What Right to Write These People?

Heather Sharfeddin

Posted filed under Featured, Research.

Reading Time: 18 minutes

roadThe interior northwestern United States is remote: impenetrable mountains, untamed rivers, and disorienting prairies paired with unpredictable and extreme weather. Once an intricate patchwork of territories occupied by Nez Perce, Salish, Blackfeet, Pend O’Reille, and Sioux, the region has undergone a post-colonial identity shift to that of ranching and hydropower, agriculture and wilderness playground. In the one-hundred-and-fifty years of Euroamerican occupation, it has become birthplace and life landscape for generations of non-indigenous people who, in the footsteps of novelist Wallace Stegner, claim nativeness. I am one of these natives, born in Montana near the Custer Battlefield. The West is a part of my identity, much as it was for the indigenous people before me. We have experienced in common the warm, wet wind of a chinook ushering in spring after the brutal cold of winter. We’ve tasted brook trout and suffered under the punishing sun on sagebrush prairies. We have contextualized our lives and humanity against the backdrop of rugged peaks so grand that rivers are divided. To grow up in the rural west is to experience its hardships and sweetness first-hand, directly, with your sleeves rolled up and grit under your nails.

For early non-indigenous natives like Stegner, the Massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota[i] in 1890 ended the Indian Wars and opened the west to white settlement. Euroamerican writers, looking back on a hard fought victory, entered an era of romanticizing and mythologizing the West and the fortitude of settlers. They mythologized Euroamerican hardship in the face of a wild land in which Indians were summarily dismissed as “the vanished people.”

The name Nez Perce, to me, was first perceived as a region within the United States Forest Service. Only later I understood it as the tribe of indigenous people whose tools we collected in the tilled soil of our garden and landmarks we witnessed. When the television drama I Will Fight No More Forever (I Will Fight No More Forever, 1975) aired, my childhood friends and I hailed Chief Joseph for his bravery in attempting to out-pace the US Army with his entire tribe—children and elderly among them—in tow. With heart-felt allegiance, we mourned Joseph’s defeat just miles from the Canadian border, and we repeated his now-famous words, “From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.” (Beal, 1963) Like ghosts, Indians were present in our lives in ways that we imagined were meaningful, but they were seldom present among us.

Wallace Stegner’s literary contemporaries included so-called “vanished” Indian authors such as D’Arcy McNickle, N. Scott Momaday, and James Welch; some writing about the very landscape to which Stegner claimed himself not just native, but indigenous. McNickle, a member of the Salish & Kootenai Confederated Tribes, wrote about the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana. My family’s ranch was a part of McNickle’s 1936 landscape, and because it was white-owned by 1917 it represents the reality of Euroamerican settlement on treaty land as he described in his work. I had Indian contemporaries of my own growing up. Sherman Alexie was stretching his literary wings on the Spokane Indian Reservation not far away while I was immersing myself in Wild West movies starring Clint Eastwood and other iconic actors. These movies represented Hollywood’s golden years, and they taught a revisionist history to generations of Americans—perhaps the world—about the West and what it represented. Genre Westerns—books or film—have iconized the West in ways that undoubtedly damaged Native Americans, but also the viability of literary artists from the region. Our work is often pigeon-holed in preconceived tropes that readers and scholars alike skip over it with little regard for its merit. But as a child and a member of the colonizing race, I was anesthetized at best and completely ignorant at worst, to problems this mythology created, as well as the cultural conflict that remains.

Alexie, in his twenties, began boldly writing about privilege through its absence. But it took me years longer to find my voice. My experience growing up in the remotest parts of the West, my connectedness to the landscape and its power to shape or kill people, made me a regional writer by default. I had no choice but to tell the story of life here. And while my burgeoning understanding of the cultural conflict was an impetus for my writing, recognizing my unwitting participation in the Indian Wars gave my voice a tentative timbre. As Elizabeth Cook-Lynn suggested in her essay “Why I can’t read Wallace Stegner” I, too, was aware that we might “discover the unwelcome news that we have been enemies and perhaps still are.” (Cook-Lynn, 1996, p. 33) For a child in love with Chief Joseph, this was a staggering recognition—a chrysalis releasing an identity crisis. Like many regional authors, my work has omitted Indians and their influence on my life in the West entirely.

