative that we White folks have been telling ourselves since Columbus chained a dozen Tainos together and hauled them back to Spain as an exhibit for the king. (Look it up; it's in his journal.)
Not that anyone can wrestle the absolute truth to the ground, but we really have to teach ourselves to think without the pretty tales we learned of Squanto and Tonto, Pocahontas and Sacagawea, and the whitewashed picket fences of Manifest Destiny. That whole deal was a scam. Since long before James Fenimore Cooper, we were telling ourselves that the Indians were “vanishing.” It was a little sad, but we really thought we’d seen the last of the Mohicans. Trouble is, they didn’t vanish. They’re still here, and we’ve been kidding ourselves.
My father’s family came to America from England, and they came quite early. They were Puritan refugees taking their chances on faith in an unknown land. In New England, they became merchants and farmers and printers. Moving to the Midwest 200 years later, they were sodbusters and train men and pioneers. They believed in the Yankee virtues of hard work, self-restraint, mortification of the flesh, and the progressive revelation of God through the Christian scriptures. I’m personally a bit of a prodigal son, and I don’t share my ancestors’ faith. But I don’t belittle them for it; I am not embarrassed by it. They did what they did; what they knew how to do. And really, in just making a voyage by wooden boat from England to this continent in 1637, they achieved something that is to me inconceivably difficult.
Further—and I want to make this point in the strongest possible terms—I have benefitted every day of my life from the difficulty my ancestors undertook in that voyage---that quest---and from the way of life they pounded out of the soil here. I have to honor them, because they deliberately set out on this path to make a better life for their descendants—for me. They did it in my name. Though my ideologies are different, who am I, to judge them? I have benefitted immensely from the legacy they have left me.
However, considered against the broad backdrop of history, I do not think their legacy, though rooted in a quest for religious freedom, is at all righteous, noble, or blameless. No, in fact, I think in many ways it actually dishonors their beliefs and the God in whom they trusted. Is that ungrateful of me? Is it unpatriotic? No. The truest patriotism is one that holds up a mirror to our nation, so that we can see ourselves as we are and undertake to change what needs to be changed. We cannot afford to be simplistic or wilfully blind about our own history. My ancestors were unable to see it, but looking back, you and I know that the life of freedom they established here, the life we now enjoy, was built on the foundation of two great holocausts: 1) millions of Africans were enslaved to build our economy; 2) genocide and ethnic cleansing was committed against millions of Native Americans to extend our empire from sea to shining sea. Give them an inch and they’ll take 3000 miles. Give those English, give those Spanish, those Dutch, French, those immigrants, those Spooners an inch . . .
So when my family spread out from Plymouth in the 1630s and 40s, felled trees and built towns, I have to notice that they could do so only after they had expelled the people who were living there at the time—the Mohegans, the Narragansetts, the Wampanoags. When my family traveled by wagon and ox-cart from New England to Illinois in the 1830s and 40s, I have to acknowledge that they went there deliberately to press the advantage that the American government had taken from the Sauk and Fox, the Kickapoo, the Winnebago, and others. We know this. My family—your family, our White family—had fled oppression in Europe only to visit oppression upon others in America. This too they did in my name and to make a better life for me. I don’t like to be ungrateful, but I wish they hadn’t done it. I appreciate many many things about our life in the 21st century, but I didn’t ask to benefit from the systematic oppression of others in the human family.
This is the mirror we have to face in historical fiction for young adults.
Now. It is necessary and natural as we try to write more balanced historical fiction about the westward movement, that we invent characters who are Indians—characters who represent a critique of the Manifest Destiny narrative. But it doesn’t take a critical race theorist to see the trouble we can get into by creating them. Most of us White folks just don’t know any Indians. And worse than that, we’ve been telling ourselves for generations that they were vanishing. We’ve done our best to make them vanish, in fact. So we don’t do a very good job when we create characters who are supposed to be Indians. We tend to make them vanish by writing them into our fantasies. We’re the ones who invented both the “noble savage,” who either becomes a junior White man or melts into the retreating wilderness; we also invented the “thieving savage,” who of course has to die. We invented Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s Good Injun, and we invented Blue Duck, the homicidal psychopath in Lonesome Dove. So what do we know about Indians? And how dare we write about them?
I was shooting hoops with some kids in our driveway one time, when one of the younger ones fell and scraped his knee. Immediately, he grabbed a stray leaf from the ground and slapped it on his injury. "What are you doing?" I asked. "Oh," this little White boy said, "the Indians always put leaves on their wounds. I learned it in Scouts." Can you say stereotype, Scoutmaster?
