I is for American Indians, Native Americans, First Nations, Indigenous Peoples, Etc.

{Note: for the purposes of this article, I will be using “Native American” as a general term, and tribal designations or individual preferences for identification when appropriate and/or available.

Click here for the complete alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

When it comes to the treatment of Native Americans in fiction, the romance genre has a lot to answer for. E.g. the millions of historical Western romances with the word “savage” in the title. Or that time white author Cassie Edwards filled her novels with plagiarized passages from nature writing and out-of-print Native American memoirs. I mean, the words holy shit are utterly inadequate there: cultural appropriation does not get more shameless and literal than that.

Romance’s appropriation of American Indian experience is often cloaked in New Age-y terms of appreciation and/or reverence, such as this quote from Western historical author Paty Jager’s 2011 post on Romance at Random:

The Indians love of the land and nature make wonderful backdrops for the use of language and how they portray their lives. This honest connection with the world around them adds to the romance of the story. Their distinct and different culture from ours is fascinating to us.

Notice the use of pronouns there: they are Native Americans, primitive and romantic and exotic. We are romance authors, sophisticated and language-oriented and cultured. The phrasing splits the two groups and allows for no overlap between them. Similar stereotyped language appears in this RT Magazine Theme Spotlight piece: “The Native American romance emphasizes instinct, creativity, freedom, and the longing to escape from the strictures of society to return to nature.” It’s Noble Savages all the way down. With this kind of othering so strongly at work in the subgenre, it’s hardly surprising that actual examples of Native American/American Indian romance authors are very difficult to come by.

Cover image for Her Land, Her Love by Evangeline Parsons Yazzie. A brown-skinned, dark-haired woman in a Navajo rug dress looks sadly down to one side. Gold triangles frame the corners of the image.Naturally, as I often do when stumped, I asked Twitter for help — a Storify of the collected responses can be found here — which is how I learned about Evangeline Parsons Yazzie.

Of all the authors mentioned in that Storify, Ms. Yazzie is the one who most explicitly identifies as Native American (specifically Navajo). Her Land, Her Love (Amazon link: publisher page is here) is the author’s first romance: her other works are children’s books based on Navajo legends and stories. Ms. Yazzie makes clear in her introduction that she chose the historical romance form deliberately, and that this story is a way of remembering and retelling her people’s past: therefore it seems appropriate to talk about the ways in which this book departs significantly from the usual forms of white-authored Native American romance.

This book’s roots are in oral storytelling and the prose shows it: the opening chapters have zero conflict and are simple and descriptive in the manner of folktales and poetry. Time moves in fits and starts and great leaps — we start with our heroine Nínááníbaa’ as a baby and move quickly forward into her youth and the day of her marriage to hero Hashké Yił Naabaah. At the same time there’s a wealth of detail of Navajo daily life: it felt more as though I were reading a work of historical scholarship rather than a historical romance. I’ll admit: it was at times quite frightfully dull. But those conflict-free, happy chapters full of loving family members and yearly rhythms and hilarious sheep and goat sounds give us the space to see the Navajo as they are when they are free to be themselves, with their religion, culture, and living places mostly intact.

This in-depth depiction is the opposite of what we see in the captivity narratives identified by Janet at Dear Author as part of the romance genre’s foundations, where a white heroine (it’s usually a heroine) is captured by a local tribe and gradually assimilated, often marrying a Native American man (or a white dude who has been similarly assimilated). This is the voyeuristic and colonialist arc we see in — to take one popular example — James Cameron’s Avatar, where an outsider can out-native the natives, for some reason. By contrast, none of the white characters in Her Love, Her Land is going to out-Navajo the actual Navajo — this romance novel is centered firmly in indigenous culture, looking out, rather than from the mainstream white colonial perspective, looking in. Practically all of the dialogue is in Navajo, an extremely complex language, with English translations following. I liked this a great deal: it reassured me that the author was writing from within the tradition, with personal knowledge of Navajo language and culture. (I’m also a bit of a language geek, so I would occasionally try and work out which words were doing what in a given Navajo sentence. I got basically nowhere, which isn’t surprising since there’s a reason this language was used for coded messages in WWII, but it was fun trying.) Most of all, this book felt profoundly real – perhaps it was just knowing that many of these stories were real, had been handed down the author’s family tree for several generations. I can’t separate that from my reactions, and I’m not sure I’d want to if I could. Reading this book felt like bearing witness.