As an outspoken member of the community of Native American Scholars, Cook-Lynn’s assessment of Stegner includes the following criticism of all Euroamerican writers:

The principal perpetrators of a wrongful history, as far as Stegner was concerned, are allowed to melt into the heroic and hopefull future of America with no more than an expression of regret. Such terrible regret is expressed so beautifully that readers are helpless to resist a sympathetic emotional response. This is the power of Stegner and those who preceded him, and those American writers of the West who follow. They all become part of the American literary movement which claims possession of the American West. … Un-self-consciously, they write about the plains and the American Indian and their own experiences in an attempt to clarify their own identities. (Cook-Lynn, 1996, pp. 31-32)

Given the historical depiction of Indians by Euroamerican writers throughout history, it seems reasonable for Indians to draw hard boundaries around the reclamation of Indian identity. I don’t want to contribute to a history of inaccuracy and cultural appropriation, though clarifying my identity, as Cook-Lynn states it, requires that I write about my experiences in the West. But as a writer sitting down to her craft, it would deny the larger truth of my own experience to suggest that I omit Indians and Indian influence when writing about characters who reside here, and specifically Euroamerican characters who live on treaty land, which is an undeniable truth today. In the context of creative writing, and especially the art of fiction, it is the work of authors like myself to produce a complex, multi-layered story that deals with a universal condition. Within that discipline, omitting other races is not simply too restrictive, it contributes to the revisionist history we seek to avoid. It cannot answer the questions: What of the interracial experience? And beyond that, the bi-racial experience that is frequently the outcome of such unions? Astute authors have significant contributions to make to the literary tradition of the West as it applies to these cross-cultural matters, regardless of their race. I often seek to understand these things: How do Euroamerican authors native to the West write about the racially charged tension of our generation without appropriating indigenous identity or making the same romantic or racist missteps of our predecessors?

couples-780793To help answer these questions I researched twentieth and twenty-first century Native American literature, tracing their depiction of Euroamericans and other ethnic characters. The depiction of interracial relationship, in particular, stood out for me, as characters attempted to bridge the cultural divide through intimate relationships. These love interests and sexual encounters illustrated a more personal effort to overcome racial biases by understanding a member of another race intimately. They seemed, in many cases, to transcend racial biases, but not without significant struggle. Perhaps this approach was also personal to me because I have been married to a man from another culture, religion, and country for most of my adult life. The depiction of these characters’ struggles and hardships was identifiable and consistent with my own experience.

I found that Native American authors like Cook-Lynn, Alexie, D’Arcy McNickle, and Janet Campbell-Hale did not shy away from inside first- and third-person perspectives of Euroamerican characters. And Alexie writes from the perspective of a variety of races (white, black, Indian, and bi-racial), as well as gender. And within those characters he creates a variety of racist, non-racist, and interracial perspectives.

D’Arcy McNickle’s novel The Surrounded (McNickle, 1936) is among the first Indian works in the tradition of American novelists. In it, he explores the issue of non-Indian settlers on reservation land through the perspective of the mixed-race character, Archilde Leon. Born to a Salish mother (Catherine) and Spanish father (Max), Archilde straddles both white and Indian worlds. Max operates a ranch and embodies the Euroamerican Individualist archetype so thoroughly that he lives alone in a large, modern ranch house while his Indian wife and mother of his twelve children remains in a rustic cabin nearby. When her tribal community arrives to celebrate Archilde’s return from Indian boarding school, they pitch their teepees in the forest and share a feast. But Max remains in his house, listening to their tribal stories. Though he is fluent in Salish, he cannot comprehend his wife’s people for cultural reasons. Max is likewise perplexed by his own children, who have disappointed him. He doesn’t understand why his sons go fishing instead of working the ranch. To him they are lazy and wild, they do not possess good work ethics, and they are unworthy to inherit his land. But the fish they catch, which Max’s wife prepares without him, is his son’s contribution to family existence.

