17 June 2008

Native Americans in Some Recent American Fantasies

City of Light, City of Dark is a hybrid of middle-grade novel and middle-grade comic with words by Avi and art by Brian Floca. Published by Richard Jackson/Orchard in 1993, it was probably a few years ahead of the market. (Compare how the current cover art at left is divided into panels while the first edition's cover offered no hint of the comics form to be found inside.)

Summerland by Michael Chabon, published in 2002, is a doorstop children's fantasy that combines baseball, dirigibles, interdimensional travel, changelings, and a mephistophelean trickster legend into a big stew (which could have been simmered down a bit more).

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer is the novel that started the current boiling-hot series for teens, about vampires and the girls who love them too much. I haven't read it, so I'm going by what Debbie Reese has had to say.

What do these three disparate fantasies for young readers have in common? They all in different ways portray Native American nations as connected to ancient, magical races, knowledge, and/or power.

City of Light, City of Dark's prologue describes creatures named "Kurbs," who

owned an Island as well as the sky above it. . . . Years ago, when People first came to the Kurbs' Island, they wanted to build themselves a City there. First, however, they had to ask permission of the Kurbs.
Since the island is obviously Manhattan, that puts the the Kurbs in the place of the Manahatta group of Lenape who made the famous deal with Peter Minuit in 1626. Except that the Kurbs have their own dimension and remain powerful enough to demand a yearly tribute.

Summerland alludes or makes use of Native American traditions in at least four different ways. The main villain is the trickster Coyote in Southwestern Native American (and Norse) myths, and other supernatural characters come from Native American legends.

Secondary protagonist Jennifer T. Rideout and her family are Salish Indians. Yet Jennifer seems to derive much of her non-baseball-related knowledge from an ersatz Indian source, as Michael Chabon told Salon:
There's this bit about this defunct quasi-Boy Scout organization called the Braves of the Wa-He-Ta. There's this official tribe handbook that Jennifer T. is given, and it comes in handy. . . . Even though it was written by a guy named Irving Posner in Pittsburgh in 1926 or whatever.
Obviously, Chabon is here playing with how mainstream American culture has occasionally claimed the value or "authenticity" of indigenous traditions without necessarily reflecting those traditions.

Summerland also introduces a race called ferishers, which is an old European term for fairies. They're small, magical, ancient, and demanding--like those fairies. But the text also links them to the original inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest. They're described on Wikipedia as "small Indian looking people," and at Baseball Almanac as the "small American Indian-like ferishers." Reviewer Stephen E. Abbott says the ferishers live in "an alternate dimension governed by Native American mythology and the rules and regs of baseball," though that understates the elements of other mythologies in this smorgasbord.

Finally, Twilight includes characters from the Quileute people of Washington. In this fictional world, many of the Quileute, including secondary protagonist Jacob, are werewolves, and they've made an uneasy truce with nearby vampires.

I suspect folks might be able to offer other examples of recent American fantasy stories linking Native American groups and the magical world.

TOMORROW: Thoughts on the meanings of this pattern.


David Lee Ingersoll said...

There's a whole sub-genre of horror fiction involving American Indians and magic. The plots usually go something like this -

Centuries ago the Indians trap an ancient evil. Along come some white people who wake it up. Now it's up to an Indian who has turned his back on the ancient ways to rediscover his heritage and defeat the Bad Thing.

I've probably read a couple dozen of these, some good, most awful.

J. L. Bell said...

The movie Poltergeist may be the most famous example of that premise, though I honestly don't remember how it turns out.

They all run the danger of the "magic Indian" trope, akin to what critics have called the "magic Negro" who appears in some movies to impart wisdom, power, and hipness to the white protagonist.

Anonymous said...

You might try a new YA trilogy from HarperCollins, "Worldweavers", which has a strong Native American mythos base especially in the first book ("Gift of the Unmage") - it was a Cybils Award nominee this year. One reviewer specifically mentioned the "magic Negro" problem, and that it had been avoided in this book.