America sure loves itself some dead Indians. This is clear from its inception with folks like General Philip Sheridan (though he denied it later) coining the term “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” through today, with Native Americans dying at the hands of police more than any other ethnicity. You heard me right, more than any other ethnicity, though this fact almost never garners any mainstream attention. Probably because almost nothing we do garners mainstream attention, unless we’re attempting to stop pipelines that might pollute our water, and maybe vaguely inconvenience Americans.
And, despite the fact that Native people experienced genocide and lost control of their entire continent, Americans still love to romanticize our deaths through novels/movies like Last of the Mohicans, a novel so miserably written that Twain couldn’t help but write something hilarious about its numerous literary offenses. This, of course, didn’t stop Hollywood from producing a movie based on the novel, complete with romantic dying Indian at the close. But see, he dies – and so many Indians die – in novels and in film, because this completes the whole idea of Manifest Destiny. If you’re not really familiar with this term, let me give you the quickie-Siri version: the 19th Century doctrine or belief that the expansion of the U.S. throughout the American continents was both justified and inevitable. There was just onnnne little problem with this: Indians. We were really in the way. So though a lot of us would’ve been killed by European diseases, European-Americans made sure to make Manifest Destiny come true by conducting brutal wars against us, and by spreading those diseases on purpose, an ugly little fact that Americans like to bury and bury and bury again.
And see, this whole thing really gets to a lot of Native people – and especially native writers and scholars, who are tremendously sick of seeing this played out paradigm on television, film and in novels to this day. It really, in its insidiously romantic way, justifies that whole genocide thing. And we’re looking for folks to not do that. So what a lot of native writers try to do is counter the narrative of Manifest Destiny by writing novels and poems and short stories where Indians get to do the thing that most human beings want to do: live. I’m hugely in support of this, and in support of the beautiful narratives that a number of native writers write about everyday native life. Poets like Joy Harjo, nonfiction writers like Debrah Miranda, novelists like Linda Hogan. They don’t shy away from the hard stuff, but their focus is often on the beauty. God, we need that. But we also need work that speaks to our deaths. Because, as I mentioned earlier, this is happening. There are so many things in Indian Country and outside that are trying to kill us off culturally, yes, but also physically, and we have to find a way to talk about this in our art. We have to find a way to not worry about that infamous white gaze, and just do what we need to do on the page.
That’s where I’m coming from as a writer. I hate seeing my characters die at the end – and they rarely do, because that’s not only ugly in the way I’ve described above, but, it’s ultimately a kind of cowardly, cliché way to end a story. However, sometimes it’s the only way to end that story, and it’s something that someone who wrote a novel about native gangs and homelessness – two subjects that are all but ignored in native letters – had to face. My character dies at the end because people who join gangs, who are homeless – and, frankly alcoholic – another stereotype that’s often total hype – but just as often something that plagues native communities, don’t often live to see their forties . All this to say that addressing realities within your community is hard when your communities – yours, and those like yours – have suffered so much. But we have to allow ourselves that artistic freedom. We have to do what James Welch did, we have to do what Stephen Graham Jones does, and we also have to follow our own imaginative and poetic vision of the world in our art. We need to allow ourselves that, if nothing else. Otherwise, what it the art for, when often there are so few rewards?
Erika T. Wurth’s published works include a novel, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend and two collections of poetry, Indian Trains and A Thousand Horses Out to Sea. Her collection of short stories, Buckskin Cocaine is forthcoming. She teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University and has been a guest writer at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals, such as Boulevard, Drunken Boat, South Dakota Review, and The Writer’s Chronicle. She is represented by Peter Steinberg. She is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee and was raised outside of Denver.