YA fiction is no better. There we see my favorite disaster of cross-cultural writing, My Heart is on the Ground: the Diary of Nannie Little Rose. In this book, we have a Lakota girl in the 1870s who has no problem with Richard Henry Pratt’s “educational” agenda at Carlisle Indian School, which was, in his own words, to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In that book, we also have just plain corny stereotypes, like a child drawing a picture of a "scalping party" and a child suggesting that they “light the council fire.” We have outrageous cultural faux pas, like a Hopi girl (you know, a child from the Painted Desert) who not only knows how to swim, but strips naked to do so—which you couldn’t get a Hopi girl to do even today.
Behind it all, we have a highly successful White author, Ann Rinaldi, gently suggesting that Colonel Pratt’s program to “kill” and “save” Indian children by uprooting them from their homes, transporting them a thousand miles away, and brainwashing them against their culture, religion, and language was the only promise of success available to those children. An author who suggests that only “bad Indians” (like Nannie’s brother) resisted the brainwashing, and who neglects to mention that as a matter of public record, fewer than 15% of the children so “educated” at Carlisle boarding school ever actually completed the program, let alone assimilated into White society.
Can anyone say “Whitewash”? That’s what Rinaldi has done. In spite of herself, no doubt; I cannot believe that any fiction author would deliberately distort history, and Rinaldi certainly claims to have done some research. But that's the problem, isn't it. Even when White authors go to the library, they settle for what they find at the surface. They don't dig, and they don't question the familiar, self-confirming misperceptions of the past. Is it any wonder that many Native Americans don’t want White writers creating Indian characters? We simply have to do better.
The folks at Oyate.org have a list of books to avoid, in case you’re interested in seeing some bad examples of Whites writing Indians. The list includes My Heart is on the Ground, along with Sign of the Beaver, Indian in the Cupboard, Brother Eagle Sister Sky, The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow, and others. Oyate is an educational nonprofit, and they visit schools and public libraries and other venues to make presentations on literature about Native Americans. If you write to Oyate, as I did, they will tell you in no uncertain terms that if you write a book pretending to be from an Indian perspective, you are harming everyone, especially children, especially Indian children. They will tell you, as they told me, simply not to do it.
In 1850, a few years after my New England family moved to the Midwest, some ancestors from another side of my family—the Ojibwe side—traveled westward hundreds of miles from their homes in Wisconsin through late October weather to wait by Sandy Lake, Minnesota. Four thousand representatives from nineteen different Ojibwe bands canoed from Wisconsin over to Sandy Lake to accept the American dollars and the annual ration of supplies owed to them by the American government under the treaty agreements. For years, the annuity had been delivered much closer to home, but this time the government stipulated Sandy Lake, a very distant delivery point. Everyone knew the time of year was late for such a trip.
They arrived on the payment date, fatigued and hungry, only to find no one ready to distribute the supplies. Wild game was scarce, fishing was poor, and high water had wiped out the wild rice crop. Ill equipped and confined to a water-logged area, the people were given spoiled and inadequate government rations to survive on while waiting for their rightful payment from Washington.
If you know the Ojibwe, you know they are a hospitable culture. They had their warriors and their wars, but they didn’t resist the White advance through the continent as much as some groups did. They rather enjoyed the voyageurs; they fed the missionaries; they married the trappers: you could say they were assimilationists. You could say they were opportunists. You could say they were Good Indians.
So they waited by Sandy Lake, far to the west of home, while the Minnesota autumn closed, and the winter came down from Canada. And still no delivery from the Grandfather in Washington. They waited, trying to get by on what the soldiers handed out: rotting food, threadbare clothing, soiled blankets, and other so-called welfare benefits. (For this, the Ojibwe must have said to themselves, we allowed the Whites to convert our forests into railroad ties.) And it turns out that while they suffered, their annuity—that meager compensation owed to them by law—was being deliberately delayed by the White government. Evidently, the Indian agents, the government, and the corporate interests who had the government’s ear, all had calculated that without their provisions, the Ojibwe would stay at Sandy Lake for the winter, and then they would stay longer. This would in effect be another Indian removal to the West—another Trail of Tears—and it would make the "abandoned" Ojibwe land in Wisconsin available for the taking by the railroad and timber and mining companies, and of course by White settlers.
