A world without fathers: patriarchy, colonialism, and the male creator in Northwest Tribal Narratives.
All these old-time Indians are doomed ...
All of them are going to start drinking booze. And their children will drink booze. And their grandchildren and great-grandchildren will drink booze. And one of those great grandchildren will grow up to be my real father ... The one who abandoned my mother and me ...
That's what's going to happen to me ...
It makes me angry. I want to spit and kick and punch and slap. I want to cry and sing, but I cannot use my voice.
--Sherman Alexie, Flight: A Novel, 66-67
One of the more puzzling and disconcerting features of recent American Indian fiction is the veritable disappearance of nurturing father figures within American Indian families. Indeed, over the years, their disappearance has often been stereotypically associated with absence: an apparent willingness of American Indian men to divorce themselves from their inherent responsibilities as fathers. Thus, they eschew the social practices of childrearing across generations and help create a cyclical and disturbing pattern of single-parented, female-headed households.
In such modern American Indian fiction as Janet Campbell Hale's The Owl's Song (1974), W. S. Penn's Killing Time with Strangers (2000), and, more recently, Sherman Alexie's Flight (2007), the main characters have notably diminished, if not nonexistent, relationships with their often missing fathers. The protagonist of Flight, who has never met his father, is forced to shuffle from foster home to foster home. He repeatedly laments his lack of a meaningful heritage and past resulting from his biological fathers neglect. In The Owl's Song and Killing Time with Strangers, the protagonists, Billy and Pal, respectively, have limited relationships with their fathers that are characterized by alcoholism, physical abuse, and emotional abandonment. The fathers have expressed their inability to become positive role models for their sons. Thus, the critical question the reader almost invariably asks at the end of each of these novels is: Why do fathers from tribes that have been mostly viewed as patriarchal, in which men, for the most part, are widely regarded as indispensable for the well-being of their families and as guardians of the sociocultural and religious ritual practices of their tribes, have dysfunctional relationships with their children, especially their sons?
Perhaps the two most prevalent theoretical answers to this question are sociohistorical: the absence of American Indian fathers came about as a consequence of predatory colonialism, in which American Indian tribes and families were forcefully uprooted and relocated onto reservations that were alien to them and their millennia-old sociocultures or were merely fractions of the land they used to occupy. Hence, their metaphysical lives, their religious ritual practices, which are profoundly attached to specific geographical places, were irreparably disturbed and damaged. Conversely, the less common theory is that the American Indian writers are composing pieces that emphasize the importance of successful cultural inheritance through the presence of the male creator in the text as well as the example of incomplete cultural inheritance provided by the failed father figure.
However, it is first best to understand the sociohistorical aspect. Individuals within the specific tribes were deeply affected by the sociohistorical upheaval, particularly the devaluation of the extended family, the extermination of wild game, and the resultant diminution of men as valuable warriors and hunters. Indeed, the rampant alcoholism and self-destructive nihilism that characterize much modern American Indian fiction is the most apparent result of predatory colonialism. (1) The sociopsychological results of predatory colonialism have generally become the major focus for historians, anthropologists, and literary critics. They often examine how the invasive actions of colonialists affected American Indians, focusing on outstanding examples from discrete regions of North America where specific tribes once dwelled and from which they were harmfully removed. (2)
One of the more famous books that studies the sociohistorical impact of colonization upon American Indians is Ramon Gutierrezs When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away (1991). As his title indicates, Gutierrez studies indigenous tribes from the Southwest, notably the Pueblos, Acomas, and Hopis, while analyzing the detrimental effects of colonization and forced cultural assimilation had upon them. Gutierrezs work examines tribal life before colonialism during an ideal ahistorical time (ca. 1400-1540) and afterward during the historic time (1540-1846). He argues that colonization forced the traditional matriarchal religious figures to be replaced by patriarchal Judeo-Christian traditions. (3)
The demise of the matriarchal tribal system started with the sudden appearance of the Spanish colonists: the millennia-old belief systems of the tribes were compromised, and most of their ritual practices were outlawed. The Acomas, for example, witnessed the transformation of their corn mother, who in 1692 was variously reconfigured and reintroduced to them as Nuestra Senora del Rosario, La Conquistadora, Mary, Our Lady of the Rosary, and, even more ironically, Virgin of the Conquest. (4) Matriarchy, which was commonplace for the Southwest tribes, was alien and frightening to the Spanish colonizers. Therefore, the social status and empowerment tribal women routinely exercised surprised them, and they became openly hostile to the various roles women played within their families and tribal communities. For instance, Captain Joseph Brondate, native of Aragon, noted in 1692, "When the woman takes a notion, she looks for another husband." (5) Of course, the idea of married women having the ability to divorce and remarry, or even have the option of looking for another husband, was threateningly foreign to many Europeans, whose patriarchal religious and secular laws were designed to subordinate women. As a result, the Corn Mothers were targeted and relegated to diminished, often passive, roles, as illustrated by the transformation of the Corn Mothers. The celebrated mythological heroes of the Southwest tribal cultures became predominantly masculine and Christian, as seen in the story "The Return of the Katsina." The Katsina are equivalent to the Acomas' spirits of the universe, to whom they were giving thanks when the Spaniards arrived. The Katsina shone like the sun, bringing rain of fire and rocks. The lead Katsina, upon his return, said, "I came from the sun.... I am its son." (6) Here, the iconic imagery is unmistakably Christian, since it portends Jesus's prophetic first coming and justifies indirectly the impending Spanish conquest.
In contrast with the Southwest tribes, the precolonial tribes of the Northwest were predominantly patriarchal and, therefore, placed a great deal of importance on the empowered creative roles of men. Of course there are tribes in the region that do not fit into this category, such as the Haidas, who were matrilineal. Like their counterparts in the Southwest, though, the Northwest tribes believed the world was created by a supreme male deity whose names, Manitous and Amotkan, varied by tribe. The Great Creators usually gave life to male entities, which, in turn, created human beings. (7) Within this distinctly patriarchal system, women were not bereft of their human and civil rights. They were significantly respected and included in all aspects of tribal life; the privileged males' roles, as warriors and hunters, were open to women as well. Nonetheless, hunters and warriors were accorded more prestige than domestic workers. Among the Spokane, women were compelled to do "a great deal of the heavy work," while men "made the tools and weapons, made ceremonial clothing, hunted, cared for the horse, and made war when necessary." (8) Finally, when it came to social mobility, men had much more access to power and wealth, since social mobility was tied to success in hunting and warfare.
Men were conventionally the heads of the tribes and made most, if not all, major decisions. Males had an enormous influence on their extended families. For instance, if a marriage was unsuccessful, "it was usually the man who left, often for the lodge of another woman, leaving their children with their maternal relatives." (9) Moreover, outside their families, men were also accorded a great deal of power in matters of governance. The chiefs of the Quileutes practiced polygamy, which was a privilege accorded to those who had distinguished themselves as hunters, warriors, and providers for their families: "This [polygamy] they look upon as the source of wealth and power, and, consequently, as the origin of their more perfect freedom and independence." (10) Of course it must be recognized that the Quileutes are considered a coastal tribe and did not reside in the same region as the Spokane. Furthermore, the roles men and women played were much more fluid than what European Americans would consider and understand.
As within the Southwest tribes, predatory colonialism in the Northwest forced the upheaval of tribes and had an immediate catastrophic impact upon their social practices and religious beliefs. They were uprooted from their ancestral lands, and their belief systems, inextricably associated with the land, were displaced. Moreover, although the Northwest tribes shared many of the same patriarchal social practices as their French colonizers, their leaders were still relegated to distinctly lower, inferior positions within their colonial reservations. The tribes ultimately believed that their colonizers had "come here to destroy them." Nmosize, the chief of the Cheilan Indians, reportedly said, "You came among us and have persuaded some of my people. They keep only one wife and have few children. Our hunters and fishermen are disappearing, and in case of war we have no soldiers. This is the evil of your speech." (11) Finally, the inherent wealth of the tribe--their territories--was confiscated, and their existential sense of well-being, of being at home in a world expressly created for them, was eventually lost.
