Asih Sigit Padmanugraha
It is evident that Native Americans play important role in American history. Native American culture is exceedingly considerable to explore and to study the American experience. As Weston puts it in Native Americans in the News: Images of Indians in the Twentieth Century Press, the idea of the Indian holds a special, some would say essential, place in the American psyche (1996:10). Unfortunately, some American historians state that even a minimal consideration of Indian societies and achievements is all too frequently omitted from courses in American history (Einstadt, 1987:17).
As a result, the achievements on literature are also neglected for there are some problems in the construct of mind of the Euro-American literary scholars. Haslam (1970:2) proposes some problems of those concerning the existence of Native American literature. First, oral literature is rarely given serious consideration. The problem of oral literature’s exclusion is basic enough among scholars in the English-American lineage. As Rene Wellek and Austin Warren, in their outstanding and prominent Theory of Literature (1956), state that:
… one of their objections to the use of the word ‘literature as the semantic equivalent of art’ is its suggestion of limitation to written or printed literature; for, clearly any coherent concept must include ‘oral literature’ (Wellek, 1956:22).
Secondly, literature written in languages other than English is too often ignored. This second weakness in American literary scholarship has been reluctance to seriously consider writing by Americans in languages other than English. Thirdly, only literary mode developed in Britain or Europe, in general, are consistently studied. American literary study tends to examine only genres developed in a European literary lineage. Fourth, the recital prejudices of the national majority have been too faithfully reflected in literary scholarship. This last fault is both the least esthetic and most insidious of all: the cruel fact that the same Americans who have been denied social, economic and education equality have also been consistently ignored by literary scholars.
From the previous four misleading notions, it is apparent that they disregard the significance of distinctive culture which is reflected in distinctive work of art. This is because the study of literature is a seminal human endeavor, for literature is an integral part of human cultures, reflecting through the special use of language subtle values unique to each (Haslam, 1970:1). Moreover, he states that in many ways literature offers the sharpest available view of a given culture’s soul.
Those are in line with Berkhofer’s notion on the myth covering Native American culture saying that whites tend to describe Indians in terms of white society.
…Rather than describing Indians as they saw themselves, they were viewed according to how they did or did not measure up to white norms (Berkhofer, 1978:10).
Therefore, Native American voices in Native American texts are representing their culture more than that written by Euro-Americans. And this article is aimed at explore Native American values as recorded in Native American text.
II. Native and Euro-Americans: A Long Conflicting Relationship
The aboriginal inhabitants of North America occupy an exceptional position in the history of America. They were the first people on this continent, the land was theirs. White Europeans ‘discovered’ the continent and a great and continuous conflict arose. The differences which fed this conflict, later to erupt in genocidal wars against the native peoples, were basic in their outlook upon life. The Indians had no form of writing in common usage, but the spoken word was highly valued. The Europeans, feeling that literacy was the mark of civilization, branded the natives as savages, innately inferior beings. (Deloria, 1981:xvii).
A second, and very important difference, was in the two groups’ relation to land. To the Europeans, land was a commodity to be owned and used. Land which was not included in some form of written title was free for the taking (Johansen, 2000: xi) The Indians’ relation to the land was entirely different. Though various tribes occupied particular territories and recognized each others’ boundaries, the right to land was a right to use it, not to own it or buy and sell it. In addition, the Indians had a great reverence on land. In some Indians religions the land was thought of as the mother, nourishing and giving life to her children. The Indian would no more abuse or exploit the land than he would abuse or exploit a loved relative. This is clearly revealed in Red Cloud’s words, as follows:
The “Great Spirit” made us, the Indians, and gave us this land we live in. He gave us the buffalo, the antelope, and the deer for food and clothing. We moved on our hunting grounds from the Minnesota to the Platte and from the Mississippi to the great mountains. No one put bounds on us. We were free as the winds and eagle (Langer, 1996:58).
