Brando Skyhorse peels away layers of presumed identities and discusses recent books about Native Americans.
Book publishing: one year, a flood of similar books about a single subject. 2010 was a big Native American year. 2011 and 2012, ebb tide.
Jeffrey Ostler. The Lakotas and the Black Hills: The Struggle for Sacred Ground. Penguin Library of American Indian History.
Ostler gives an overview of the Lakota Indian claim upon the Black Hills of South Dakota. The author argues an historical right and a contemporary presence: “Writers have portrayed Wounded Knee as the last event in the so-called Indian wars . . . . Wounded Knee was an unfathomably traumatic event, but it did not signify the end of the Lakota people, nor did it usher in their resignation to permanent subjugation.”
Heather Cox Richardson. Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre. Basic Books.
Richardson renders an economy that made the wartime tragedy, which shocked the nation, a foregone conclusion. Wounded Knee’s final chapter tracks the life of Dr. Charles Eastman, of a Sioux heritage that often went unnoticed, who passed verdict on his life experience: “When I reduce civilization to its lowest terms, it becomes a system of life based upon trade.”
S.C. Gwynne. Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. Scribner.
S.C. Gwynne pens a romantic narrative of Quanah Parker, the half-white “Last Chief of the Comanches.” Writes Gwynne: “The first generations of Comanches in captivity never really understood the concept of wealth, of private property. The central truth of their lives was the past, the dimming memory of the wild, ecstatic freedom of the plains, of the days when Comanche warriors in black buffalo headdresses rode unchallenged from Kansas to northern Mexico, of a world without property or boundaries.”
Nathaniel Philbrick. The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the LIttle Bighorn. Viking.
Philbrick imbues Sitting Bull with a tragic greatness slightly less foredoomed than that of General Custer or Captain Ahab: “Custer and Sitting Bull were both great warriors. But Sitting Bull was something more. He was a leader, a prophet, and a politician.”
Thomas Powers. The Killing of Crazy Horse. Knopf.
Powers looks to the stabbing of “the greatest Indian warrior” (flapcopy) to characterize a bloody era. “Nothing quite opens up history like an event,” writes Powers, “the interplay of a large cast pushing a conflict to a moment of decision.”
Richard Kluger. The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek: a Tragic Clash Between White and Native American. Oxford University Press.
Kluger, in his preface, provides a succinct explanation of his intentions: “The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek does not attempt an encyclopedic survey of the interaction between the red and white races on these shores—so calamitous to the former, so ignoble of the latter . . . . In focusing on the experience of a single small tribe, the book aspires to make a monumental tragedy more accessible and comprehensible.”
Scott W. Berg. 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End. Knopf.
Berg brings novelistic drama and character portraiture to the 1862 “Little War” between the Dakotas people and white settlers; Little Crow is a brave warrior who takes on a doomed war against an insurmountable enemy; Lincoln is a reluctant pawn of history; Sarah Wakefield is the maligned heroine; Biship Henry Benjamin Whipple is the tireless advocate.
Thom Hatch. Osceola and the Great Seminole War: A Struggle for Justice and Freedom. St. Martins.
Seminole warrior Osceola, heroic battlefield mastermind, is betrayed by the U.S. Army. By the author of The Last Outlaws: The Lives and Legends of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; Black Kettle: The Cheyenne Chief Who Sought Peace but Found War; The Blue, the Gray and the Red; and other final-hours, Western-themed books.
In all, extraordinary scholarship. Pristine research, relentless humanity, and a sensitivity to contemporary Native American life. But as a stack of books, the emphasis is one of tragic last stands and noble enemies. At a glance—which is what culture is, a collective glance—the books tell one story: doom, very likely, unavoidable. It’s the same story that turns us away from the wars of this instant: our enemies are the doomed heroes of civilizations condemned to antiquity.
In the “The Storytellers of Empire,” (Guernica, 2012), Kamila Shamsie considers the limitations of Western narrative. The non-Western story is seemingly of two sorts: the journey West or the misery of remaining the unWest. Shamsie wonders why the narratives are so delineated, and warns of a Jim Crowism that excludes Other altogether:
The moment you say, a male American writer can’t write about a female Pakistani, you are saying, Don’t tell those stories. Worse, you’re saying, as an American male you can’t understand a Pakistani woman. She is enigmatic, inscrutable, unknowable. She’s other. Leave her and her nation to its Otherness. Write them out of your history.