With the loss of their metaphysical claim to the land, tribal communities and extended families were likewise compromised. Without meaningful social rankings, individuals (senior males in particular) considered themselves diminished and devalued in their families and as the focal points of their tribal identities. The men were confined to reservations and could no longer freely hunt in order to provide for their families. They were literal captives of a new group of alien predatory males who acted with more force, who were better armed, and who showed their tribal counterparts little interest or respect as human beings. The resulting sense of emasculation is best shown in the above speech of a Cheilan chief who, helplessly, observes that the colonizers successfully had destroyed their way of life, taking away their centuriesold sociocultural beliefs and replacing them with different values and institutions that were antithetical to their well-being. The rebellious but conquered tribes were herded onto small reservations, usually in undesirable locations, along the coast, where they were denied access to their most sacred places and hunting grounds.
The basis for what was considered sacred came from tribal traditions passed down through the ages. It is part of the significance of cultural inheritance. While Anglo-Saxons have put an emphasis on physical inheritance, American Indian cultures have put far more importance on cultural inheritance. According to Surendra Munshi,
Culture now means the way of life of a people, a whole society or a particular group within it. It includes not only beliefs, values and rules of conduct but also the material resources of a society or a group. The emphasis now is on differentiating human beings from animals, for much of our behaviour is supposed to be socially learned. Culture is socially acquired and is passed from one generation to the next. It is thus our social rather than biological inheritance. (12)
While this inheritance has suffered from the sociohistorical consequences of colonialism, it is resilient. It is hard to pinpoint exactly what is cultural inheritance. Nonetheless, it is one of the most important legacies that exist. Due to its intangibility, cultural inheritance has not been thoroughly studied until this century. The difficulty behind cultural inheritance is that
the term "intangible cultural heritage" is somewhat problematic, because it denotes two things. First, it identifies heritage that is in fact intangible--for example, choreography, the baton techniques of legendary conductors, or the mentoring methods employed by a great master of blues or jazz. These cultural artifacts are not only intangible but in a sense ephemeral. They are examples of culture not yet fixed in any medium. In a very real sense, the unfilmed dance, the uncollected folk song, the undocumented master, like the unheard falling trees, do not exist. (13)
According to Bill Ivey, cultural heritage is often intangible, and that makes it difficult for most of society to understand. Physical inheritance has played a key role in most cultures' social understanding. The American Indians, however, focused more on the intangible cultural heritage, hence their emphasis on honor, title, and lack of physical possessions. Tribes could not own land; they merely occupied it as a cultural right from their creators.
One of the more important cultural traditions that passed down through the generations was tribal narratives. Tribal narratives have a distinct role in the tribal life, for they were the basis of human history, ritual ceremony, and sheer entertainment, establishing which cultural inheritance was important to remember. In times of turmoil and constant change, the tribal narratives afforded a sense of continuity and order. For example, if societal conditions were less than desirable, it was easy blame the disorder on a mythological character, arguing that the tribes misfortunes were a direct result of his inhuman disastrous actions. On the other hand, the narratives provided explanations for certain religious and traditional aspects of tribal life. Coyote stories were expressly told during the winter solstice for various reasons. Their spiritual importance is readily apparent due to their timely messages about perseverance, but they also were valued as pure entertainment. Many of the Coyote narratives make comedic scatological references to bowel movements and fornication. However, they were enjoyable to hear, since they were based on real-life experience, what was witnessed and endured in uncensored nature.
Nature, being the primary source of inspiration for the narratives, led to the creation of anthropomorphic characters, such as Coyote, who was as complicated and multifaceted as the narratives themselves. The characters were not human but rather polyandrie animals with human and animal characteristics: "Coyote and the other mythical actors are prehuman combination of animal, human and superhuman qualities." (14) For instance, they were capable of both rational and irrational thoughts and distinctly human emotions, such as love, greed, anger, and self-directed humor. Each animal's innate characteristics were based upon natural instinctive behavior. Predatory animals, such as wolves and bears, were also rendered as predators in their mythical forms. However, in order to better fit the sociopsychological needs of their human creators, they were also endowed with cognitive skills. Therefore, the characters were perceived as animals but never entirely accepted as merely animals, given their powers of cognitive problem solving. The characters were accepted for what they were: complex anthropomorphic forms of life that were as realistic and natural as they were unrealistic and supernatural. These multifaceted anthropomorphic characters were used to represent the cultural belief that there is no separation between man and animal, that all cultural inheritance is the same.
The most important figures in the traditional narratives of the Northwest tribes were the male creators. Almost invariably, they were not the sole creators of the universe but rather were created by another supreme creator or deity who assigned the male creators the unique and burdensome task of making human beings. Sometimes, the task was completed by accident or as an unplanned afterthought. Moreover, since the male creators usually created human beings in their own vain images, they were naturally multidimensional and complex creations. Having human and nonhuman features, these creators and their creations seemed to always be in conflict with and within themselves. Essentially, their fundamental personality traits were a unique blend of virtue and vice, good and evil. The humanistic animal creators of the Northwest tribes were thus renowned for their altruistic selfishness: their actions were both heroic and villainous, producing good and bad results; their commendable gluttony, whether it was their insatiable appetites for food, power, or sex, often led to personal success and social mobility; and, finally, their humble vanity made them infallible as well as fallible, causing them to be praised as well as scorned by others. The purpose behind these at times contradictory creators is that they taught their listeners the importance of balance. The most important lesson that an elder could teach the tribe's youth was that to survive, an American Indian must be balanced.
A common modern reference to this is called walking the Red Road. This Red Road is a metaphor for American Indians to remind themselves that they are inherently like Coyote and the other creators, both good and bad, so it is their cultural responsibility to be aware of their flaws so as to become a balanced and culturally aware American Indian.
The male creators in the Coeur d'Alene, Spokane, and Nez Perce tribal narratives all go by the same name: Coyote. He is also the most ubiquitous character in modern American Indian literature, though his personality varies greatly from tribe to tribe. In the Southwest, for example, he is a spiritual player, infamously known as the Trickster; whereas in the Northwest, he is widely conceived as profoundly secular. "Coyote acts largely on his immediate urges and impulse.... He is not a god in the Euroamerican sense; he is not a hero in the sense used by Joseph Campbell; he is not a creator in the sense of Jehovah; and he is not merely a picaresque figure." (15) Indeed, he is a shifty, resourceful character. As a hero, he is morally flawed and frequently the bad guy rather than the good guy. Then, too, he is also recognizably a Trickster-Transformer, blamed for causing nothing but trouble, although he is often just as much the victim of someone else's trickery as he is the perpetrator of it. However, perhaps the best way to describe Coyote is as "the Nez Perce 'transformer,' the Myth Age personage who 'travels about' transforming the unfinished world and its inhabitants and setting precedents, 'for better and for worse.'" (16)
This definition is crucial to tying Coyote to the ever-important concept of cultural inheritance. He represents the balance that all American Indians must find. Coyote is both aware and unaware of his negative and positive qualities. Nevertheless, when he is able to conquer or suppress his negative aspects by accepting and moving past them, he becomes a praised and loved creator of American Indian life and culture. When he fails, Coyote destroys and cripples not only the world around him but also those he holds dear.