As a member of the dominant culture, even on the reservation, Max assumes that his wife and children will conform to his way, discounting the cultural differences between them. Catherine was the daughter of the old chief, and though she has been schooled by Jesuit nuns in Euroamerican homemaking, that has remained nothing but a curiosity to her. She lets the stove Max bought rust from disuse while she cooks over an open fire. The butter churn dries and falls apart, and the wash tubs are battered out of shape by her children while she soaks the clothing in the creek. Catherine also feels the brunt of the differences between them:

Even without those complications it was difficult to be a white man’s wife. In the old way of living one never stayed in one place for very long. One camped wherever there was game and grass and water for the horses. . . . When the old way came to an end and the Indians had to live on the Reservation, the habit of moving persisted; people went visiting. They would live on their allotment until they got restless; then they would take their tepee poles and travel to some relative’s place . . . A white man does not care to have his relatives or his wife’s relatives come live with him. He will slam his door in their faces. (McNickle, 1936, p. 172)

Though Max and Catherine are estranged, they remain married, if separate. On his death bed, Max admits that Catherine was not the cause of his troubles and offers reconciliation. It’s important to him that he not die without mending the relationship. Yet he behaves as a European patriarch, telling Catherine he doesn’t blame her, rather than asking her to forgive him.

McNickle uses assumptions of common understanding between two cultures with vastly different mythologies and world views to show how unpredictable and illogical they seem to each other. The Indians in The Surrounded show both confusion about the white world and its laws, and distrust of whites themselves because of it. With the interracial relationship, McNickle offers both perspectives in order to illustrate the origins of that distrust, such as the hunting regulation that prohibits killing female deer to protect next year’s fawns. Only after the animal is killed are the Indians aware of the regulation. They have been accustomed to abundant game and have historically taken young, tender animals regardless of sex. Failure to understand and adopt the dominant culture’s world view, thought, does not protect them from the law, regardless of their logic, giving the novel a powerful point.

In Sherman Alexie’s 2012 short story “Assimilation” (Alexie, 2012), he takes on the issue of interracial marriage with frank openness and scrutiny and with a same-race infidelity twist. Mary Lynn is a Coeur d’Alene Indian married to a white engineer, and the story opens with her determined search for any random Indian man to have “indigenous” sex with. She is filled with angst about her identity, not because she feels bad about being Indian, but because she wishes that being Coeur d’Alene was a description rather than “an excuse, reason, prescription, placebo, prediction, or diminutive.” (Alexie, 2012, p. 332) She is fully aware that she is cheating on her white husband because he’s white. Alexie brings the historic animosity of the two races down to the relationship level.

After a clumsy and unromantic sexual act in a cheap motel with a Lummi Indian who Mary Lynn meets in a diner, she meets her white husband for dinner at a trendy Seattle restaurant. Mary Lynn is a woman with children and broad sexual experiences, but she has never experienced sex with another Indian. She uses this fact to justify her infidelity to herself, calling it a political act.

If forced to admit the truth, or some version of the truth, she’d testify she was about to go to bed with an Indian stranger because she wanted to know how it would feel. Why not practice a carnal form of affirmative action? By God, her infidelity was a political act. Rebellion, resistance, revolution! (Alexie, 2012, p. 333)

Alexie illuminates the prejudice against Indians by embodying those prejudices within his Indian characters. This technique brings their prejudices into the spotlight in a way that gives those prejudices more credence. He also uses extreme comparisons, such as when a reservation Indian compares his people with the Jews who survived the death camps as those who lied, cheated, murdered, stole, and subverted. Alexie shows us how Mary Lynn ended up with a white husband from her own place of prejudice, and why that prejudice undermines her happiness.

White men had never disappointed her, but they’d never surprised her either. White men were neutral, she thought, just like Belgium! And when has Belgium ever been sexy? When has Belgium caused a grown woman to shake with fear and guilt? She didn’t want to feel Belgium; she wanted to feel dangerous. (Alexie, 2012, p. 335)

By Mary Lynn’s admission that she desires dangerous men, Alexie then restores the dignity of those he has just excoriated, which brings the reader back to the understanding that these are prejudices not realities. Alexie repeats this pattern throughout the story. Mary Lynn imagines that her husband, Jeremiah, as “out there” with eighty-seven other white men on business trips, wearing suits, but not their best suits, staying in similar business-class hotels, each separately watching pay-per-view porno. That it is a predictable white-man existence creates a prejudice, but her belief that they deserve better, reversing the ugly stereotype with her idea that they are smarter and more tender and generous than the white men who came before them neutralizes the prejudice, restoring them as human beings once again.

Alexie turns up the volume on the racial tension while the couple waits outside for a table, bringing the exchange to a near fight. When Jeremiah claims to know the difference between individual Asian ethnicities, Mary Lynn accuses him of being an Indian, and his response is harsh for a man speaking to his wife of twenty years.