If art, if literature, is a form of love—it is—the exclusion of subjects is the equivalent of banning mixed-race couples. Creative separatism is defended like this: so-and-so doesn’t have the experience to write about the subject. But artists often reach beyond their own lives; part of the drive to be an artist is to understand outside oneself. That non-Western stories are so xenophobic is more a mechanism of our marketplace than our artists. “Coming home” is the advertising platform. You join culture, you buy this, you will be happier. The “I” story, the story of personal want, ambition, desire, is the story of capitalization itself: the capitalization of identity. The question of high market (literature) or low market (Hollywood, genre, etc) is merely one of degree; the assimilation in a low-market context results in winning the Gold, or the Academy Award, or whatever, while the assimilation in a high-market context is one complicated by misgivings (which, however profound, don’t offset the “rightness” of assimilating).
And what about the non-big presses? A quick tally of 2012 is disheartening. More tragic heroes and woeful last stands: Robert M. Utley, Geronimo (Yale University); Joan Nabseth Stevenson, Deliverance from the Little Big Horn (University of Oklahoma); Ann Durkin Keating, Rising Up from Indian Country, The Battle of Fort Dearborn and the Birth of Chicago (University of Chicago). And yet, if the culturally preferred narrative nestles comfortably in alternative publishing, it’s also in alternative publishing that the Native American story is, at least somewhat, liberated. More non-big press books, 2012:
The pattern? Our best hope for a history that isn’t . . . bunk? University presses. Privatized prisons: didn’t work. Privatized libraries: didn’t work. We berate publishers for their shortcomings, but why should we expect privatized anything, publishing included, be successful in attending the public good? Large publishers are beset by external criticism and internal self-loathing. In the example of Native Americans, the outlook is tortured: an expression of guilt, and yet the accent on the fall, the last battle, suggests a readership that is reliving its own victory. Perhaps the rosy phrasing would be, “re-evaluating history.” But are we really a step forward from Cowboys and Indians? Or is our present day noble savagery merely more dreadful, more sopped in pathos? To confess my own presumptions: weren’t these tragic last stands just that? Hadn’t humanity, with its inevitable evolution of conquest, moved into a new era? Isn’t there some temptation in Ronald Reagan’s contention that the greatest mistake of United States / Native American relations was the failure of government to entirely assimilate the red man? And logistically, isn’t it true? That we can’t have vast swaths of the Americas unowned by anyone?
The first step of capitalism—look at the wars going on right now—is to strip native populations of their access to non-monetary resources. If you have land, if you have oceans, you don’t need money, and you don’t need people who give you money. If we are to accept the foundation of our nation today, the legitimacy of Western life—ownership, money, work—we are to acknowledge that what the U.S. did to the Native Americans was, if not justified, inevitable. Land can’t be free, capitalism has the divine right of geography, not God.
Which is not to say the conspiracy is conscious—rather, the conspiracy is one of resignation. Those employed in the dire dissemination of corporatism, myself included, may occasionally take up arms, struggle hopelessly against an overwhelming oppressor—but nobody can fight every battle. I worked as an editor at Grove Press for ten years; in publishing, the best you can do is pick the projects you “believe in,” and try to, if not vive la revolucion, keep its respirator plugged in.
Case in point: John Reed. He’s an author who’s published unusual stuff—he’s the one who gathered together this whole stack of books for me, thinking I could stage some kind of Native American insurrection—yet he’s also been a judge for some conservative book awards. There’s no way he can be happy with all the award recipients, yet he participates, calculating a progressive influence. And if you were to accuse him of being complicit? He’d agree.
Western arts, Western artists, Western appreciators of art, function as a first wave of assault. Very much like a missionary movement—which is entirely well-intentioned but subversive of the occupied culture—the arts wash over a culture, drenching a people with the cult of “I.” On an international stage, the arts are unaware, or perhaps insensible is the right word, to their goal, the first economic goal–to strip the culture of anything of value, to replace all worth, including personal worth, with a need for Western goods, ideas and affirmation. Western arts place individual identity under continuous assault. The message: success/failure is a process of self-discovery, of true identity. Of course, this “true identity” is ersatz, furnished externally through cultural transactions, through the stuff—CDs, jeans, books, movies—that you buy.
