Why do writers pretend to be Indians?

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March 7 2008 6:43 PM

Going Native

Why do writers pretend to be Indians?

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But more important—more important than how we look or how invisible we are—the answer to why people fake being Indian is linked to how they fake it. Hemingway once wrote what he called the shortest story ever written: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." But I can think of one shorter by five words: "Indian." Wrapped up in that one word is a host of associations, images, and ideas, but primary among them is tragedy. It is no accident that all the fake books written by fake Indians (and most of the "real" books written by "real" Indians) are rife with tragedy.

Nabokov wrote that there are three kinds of stories that are utterly taboo as far as American publishers are concerned. In addition to the subject of Lolita, "the other two are: a Negro-White marriage which is a complete glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren; and the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106." I would add to that list one more: relatively happy Indians going about living relatively happy lives. Sometimes people ask what I am and I say, "Native American." And they reply: "I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry."

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Tragedy is a shortcut that sells, and the particular tragedy of being an Indian has an amazing ability to make readers lose their capacities to discern good writing from bad, interesting ideas from vapid ones. In Little Tree, for instance, the most commonplace things are elevated to the level of poetry by virtue of their perceived degree of Indian-ness: "They gave themselves to nature," he writes, "not trying to subdue it, or pervert it, but to live with it. And so they loved the thought, and loving it grew to be it, so that they could not think as the white man." Nasdijj and Carter truck in homilies, Jones in homies—as in, "I hated that they had taken my big homie and even more that they had taken my sense of security"—but the result is the same: awful, impossible writing. Once you remove the author's Indian identity, the bad writing reveals itself.

Sadly, until we break the habit of reading Indian lives as necessarily "Indian tragedies"—and see the shallow types and terrible prose and awkward, tragic poses for what they are—there will be more Indian fakes. The Education of Little Tree is still published by the University of New Mexico Press, the book's author still listed as Forrest Carter. Riverhead, at least, has pulled all the copies of Jones' fake. But they, and others, could do more. They could try to make sure this doesn't happen again.

It wouldn't be that difficult. If a publisher has an author who claims to be Native American, they could ask for documentation. And let this be a word of warning to publishers, agents, and editors: If the author does not say what tribe he or she is from or fails to claim an Indian community as home (either as a place of descent or youth or family), then something is wrong.

Seltzer did not commit a victimless crime. There are victims, and they are not Faye Bender, Seltzer's agent; or Sara McGrath, her editor at Riverhead; or Michiko Kakutani, who reviewed the book for the New York Times. They were taken advantage of, to be sure. But Bender will go on representing writers. McGrath will continue to find and publish wonderful books. Kakutani will continue to be a great reviewer. The real victims are Indian citizens and writers. People who have for so long been denied the opportunity to express themselves. There are many Indian writers with stories to tell that are ignored because they do not fit the preconceived notion of tragedy and cheap melodrama that make books like Love and Consequences so appealing. These writers, if they are published at all, are usually not profiled in the New York Times. As for Indian citizens, the more than 2 million of us living in the U.S. who are not fakes—our lives (especially if they are happy lives) will continue to go on unseen. This is the greater tragedy, I think, than the false ones outlined in Jones' false memoir.

David Treuer is Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota (and can prove it). His most recent book, The Translation of Dr Apelles (a totally untrue novel), was released this month by Vintage Books.

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