Thus, the stage was set for the conflict which continues today. The ‘Manifest Destiny’ of the white man decreed that he must push across the North American continent to the Pacific. The Indian culture were ignored, the Indian considered a savage, unworthy of notice unless his lands were desired (McDermott, 1998:7).
In time the United States Government made treaties with the Indians, buying some of their lands in return for tools and other implements of ‘civilization.’ In his quest for progress, for more land, the white man broke his treaties with the Indians, successively moving them out of their homes when their lands were wanted. In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act (Hirschfelder, 2005)
The Indians of the Northeast were required to move to the wilderness west of the Mississippi River. The Indians of the Southeast and Northwest were similarly ‘removed.’ When the native people resisted, the government countered with armed force. This was the prototypic situation that set off the series of wars between the Indians and whites. The following is the great speech by Red Cloud, the notable and powerful Chief the Lakota Sioux concerning the whites’ invasion:
They made us many promises
more than I can remember.
But they kept but one-
they promised to take our land-
and they took it.” (Langer, 1996:58)
The war between the two sides physically ended in the end of the 19th century by the defeat of the Sioux tribes in the Massacre of the Wounded Knee, and they were put into reservations. Indian reservations are tracts of lands set aside for the ownership or use of particular Native American tribes, in which the tribes ceded their lands to the U.S. government except for portions “reserved” for their own use.
Native American reservations are created to avoid clashes over land boundaries between Native Americans and white settlers and to confine Native American tribes to tracts where they could be watched and (occasionally) provided for by federal effort. The tribes were generally free to live as they wished on their lands, as long as they remained peaceful. As the American frontier pushed westward, however, Native American land became increasingly attractive to white settlers, while the Native Americans themselves were considered impediments to progress. As a result, reservations were made smaller or were relocated to remote areas undesirable to whites.
According to Robert L. Bee (2005), by the 1880s areas reserved for the Native Americans had shrunk to about 53.4 million hectares (about 132 million acres). Native Americans had difficulty making a living from the land, and their older cultures had been shattered by contact with whites. As a remedy, the government tried to force them to assimilate into the mainstream of American life. The plan called for breaking up reservations into allotments, then issuing the allotments to individual Native Americans. Ideally, they were to farm their plots; instead, many of them sold their allotments or leased them to whites. Thus, by 1934, Native Americans were left with only about 25 percent of the reservation land they had held in the 1880s.
Bee explains further that although many Native Americans regard their reservation lands as a key to the survival of Native American culture, most reservations are still underdeveloped, and their inhabitants among the poorest of the nation's poor. (Robert L. Bee, 2005)
III. Native American in Twentieth Century America: the Problems of Poverty and Assimilation
The following are some accounts on the problems which affect the life of the contemporary American Indians. In the nineteenth century the Indians resisted the incursion of the whites with guns and arrows. Though valiant, their struggle was doomed. By the turn of the century their numbers were decimated by wars and diseases, their land stolen, the religion outlawed. The white had conquered the continent.
As the twentieth century opened, the Indians were faced with many new problems. The disappearance of the buffalo (effected by hunters and traders) and the loss of land had rendered their previous lifestyles impossible. The reservations they were forced to occupy possessed meager resources. Their land, water, fishing and mineral rights were (and continue to be) abrogated at will by the federal and state governments. While the standard of living rose astronomically for white society during the twentieth century, the Indians were consigned to a life of poverty.
David (1970:136) describes the deficiency in Native Americans’ life, as follows:
1. The worst economic situation:
The economic situation of the Native American is the worst of any minority group in the country. For most Indians on these reservations living conditions are squalid, worse than condition in America’s urban slums.
2. The problem of unemployment.
Unemployment statistics of 70 percent are not unusual and on some reservations unemployment is even greater.
3. The problem of alcoholism
Because of the white’s influence the incident of disease and alcoholism is very great. This is also related to the frustrated condition of unemployment.
4. The disease and life-expectancy problem
These problems are caused by the bad sanitation facilities. Not only is life poorer for the Indian than for all other people in America, it is also shorter. Infant death rates for Native Americans are twice those of the general population.
