Native-American Characters in Literature

Louise Erdrich 2The first residents of what’s now the United States were Native Americans, but they haven’t often been first in the casts of novels. Still, there are a number of such characters, including more in recent years.

Their depictions, of course, have been all over the map — from stereotypical to fully three-dimensional. We might see the virulent discrimination against, and the poverty faced by, many Native Americans, or see some of them doing quite well. There are set-in-the-past depictions (including the genocide and otherwise horrific treatment at the hands of whites) and present-day portrayals. It helps when the author is partly or 100% Native American, but some authors with no such ancestry have done a reasonably good job with Native-American characters.

One Native-American author is Sherman Alexie, who I read for the first time last week with Reservation Blues. That novel chronicles the ups and downs of a Native-American rock band — with content also including a romance, mystical elements, interactions between Native Americans and whites, the effects of Christianity on the characters, struggles with alcoholism, and more.

Another (partly) Native-American author is Louise Erdrich (pictured above). I read her novel The Painted Drum a few months ago, and it’s an absorbing tale of an important Ojibwe artifact and the impact it has on various characters.

Some novels with partly or 100% Native-American characters by authors who are not Native American? One famous example is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest‘s Chief Bromden, who ends up in the book’s Oregon psychiatric hospital after descending into clinical depression partly caused by his father being humiliated at the hands of whites. He is one of the Ken Kesey novel’s three stars, along with Randle McMurphy and Nurse Ratched.

Then there’s The Charlestown Connection and other crime novels by Tom MacDonald featuring partly Native-American private sleuth Dermot Sparhawk.

The above books are basically set during the time they were written, but there are also a number of books by modern-day authors set in the long-ago past.

For instance, the star of Isabel Allende’s compelling Zorro — which takes place in the late 1700s and early 1800s — is of mixed Native-American and Spanish descent. Among that novel’s most interesting supporting characters are Native Americans: Zorro’s mother Toypurnia, his grandmother White Owl, and his lifelong best friend Bernardo — all well-drawn and non-stereotypical.

Two in the Field — the sequel to Darryl Brock’s riveting time-travel/baseball novel If I Never Get Back — takes 20th-century-protagonist Sam Fowler to the 1870s to search for his lost love Caitlin with the help of a Sioux guide. Sam even meets General Custer, against whom Native Americans won their famous (and rare) victory against the always-encroaching white menace.

They didn’t fare as well in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, in which the vicious Glanton gang massacred many Native Americans and others during an 1849-50 rampage in the Southwest.

Literature fitting this topic written during the 1800s? Many Native Americans appear in James Fenimore Cooper’s five “Leatherstocking” novels — the most famous of which is The Last of the Mohicans. None of them are as prominently featured as white guy Natty Bumppo, but Natty’s friend Chingachgook is an important secondary character and several other Native Americans have noticeable supporting roles. While Cooper gets somewhat stereotypical at times, he was fairly enlightened for a white author of his era in decently depicting Native Americans.

“Injun Joe” of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is more problematic. That half-Native American is portrayed as quite villainous, although Twain does offer some sense that one motive for the character’s actions is a desire to avenge the discrimination and ostracism he faced throughout his life.

Of course, some novels set in other countries also have indigenous characters — including the Eskimos of northern Canada in James Houston’s White Dawn and Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here, Aboriginal Australians in novels such as Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, and so on.

I realized I’ve only touched the surface here. Your favorite novels that include Native-American or other indigenous characters?

Many of you know “Kat Lit,” a great/frequent/long-time poster here who hasn’t commented for a while. She tells me she has been dealing with a move and some health issues, says hello to everyone, misses everyone, and plans to return here when she can.

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — which compares the way my town coddles powerful developers with a neighboring town’s more community-minded approach — is here.

65 thoughts on “Native-American Characters in Literature

  1. Right I must read Zorro. It sounds fascinating and I have not read that one of hers. I thought instantly seeing the title that Cuckoo’s Nest has to be here. And it is. I loved that book. And the Chief is such a great creation.

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  3. EL Doctorow’s “Welcome to hard Times” has a Native American minor character whose name I no longer know (and could not find on the interwebs), but whose general demeanor and disposition, stoic and implacable, applies itself, when the hour is at last at hand,to wreak revenge for an insult he never forgave. He is a man apart from his fellows in Hard Times, the mining town that came and went, whose values in that moment, are but another variety of violence set loose among its roiling, violent citizens, but derive from something ancient, out of the land itself more or less, something irreducible despite the attractions and trappings of a ramshackle, makeshift and disposable society, such as grows up around the false promise of wealth around the corner before coming to a dead end.

    A Native American who reverts to savagery is a stock character out of the projections of white myth-makers, and so, Doctorow’s character is hardly fresh upon the dreamscape of the American West, but in fairness, people from all over America, and foreigners too, behave badly in Hard Times when the lights go out and the chips are down– the worst of whom, The Man from Bodie, seems the embodiment of evil itself.

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      • Thank you, jhNY! I agree — many people here are very much looking forward to Kat Lit commenting again. 🙂

        As for the character in that Doctorow book (which I haven’t read), it does seem like that person is stereotypical in a certain way, though of course a person wanting legitimate revenge could be of any ethnicity. Plus, as you say, it sounds like several characters in that novel were not exactly angels. Also, Doctorow was always a liberal type, so I hope he took care in his depiction of that Native-American minor character.


