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?

Cigar-store Indian.
Cigar-store Indian.

In 1930, shortly after the studio release of his movie The Silent Enemy, Buffalo Child Long Lance's Indian identity began to crumble. He was a celebrity by that time, having boxed Dempsey and dated movie stars, but he was not, it turned out, a full-blooded Blackfeet Indian who had been raised on the plains, as he had claimed. He had not hunted buffalo from horseback as the prairie winds blew through his hair. And his name was not actually Buffalo Child Long Lance. His real name was Sylvester Long. He was from Winston-Salem, N.C. He was African-American. And his father was not a chief but, rather, a janitor.

Margaret B. Jones, the author of Love and Consequences, is hardly the first person to have invented an Indian self and a past. Her memoir tells of her upbringing as a half-white, half-Indian foster child by a black family in South Central L.A. In fact,  Jones' real name is Margaret Seltzer, she did not grow up in South Central, she's never been a foster child, and she's no more a Native American than Sylvester Long was.

By inventing a Native American heritage, Seltzer joins a long and distinguished list of fake Indians. In addition to Buffalo Child Long Lance, her tribe consists of Nasdijj (who fabricated a Native identity and passed it off in not one but three books: Geronimo's Bones, The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping, and The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams), Forrest Carter (whose fake Cherokee boyhood is described in The Education of Little Tree), and Grey Owl (the persona of the Englishman Archibald Belaney, who wrote and toured on the strength of his Indian-inspired conservationism between the World Wars).

It's easy enough to imagine what motivates literary fakers—their inventions are a way to win attention and acclaim for work that would otherwise be dismissed as pedestrian. But why pretend to be an Indian? What is so appealing about stripping off one's own identity and donning a reddish one?

It's easy to get away with it, is one reason. Indians can, and do, look like anyone. And anyone can look like an Indian. After 500 years of intermarriage, Native American racial identities (as opposed to cultural identities) comprise a wide range. Among my three siblings, one of us looks like Opie Taylor, one like Tonto, and one is a dead ringer for the Karate Kid. (I'm Opie. Opie is my spirit guide.) Then there's my sister, who looks like herself. It's pretty hard to claim you're African-American or Chinese if you don't look black or Asian.

But looks are only part of it. Native Americans make up one half of 1 percent of the U.S. population. Most Americans will go their whole lives without meeting one of us. The result: What non-Indians know about Indians does not come from the kinds of daily interactions that typically shape their understandings of people different from them. We Native Americans are dwarfed by the ideas that abound about us, and this imbalance lends itself to invention. After all, who are you to say someone is or is not a thing they say they are if you've never had any experience of that thing?

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."

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.