Equally damaging to the collective life of the Indian in America during the twentieth century has been the government’s press for total assimilation into white society. From the beginning of the century Indian children have been sent away to government boarding schools to be taught to become white. In the 1950 ‘relocation’ became a government policy. Under this program Indians were shipped to the cities to assimilate and disappear (David, 1972: 137).
In the second half of the twentieth century there has been a growing articulation by Indians of their own needs and rights. While the specific proposals of these groups may vary, it is their common goal to assert their cultural and legal independence as Indians and to work for a better life for their people. (David, 1972: 138)
The relationship between the Indian and the white in America has demanded the assimilation of the Indian, the denial of his culture. Rather than capitulating, the Indians have insisted on treatment as a separate people, having their own customs, cultures, and laws. This is the purpose of this article: to explore the phase of Indian life in having their own identity in twentieth century American society as reflected in three Native American short stories.
IV. Native American Self Identity in Twentieth Century American Culture
Nineteenth century in American history witnessed the greatness as well as the decline of one of the Native American culture. In this century, the Indians experienced the significant changing on war culture. In pre-contact era, the Indians were devoted to a war culture such that people proved manhood in combat with neighboring tribes. In post-contact era, as the Euro-Americans moved west across the country and began to extinguish the Indian tribes, the Indians fought for survival. The war culture gradually changed from the emphasis of individual fighting and tribal honor toward an emphasis upon the survival itself. Then, the question to ask is, “Does the war in Native American culture still exist in twentieth century, in which physical war no longer exists?”
The idea on the twentieth century definition of war in Native American culture is based on the findings after reading three evocative Native American short stories written by the three great twentieth century Native American writers. They are The Warriors written by Anna Lee Walters (Pawnee-Otoe), The Toughest Indian in the World written by Sherman Alexie, and The Red Convertible written by Louise Erdrich (Anishinaabe).
1. Native American’s Self-Recognition in Anna Lee Walters’ The Warriors
Anna Lee Walter’s Uncle Ralph spent a good majority of his life as a “warrior.” Often he speaks of findings his other warriors to fight a battle. He told us his version of the old story of Pahukatawa, a Skidi Pawnee warrior.
He was killed by the Sioux, but the animals, feeling compassion for him, brought Pahukatawa to life again. (p.396)
He also talks of himself as a warrior and the reason why the warrior fought and died for, and he talks of some requirements a warrior should have.
For beauty is why we live, and we die for it, too. Warriors must brave all storms and odds and stand their ground………….. Uncle Ralph talked obsessively of warriors, painted proud warriors who shrieked poignant battle cries at the top of their lungs an died with honor. (p. 396)
The increasing influence of Western customs and lifestyle has caused a number of Native American to forget who they are. Uncle Ralph harbors such a strong belief in the quality of his people that he comes to believe his fight to be “just, worthy, and beautiful.”
Throughout Anna Lee Walter’s life in which she spends with Uncle Ralph, she develops a strong sense of who she is, and she is aware of her values as an Native American. Her experience with the hobos shows her a people who forget their identity or choose to ignore it. The hobos reject their past and choose to believe in nothing, which, in Uncle Ralph’s eyes, was not the act of living for beauty. Without living for something to believe in and value, there is really no point in continuing in life. The mere fact that a faithfully kept set of beliefs has the power to give someone the desire to live is a form of beauty in itself.
To believe in something alone is not enough to be considered beautiful, only when one is faithfully chooses to believe in an ideal even in times when this particular may result in inconvenience or offer no rewards to the believer can it be considered an act of beauty.
Beauty is not necessarily always the embodiment of personal human desires, but it can be unique in its own way as it is often overlooked in many cases. Because “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” many ideals could be beautiful whether a majority decides so or not. As long as something is recognized for its ability to stand out and emote genuine thoughts and feelings in us it can be thought of as beautiful.