Fucking an Indian doesn’t make me an Indian. (Alexie, 2012, p. 340)

It’s followed by a short exchange about whether they should stay or go, on the surface meaning the restaurant, but the subtext implies the marriage. They’ve come to the brink—the deciding point. They are now openly hostile and using language reserved for enemies, as the two races have historically been.

Once again, as soon as racial tensions are at their peak, Alexie reverses course, retreating from overt stereotypes into family life, softening the conflict through thoughts about their four children. Their two boys take after Mary Lynn—obviously Indian to the casual observer. Their two girls resemble their father—blond and fair. When they mutually acknowledge that the boys get preferential treatment from both sets of grandparents, Jeremiah vows to love his girls more to make up for the inequity, but he also wonders if he’s doing it simply because they look like him. Mary Lynn wonders if they should have another child to determine once and for all whether they are an Indian family or a white family.

What Alexie achieves in “Assimilation” is not simply a story about an interracial couple struggling with common cultural misunderstanding, but a stark juxtaposition of the ugliest and most prevalent stereotypes from both racial perspectives. The point is clear when the couple, after infidelity, fighting, and the parsing of children by ethnic similarities, finally get to the root of the issue, and it is the insidiousness of it that bubbles out.

[They] had often discussed race as a concept, as a foreign country they occasionally visited, or as an enemy that existed outside their house, a destructive force they could fight against as a couple, as a family. But race was also a constant presence, a houseguest and permanent tenant who crept around all the rooms in their shared lives, opening drawers, stealing utensils and small articles of clothing, changing the temperature. (Alexie, 2012, p. 344)

In this perpetual cycle of glaring racial tension followed by a retreat into compassion, Alexie uses bold language to punctuate the emotion. Mary Lynn, when angry about men, invokes a mantra in her head wherein she chants hate hate hate and then lets it go. Three times in the story, she goes through her mantra and releases it. The story appropriately unites the couple at the close. The premise and execution leading up to the reconciliation are an analogy for assimilation because assimilation is ultimately a process of recognizing one’s prejudice, acknowledging the hatred it invokes, and then releasing it and stepping forward on the same path. The story glimpses into the real work of overcoming racial prejudice and maintaining an interracial marriage. It is also an outstanding model for authors seeking a balanced technique for depicting those racial prejudices within the context of overcoming them.

Understanding the techniques used to engender fictional characters within a work with varying viewpoints, including extreme racism, without making the overall nature of the work racist was the goal of my research. In close examination of Alexie’s narrative structure and narrative voice, I found that he demonstrates a strong empathy for each of his characters, and he does so with a clear purpose to illuminate the hardships of race relations from each of their perspectives. This was highly useful for my own writing—racism exists, and many people are not looking the other way, but attempting to understand their own relationship with it. As a writer, I cannot shy away from criticism over assuming other racial identities if I am going to achieve a clear depiction of interracial relationships and cultural tension in my work. When I began my research, I didn’t expect to instill extreme views in my characters, but it was important to understand the extremes in order to determine where my characters fell on the racist continuum. Now I recognize that my characters can be anywhere on the continuum without automatically making the work itself racist or being guilty of appropriation.

There are four specific techniques that I identified for use in my own work:

  • Alignment with historic context. Alignment with historic context combats racial stereotypes and allows the reader to experience a character’s full situation in the story. To ignore actual events that are significant to the development of racial perspectives, such as systematic removal of Indian children from their homes, sets characters adrift and robs the reader of information that puts behavior into context.
  • Outsider perspective. One of the most effective ways, I found, of depicting cultural differences and nuances is through an “outsider” characters, or someone who is from neither race involved in the conflict. Outsider characters are allowed to make mistakes, offend, learn, and earn forgiveness, and their journeys can illuminate truths about other cultures that the reader might never experience first-hand.
  • Racism from within. One of the most powerful techniques for illustrating racism is through the inclusion of racist ideas about a group from a character within that group. For example, Mary Lynn’s thoughts about Indian men making her afraid, and her husband’s thoughts about how white people created racism in order to enslave blacks and kill Indians. When the character is of the same race as the racist concept it is easier to show these biases as simply that and not truths.
  • Rotating (or circular) racism. Particularly with the inclusion of interracial couples, there is a privilege that comes from familiarity. This allows characters to make highly racist statements, either out of affection or during battle. But the characters must then consider their commitment to the other-race spouse/lover and see past those racist feelings into the humanity of their partner. Through this technique the author can bring the racism to the surface, then transcend it.