Coyotes three most egregious character traits are paradoxical: he is altruistically selfish, commendably gluttonous, and humbly vain. His nature is essentially conflicted and, at times, confounding, but his contradictions add to his importance as he goes about the serious business of creating and protecting the world. Coyotes conflicted personal characteristics are best seen in his intimate relationships with his family and animal friends. For instance, the creation of the Northwest tribes came about as a result of Coyotes altruistic actions toward human beings. According to Coeur d'Alene narrative, Coyote fights a monster named Gobbler, challenging him, first, to a proxy battle with their dogs and, later, to a battle with each other. He handily wins both fights, but then Coyote allows himself to be eaten, risking his own life so he could create the tools he needed to free the human beings who were previously eaten by Gobbler and were trapped helplessly inside him. It took compassion and bravery for Coyote to make sure that everyone was freed from Gobbler while completely disregarding his own safety. Once the people were free and Gobbler killed, Coyote cut up the monsters body and used each part to make the tribes of the Northwest.
He threw a leg and said, "You will become the Blackfoot Indians. You will be tall." He threw a rib saying, "You will be the Nez Perce. You will have good heads." The paunch the Gros Ventre, "You will have big bellies." Then he threw the heart. "You'll be the Coeur d'Alene. You'll be mean."... Then he wiped his hands on some grass. He threw the grass away. "You will be the Spokan. You will be poor," he decreed. (17)
Through his ability to think for the greater good, Coyote created the first aspect of culture, the origin story, the basis for all of the American Indian's culture. Knowing where a person comes from allows people to know where they are going. Coyote focused his inherit violence to a successful end, destroying the monster that terrorized the land and creating the new people of the world.
While Coyotes actions demonstrated his crafty intelligence and selfless behavior, they also exhibit his other, less attractive personal characteristics. He not only creates the tribes but also assigns them undesirable physical attributes and negative cultural traits that ultimately stigmatize their tribal identities. '"You are not like me,' he bragged during the fight. 7 am the smart one!'" (18) Despite his heroism, Coyote displays his flawed and vindictive nature.
In another version of the same creation narrative, the Nez Perces' "Coyote and Monster," Coyote starts with human beings going missing because a monster has eaten them. Coyote discovers this and says, "Then I'll stop doing this [making a ladder], because I was doing it for the people." (19) Coyote subsequently finds the monster and battles with him until he single-handedly kills the monster and sets the people free. Coyote successfully recovers the people's bones, brings them back to life, and follows these noble deeds by cutting up the monster's body and using the parts to create the different Northwest tribes. Through his heroic actions Coyote not only brings tribal life into existence but, as a creative agent for change, revives life from death; he uses his resourcefulness to transform the world around him. In sum, human beings owe him an almost incalculable debt of gratitude. (20)
Nonetheless, due to his fickle nature, Coyote later regrets his heroic altruism. His friend Fox questions his actions: "What is the meaning of this, Coyote? You have distributed all of the body to faraway lands but given yourself nothing for this immediate locality." Coyote responds, "Well, and did you tell me that before? Why didn't you tell me that a while ago before it was too late? I was engrossed to the exclusion of thinking. You should have told me that in the first place." (21) Thus, the other side of Coyote's personality appears, and he is utterly dismayed over his previous selfless acts. To make amends, he uses the dried blood on his hands to create another group of human beings who would exclusively belong to him.
The creation and regret that Coyote has in this narrative just add to the idea that the traditional narratives represent the characteristic of culture that should be inherited. By having a creator who is not totally selfless, the story instructs American Indians that it is acceptable to be partly selfish. If one gives too much, then one has nothing left for others.
Finally, Coyote creates the Spokane tribe "because he was lonesome." (22) Unlike his heroic struggles to create the Coeur d'Alene and Nez Perce tribes, Coyote selfishly wanted to have a tribe around who would love him. Of course, he fails horribly several times before getting it right. (23) He first tried making the Spokane out of pitch, and it melted; he tried clay, but the rain washed it away; he tried hot rocks, and they cracked; and he tried weeds, but they caught on fire. (24) His repeated failures are valuable lessons in humility and point to both Coyotes persistence and his fallibility. Unlike the Supreme Creator, Amotkan, Coyotes creative acts are mainly accomplished through trial and error. Ultimately, he mixes together all the elements he had disposed of before--pitch, clay, rocks, and weeds--with berries, smoke, and fire to create Spokane Man and Woman. They are blessed by Amotkan and given life. (25) As a transformer, Coyote continually travels the world, changing what he sees in order to fix what he feels is broken or unfinished. In this case, he creates a tribe, the Spokane, and revels in their likeness to him. (26)
Even though Coyote's actions spring from his selfish desire to be loved, they tell the American Indians that they were wanted, an idea that is often forgotten in modern American Indian life among abandoned and abused children. The Spokane creation story informs the American Indians that they were created for a purpose, to love and be loved, a cultural idea that is significant to the development of a balanced American Indian. The story also includes the cultural idea that mistakes are understandable and that perfection is not necessary or practical.
In spite of his altruistic selfishness, Coyote never stops being an egotistical parent to his spawn. Indeed, although he does not always treat his family with respect, he is unfailingly proud of them. In speaking to Raven and other of his animal friends of his love for his children, he says, "My first-born will be the first to break it [a stone].... I am the child's grandfather." (27) On the other hand, narratives about his tyrannical behavior toward his family, especially his wife, are numerous. He regarded her as his intellectual inferior and expects childlike obedience from her, even though she almost invariably outwits him in their quarrelsome domestic games. Her consistency overcomes his dictatorial behavior: "Contrary to her better judgment, [she] does it [obeys her husband], but she has her own power and quietly, stubbornly, and conservatively outwits her despicable spouse." (28) As for his numerous children, born of his uncontrollable sexual appetite, his parenting skills are limits to his role as a disciplinarian: "Coyote has a negative effect on children who are often caught up in his interactions with adult actors and are frequently abused, neglected or killed in those situations.... Children are often exploited for Coyotes schemes, and if they annoy him, he can be a merciless disciplinarian." (29) Coyotes children often have short lifespans. Although he occasionally can be a loving and caring father figure, he is more renowned for his cruelty toward his children.
One day Coyote developed a boil on his elbow and he thought "What is this? "... [I]t opened and a boy fell out.... [T]hen one day, Coyote went to his daughters and said to them, "Come take care of your brother while I'm busy cutting wood and such."... They tickled him and he laughed. His half-sisters laughed, "Oh, how sweetly he laughs." They tickled him again and again.... Finally he became limp, and dropped dead.... He had become exhausted from laughing.... When Coyote came down from there [from cutting wood and discovered his son dead], he plan. "I wonder how I can avenge his death.... How shall I get even with and punish my daughters?" (30)
Eventually, Coyote kills all of his daughters except one who manages to escape and Fox's daughters, who were asleep in the same house as his offspring. He feels justified because, as the patriarch of his family, they betrayed him by failing to properly take care of his beloved son. (31)
While such narratives are a dark reflection on Coyote, the lesson that American Indians must take from Coyote's at times psychotic behavior is that fathers are not perfect, even if they are to be revered. American Indian children should respect their fathers but remember that they come from Coyote, as all humans do, and they can make terrible mistakes.
In several other narratives, Coyote's proud patriarchy leads to his undoing; indeed, his pride never lets him admit to being wrong about his criticism and punishment. For example, in one story, Raven pokes out his eyes for mocking the bird's deformity; in another, his hemorrhoids stick to the ground while he is trying to defecate after he has killed one of his new brides, Buffalo Bride; and while he undoubtedly succeeds in the Nez Perce narrative, "Coyote and Monster," he almost fails, since his knife, a phallic symbol, breaks four times during his repeated attempts to cut the heart out of the monster. These often comedic episodes are reminders of Coyote's imperfections; he is as susceptible to failure as any of the human beings he created. However, if not for his egotism, he would probably not continue in his tireless efforts to perfect the imperfect world he has helped create.
These negative traits, which are passed from generation to generation, are explained to American Indians through traditional narratives so that they can accept that they are part of them. They are the children of their creator, Coyote, and it is through this cultural inheritance that they must recognize these aspects in themselves and find a balance to live a prosperous life.