Uncle Ralph holds fast in his traditional Indian values even when times were hard for people like him. Unfortunately, he begins to give way to the negative habits of Western culture when he realized that he is only one warrior who could not win his fight by himself. His alcoholism has pushed him into a life with the hobos that he has often spoken as people who “see things differently.”
…hobos are different kind. They see things in a different way. Them hobos are kind of like us. We’re not like other people in some ways and yet we are. It has to do with what you see and feel when you look at this old world. (p.397)
Perhaps these are his warriors after all, for they may have given up their fights just as he does. As the hobos steers clear of cooperating with the American system, Uncle Ralph may have done the same in an effort to retain his American identity.
His efforts may not have ended the way he had hoped, but he see the beauty in what life had given him because he stays faithful to his values despite his hard times. He sees his ultimate accomplishment through his niece, Anna, who remembers all he had taught her about heritage and identity. Uncle Ralph hopes desperately that she will not forget his words over he years so that she will at least be able to live for beauty even if the rest of the world will not. However, he is certain that his fight is not in vain, because he knows that Anna and her sister will remain faithful to his teachings and they try to continue his fight into the future as his warriors.
“Beauty,” she said to me.” Our battle is for beauty. It’s what Uncle Ralph fought for, too. He often said that everyone else just wanted to go to the Moon. But remember, Sister, you and I done been there. Don’t forget, after all we’re children of the stars. (p. 403)
To truly know one-self is as important as it is beautiful when one is surrounded in a world dominated by humans who will stop at nothing to hide the beauty of their own identity.
2. Native American’s Regaining of Self-Identity in Sherman’s Alexie The Thoughest Indian in the World.
Sherman Alexie, born in 1966, is Native American writer and filmmaker. His writings explore the complex issues facing Native Americans, such as the accelerating destruction of traditional cultures and the deep-rooted problems associated with life on the reservation. Sherman Joseph Alexie, Jr., was born in Spokane, Washington, to parents who hailed from the Coeur d’Alene and Spokane Indian tribes. He grew up on the Spokane reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. Alexie suffered from seizures as a child, and he developed into a loner and an avid reader. He attended reservation schools but later transferred to a mostly white public high school (Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2006.[DVD].
The second short story is The Toughest Indian in the World (1999). Sherman Alexie’s The Toughest Indian in the World proposes an idea of how the Spokane Indian reporter lives in the white society.
In his childhood and teenage life, he lived among his Indian family, and he was taught not to live in a white society, because his father always said:
…..they’ll kill you if they get change. Love you or hate you, white people will shoot you in the heart. Even after years, they still smell the salmon on you. The dead salmon, and that will make white people dangerous. (p. 96)
He used to pick up Indian hitchhikers with his father who always believed that the salmon might be stars. This signifies the Indian values and identity his father still believes. As a child, he still had a great and strong Indian identity because of his father’s beliefs and lessons.
Separation from Indian life happens in his adult life. As the times passed, he finally decides to leave the Indian society and he lives among the white society. In this period, he makes a separation or “migration” between himself and his own Indian life. He works as reporter; he lives among the white society; he has a white value of life, although it was not a fully separation.
He follows the life style and the value of the white. He works a reporter and has a great life financially (he has a 1998 Toyota Camry, the best-selling automobile in the United States, and therefore the one most often stolen). However, he still picks up Indian hitchhiker, things which his father used to do, in his spare time or during his working time on reporting. The nostalgia of the memories of hitchhiking the Indians with his father always lies in his heart and mind.
“…I loved the smell of the Indians, and of the Indian hitchhikers in particular…” (p. 98)
In this phase of life, his position is between the two great different worlds, the white and the Indian world.
The white’s value, lifestyle, society and culture do not fit him because the people always underestimate, disrespect and often laugh at him. His white fellows always laugh at him and think that he is crazy and wasting time for picking up Indians, who, based on the article they write, always commit crimes against the whites. However, he always ignores that and focuses on his work.
