Why do writers pretend to be Indians?
By David Treuer
It's easy to get away with it, is one reason. Indians can, and do, look like anyone. And anyone can look like an Indian. After 500 years of intermarriage, Native American racial identities (as opposed to cultural identities) comprise a wide range. Among my three siblings, one of us looks like Opie Taylor, one like Tonto, and one is a dead ringer for the Karate Kid. (I'm Opie. Opie is my spirit guide.) Then there's my sister, who looks like herself. It's pretty hard to claim you're African-American or Chinese if you don't look black or Asian.
But looks are only part of it. Native Americans make up one half of 1 percent of the U.S. population. Most Americans will go their whole lives without meeting one of us. The result: What non-Indians know about Indians does not come from the kinds of daily interactions that typically shape their understandings of people different from them. We Native Americans are dwarfed by the ideas that abound about us, and this imbalance lends itself to invention. After all, who are you to say someone is or is not a thing they say they are if you've never had any experience of that thing?
Nabokov wrote that there are three kinds of stories that are utterly taboo as far as American publishers are concerned. In addition to the subject of Lolita, "the other two are: a Negro-White marriage which is a complete glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren; and the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106." I would add to that list one more: relatively happy Indians going about living relatively happy lives. Sometimes people ask what I am and I say, "Native American." And they reply: "I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry."
Let's try a thought experiment. Suppose one in 10 Americans has met an Indian. That's 30 million people. Suppose another 20 million watch TV regularly and have seen Comanche Moon or Adam Beach on Law & Order: SVU. If true, that means 50 million have met or seen a real Indian recently.
The other 250 million Americans haven't. What they've seen are outdated representations of Indians: Sports mascots. Old Western movies. Car and motorcycle logos. Parade floats. Product packaging. Etc. No wonder they think all Indians look like the chiefs who lived in teepees.
For more on the subject, see The Harm of Native Stereotyping: Facts and Evidence.