But the White government didn’t know the Ojibwe. Disease, exposure, and starvation ravaged them, killing three to eight people each day through November. 150 Ojibwe people died from dysentery and measles while they waited at Sandy Lake. And then, in December, with over a foot of snow on ground and the waterways frozen over, the Wisconsin Ojibwe finally received their annuities from Washington. And do you know what they did? They. Walked. Home.
Hundreds of miles they walked freezing in sodden, worn out moccasins, in animal skins and blankets, dragging the sick and lame on sleds through the December snow. To this day, the Wisconsin Ojibwe call it the Death March of 1850. By the end of it, 250 more people had perished. That’s over 400 deaths in all. In the number of lives lost, Sandy Lake was a tragedy more costly than even the ghastly massacres at Bear River or Sand Creek. It was a massacre our American government committed not with soldiers but with the blunt weapons of willful neglect and greed and betrayal.
Now, I’m only telling you this story because I think that in it we can see some of the real cost of Manifest Destiny begin to emerge. There are, of course, hundreds of stories just like this from the last 400 years, and there are worse. These stories were known in the 19th century, but somehow not many writers saw them as important to our history. Today, we see things differently, but by now the stories are much less available to us. Still, sadly, if we’re not willing to dig them out, to find and tell stories like these, then we’re stuck with the story of Manifest Destiny, the happy fiction that in my view is too well-represented in young adult novels.
I want to be clear that I am not descended from the Ojibwe. There are no Indian princesses in my lineage. There are Ojibwe in my family because, in the 1890s, my great-uncle married an Ojibwe woman. It’s another story, but my family now includes hundreds of mixed-blood relatives who can trace their ancestry back through 400 years of White and Indian contact. Through one side, they go back, as I do, to the English Spooners who in 1637 peered at the coast of New England from the wooden deck of the good ship Anne; and through the other side they go to the Algonquian-speaking natives who stood watching that ship from the shore. Again, there are no Indians in my lineage, but there are in my family. They are my relatives literally, and they are all our relatives metaphorically.
And ultimately, I would argue, we must all begin to see our family as mixed-blood. We must engage in the identity transformation that such an understanding of ourselves will cause.
Why must we? Here’s a philosophical problem for you. As solid as our bodies seem, a physicist will tell you that on the subatomic level, there is no clear boundary between you and what you’re sitting on. A biologist will tell you there is no genetic boundary between the so-called races of humanity. A theologian will tell you that we all descend from one original set of parents. And a child will tell you that since my foot is touching this floor, and the floor is touching the ground, and the ground is touching the sea, and the sea is touching Africa . . . then I am touching Africa myself, this very minute.
So where did we get the idea that America’s First Nations are not our relatives?
I'm a simple guy. My aim is only to be an honest guy, brave enough to look in the mirror. To me, family is family, and if I’m going to study the history of my country or write fiction about the history of my country, I cannot ignore either side of my mixed-blood family.
When I wrote Daniel’s Walk, a novel about a boy trekking the Oregon Trail in 1844, I obviously needed my protagonist to know the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, but I wanted him also to encounter other stories, so that through him, my readers would encounter those stories, too. Without turning the novel into either a book of history or a morality play, I wanted to set my guy’s story against a background that included a diversity of stories that were known at the time.
But if I’m unhappy with the tale of Manifest Destiny, how do I avoid substituting a different story—perhaps one equally unbalanced—for that one? It won’t do simply to replace the “thieving savage” with the “noble savage.” The new age idea of Indians as enlightened practitioners of earth magic is based on stereotypes just as much as genocide was. How to get around them? Stereotypes are generalities, and I think the way we avoid them is through a focus on the particular. We have to engage each other at the level of our personhood, and we have to accept that the individual is always messy, complicated, never completely knowable.
That’s as true of our own family as it is of historical figures. As adolescents, I think we try in a hundred ways to meet our parents, only to find they simply aren’t what we expected. We know they represent our own living history, yet we find it’s not completely the history that we would have chosen for ourselves. We find our parents complicated, messy, unknowable. They’ve done things we don’t understand, things we wish they hadn’t done at all.
Nonetheless, we carry them with us. Our ancestors’ history is our own—it is where we must begin, or we have no beginning at all. In a YA novel, as in life, our task is to face the adult world and surmount it. It’s only through what we choose from this moment that we can truly create the story of ourselves. What will we become if in this moment we choose a false story like Manifest Destiny?