One of the most debatable aspects of Coyotes life is the source of his powers, which he predictably attributes to himself. On the other hand, in many of his misadventures, he receives strategic help in the form of animal powers: "Then he consulted his powers. The first one said, 'The monster who is after you has a god, the Grizzly Bear, whose name is tcn'aqsi'na. I'll be your dog and my name will be the same. I'll be very small.' The second power said, 'I'll be a knife at the back of your dog's head.' The third said, 'I'll give you the power to gobble everything up.'" (32) These powers help not only in his epic battles with Monster but also in several other physical struggles. When he defeats Sun in the Coeur d'Alene narrative "Coyote Overpowers Sun (Securing Sun Disk).," his disembodied powers advise him: "He consulted his magic powers. 'Tell me what to do right away.' They said, 'He never passes by that spring without stopping. Always at noon he stops to drink.... [O]pposite those holes dig two for yourself. At dinner time when he comes down he will stop here.... Don't attack him until he comes down.'" (33) Then, too, Coyote's powers are sometimes embodied: "Coyote keeps his powers in his rectum.... [T]hey appear as four scat balls.... Coyote's powers effected the hemorrhoidal humbling.... [T]he theme is that the proper use of the power brings reward; the improper use takes it away. And even the culture hero cannot escape that karmic justice." (34) These embodied powers help Coyote, as an agent of change, to transform the world around him; nonetheless, the same powers point to the need for Coyote to transform himself. The powers, essentially, are his way to moderate and temper his egotism and frequent misuse of his creative powers.
From the cultural inheritance standpoint, these powers represent a conscience that constantly reminds him of the balance and duty he owes to himself and the world. They are the tie to the surrounding world so that Coyote cannot forget that he is not alone. The powers are a note to the American Indians that they are not alone and that there will always be someone there to guide them to the proper balance.
There are few who would argue with the fact that predatory colonialism caused irreparable harm to American Indian tribal communities. A great amount of time has passed since the arrival of Europeans, and many indigenous tribes have become extinct, with many others diminished to irrelevance. However, somewhat miraculously, Coyote has not disappeared, and if measured by his prevalence in contemporary American Indian fiction, he continues to thrive. While he often lacks his original anthropomorphic form, as a humanistic animal he has developed into an indisputable literary presence in modern tribal narratives. His unique character traits are indispensable for shaping and informing the lives of the young male protagonists. As Coyote's spawn, these paradoxical male characters are often in constant conflict with themselves, with each other, and with their extended families. Even when Coyote is not physically present, the repetitive imagery associated with him reinforces his importance as an archetypal figure of American Indian literature. (35) Coyote resides in modern literature to help protagonists achieve their full cultural inheritance so that they may be true American Indians; he does not just represent the Freudian id. To achieve this complete cultural inheritance, protagonists not only have the continual presence of Coyote but also interact with ancestral characters, personages within the narratives who relate to the idealized tribal past, encouraging them to undertake changes necessary for positive growth and development in their lives. Finally, and arguably most important, each male character is continually faced with the failures that result from his fathers inability to complete the cultural inheritance, leaving him not only as a paternal failure but also as a failure in life.
Three modern novels that examine and emphasize the importance of cultural inheritance are The Owl's Song by Janet Campbell Hale, Killing Time with Strangers by W. S. Penn, and Flight by Sherman Alexie. Coyotes metaphysical presence is reinforced on a subconscious level when the characters try to find meaning and purpose in their ongoing struggles as American Indians. For example, The Owl's Song uses vivid imagery to paint chaotic pictures of death and the endless, repetitive cycles of life. The Owl's Song follows the trials of Billy White Hawk, a Coeur d'Alene Indian boy who is coming to terms with his life and heritage as he leaves the reservation for the city, trying to escape his past. These often incongruent images are associated with Coyote as the creator of human life, because he brought death into the world and made it a permanent part of the life cycle.
"It's cold out," Joe said, and Billy answered, "Yeah, it seems the good days are near over now." The coyotes were howling again. By the sound of them it seemed they were in a half circle, a pack of maybe six or seven, a wide half circle in the hills above. First one would howl and then another one closest to him, and the next and on and on until the first began again. (36)
Here the chaotic human response to death is illustrated. Tom, Billy's cousin who was Billy's role model and idol, just committed suicide, and Joe had disappeared for several days. The coldness portends the loss of warmth that is signatory of death and dying. The coyotes in the background double as images of Coyotes mythic presence: they represent the physical embodiment of Coyote and his unique ability to simultaneously be in several places at one time. Thus the half circle of howling coyotes symbolizes Coyote's eclipsed influence in modern society; the protagonist has yet to complete the cyclical journey that will complete the circle of his life.
In Killing Time with Strangers, Coyote appears in the imagery associated with the lustful protagonist as well as in passing conversation, recognizing his continual existence. Killing Time with Strangers, like The Owl's Song, follows the life of a young male named Palimony Larue, better known as Pal, while he struggles to become a complete American Indian in an incredibly racist and harmful environment. Penn incorporates the image and presence of Coyote within the first chapter of his novel: "He lay there in the darkness holding her, trying hard not to want to make love to her even though the press of her buttocks against his genitals made him want to howl like Coyote." (37) Of course, Pal's playfully juvenile name belies the strong sexual urges he has toward his ex-girlfriend. While struggling with his libido, Pal experiences the renowned character trait of his ancestral creator. Pal expresses the same even to the point of wanting "to howl like Coyote." The story is a sexually taut novel that constantly refers to the urges and organs of Pal, a continual reflection of the Coyote narratives: "He [Pal] even spent nights with her when she wanted, sleeping beside her, holding her, his erection squeezed between his thighs so as not to give offense or seem to pushy or male, comforting her and calming her worries" (kt, 8). While this description lacks the male strength that is often tied to Coyote, the imagery of sexual desire and frustration is purely Coyote, visibly demonstrated through Pal's insatiable sexual appetite. Palimony Larue has a multitude of sexual escapades throughout the novel that would give Coyote's narratives a run for their money.
Pal's behavior also mirrors the animal instincts of Coyote as he stands outside in the night: "He paused to watch the moon, which he could feel was almost but not quite full" (KT, 10). The moon reference appeared previously in The Owl's Song and in Penn's work due to its important tie to Coyote. It is a symbolic imagery that both American Indians and non-Indians would be able to recognize due to the common connection between coyotes and the full moon. It deepens the presence of Coyote in the story on an omnipresent level.
However, Coyote's presence is reflected not only in the sexual imagery depicted in Killing Time with Strangers but also in offhand references and discussions between Pal and his weyekin, or spiritual guide, Chingaro. When a girl named Sally, a controlling religious fanatic who exercised emotional and physical control over Pal's father, La Vent, disappears, Chingaro and Pal discuss their inability to bring her back to save La Vent.
"There's so little there that once she's gone, out of sight, she gone. There's no getting her back, no matter what you do or how you do it. Fox couldn't bring that girl back, let alone Coyote, cause there's nothing to bring."
"What about La Vent?"
"You're too late," I said. "He's gone away, himself, by now." (KT, 215)
In this passage, Chingaro recognizes the still-existing powers of Coyote and his spiritual companions. It informs readers that Coyote has not disappeared despite colonialism but, like his repeated imagery, is ever present and active in the world. While Coyote does not have ultimate power to fix the current issue in the novel, his power is still recognized here as existing. Chingaro and Palimony recognize that Coyote's power exists and that he appears not only through imagery but also in real life himself.
I wrestled with it, but next thing I knew, I was surprised by exhaustion and I turned into some black thing the dog dragged ashore.
"Maybe Coyote," Pal said.
"Coyote. Dog. Hay nada otros where I am. Not at all." (KT, 22)
In this excerpt Chingaro is explaining to Pal how he was forced into the transformation of dead college professor from a fish against his will so that Pal and others could find him on the beach and allow Pal an insight into the life he was leading. This passage is critical in recognizing the existence of Coyote in modern times for Chingaro, who is a spiritual guide, although not to the same power level as Coyote. The fact that he was forced into his new shape by a sudden exhaustion suggests an outside power that is coercing him to a shape he would not prefer for the benefit of Palimony. When Pal suggests that the outside force and the animal that dragged Chingaro ashore so that he could be found was Coyote, Chingaro replied, "Hay nada otros" which roughly translates to "There is no other." His comment is offhand, but Chingaro is acknowledging the ever-present influence of Coyote.
