18 June 2008

What American Fantasies Say about American Indians

Yesterday I described how three American fantasy novels published over the last fifteen years have, in somewhat different ways, linked Native Americans and magical races. Those books are:

The latter two books include young Americans of indigenous descent among their secondary protagonists. (The first includes a young Latino character as a primary protagonist, and we can discuss how much indigenous ancestry is part of the Latin American heritage.)

Naturally, since those books are fantasies, the Native American characters are caught up in magical experiences along with those of European or other ancestries. However, it strikes me as notable that these books don't just link individuals to secret knowledge, powers, or experience. They link entire groups.

The Quileute in Twilight have made a pact with neighboring vampires, and many of them turn out to be werewolves. The mythical Kurbs in City of Light, City of Dark have, as a whole, sold Manhattan to European settlers. Summerland includes an individual young protagonist of Salish descent, but in this respect I'm thinking of the Indian-like ferrishers, an entire race of magical little people.

Furthermore, while all fantasies have to be governed by rules, these books seem to go further than most in presenting their conflicts as based on age-old agreements or treaties. The Kurbs require a yearly tribute. Summerland involves contracts around baseball games. In Twilight, as I wrote above, there's a "treaty" between the Quileute and the vampires. Evidently, the thought on Native Americans brings up the thought of such age-old contracts.

Incorporating Indian characters or traditions helps to establish a fantasy as American rather than stuck within those dominant British and other European traditions; Chabon has spoken explicitly about that goal in writing Summerland, which also includes the heroes of traditional American folklore (and fakelore), as well as a whole lot more.

In that regard, I think Native American supernatural traditions are as ripe for picking as those from other cultures. However, authors have to be aware that their readers, unfamiliar with the nuances of other cultures, might not be able to distinguish fictional traditions from real ones, or entertaining stories from sacred ones.

Most problematic to me is how these depictions of Native Americans as, in different ways, linked to the supernatural might color readers' impressions of today's Native Americans. Do American Indians really have ancient connections to magic (like Meyer's Quileute)? Are they, despite historical disfranchisement and poverty, secretly powerful and demanding (like Avi's Kurbs)? In such stories, do Native Americans end up seeming as real as the other human characters, or do they come across as a set of fairy-tale creatures (like Chabon's ferrishers)?


Elizabeth said...

I've felt the problem you raise in the last paragraph in relation to depictions of the Roma -- namely, that if there's a Gypsy in a fantasy book, they're going to be magic. Buffy is an obvious choice, but Libba Bray's Gemma Doyle series was where I really started thinking about this.

J. L. Bell said...

An interesting parallel.