The Indian on the reservation in American novels
Foley, Gertrude Catherine
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The aim of this thesis has been to find the answers to the following questions: (1) Which American novelists have been interested in the Indian reservation as a background for their novels? (2) Why did they choose the reservation setting? (3) What have they told concerning the educational, religious, economic and political phases of reservation life? (4) How do their novels rank from a literary standpoint? (5) What influence have they had on the Indian Problem? The preliminary task of unearthing novels of the "reservation" variety was made difficult because of the fact that no catalogue of reservation fiction exists. When the library of the Office of Indian Affairs acknowledged they could offer but little help, the problem became a challenging one. Information gleaned from source books, from library indexes, and from inquiries sent to publishers and leading organizations devoted to the Indian Cause resulted in the compiling of a list of sixteen novels in which the American Indian Reservation is given prominence.^1 In some, like A Wild Indian and The Surrounded, the entire action takes place on the reservation; in others, Cimarron and Shadows of Shasta,- for example, glimpses of reservation life appear intermittently, but in sufficient measure to warrant their inclusion in such a list. The list of authors using the reservation setting is small but varied, a common interest in the Indian being its only unifying feature. Included are a former circuit rider, the daughter of John Greenleaf Whittier's physician, a Supervisor of Indian Schools, an anthropologist and an Omaha lawyer. The majority are unknowns, but a few have become famous along other lines. Joaquin Miller, poet of the Sierras, Hamlin Garland, spokesman of the Middle Border, and Edna Ferber, author of Show Boat are names familiar to all. Those best qualified for writing on the subject of the reservation Indian are John Mathews, D'Arcy McNickle and Oliver La Farge. Mathews and McNickle, reservation Indians themselves, are well fitted to know the inner aspects of problems confronting modem reservation Indians who are trying to "live white". La Farge, through long residence with the Navajos, has come closer to an understanding of the complex Indian psychology and has set down his findings more tellingly than any other white novelist on the list. With the exception of Edna Ferber, all the authors had an ulterior motive in writing novels with the Indian reservation as a background, a motive beyond the attempt to entertain the reader, using the novel-form as a sugar-coating under which they could drive home their message. Their purpose has been to present a picture of the reservation Indian, or what is left of him, during and after the working out of white man's "de-Indianizing" programs, and to give information concerning conditions existing on reservations at the time of writing. Blame for the Indian's tragic lot is placed, to a greater or lesser degree, upon the United States Army, the Department of the Interior, Washington politicians, Agency Superintendents and our stupid system of Indian education. The more recent writers have recognized in the reservation setting an opportunity to explore a new and almost untouched field. The attempts of the modern reservation Indian to adapt himself to his new-found freedom, and the bewildering and often grotesque results of increased intermingling with whites offer unlimited material for a completely new and fresh line of writing. Novels depicting conditions at the beginning of the reservation era have presented a clearer picture of the enonomic phase of reservation life than have those who describe the more recent period. The Annuity System, with its rations and money payments, its spectacular Beef Issue reminiscent of the old way of life, have been described with clarity and vividness. The story of profiteering on the part of contractors, politicans and government employees, under the Annuity System and at the expense of the Indian, is well told, also. Beginning in the eighties and coming down to the present, the subject of land ownership has been a vital one to those interested in Indian reform. The novelists have recognized the fact that Indian economy is centered in the land, but they have all taken too much for granted in expecting their readers to understand the story of land-allotment, with its break-up of reservations through heirship laws, leasing and land sales, and the policy inherent in the Reorganization Act of 1934. Only passing and indirect allusions are made to all of these whereas a few explanatory paragraphs are needed to illuminate their meaning. The result has been one of confusion rather than enlightenment. With the exception of Frances Sparhawk whose treatment is an idealistic one, the novelists agree that Indian parents and children alike wanted no part of white man's schooling. As they explain further, there was little incentive for liking them. Miserable housing, hunger, over-work and strict discipline made prisons out of schools. The fact that education did not fit the child for return to reservation life is made clear by an expression common among reservation superintendents, "A returned student is as useful on the Reservation as an overcoat in hell."^2 The reservation Indian has been portrayed as a strange mixture of pagan and Christian ways. None of the characters embracing Christianity have been wholly converted. In each case there has been "backsliding" and reversion to the old religion. Authors have allowed this to happen, purposely, because they wish to point out that white society had no business thrusting its customs and beliefs upon the red race. They are against the de-Indianizing process and are anxious to point out that there is much in Indian belief and culture that is beautiful and poetic. The disillusionment accompanying the realization that guarantees of self-government specified in the removal treaties were worthless has been carefully described in the early novels; the bewilderment and confusion caused by the numerous changes in Governmental policy mark the later accounts. Many instances are cited to show how completely the Indian was under the power an autocratic Indian System. Illustrations of the workings of the Code of Indian Offenses prove to the reader that the reservation Indian was denied religious and cultural liberty ana had no voice whatsoever in the government of his tribe. If brought to trial he could expect little justice from an Indian court, provided one existed on his reservation, because the judges of that court were responsible to the agency superintendent who had the power to direct, moaify or ignore the decision of the Indian judges. In the novel, Hidden Power, the political phase of reservation life has been satirized most effectively. When a novelist has an ulterior motive in writing, a motive beyond the attempt to amuse or entertain, he has to be a pretty clever writer to keep the story-value of his novel paramount. The author of Ramona has succeeded in placing her attack subservient to her narrative, but the others of the early group have not been as successful. They have produced polemics. In their desire to expose the injustices responsible for the red man's sorry plight they have allowed their aim to run away with them, with the result that there is too much purpose and not enough novel. Later authors have been more subtle in their attack, but even in their novels characters are often buried under a pile of facts and seldom attain to a convincing reality. Like Harriet Beecher Stowed Uncle Tom's Cabin, Ramona and the other reservation novels offer little that is constructive by way of remedying the abuses which they expose, but their value lies in the fact that they have awakened in an indifferent public a desire to do something to improve reservation conditions. Their individual protests have been followed up by reform organizations which, in turn, have been the means of having improved legislation enacted. In working on public sentiment reservation novelists have taken the initial step, have climbed the first rung of the ladder in the long, hard climb toward a better day for "Uncle Sam's stepchildren."' 1 The list appears on page ix of the Introduction to the thesis. 2 George Miller, A Wild Indian p. 257.
This item was digitized by the Internet Archive. Thesis (M.A.)--Boston University