The United States is a nation of the dispossessed. We are largely homeless—stripped of our familial origins. Ancestral lands are distant, and even the domains of our U.S. childhoods are disbanded as a matter of course; we go to college, we leave our places of origin. It’s a powerful dream—to imagine oneself discovering a treasure of identity that explains everything. And collectively, we festoon individual revelation—I-am-really-this—with accolades and praise. But it isn’t easy to utterly conform; the survival instinct rails against a visit to Procustes. Even when deep within a cultural milieu, people are not categories; they are, as illuminated by their losses, their challenges, their accomplishments, far closer to divine miracles, and beyond comprehension. In the words of Jesus, “I am multitudes.”
To cite Touré, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness (Free Press, 2011):
To be born Black is an extraordinary gift bestowing access to an unbelievably rich legacy of joy. It’ll lift you to ecstasy and give you pain that can make you stronger than you imagined possible. To experience the full possibilities of Blackness, you must break free of the strictures sometimes placed on Blackness from outside the African-American culture and also from within it. These attempts to conscript the potential complexity of Black humanity often fly in the face of the awesome breadth of Black history . . . . There is no dogmatically narrow, authentic Blackness because the possibilities for Black identity are infinite. To say something or someone is not Black—or is inauthentically Black—is to sell Blackness short. To limit the potential of Blackness. To be a child of a lesser Blackness.
Our case in point: John, who put the Native American books aside for me, is a typical Caucasian collision: Russian, German, Irish, “Mayflower,” Hungarian. He’s described himself to me as a Christian who doesn’t believe Christ is real, which makes him, in all, a Jew who believes in a Jesus that isn’t real. He objects to the categorization of Jew, because he says he’s half Jewish, to which when asked, “which half?” he responds his mother’s, but adds that he won’t give up his other half just because his mother is Jewish—and that he doesn’t have to call himself Jewish because Hitler would have called him Jewish. Furthermore, he says, according to Hitler’s regulation his children aren’t Jewish, and even if the regulation weren’t Hitler’s, he wouldn’t abide by a distinction that separated parent and child.
Which leads me to this: is identity, the yellow star of it, a badge of cultural defeat? Are only the victors allowed to be fully themselves? The peoples of Africa, who had never been considered one people before, were reduced to a single race by the onset of a Western slave market. With Nazism, peoples of the Jewish religion, peoples world-over and of every ancestry, became Jews. In the same way, with the conquest of the Americas, the tribes of the continent became Indians. And the Native Americans were named for a continent that was named by its invaders . . . and etc.
I think back to a friend of my father’s, Ed Rath, a painter, Native American, who didn’t want the category, even if it offered cultural laurels. He wanted, instead, “the awesome breadth” of himself. Artist Kara Walker titles her work via a burlesque of nineteenth century language: “The Great Negro Heroine,” or “Slavery! Slavery! presenting a GRAND and LIFELIKE Panoramic Journey into Picturesque Southern Slavery or ‘Life at ‘Ol’ Virginny’s Hole’ (sketches from Plantation Life)’ See the Peculiar Institutions as never before! All cut from black paper by the able hand of Kara Elizabeth Walker, an Emancipated Negress and leader in her Cause.” The effect of her burlesque: “Kara Walker” is made small, a barely human manifestation of a definition.
Perhaps the acceptance of prescribed identities—identities that only superficially reflect reality—is worse than complacency, worse than tacit approval, worse than corroboration. Perhaps identity—the bastard of it, stroked by culture—is literally a crime of war. Wars past, wars present, wars future.
My first novel, The Madonnas of Echo Park, and my forthcoming memoir (about fathers and stepfathers) grapple with cultural crisis American life. As a child, I had an ambivalent relationship with my shelf of books about Native Americans—fascinating, but it wasn’t home. But neither was my Cal-Mexican community—and with some childish bigotry I set myself above my peers. As it turned out, I was Mexican—an identity that came to me with a crash. But what is the difference between Mexican and Native American? Two hundred miles? An intangible border?
