A second wave of medicine men

Cultural Notes: David Treuer

WHILE MANY Native Indian customs seem strange, or even barbaric, "trickster" stories, as they became known, are a favourite among the interested.

Tribally speaking, there are all sorts of tricksters. There are ravens, crows, foxes, owls, seals, more mythical half-spirit/half-humans, and of course, dogs. Sometimes instructive, other times bawdy, these stories, ripped from their tribal context, were served up as the Indian equivalent of literature. Since we had no written traditions, our oral traditions would have to do. Gone was the sense that we posed any real problem or threat, difference became nothing more pre-Derridian difference and these stories were flung in, like Sir Walter Ralegh's coat, over the muddy questions of language, custom, and idiom. Besides, these stories are funny. They're gut-splitters, involving deception, lying, scatological humour, heroic battles, and sex.

However they were evoked, trickster stories became the native signature, the means of evoking Indian-ness immediately. To be sure, these stories remain a viable and integral part of our lives. However, what we, as Indians, do in our own tribal bedrooms is of no concern here. How these stories, tricksters and all, inflect our lives is no one's business but our own.

These are the facts. Native Americans comprise only 1 per cent of the population of the United States. Yet we occupy vast areas of imaginative space. Unlike other minorities in the United States, African-American, East Indian, Mexican-American, we are the most visible invisible minority. Everyone, it seems, knows about Indians, but no one seems to know any. America, as a country, has Indians all wrapped up in its own myths. Since colonists dressed up as Mohawks to steep English tea in Boston Harbour, to Custer's Last Stand, Indians are a part of the national fabric. But in such limited ways.

The reading public demands us, wants us, even begs us, to be different. They want difference. It is a calculated ignorance. One that breeds magnificent stupidity such that when I arrived at Princeton my classmates refused to believe that I was a "real Indian" simply because I was there. Real Indians, evidently, don't go to university.

How nice it is to think so. Above and beyond all of the banalities of normal life, we Indians are in the interior, quietly going about our mythic business, gathered around the campfire to hear our elders speak words of wisdom. I think that most Americans derive a certain satisfaction that we are out there, quiet, demure, waiting to be asked, ready to tell them how it is.

As a citizen, I find this is annoying. As an artist, I find it untenable. It is dismaying that no one ever notices my gentle jabs at the writers who had gone before me; my readers (or at least, the ones I meet) zero in on the possible inclusion of "cultural material" in my writing. Rather than notice the literary terrain in which I work, most readers prefer to read my novel, and indeed, most Native American novels, as poetic ethnographies.

When trickster tales are the only thing that informs our work, lost is the sense that we are American writers with the world at our disposal. Readers want the natural, the person who can, by virtue of being Indian, access higher levels of truth. Someone who can tell the global community what it is doing wrong and show the concerned a way of living much older, much wiser than theirs. For the reading public, Indians writers have become a second wave of medicine men, funny, irreverent, but knowing.

Maybe the mistake is in how people read. I always think that people read for the same reasons I do. For the wonderful sense of the new, the imagined world. For a love of language. But Native American literature shouldn't be read as either "how-to" manuals, as directives, or as ethnography.

David Treuer is the author of `The Hiawatha' (Granta, pounds 14.99)

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