They are always laughing at me, at one another, at themselves, at goofy typos in the newspaper, at the idea of hitchhikers. (p. 98)
On the bad situation, the reporter still tries to give himself a chance. Although his co-workers always bother him, he finally decides to date one of his white female co-workers. Unfortunately, the date is so worst that he only becomes “an object”; and therefore he does not feel the passion and never feel the emotion in his lovemaking. This bad love relationship with a white female signifies that he could not enjoy his place and position among the white society. In addition, that is not the only one reason why he hates his life.
In the office, he works as a features writer and the only Indian on that. He gets so bored by all the shit jobs (Alexie’s term). This is because he has to write the articles designed to please the eye, ear, and heart (of the whites). According to him, there is no journalism more soul-endangering to write than journalism that aims to please. He hates his jobs (actually he hate his life in that society), and it seems that could not stand it any longer. (p.100)
Situation changes when, one day, he meets an Indian hitchhiker in his way on writing some stories for the newspaper. He is a Lummi Indian fighter whose scars have proved that he is a great Indian fighter. The fighter tells him that he fights from one reservation to another until he finally meet a huge Flathead Indian kid whom he beats him as hard as he could but he never get him down. He lost the fight, but he thinks that he is not as stronger than he is for he never fought back but too strong to fall down; he is not “the toughest Indian in the world.” During the way, he recalls the old memories about the smell of the Indian. He seems to enjoy this nostalgia of hitchhiking Indians.
During the travel, the reporter is excited by the stories of the fighter and he silently admires his brave and his strength as if he was “a warrior.” The Spokane reporter is actually “leaving” his white society. This is signified and symbolized by his travel along with the Lummi fighter. This travel represents the way towards his regaining his identity as an Indian.
Because the fighter does have any place to stay, he asks him to stay with him in a small hotel Pony Soldier Motel when the day goes dark. Both stay in the same room, the reporter sleep on the bed while the fighter sleep on the floor. Unexpectedly, both are involved in a homosexual interrelationship. Although he is not a gay, he does nothing to stop. In his lovemaking, he feels that he wants the fighter to save him. He says:
Believe me. I wanted him to save me. (p. 104)
In addition, he smells like a salmon, the smell he had during his teenage live when he still lived with his father and was always hitchhiking Indians. Finally, the fighter has to leave because the reporter asks him to do so. The fighter decides to leave that night and says that the reporter is “a tough guy” (tougher that the Flathead kid whom he beats so hard) (p. 104) Compared to what his co-workers have thought of him, this compliment has a great influence on him as an Indian.
After taking a shower and wondering if he was a warrior in this life and had been a warrior in the previous life, he falls asleep. The next morning he goes out and he walks past his car and steps onto the warm pavement. He starts walking in bare feet towards the place where he was born and will someday die. His heart is filled with thin white skeleton of a thousand salmons (p. 104) He has left the car which is the symbol the white culture. The salmons symbolize his Indian identity. He has regained back the most important thing for an Indian--the Indian identity.
3. Native American’s Struggle against White’s Dominant Culture in Louise Erdrich’s The Red Convertible
Louise Erdrich, born in 1954, American writer, whose work focuses on Native American characters. Her writing is distinguished by a lyrical prose and the recurring theme of magic. Born in Little Falls, Minnesota, and educated at Dartmouth College, Erdrich was the daughter of a German American father and a Chippewa mother. Her early schooling was in a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school. She began writing as a child and majored in creative writing in college. Erdrich earned a master's degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University in 1979, then went to Dartmouth as writer-in-residence. (Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2006.[DVD].
The third short story is The Red Convertible. In this story, Louise Erdrich offers a unique perspective on a kind of maturation process and coming to terms with a discriminatory world. The main character and narrator, Lyman Lamartine, is a young Chippewa Indian trying to define who he is and what is important to him. The environment where he lives offers him two alternative lifestyles: his own native culture and the white culture.
Lyman begins by favoring the more affluent white culture, and Henry, his brother, does, too. The white culture is clearly the empowered society, and perhaps this is what initially attracts Lyman. The whites see it as unusual for a native (Lyman) to make money for example, in his café (p. 232), and they encourage it (they want the native to become like them); he does not see that they wish to resist or erase differences, not accept them.