I can understand the position of the folks at Oyate, and the position of some critical race theorists. Sometimes, I think they’re absolutely right that White folks have no business trying to write Indian characters. And if you read Native American fiction, you know there are more and more very skillful Indian writers (like James Welch, with whom we began this chat) who are combining archival materials, oral traditions, and multiple perspectives—both native and non-native—into truly compelling literature. When they’re doing work that good, why should we let the people who gave us Tonto and Nannie Little Rose, not to mention the Washington Redskins and the Atlanta Braves—why should we let them do that over and over again?
And I can understand the opposition of White writers, like Ann Rinaldi, like Scott Odell, like me, who will say, and who must say, that subjects and characters cannot be divided up as the exclusive property of particular groups. That you cannot draw a line around the imagination, to rule some characters in and some out. By the logic of exclusion, no woman should invent a male character; no Indian writer should create a White character. We should all stay in our separate corners and write only from our own culturally constructed subject position.
That’s my dilemma. I write books for children; I like the 19th century. I know the story of Manifest Destiny was a White lie that most of my ancestors bought into, and I want to participate in correcting that narrative. Even if I didn’t have Ojibwe cousins, I would feel this way. I want to do this, but I’m a White boy. What do I do? How do I help to correct the mistakes of my ancestors and at the same time respect the heritage and cultural privacy of those who inherited the dark side of the legacy my ancestors left behind?
I want to be clear as well that I am not a historian and I’m not a crusader. However, I’ve discovered that I do operate from a set of beliefs about what history is and how we should work with it. First of all, it’s my conviction that we must abandon the idea that history is about facts, dates, events, or that most powerful, most saturating metaphor of our era, Information. When historians do research, they do uncover facts, yes, but historians have a very nuanced view of fact. Facts alone are inscrutable; they need interpretation. This is where the popular general impression of history is a problem. When humans communicate, perhaps especially when we’re writing history, I would argue that it isn’t information we’re passing. Communication is a matter of conveying persons, not data. Improving our data set will not help us understand the Sandy Lake Death March or the Bear River Massacre or the Holocaust or slavery in Texas.
History is an interpretation. It’s a story we tell of persons, and persons are complicated. They do unexpected things; they do things for the wrong reasons; their actions often contradict their beliefs. We can never know them entirely, and just when we think we do know them—especially when we’re dealing with whole cultures—we’re probably working from a stereotype. It is increasingly my conviction that we must make it personal—we must transform history into a matter of our own personal, ancestral relation to others in the human family. Because until we decide to live in history with the full knowledge that all persons are related to us, we cannot honestly engage, we cannot deeply understand, we cannot ultimately know, our history.
There are a lot of Native American scholars and writers who say that we keep getting the same old story about the Indians in our fiction because if we were to tell a truer history, it would make the White audience feel guilty and they would stop buying books. A lot of traditional White readers think people like me want to “rewrite” history because we’re guilty White liberals. And they ask “What’s the point? I didn’t kill any Indians; I can’t change the past; not my fault the Indians lost out.”
I think White audiences actually do want to read better-balanced, more accurate historical narratives. I think they’re requiring it now. The success of Chris Crowe’s book on Emmett Till (Mississippi Trial, 1955) is a case in point. He has done it right, and both the readers and the critics are rewarding him. The success of books like The Birchbark House (Erdrich) and the promise of books like My Name is Sepeetsa (an authentic tale of the boarding schools) is another case. Thank goodness there are more writers these days, though there are still not enough, who do their homework properly.
And that’s the point, isn’t it? If you’re working on a piece that involves race and cultural conflict in our country, you better do serious long-term research in credible sources, or the best of the critics, teachers, librarians, readers—and history itself—will eat you alive. Worse than that, you will know that you’ve washed yourself with the same brush of White cultural blindness that Ann Rinaldi and James Fenimore Cooper used. You may sell books, but you will know that you’ve only made things worse. Worse for children. Especially for Native American children.
Secondly, to unguilty White conservatives, I would say yes, I do want to rewrite history. Too much of it has been written dishonestly, and this writing has failed us. I'm tired of self-serving, lazy, chicken writers, afraid to do their homework, afraid to look in the mirror. Honest people can face historical truth, even if we can't change it.
But to both sides, I’d say this isn’t about guilt at all. It’s about honesty, about our long walk to know our parents, and it’s about a debt. My ancestors landed here in 1637. We started taking land, timber, metals, meat, and medicines from the Native Americans straightaway, and we didn’t stop until we had it all. No, I didn’t do that personally, and no I can’t change the past. But it doesn’t take any deep moral insight to see that my family—my White family—owes a debt here. So it isn’t guilt. It’s a simple matter of putting something down on a debt that my parents left me.
“Mi takuye oyasin,” she says. “All my relatives.”