This sense of a place well-lived in, with real-life families, makes the text absolutely terrifying for a reader aware of what’s to come. We know this idyllic continuity is not going to last, and the happier our main couple and their relatives become, the harder it will be when everything is taken away from them. We see, in exquisite detail, precisely how much our here and heroine are going to lose in the years to come. And by this point we’ve come to care for them just as they’ve come to care for each other. (Seriously, Nínááníbaa’ and Hashké Yił Naabaah’s four-day honeymoon where they’re living together but not allowed to touch one another is the sweetest, shyest thing. They’re all trembling and nerves and yearning eyes, both of them.) The fall happens gradually — the capture of two daughters here, the loss of a son there, the need to compromise for safety’s sake as Kit Carson’s men burn villages and poison waterholes — and it is all the more heartbreaking for being drawn out. Hashke Yił Naabaah is a war leader, admired and respected and responsible for his people’s happiness, so at every turn he is trying to understand what the white men want from him, how he can find a way to compromise, how to get across the vital needs of his people. There are a few moments of narrative omniscience, where the story pulls back to tell us what one particular white officer might be thinking, but for the most part the white men we see in this novel are all completely opaque, nameless and inhuman. There’s occasional reference to the state of national politics, but it is not nearly enough to outweigh the terrible crimes happening here, on the page in front of us, to people we’ve spent years of book-time with.

One of these moments, however, is particularly worth our attention as intersectional feminists (practicing):

Never in the wildest dreams of the Naabeehó naabaahii did any of them think that the greed for gold and silver was at the forefront of the decision to remove the noble Naabeehó people to a place far from their land between the four mountains. Once again, the soldiers lied to them!

General Carleton, along with a man who had been a territorial governor of New Mexico, had secretly met at Santa Fe and created a grand scheme for removing the “savage” Navajos from their lands. The two men believed the land the Naabeehó occupied was rich in gold, silver, and copper. The Union Army was becoming poor fighting a war in the south known as the Civil War. General Carleton felt their contribution of precious metals would be valuable in helping their Union Army fund the war. (Kindle location 3212)

The Civil War, while not “fought over slavery” precisely as whitewashed history would have us think, nevertheless did have the outcome of making the chattel slavery system illegal in the United States. (Unless we want to talk about sharecropping and Jim Crow but I digress.) The huge effort required for the liberation of the slaves is here directly tied to Indian removal and violent oppression. This is intersectionality at its most basic: the legal/military means by which black people became legally people (as opposed to property) necessitated the destruction of Indian nations in territories hundreds of miles away from the battlefield — at least in the eyes of the white men in charge of the Army and US domestic policy. We like to believe — are often taught to believe — that the US’s story is an arc of decreasing racism and the long slow death of white supremacy: direct connections like this one between black and Native American oppression prove that comforting fiction to be a sweet and poisonous lie.

Ms. Yazzie’s text walks a fine line between realism and romanticism: the pain our hero and heroine suffer — removal from their homes, the loss of their children, fear for their safety and the ever-present possibility of rape and starvation and death — is arbitrary and malicious, unthinkably sadistic. At the same time, the resourcefulness and strength Haske Yił Naabaah and Nínááníbaa’ show in supporting one another and their fellow Navajo is highly idealized. Frankly, I was glad this was so. I didn’t want to watch those strong hearts lose hope in one another, even though they lost hope in plenty of other things (the promises of soldiers, for example). This is not a subtle moment in history, so the heightened contrast feels appropriately stark.

In the middle of the book, our hero and heroine are removed from their home and sent on the Long Walk. Again the tropes of the captivity narrative are reversed: the Navajo people are the ones being taken and removed, forced to depend on the dubious charity of Union soldiers in an internment camp on the outskirts of a fort. People starve, people sicken, people vanish, people die. There’s no moral justification for any of it. Our protagonists are still living in the camp at the end of the book, though historically the Navajo were eventually moved to a slightly better location (not great, and not their proper home, but not quite as barren and hostile as Bosque Redondo). Perhaps this is part of what makes Native American romances so comparatively rare: the implausibility of a happy ending in the face of flat-out genocide. The history of contact with Native peoples in the US is irredeemably tragic and negative, a difficult setting for a genre whose most recognizable trope is a happy ending.

This would make Native invisibility in romance more understandable if it didn’t dovetail so nicely with the prevailing cultural notion that Native Americans only exist in the past, rather than being present citizens, neighbors, friends, and potential lovers/heroes and heroines of romance. I expected to be able to find at least one contemporary romance with a Native American protagonist — but everything skewed immediately paranormal and urban fantasy. You can apparently have Muscogee or Navajo characters, but only if they’re magical. Special. Not really human or normal at all, in fact. It put my hackles up in ways I haven’t been able to articulate, though this post is a good start.

So going forward I shall continue my search for that unicorn: a (hopefully contemporary) romance with a Native American hero/heroine written by a Native American author. If anyone knows of one (or has written one!), let me know!

Let everyone know. We’ll be listening.

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The Navajo People have a truly excellent website, with plenty of links about history, culture, and news.

Native American authors are definitely out there: they’re just writing things that aren’t genre romance. Here is a list of 20 Native American authors you need to read (hometown hero Sherman Alexie shoutout!). 