Lyman is the only native child who is allowed to enter the American Legion Hall (to shine shoes) (p. 232); Lyman is the first and perhaps the only native to drive a convertible on his reservation (p. 232). This is a symbol of marginalization.
The natives appear to live in less than ideal conditions; Lyman observes that the reservation roads are full of holes, as are the promises made by the government--this is an example of paternalism (governing a group in a manner suggesting a father-child relationship, in which the child has no voice). Lyman is aware that the whites use an image of Red Tomahawk, the native who killed Sitting Bull (who objected to white oppression), to give the state an "authentic" identity along the North Dakota highways (p. 234). Again, this is an example of marginalization.
The whites engage in war against other peoples (Vietnam); “dominion” is a key characteristic of the whites, even if the cause is dark. Lyman says: "I could never keep it straight, which direction those good Vietnam soldiers were from." (p. 234)
The whites that welcomed Lyman into their businesses, Lyman realizes, would not welcome the war-torn Henry at the hospital; if they did take him, they would numb his suffering with drugs. (p. 235)
The television, which the young Lyman buys with enthusiasm but later destroys, exemplifies the presence of white values in the native community; in particular, the artificial images of television anaesthetize Henry from the pain of war and capture; he shuts himself from his own family and community (the photograph of Henry suggests that his spirit is already dead). (p. 237)
Henry experiences a bad process of way of his life. He moves from an acceptable life to a completely distressed life. Henry is associated with blood (he bites through his lip and his own blood runs down into his food (p. 235), and with the color red (he has a nose like the Red Tomahawk Indian on all the road signs (p. 234), and he ultimately chooses to drown in the Red River. Thus, Erdrich associates the notion of blood with the "red" race (a white label).
The red convertible is a symbol of marginalization for both Henry and Lyman. However, both men are willing to give it up for more important values (Henry gives it to Lyman when he leaves for the war, and Lyman damages it in an effort to bring Henry back to health; in the end, Lyman erases any evidence of its presence)
The following is the pattern of Lyman life:
1. The phase of separation: Lyman separates himself (although not fully) from the native culture and aspires to succeed in the white world; buying the red convertible, which he at first believes is "alive", is a clear signal that he is making this shift.
2. The phase of transition: Henry returns severely damaged by the war. Lyman finds himself looking to the white culture to heal Henry. He thinks that the repair of the car (a white symbol of success) will stimulate Henry back to life), yet he destroys the TV, also a symbol of the white culture, in an attempt to return Henry to interacting with his native community. He also does not trust the whites to cure Henry at their hospital, should they even accept him as a patient.
3. Aggregation: Lyman completely disconnects himself from the red convertible (and the trappings of white culture) when he submerges it beneath the water; he confirms his status as native when he says.
The Native American people are clearly disempowered in this story. However, despite the oppression, Lyman ultimately chooses to embrace his native heritage, not the white. Lyman and Henry both indicate that the ownership of the red car is not important to them. Lyman destroys the car in the end because it no longer represents success and good times to him. On the contrary, it represents the white world, which has destroyed Henry. He recognizes the enormous sacrifice that Henry has made on behalf of the whites (he has paid for his connection to the white world with his life).
The story concludes that minorities within a dominant culture are often confronted with two choices: to assimilate or to be annihilated. Clearly, Henry has been annihilated, and Lyman, too, finally decides to disconnect his white society, which is symbolized by the drowned car.
The three short stories clearly show the problems of Native Americans living in whites’ society. Those are evidences that the assimilation programs fail, since stereotyping and marginalization still exist. Again, the long conflicting relationship between the two cultures and the long history of American Indian Wars still continues, although in the new manifestation.
For the twentieth century Indians, Native Americans are involved in a war to maintain their existence in American culture by preserving a sense of identity in a white man’s world. This war is a battle to attain back the Indian value they has lost in white community, to regain the identity as Indian in white community, and to fight against marginality, colonization, domination of the white society