In my own work, and specifically a novel titled A Delicate Divide, I use the concepts of interracial relationships to transcend racism within my characters. Set in Montana, the story unfolds in the same location as D’Arcy McNickle’s 1936 novel The Surrounded. Written roughly eighty years apart, the two novels, when read in succession, will render an epic story of integrated life on the Flathead. McNickle’s novel takes place at the peak of institutionalized dismantling and iradication of Indian culture. His characters are subject to laws they do not understand as they watch their treaty land infiltrated by outsiders. The Catholic church, a looming Gothic structure built in 1890, is central to his narrative. His characters straddle Christianity and the forbidden religious practices of their forebearers. In my work, the church remains a central landmark in the town, and the characters straddle Christianity and the rejection of all religion in the face of modern life. In McNickle’s novel, the Indians are forbidden from speaking their native language, and the children are systematically sent away to boarding schools where they are “assimilated” into white culture. In my novel, the highway project touts signs in Salish, translated into English for the benefit of those passing through, and the cultural center undertakes an aggressive project to glean traditional stories from elders before they are lost forever. In McNickle’s novel the white law prevails, and in my novel, the confederated tribes have discovered the power of the legal system and are aggressively reclaiming treaty land and lost rights.

As I studied McNickle’s work it became apparent that telling the contemporary story of water rights in A Delicate Divide was not quite enough to give the reader a full comprehnsion of the events that took place in the interviening eighty years between McNickle’s work and my own. Some of these events included the decline of the tribes into poverty, the rise of addiction, the removal of children to white foster homes, the rise of the American Indian Movement, Wounded Knee II[ii], the subsequent rise of the cultural preservation movement, and the eventual adoption of the Euroamerican legal system to preserve tribal sovereignty. To illustrate these important events between the works I added a historic storyline based on an early white settler to the region, and then follow his descendants. My work opens with the purchase of land in 1911, which has been deemed surplus by the government after the allocation of parcels to Indians under the General Allotment Act of 1905.[iii] I also borrowed two of McNickle’s characters from The Surrounded: George Moser, the merchant and land speculator, and his wife. Moser’s wife is the primary racist representative in McNickle’s work, and in many respects she sets the tone for the next forty years of overt racism that my characters witness. By including her in my work, I am giving body and voice to what McNickle only alluded to in 1936 (she does not actually appear on the page). I can only guess that his treatment of her character might have been more direct had he been writing at a later time in history.

The Rocky Mountain setting, rugged and beautiful, represents more than the location of the Flathead Reservation. The West is central to what it means to be American. The folklore of the West, as illustrated by the movies of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, and the plethera of Euroamerican authors like A.B. Guthrie and Wallace Stegner, is entrenched in the modern American psyche. Generations of Euroamericans like myself have grown up believing that this landscape and narrative is wholly our own. It is important to me, as an author and native Westerner, to bring a broader perspective to our existence here—that of a single chapter in an ongoing narrative. A very small slice in the history of all that has come before, and all that will come after.


[i] In 1890 Cavalry Soldiers killed hundreds of unarmed Minneconjous men, women, and children at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. It is considered the last episode of the Indian Wars, and is commonly described as “The Massacre at Wounded Knee.”

[ii] Wounded Knee II is defined as the 71-day siege of the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota by Oglala Sioux protesting corruption among tribal officials and the US government’s failure to fulfill innumerable treaties throughout history. More than 60 deaths are attributed to the protest.

[iii] The Dawes Act was passed by congress in 1887. It is also known as the General Allotment Act and the Land Allotment Act, and was adopted by individual states at different times subsequently. Montana enacted the law in 1905. The Flathead Reservation was divided into parcels and each Indian head of household was granted 160 acres under the law. The remaining land was deemed “surplus” and sold for settlement. This is how treaty land first came into Euroamerican ownership.


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Heather__medHeather Sharfeddin is a Pacific Northwest novelist whose work has earned starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Library Journal, has been honored with an Erick Hoffer award and at the New York and San Francisco Book Festivals, as well as the Pacific Northwest Book Sellers Association. She has taught creative writing at Randolph College, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and Linfield College (presently). She is also a book reviewer for Colorado Review. Her fifth novel What Keeps You is due out in late 2016. Sharfeddin holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a PhD in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University (Bath, England).

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