Speaking of Native peoples and children’s literature, Colorlines recently did an eye-opening post about the interplay of racist sports mascots and children’s books.

Photographer Matika Wilbur’s Project 562 aims to photograph people from every one of the 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States. It’s amazing and beautiful and vital — go look!

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Yazzie, Evangeline Parsons. Her Land, Her Love. Flagstaff, Arizona: Salina Bookshelf. 2014. Ebook.

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16 thoughts on “I is for American Indians, Native Americans, First Nations, Indigenous Peoples, Etc.

  1. As close as I can get you to a contemp featuring a Native American character by a Native American author is Naked Edge (half Navajo heroine raised on the Rez) by bi-racial and part NA author Pamela Clare.

  2. Thanks, Isobel! I found some other of Pamela Clare’s books but they were paranormals — will definitely check out this contemporary!

  3. This is so powerful reading in so many ways – as a writer, a reader, and a member of the dominant culture (albeit in a different country from America, a place where the Native culture is embraced on a national level and efforts have been made to right past wrongs.)

  4. I’d be interested in your take on m/m romance author Sarah Black, a nurse practitioner who’s worked on reservation for the Indian Health Service. She’s not NA herself but has written a number of novels with NA protagonists, some of which feel authentic and respectful (Murder at Black Dog Springs, in which all of the protagonists are NA, and Marathon Cowboys, in which the relationship is interracial and the narrator is NA) and some of which don’t (Tootsies and The Legend of the Apache Kid, both of which feature an interracial (NA/white) romance written from the white guy’s POV).

  5. Short version: I tend to be personally wary both of m/m romance and NA romance written by white authors for much the same reason: the risk of fetishization seems high and worth keeping a stern critical eye on. I think especially if an author exclusively or mostly writes marginalized identities that they don’t share in real life, this sets off the orange warning lights in my head, much more so than someone who writes a book with a POC protagonist, then an m/m romance, then a lesbian romance space opera, etc. But there’s plenty of room for debate on this issue — particularly since I’m neither gay nor NA myself, so my opinions on this subject are necessarily secondary to other people’s lived experience.

  6. Clarification: “an author exclusively or mostly writes marginalized identities that they don’t share in real life” = a white author who writes a whole bunch of NA romances, or a woman who makes a career writing m/m.

  7. I knew what you meant. I have much less of a problem with m/m than with cultural stuff. I think women are as marginalized as gay men (particularly white gay men), although in different ways. I know that gay male authors and gay men largely sneer at romance, and what they write has different emotional content and resonance than what women write (and often a different sensibility and writing style). Also, I don’t see writers who identify as gay men wrestling with sexuality in the same direction as female writers (as in they limit themselves to gay/straight binaries and claim a solidarity with lesbians that I don’t see in real life).

    That aside, I do think Murder at Black Rock Springs and Marathon Cowboys are worth taking a look at. FWIW, Black writes fairly fade-to-black/non-erotic m/m and is, from a craft standpoint, a terrific author, so in general I find her worst writing problematic and wrong-headed, not offensive. YMMV, but without ever reading m/m, how are you going to test whether your opinion bears fruit over the good as well as the bad of the genre?

    At the risk of seeming like I’m presenting my minority cred, I’m a invisibly disabled WoC (Asian, not African-American) who presents as cisgender and straight but thinks the whole concept of gender and gender roles needs to be rethought, which is why I’d rather read m/m than m/f. Most m/f romance makes me want to hurl my ereader against the wall.

  8. I should add that Black does not only write NA. She’s written NA, cowboys, and characters in the military (she herself was in the military), pretty much all of whom originate in the West/Southwest/Northwest, which is where she’s from and has worked. She’s also taken the unusual step of writing a m/m romance with onpage m/f romance/sex (Border Roads), though it was less explicit than is the norm in m/f romance. So was the m/m part.

  9. I certainly hear you about the unsettling currents in a lot of m/f romance — the road of romance is littered with the caltrops of gender essentialism. And I’ve read a bit of m/m, just not a lot, because I’m super-picky about it and a lot of the author personas put me right off. I’ve been reading more f/f lately, and finding that much more to my taste. Upcoming posts are going to deal with a lot of these things in more detail, and I hope you’ll chime in on those threads as well! There’s a lot of complicated issues at play all at once, and your comments are really valuable.

  10. Now I’m curious: what/who in the way of m/m have you read? And in what way do their author personas put you off?

    f/f doesn’t have the same resonance for me as m/m in part because society allows women to have and express feelings easily. It’s much more plausible to write men as clueless to their real feelings, and a lot of m/m trades on that for conflict. I get pleasure (a twisted pleasure, maybe, but still pleasure) out of reading about men learning how to express themselves rather than stay inarticulate about their feelings because there’s no woman in the relationship mix to interpret their feelings for them.

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