The distinction is this: to U.S. publishers, there is a Native American category, and there is a Latino category, but outside of academic explorations and cookbooks, there isn’t a Mexican category. The notable exception would be William T. Vollman’s Imperial (Viking, 2009), a sprawling 1,300-page exploration of a porous California/Mexico hinterland, for which the author had Nobel Prize ambitions and didn’t bother to learn Spanish. I wonder if the lack of category was the problem with “Amexicans,” an early title I had for Madonnas.
In the 1980s and ’90s, an ongoing discussion of past lives expressed the multitudinous nature of the American soul. Now, genetic tests—maternal family, paternal family, both—have come to satiate our befuddlement. The test results tell us that most of us are mostly from somewhere, we’re all from everywhere, and everyone is more closely related than we expected. In Jeff Wheelright’s The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA (W.W. Norton, 2012), Shonnie Medina’s breast-cancer mutation, BRCA1.185delAG, traces back to Native Americans and Spanish Catholics, and, before that, to Sephardic Jews.
So what is she? And what is a white woman who’s spent decades of her life studying the “temporal semantics” of the Navajo language? In the restrictive terms of race and culture, aren’t most of us outsiders? Certainly, here in America that’s the case. Perhaps that’s the great redemption of the nation—even books about being something else are arguably about being an American.
That said, if I was hesitant to write about Native Americans as a Mexican, I couldn’t fathom approaching the subject as a white man, which is why I’m masquerading as Brando, who I did save all these books for, but who didn’t think he could write a worthy essay and turn in his manuscript on time (though he did read the draft, edit this sentence, and give me the go-ahead). Revision to the attribution:
by John Reed for Brando Skyhorse
Which leads me to another confession: I don’t like my name, Reed, which is hardly my name. It’s a bureaucrat’s stamp, Ellis Island. And “John”: he’s the one apostle I loathe. If my full name, “John Reed,” has played a role in who I am, it’s been as a mask—a WASPish accessory for my once WASPish appearance. And perhaps it is true that my appearance, which cast me as the favored child to my Jewish family, partly accounts for my artistic temperament. “Golden Boy,” they called me, a reference to and denial of the name my grandfather gave up, Slotnik, which meant Golden, but in a Jewish way. One more confession: I’m not half Jewish, I’m 5/8 Jewish. My father’s father’s father was Jewish, even if it’s a fact that side of the family has forgotten. To come totally clean: on both sides of my family, two generations back, there’s something heavily Asian going on—around the eyes. Mongolian? On her hands and knees, my mother’s mother, Jewish, begged I didn’t marry a gentile, which I did. Upon news of the engagement, she dropped to her hands and knees again, to beg I didn’t marry in a church, which I didn’t—though I was married by a reverend. Sometimes I feel my wife is the kind of beautiful Aryan woman that Hitler was talking about, that Hitler warned could be ruined by a Jew. But I suspect my wife’s grandfather’s father was secretly Jewish, which would make my wife 1/8 Jewish, which would make my children 3/16 Jewish. Oh, and my wife’s family lays claim to a relation to Pocahontas, a claim common to Virginians; Pocahontas did have nine grandchildren by her son, Thomas Rolfe. Theoretically, that makes my children a bit Native American, though they’re more Jewish, and since my wife and I are both a bit Irish, more Irish, and more German and Russian and Polish (me) and English (my wife). My wife’s eyes are the deep blue you’ll only see in the eyes of Germans or Eastern Europeans. My father’s eyes have something of that, though there’s a quotient of gray, slate gray.
Sometimes I look at my beautiful, perfect children, born of their blue-eyed mother, and think that their only flaw, their one shortcoming, is their brown eyes. Their light brown eyes. My eyes. Sometimes I look at them—with my perfect vision, which my wife doesn’t have—and think I would cut out my own heart to give them blue eyes.
John Reed is the author of the novels, A Still Small Voice (Delacorte), The Whole (MTV), the SPD bestseller, Snowball’s Chance (Melville House), All The World’s A Grave: A New Play By William Shakespeare (Plume), and Tales of Woe (MTV); published in (selected): Artforum, Playboy, Vice, Out, Art in America, the PEN Poetry Series, the Los Angeles Times, the Paris Review, the Believer, the Rumpus, the Daily Beast, Slate, the Wall Street Journal.