        • I haven’t read any Doctorow other than this, his first. It’s a tour de force for which he received unstinting praise from that most competitive of novelists, Norman Mailer(!).

          The book is about something bigger than violence, which is expectation borne out of speculation– it’s what hangs the mining town together and causes it to flourish in particular ways, and it might be fair to extrapolate that it’s also about capitalist society in one of its most naked manifestations.

          Worth seeking out.

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          • Wow — didn’t know his first novel was so good! I just put it on my list. Mailer was indeed an author one wouldn’t expect praise from. Great mini-analysis by you.

            I’ve read Doctorow’s “Ragtime” (excellent), “The Book of Daniel” about the Rosenbergs (pretty good), and the memoir-novel hybrid “World’s Fair” (okay).


            • It’s an exercise I can’t perform on myself, having read both books, (the latter twice) but I’d bet it would be a most fruitful juxtaposition to read “Welcome to Hard Times” and then read Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest”. Both novels are set in a mining town; both mean to say something larger than their settings and the violent doings therein.

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    • Thank you, William! I looked for “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” in my local library earlier this month after our mutual friend Chuck Keller recommended it, but didn’t see it and took out the same author’s “Reservation Blues” instead. Sounds like the students you tutored liked “Diary” a lot!

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  4. Hi Dave,

    I don’t know if you’ll recall that I mentioned Kate Grenville’s The Secret River a couple of weeks back, and suggested that it might have been written to put insomniacs to sleep? Well, I finished the book over the weekend and have kind of changed my mind. It opened in the early 1800s with a young Englishman getting married, having a kid or two, stealing something minor, and then being transported to Australia.

    In Australia, the convict does his time, and becomes a settler. He marks out a few acres and says these are now mine. Of course, the people who already lived there disagreed. It’s kind of an interesting book as it doesn’t seem to preach one side or the other. Technically, both are right. The indigenous people have been here for thousands of years, living harmoniously with the land. But according to white man’s law, the land belonged to the ex-convict. There’s very little communication in the book, as neither group spoke the language of the other, and neither seemed overly interested in trying. It’s probably not a huge surprise to say that it gets violent in places, but I found it quite thought provoking, even if it wasn’t exceptionally written.

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    • Thank you, Susan! “The Secret River,” while flawed, does sound interesting — and I’m glad you ended up liking it more as it went on. “White man’s law” was/is of course outright theft of land (among other things) — as has happened time and time again in various countries where indigenous people were there first.


  5. Good morling from Tokyo Thank You Very much for nice annsnsmet I wos Very 🍀 the time wer i live in US las Vegas Nevada i hove chance to see native -American one time per yers thy hove special Events mosly evry diferen state native American come to Nevada for this Event I come from Europe for me wos Very special to see this pepole in Las Vegas Nevada in Convenin Center, we thy make wanderful show dancing seling the butylul autfte lether very colorful and food, Thank You Very much for nice ANANSMENT in Nevada state thy hove reservation is Very tru some of them thy make very good living or the artist special in silver jewelry or gold, the shop in down Town in Las Vegas, I hove nice memory to remember my time in Las Vegas hove chance to see Native -AMERICAN WER only BEFOR I see some movies in may CUNTRY about them, Whit my respect thank You Very much for mantion is Very important for Evryone HOW go to USA give respect to this pepole to ther land,,

    pon., 14.10.2019, 04:00 użytkownik Dave Astor on Literature napisał:

    > Dave Astor posted: “The first residents of what’s now the United States > were Native Americans, but they haven’t often been first in the casts of > novels. Still, there are a number of such characters, including more in > recent years. Their depictions, of course, have been all ” >

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good morning, malgorzatamiroslawa, and thank you for the comment! It sounds like you had a very memorable time in Las Vegas.

      I agree that Native Americans (and indigenous people of any country) deserve the utmost respect. In many cases they have a healthier regard for nature and environmental matters — to name just one thing anyone could learn from. It’s appalling the way indigenous people have been treated throughout history.


  6. I recently read “Last of the Mohicans” for the first time. The movie has always been a favorite of mine so I finally checked out the book. I really enjoyed it, and I was surprised how different it was from the film. Along these lines, have you read “There, There” by Tommy Orange? I think you might really enjoy that. It’s a tough read at times, especially the brutally honest essay at the very beginning. However, it is well worth it.

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    • Thank you, Michelle! A coincidence that we have similar reading habits. 🙂

      I appreciate the mention of Linda Hogan, who I haven’t read but now see that I should. As I was writing this week’s post, I realized that I hadn’t read enough authors of full or partial Native-American descent, and Ms. Hogan’s work sounds great from your comment and from just reading the Wikipedia entry about her.

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  7. I highly recommend Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee novels. They’re detective novels featuring police officers from the Navajo Tribal Police. He brought a lot of Navajo issues to mainstream American consciousness.

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    • Thank you, Elena! I will try his work! Nice combination to write compelling novels which also have an indirect educational component (learning about Navajo issues). Any of his novels in that series you would particularly recommend, or is it best to just start with the first (“The Blessing Way”)?

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