The omnipresent Coyote is much harder to pinpoint in Flight, for he takes on a much more distant position. Flight by Sherman Alexie is about a fifteen-year-old boy name Zits who, out of a misguided desperation to be accepted and find his home, goes to a local bank and shoots everyone inside of it, resulting in Zits being thrown back in time through a literal spirit quest. The presence of Coyote in Flight is much more limited to Zits's personal actions, which reflect him, and through a strange man only briefly present before and after Zits's spirit quest. Zits, like Pal, has a tendency to focus on his sexual organs, much like Coyote. The first body he inhabits is a white FBI agent during the 1960s American Indian rights movement. When Zits originally discovers that he is not in his own body, he checks his sexual organs first: "I suddenly get an idea. I reach down and check the size of my groinal region and I realize that I'm different down there, too. I am a big guy in all sorts of ways." (38) The obsession with his own sexual organs and his crude humor is reminiscent of Coyote and his narratives. In each new body, Zits continues this ceremonial check of his "groinal region." When he becomes a small Native boy back during the Battle of Sitting Bull, Zits again looks under his loincloth: "Then I solve a mystery: I look under my loincloth.... Okay. I know for sure now that Indians didn't have underwear beneath their loincloths" (f, 63).
This pattern continues for the rest of the novel, including when Zits shares the body of an old American scout: "I am an old man, skinny and wrinkly. That's bad enough, but you know what's worse? My pubic hair is gray" (f, 80). The continual humor and emphasis on Zits's groinal area successfully reflect the Coyote narratives, adding his presence into the novel.
While Coyote does not have the more physical presence that he does in The Owl's Song and Killing Time with Strangers, his presence in Flight can still be an important one. There is even one briefly mentioned character that could be tied to Coyote. The moment before Zits is thrown into his spiritual journey he is confronted by a man in the bank.
One man points at me.
"You're not real," he says.
What a strange thing to say to a boy with a gun. But then I wonder if he's right. Maybe I'm not real. And if I'm not real, none of these people are real. Maybe all of us are ghosts, (F, 35)
This passage is vague and has no direct tie to Coyote, yet since it is right after this man tells Zits that he is not real, causing Zits to ponder his own existence, that Zits is thrown in time, finally starting his much-needed spirit quest, it could be hypothesized that this man is the Coyote figure. He instigates the spirit quest by forcing Zits to question his actions and existence. The spirit quest starting so close to this man's brief, nameless appearance gives him a sense of mystery and divinity. This nameless man reappears at the end of the novel when Zits returns from his quest back in the bank before he has committed his gruesome crime. Zits gives this man specific attention when he has returned from his quest: "There's that man again, the one who told me I wasn't real. I think he's wrong; I think I am real" (f, 157). Zits needed to see and confront, though not physically but rather internally, the man who instigated the spirit quest, which allowed Zits to achieve full cultural inheritance. It is this vague presence of a force greater than Zits that permits him to achieve this cultural inheritance, and with his obsession with his own sexual organs, it is not too hard to imagine that Coyote is present in the novel.
The presence of Coyote is vital to understanding these authors' in tent to remind readers of the cultural inheritance that creates a complete American Indian. Nevertheless, due to Coyotes ambiguous nature, the theme of cultural inheritance is enforced through physical ancestral characters in The Owls Song and Killing Time with Strangers and a completing of the ghost dance in Flight.
In Hale's novel, Waluwetsu, an esteemed elder of his reservation, acts as the ancestral reminder to Billy White Hawk: "It was only the old ones now who remained in the Benewah to live out their lives" (os, 60). As a tribal patriarch, Waluwetsu is one of the few men who choose to remain on the reservation in order to preserve his self-identity as an American Indian. In Billy White Hawk's traumatic life, Waluwetsu plays a passive role, but he effectively transfers the values of the past to Billy. Waluwetsu tells him tribal narratives from the ahistorical past: "The land had been wild and free" (os, 7). This sharing of the ahistorical past is crucial for cultural inheritance. It is part of the understanding of what it was and is like to be American Indian. Only with knowledge of the past can there be understanding of the present.
Moreover, while Waluwetsu is over one hundred years old, his keen sense of the past seems timeless and unfettered by the trappings of colonialism. As a purveyor of Coeur d'Alene tribal culture, Waluwetsu encourages and empowers Billy not to forget his heritage: "Waluwetsi sometimes would say disturbing things, things Billy did not understand that lingered long in the child's mind and troubled him" (OS, 60). Much like Coyote, the past is both good and bad. It is important for Billy and all American Indians to accept that the past holds blessings and curses, which make a successful and truly balanced American Indian.
Through Waluwetsu, Billy is reconnected with Manitous, the Great Creator, and he also tells him about the coming apocalypse: "There is little left of what once was. The time is coming when even this will be gone--taken away. And we will be no more. The time is coming when the owl's song will be for our race" (OS, 8). Waluwetsu sings the owl's song for Billy. The owl's song is the song that comes to all American Indians when the end is near. It is the song that is supposed to prepare them for death. While this topic is neither upbeat nor pleasant, it is again about accepting both sides of the spectrum: with life there is death, with death there is life. The concept of life and death is extremely hard for people to accept, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, where life is linear. It is the intent of the ancestral characters like Waluwetsu to remind and teach American Indian children that life is cyclical, not linear; thus, death should not be feared. Fear is what keeps people, in this case American Indians, from becoming complete through cultural inheritance.
Chingara, the narrator of Killing Time with Strangers, serves as a humorous spiritual guide for his protagonist, Palimony Larue. He is more familiar with the original powers due to his tribal role as a spiritual guardian. Indeed, historical time does not apply to him, since he shares the past's timelessness: "Time is a fabrication that allows people to wear the straitjacket of being constantly out of it" (KT, 181). Chingaros presence stands to prove that time is merely a human creation.
Tom Yellowtail smiles. He knows as well as I do that there is no beginning. There is no moment at which you can point your finger and say, there, there is where it all begins. He smiles because he understands that if there is no beginning, then there is no end. The stories get told. The stories get retold. And even if they get retold in different words, they are the same stories. There is no such thing as unemployment for weyekin. (KT, 41)
Part of all the protagonists' issues in all three novels is their sense of a lack of control of the world around them. They have the Anglo-Saxon idea that time is linear and the past is the past. Chingara, like his other ancestral counterparts, has his role in the novel to help Pal realize that this is false. Pal, like his ancestors, should not fear time, for as long as he remembers the stories, time never ends. It is the stories that create life in Killing Time with Strangers. It is the responsibility of Chingara and Palimony to remember them and pass them on to the future. This is cultural inheritance, the repeated theme in all three novels, which push readers to realize the importance of cultural inheritance.
Chingara enforces this through the novel by explaining to readers that the culture and stories have not disappeared even if they have changed forms. Weyekin themselves have transformed to fit the times but never have been lost.
A hundred years ago, weyekin were mostly animal spirits. But now they include spirits like Tom Yellowtail, who once lived on the earth as a storyteller, highly honored by his people, the Coeur d'Alene. They give Mary something to talk to. Weyekin can be something like what folks call a conscience, except it's way beyond simple concepts of good and bad, way past normal judgments. (KT, 18)
Chingaro, like Waluwetsu, exists in the novel to help show the main characters that things are not black and white. He often instructs Pal to perform acts of violence or defiance rather than to be passive. Good and bad are not the concepts that Chingaro focuses on. Chingaro focuses on helping Palimony achieve true connection with his familial past.
Now is the time for American Indians to remember their pasts so that they can become complete in the present. That is the message of weyekin.
With Chingaros help, Pal is able to consummate his vision quest and achieve manhood: "I am here in this story only to help Mary Blue bring into the world the one lasting love Pal needs to overcome the diffident shyness that runs so deep in his blood" (KT, 5). His task is difficult, because Pal needs time to learn and grow. At times the journey is challenging for both Chingaro and Pal because they are facing different beliefs. As a weyekin, Chingaro knows by instinct and design the trueness of being one with the past, since there really is no past or future. Pal, being human and raised by a failing father figure, has trouble accepting the intangible cultural heritage that he must. One of the aiding factors in his eventual acceptance is that "no matter who you invent yourself to be, you can't talk back to a weyekin. Not unless he is your very own spirit guide. And if you try, you're doomed to discover the importance of false or useless words" (KT, 166). Since Chingaro technically belongs to Mary Blue, Palimony cannot deny or fight against the truths that come from Chingaro. Thus, the results are not immediate, but Pal eventually accomplishes a complete cultural inheritance with the help of Chingaro.
Unlike the physically present ancestral characters in The Owl's Song and Killing Time with Strangers, Flight's tie to the ancestral past is through Zits's physical journey to the past. The journey can be tied to a significant ancestral concept known as the Ghost Dance. The concept of the Ghost Dance was introduced in 1889 by Wovoka, also known as Jack Wilson, a Northern Paiute. In only a short time, the Ghost Dance was made perverse by the variety of interpretations that were placed on Wovoka's message, so much so that he eventually gave up on it. However, the original Ghost Dance was about acceptance and spiritual connection.
God showed Jack a beautiful land filled with wild game and instructed him to return home to tell his people that they must love each other, not fight, and live in peace with the whites. God also stated that Jacks people must work, not steal or lie, and that they must not engage in the old practices of war or the traditional self-mutilation practices connected with mourning the dead. God said that if his people abided by these rules, they would be united with their friends and family in the other world. (39)
Through the Ghost Dance, American Indians would be able to reconnect with the past and those they have lost, including themselves. However, it could only be achieved through peace and proper connection with the past. Zits attempts to perform a warped version of the Ghost Dance fed to him by a white boy named Justice. However, Zits's connection to the Ghost Dance predates Justice in his life: "I am a blank sky, a human solar eclipse," Zits tells readers (f, 5). While this passage is meant to exemplify his loss of identity due to never having known his father, it also ties Zits to the Ghost Dance, which came to Wovoka on January 1,1989, during a solar eclipse. Such a minute, yet specific, detail cannot be ignored.
Zits is thrown into his spirit quest through a misguided attempted at the Ghost Dance. Nevertheless, it is arguable that he managed to achieve the Ghost Dance, which was his spirit quest, creating a connection to his cultural past. The Ghost Dance is to occur through a dance that lasts five days and will bring the dancer to a spiritual level during which he will pass through his ancestor, resulting in the complete peace and understanding of American Indians. While on his spirit quest, Zits passes through five individuals of the past, each of whom holds a key to understanding humanity and Zits himself.
Zits must experience this Ghost Dance because he, like the other two protagonists, must face the dark side of his heritage. During his first possession, he works as an FBI agent who is trying to suppress American Indians. His partner tells him at one point, "Some of the kids are still okay. But they're going to go bad, too. Just you watch. There's something bad inside these Indians. They can't help themselves" (f, 44). While his partner appears to be speaking out of racism, Zits's partner is also speaking of the cultural loss that had affected the American Indians during the 1960s conflicts, in which American Indians were fighting not only the national government but also themselves. It's a dark part of history that
Zits must accept along with the good just as he must accept that humans are complex creations. Zits, as the FBI agent, witnesses two other American Indians torture and kill another American Indian because they disagree with his views. Nonetheless, immediately after they kill him, they try to show him respect.
"He's a traditionalist," Elk says. "His soul won't get to Heaven if we don't bury him the Indian way."
"Why do you care?" Art asks.
"Because I was taught to," Elk says. He is thinking hard. Then he surprises me. "Why don't you guys get going.... We'll bury him right away." (F, 52)
The stark contrast between their first and second actions toward their fellow American Indian teaches Zits that people are complex but that the traditions must always be remembered, no matter the times. The Ghost Dance acts as a way that Zits can also connect with the past despite his present existence. In the second and third persons that he inhabits, Zits witnesses what he called "real Indians." He is able to experience them in their glory and in their decay, for Zits discovers the beauty of being an American Indian as well as the disgust.
Contrary to the brave, beautiful image that Justice and others have depicted, the Ghost Dance teaches Zits that the past is an unhealthy place. "I don't mean to be disrespectful, but it smells like the Devil dropped a shit right here in the middle of the camp," Zits informs readers as he observes the old American Indian camps with "what appears to be the rotting and drying corpses of hundreds of buffalo, deer, porcupines, badgers, squirrels, [and] rats" surrounding him (F, 62). Conversely, just as with all messages sent by Coyote, Zits witnesses the beauty: "This guy loves me. He's signing to me. Who knew that old-time Indian braves serenaded their sons? It's beautiful. I'm in love" (F, 65). It is through this Ghost Dance, arguably instigated by Coyote, that Zits comes to realize that he must accept the good and the bad. He completes the Ghost Dance by becoming one with those of the past, both white and American Indian, coming to accept both races and deciding against violence, as Wovoka proclaimed would happen. Zits lacks the fortune of a physical ancestral character, but his Ghost Dance performs the same act of connecting him to his cultural past. However, Zits, at the end of his journey, finally states his real name, Michael, and thus consummates the final stage of his vision quest, shedding his frivolous nickname, Zits, and receiving a new name and new identity.
The final emphasis on accepting and fully inheriting the cultural past is seen through the failures of the protagonists' fathers, who never manage to complete the task. The main characters in The Owls Song, Killing Time with Strangers, and Flight live remarkably repressed and misguided lives due, in large part, to their ongoing conflicts with their fathers. Billy White Hawk, Pal Blue Larue, and Zits, the male protagonists, desperately try to sort out their lives and to find meaning and sustenance apart from their conflicted relationships with their fathers.
Most of the fathers of the protagonists are premenopausal, middle-aged men who live marginal lives on or near reservations, where they are contributing parts neither of mainstream society nor of their tribal communities. Ironically, they have been "Americanized" in their cultural tastes and social aspirations; however, given the squalor and abject poverty that characterize much of reservation life, they spend a considerable amount of time doing little that is purposeful or meaningful. For example, two of the fathers are given names that represent the presence of colonialism in American Indian culture. William Joe White Hawk Senior's first name is Anglophone. He adopts his middle name, Joe, in order to project a public image of himself as "the average Joe," an Everyman, meaning there is little complexity in his ethnic background. However, he inherits his last name, White Hawk, from his biological father, whose entire name is simply White Hawk and likely the byproduct of his personal vision quest. Thus, his Anglo-American first name contrasts with his totemic American Indian last name. Furthermore, White Hawk emphasizes his sociopsychological conflict with his "Americanization," and he adds the hierarchic title "Senior" to indicate the patrilineal tradition that passes his name as an entitlement to his son, Billy White Hawk Junior.
La Vent Larue's name likewise shows the lasting effects of French colonization. Ancestrally, he is an Osage, a tribe historically located on the lower plains, but his name translates as "street of wind" or "windy street." His Francophone first name and, more notably, Zits's father's lack of a name throughout Flight illustrate their extreme displacement from their authentic American Indian backgrounds. Indeed, the important ritual of naming within American Indian cultures is devalued and ultimately contributes to their struggles for self-identity.
Of course, without secure and meaningful social identities the fathers struggle to establish and pass on stable relationships to their sons. For example, Joe apparently loves his son, Billy, but he was effectively never around to express this: "Joe was gone most of the time, some days doing hauling and cleaning in the town, some days hed spend from noon on at the Big Bear Saloon" (os, 10). Since Joe's precarious, nomadic lifestyle necessitates his constant travel for food and work, he abandons Billy, exchanging what could be quality time with his son in order to satisfy his gluttonous appetite for alcohol: "He worried about his father. He'd be drinking, of course. He'd stay a long time and become very drunk and then he'd drive that old pickup home over the narrow, sometimes winding roads, slippery in the rain, maneuvering that old truck swiftly along, guiding it while watching with that one eye" (os, 10).
Joe's inability to connect with his past creates an incomplete person in the present. He drinks and wanders due to his own lack of cultural inheritance. Joe White Hawk is a lost soul, a representation to Billy of what happens when the past and present are not accepted together. Joe White Hawk clutches onto his memory of the past: "His song. His manhood song, the one he'd gotten with his vision from the Manitous ... he'd sung that song when he was a soldier. He was a young warrior then, fighting the Germans over in France" (os, 12-13). Joe was once a strong, fierce warrior with spiritual powers given to him by Manitous, the Creator. His debilitating alcoholism tempers his memories of his past. '"I can walk by myself,' he said, indignant through the drunkenness.... [H]e took a few steps, slowly.... He reeled and fell down" (os, 11). Joe lacks the understanding that there is no past. He has never come to fully understand the cultural inheritance of his tribe and thus is stuck between a false idea of the past and present.
His father, White Hawk, had been their tribe's last shaman, but "White Hawk didn't teach any of his eight songs, as was the way, his shaman's knowledge" (os, 12). Joe's demise might well be understood as a failed tradition of patriarchy, wherein fathers fail to spiritually bond with their sons, who, in turn, fail to connect with their offspring. The failing of Joe White Hawk is not only his own but also his father's, who did not provide the proper guidance for his son.
Zits's nameless father marries Zits's mother and leaves her the day she is giving birth to Zits: "Somewhere on this floor, my mother is giving birth to me. But my father cannot be a participant. He cannot be a witness. He cannot be a father" (F, 156). Zits's father had a self-defeating belief that he was worthless, that he wasn't "worth shit." As a result, he would rather run than take personal responsibility for his family. He is not, however, totally lacking the cultural past, as Joe White Hawk is.
"Tell me a story" I say
"You want me to tell you a story?"
"And that will give you respect?"
The guy pauses again. He is flabbergasted to be in this situation. And I'm flabbergasted that I have used the word flabbergasted. This homeless Indian has an old fashioned vocabulary wired into his brain, (F, 143)
The homeless man, unknown to Zits yet in the plot, is his own father, who having abandoned his wife and child has lived a life of alcohol abuse and poverty on the streets. However, he is not totally lacking the knowledge and understanding of his cultural past. He recognizes the importance of stories in American Indian culture just as Chingara and Waluwetsu did. However, due to his own abusive upbringing he never completed the inheritance of his culture, causing him to become a failure.
Something has broken. He knows he is sick and damaged. But what has made him sick? And what has damaged him?... My father wants to weep. He wants to cry out for his father. He wants to be forgiven, to be loved. But if he speaks he will only be ridiculed again. He will only be diminished.... And now my father, whipped and bloodied by his memories, stops pacing in the hospital hallway Somewhere on this floor, my mother is giving birth to me. But my father cannot be a participant. He cannot be a witness. He cannot be a father.... And so he runs, (F, 153-56)
Zits learns through his Ghost Dance that his father is a broken man who cannot accept or move forward from the past. Like Joe White Hawk, the past haunts him and detaches him from the cultural past. As a result he lacks the ability to be a complete and successful human, especially an American Indian. While Zits himself has experienced physical and sexual abuse, from seeing the failings of his father he can know that he must accept his cultural past for the good and bad to move on.
La Vent Larues obsessive need for assimilation into mainstream society is related to his conflicted heritage as an American Indian. (40) He can't understand why people don't like him, and it hurts his pride when they don't. The obsession he has blinds him to his father's struggles with a similar issue.
He [La Vent's father] should see the cycle. He should know how his father went from a boy who tried to please, who wanted nothing more than to be appreciated, to a young man who discovered that Anglos would never appreciate him and so he left, to an adult who still wanted to be appreciated and who was willing to travel anywhere and weld anything for the companies he worked for, to an elder who remembered that the harder you tried, the more you desire their respect and appreciation, the less the Anglos gave of it and thus the only true course was to desert, (KT, 26)
La Vent sees all of this except for the final part, that his father eventually learned to desert his desire to be accepted and instead learned to accept himself. La Vent is never able to accept himself or his cultural heritage. Despite his father's best efforts, La Vent misinterprets all of his father's lessons.
But his father miscalculated how much La Vent wanted to be liked in his mostly white school. For La Vent, it became a story about how far from the source he and his father were, living as they were in L.A. It became a story not of confidence and focus, but of hopelessness and wandering. And every time he heard it, the story left La Vent feeling lost and alone, more determined to ingratiate himself to his teacher and friends, (KT, 28) (41)
La Vents misunderstanding of the traditional narratives adds to his inability to accept them as part of him. Instead, he abandons them in order to become Anglo, which slowly adds to his continual failure. His vain desire to be needed goes as far as making him commit crimes against other American Indians. In order to please the mayor, Buzz, for instance, La Vent helps destroy a sacred burial ground that belonged to the Cosianos, a tribal community. He is convinced by Buzz, who tells him, "These Indians are clinging to things that have vanished. Things that are dead and gone. Their world went kaput a long time ago but for some reason or other they think they can make it come back" (KT, 80). It is a conqueror's idea that only the leading ideas can exist, which to Buzz would be the Anglo-Saxon ideas. La Vent, desperate to be accepted, buys into this belief and completely abandons his cultural past, successfully securing his failure as an American Indian: "His own son had once accused him of being an apple'" (KT, 81).
With father figures whose presence is nonexistent to minimal, the authors create a warning for the readers and the protagonists of the danger of abandoning one's culture. Each main character reflects his father's negative traits in the beginning of all three novels: "Typical for him, it made him happy in his failure" (KT, 12). Palimony was passive and desired only to be liked, but through the example of his father, Chingaro, and the presence of Coyote, he is able to complete his journey, becoming a true American Indian and find his true love, Amanda. Meanwhile, Zits admits, "Yeah, I'm a drunk, just like my father. I'm a good drunk, too. Gifted, you might say" (F, 7). Bereft of love and direction, Zits is proud of his shortcomings because they tie him to what little he knows of his father. Nonetheless, through his Ghost Dance, instigated possibly by Coyote, Zits is able to witness the deterioration of his father and come to accept his American Indian inheritance. Billy White Hawk cares for his father as if Joe White Hawk was the child: "Billy was tired from the work he'd done, rubbing the soiled clothes on a washboard so that the skin on his knuckles was sore and red, packing all the water from the well, to wash and wash and rinse two times" (OS, 8). Billy eventually rebels and leaves to find himself through the aid of Waluwetsu, finally connecting with the true past and becoming a complete person, one who can relinquish his father's deficiencies.
As William Penn suggests, the truest way to understand and appreciate modern American Indian literature is by connecting it with the traditional narratives. They offer a rich abundance of archetypal symbols and characters that validate the past as well as reinvigorate the present by connecting them together. Indeed, without an understanding of the past, there is a definite lack of clarity in the present. Thus the traditional narratives reinforce and support the seminal view that, although colonialism had an undeniable impact upon American life and socioculture, not all was lost: there is still a pulse from the "old world." So like Coyote of the past, the modern Coyote assertively reappears and continues to be the advocate and promoter of the cultural inheritance of the past so that the present and future American Indians can embrace and recall that the past and the future are just words. True existence occurs all at once together in the stories.
(1.) Modern American Indians are often stereotyped as Hollywood Indians who all share the same cultural beliefs. It is not uncommon for people to associate this commercial view with dream catchers, kachina dolls, adobe buildings, tepees, and coyote figurines belonging to vastly different tribes.
(2.) Works that can be read on this subject are Colonialism: An International, Social, Cultural, Political Encyclopedia (ABC-CLIO, 2003) by Melvin Eugene Page and Penny M. Sonnenburg, and Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide (South End Press, 2005), by Andrea Smith.
(3.) Although Gutierrez's work focuses on the disappearance of the female creators of the Southwest, his work reinforces the thesis of this article. The significant sociocultural difference between the two regions centers upon the matriarchal practices of the Southwest, whereas the Northwest was patriarchal.
(4.) Ramon A. Gutierrez, When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846 (Stanford ca: Stanford University Press, 1991).
(5.) Gutierrez, When Jesus Came, 10-n.
(6.) Gutierrez, When Jesus Came, 43. The Katsina described in this story is the coming of the Spaniards. Their coming was transformed into a mythological tale that was heavily laden with Christian themes in order to justify and support their eventual conquest and cultural transformation of the Southwest.
(7.) As noted, the specific names of the Great Creator vary from tribe to tribe. Manitous (Coeur dAlene) and Amotkan (Spokane) are just two names out of hundreds.
(8.) David C. Wynecoop, Children of the Sun: A History of the Spokane Indians (Wellpinit wa: Published by the Author, 1969), 11-12.
(9.) Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, The Spokane Indians: Children of the Sun (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006), 23.
(10.) Alexander Diomedi, Sketches of Indian Life in the Pacific Northwest (Fairfield WA: Ye Galleon Press, 1978), 22. The patriarchal Northwest tribes valued the male elders. Older men had leading roles in the Spokane councils, in addition to being elected chief or subchief. Children were encouraged to respect and listen to their elders in much the same way that they were in the Acoma and Pueblo tribes. The Spokane relegated their youth to helpful roles in hunting and chores performed in the household. For example, it was expected that boys as they got older would learn from the older men in the tribe and gain wealth, territory, and horses, which were often the basis for social status. Of course it must also be noted that gender roles were not as rigid as believed from the European American perspective, meaning that there was much more fluidity in gender and social roles.
(11.) Diomedi, Sketches of Indian Life, 23.
(12.) Surendra Munshi, "On the Importance of Cultural Heritage," in Vitasta (Calcutta, Kashmir Bhawan: Kashmiri Pandit Contribution, 2011), 23. http://www.koausa.org.
(13.) Bill Ivey, "Issues in Intangible Cultural Heritage," in Access in the Future Tense, vol. 4 (Washington dc: Council on Library and Information Resources, 2004), http://www.clir.org.
(14.) Deward E. Walker Jr., Nez Perce Coyote Tales (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), 4.
(15.) Walker, Nez Perce Coyote Tales, 4. Another way of describing Coyote is as a "culture hero," meaning he is different from what European Americans might expect. "Coyote is both hero and heel, trickster and dupe, often playing both roles in the same tale ... [a] characteristic paradox" (M. Terry Thompson and Steven M. Egesdal, eds., Salish Myths and Legends: One People's Stories [Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008], 139).
(16.) Jarold Ramsey, Reading the Fire: The Traditional Indian Literatures of America, revised and expanded (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), 74.
(17.) Gladys Amanda Riechard and Adele Froelich, An Analysis of Coeur d'Alene Indian Myths (Berkeley: American Folk-Lore Society and the University of California, 1968), 74.
(18.) Riechard and Froelich, An Analysis, 70.
(19.) Walker, Nez Perce Coyote Tales, 9.
(20.) The genesis narratives can be confusing at times due to the fact that there appears to be humans preexisting in the world. For instance, they are eaten by the Gobbler and the Monster in the Nez Perce and Coeur dAlene narratives and later saved by Coyote; however, at the end of the narratives, Coyote is said to have created the human race. There is no clear answer to this puzzling but intriguing aspect of the narratives.
(21.) Walker, Nez Perce Coyote Tales, 11.
(22.) Ruby and Brown, The Spokane Indians, 7.
(23.) Coyote is credited not only with creating human beings, but he also is the obvious scapegoat for why human beings are inherently flawed. A great number of the Northwest tribal narratives share this attribute, including the Quileute, who talk about how their Great Creator, Q'waeti, sent a great flood to separate and punish the tribes for their moral corruption.
(24.) Ruby and Brown, The Spokane Indians, 7.
(25.) Ruby and Brown, The Spokane Indians, 7.
(26.) Over time the Spokane creation myth has become extremely "Christianized." In a mimeograph compiled by Pauline Hagan, the Spokane creation myth is almost an exact replica of the Genesis story, including the first lines, "In the early dawn of ages, / Gitche Manito, the wise one, / He the highest of all beings, / Greatest of all Gods and Spirits, / Made the earth a thing of beauty" (1). However, unlike the Judeo-Christian God, the Spokane Creator is imperfect. For example, the first man was "not sufficient / White and pale, and half-baked was he" (2). The next one was burned "black and shining." The Creator tries four times to create "red man," or the Spokane tribe that "suited the Creator."
(27.) Riechard and Froelich, An Analysis, 19.
(28.) Riechard and Froelich, An Analysis, 20.
(29.) Walker, Nez Perce Coyote Tales, 29.
(30.) Walker, Nez Perce Coyote Tales, 144-46.
(31.) Walker, Nez Perce Coyote Tales, 197-98. Coyote does not always act so cruelly. When Grizzly kills Coyotes children in a Coeur d'Alene narrative, Coyote genuinely mourns their deaths" "When he [Little Beaver] plays around my house I feel happy. Then I forget the loss of my own children. Then and then only can I laugh" (Reichard and Froelich, An Analysis, 20). Moreover, although he is often directly responsible for the continual abuse and killing of his children, he truly mourns their suffering, adding another layer to his paradoxical character traits.
(32.) Riechard and Froelich, An Analysis, 69-70.
(33.) Riechard and Froelich, An Analysis, 75.
(34.) Thompson and Egesdal, Salish Myths, 141.
(35.) "In Feathering Custer (2001), Nez Perce ... William S. Penn detects severe deficiencies in the application of mainstream critical theory to native literatures and announces the advent of an alternative bilateral 'Nuestra American theory that finds its identity in the oral storytelling traditions of the Western hemisphere" (Bernd Peyer, "Non-fiction prose" in The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature, ed. Joy Porter and Kenneth M. Roemer [New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005], 123). One of Penn's ideas is to approach modern literary texts from the standpoint of the traditional narratives that were once so important to the tribes. From them, critical insights can be formulated that vary in their approaches, giving readers new views on modern American Indian literature.
(36.) Janet Campbell Hale, The Owl's Song (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998), 43. Hereafter cited in the text as os.
(37.) William S. Penn, Killing Time with Strangers (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000), 9. Hereafter cited in the text as KT.
(38.) Sherman Alexie, Flight: A Novel (New York: Black Cat, 2007), 43. Hereafter cited in the text as f.
(39.) James Mooney, The Messiah Letter from Wovoka, 1891, http://www.ghostdance.us.
(40.) "[But] you could have told her how much he [La Vent] wanted to be needed," a weyekin named Tom Yellowtail warns Chingaro, Mary Blue's weyekin, about La Vent Larue, 215. Being Powers, it is the weyekin's job to warn and aid those they serve. Here Chingaro is being warned about completing his duties to Mary Blue by another weyekin, who sees danger in La Vent Larue's need to be needed.
(41.) "Instead when he told La Vent stories of home, he stuck to stories like Buffalo Man, who gains the power to transform things, including himself, by drinking from one particular pool. Warned by the pool never to drink from any other, Buffalo Man finds himself a long way from home. He feels thirsty. So thirsty that he forgets the pool's warnings, and drinks from another one. At that moment, he loses all his powers, forever" (KT, 28).
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|Publication:||The American Indian Quarterly|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2014|
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