Sunday, April 13, 2014

Diversify Your Steampunk Day 1: Unvanishing Indians, Guest Post by Joseph Bruchac

So we were soooooo lucky enough to score some a guest post with our first guest, Joseph Bruchac. If you're not familiar with him, he's the writer to over 100+books featuring American Indian/Native American culture. He's been around for a while, my sister and I really started paying attention when he released his latest Steampunk influenced Novel, Killer of Enemies(also featuring a Native American girl as his main protagonist). So happy to have him with us today, It's always a pleasure featuring such an esteemed author as himself. So without boring you with our banter, We present to you......


By Joseph Bruchac

How come, after more than 50 years of writing, I have chosen to dive into steampunk? And why have I deviated away from its usual Eurocentric settings? 

Good questions. But let me begin my reply by focussing on another related question--which is why I decided to write about Native Americans in the first place. That may help, as my Abenaki grandfather used to say, “to fit the ground to plant.”

I grew up during a time when pretty much every hero offered to me by popular culture was a white guy. What I saw—what everyone saw—in movies, TV and books—was whitewashed. True, there were a few ethnic characters who were good guys, but they were all sidekicks. Like Tonto with his broken English backing up the Lone Ranger. Or a Navajo kid named “Little Beaver” (I kid thee not) who assisted a cowpoke name of Red Ryder. 

When I was young I went right along with it—as did Native kids on reservations who always wanted to be the cowboys when they played Cowboys and Indians. I’m not sure exactly when it was that a part of me rebelled against that. Maybe it was when I heard people use the n-word when they were talking about my dark-skinned Native American grandfather, Jesse Bowman. Or when they said he was “black as an Abenaki.” But, somehow, I realized that the reality I encountered with the people of Native blood who were relatives, friends, and teachers was vastly different from the images in the pages of novels (and textbooks) and on the silver screen. I also identified with the struggles (to use an overused word that still fits) of other people “of color.”

It led me to try to stand up and speak out. I switched my college major from wildlife conservation to writing. I became deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement. I spent three years as a volunteer teacher in Ghana, West Africa. 

And though it was not my only subject matter, from the early sixties on I was trying to write about the reality of American Indian cultures from the point of view of an insider rather than as an observer, a voyeur or (like Karl May, the immensely popular German author of the early 20th century who wrote novels about Shatterhand the scout and Winitou the Apache), a total fantasist. I did so first in the poems that I began to publish in the sixties, then in stories and—when I had kids of my own—in books for younger readers.  

Half a century later. It’s kind of hard to exaggerate just how many misconceptions still exist in the popular consciousness about Native Americans. There are still these adjectives that have been grafted onto us that just don’t seem to want to go away. Savage, noble, stoic, bloodthirsty, vanishing. 
Lo, the poor doomed Indian. What was it like when Indians used to be alive? That’s a question I still get asked—and not just by kids. Thinking of fantasy and science fiction, it’s as if Native people are trapped in a time warp. (Do the time warp a. . .never mind.)

There are these images—often contradictory--that keep reappearing. Innocent children of nature. Violent, pitiless warriors. (For today’s Assignment Numero Uno, my children, watch the movie Dances With Wolves again.) That kind of baggage ain’t much fun to lug around.
How do you fight a stereotype? Well, if that baggage gets too heavy, trying putting it down. As a Cheyenne elder once told me, when you have a cup full of water and that water is undrinkable, what do you do? Pour it out, dummy.

Not that it’s easy. Especially when there is wealth and power reinforcing it. The American entertainment industry that from its very beginnings fed off of American Indian culture. From Fenimore Cooper’s Indians (noble Chingachook--yup, bloodthirsty Magua--check) in his deeply influential Last of the Mohegans to the very first movies made in the United States, world culture has been fed a steady diet of racial stereotyping of American Indians. (Remember Karl May? Who was Adolph Hitler’s favorite writer, by the by.)

Native Americans, of course, are not the only “minority” to have been dehumanized in film and literature. African Americans, Asians, Jews, Irish, Italians, and today (I am sad to say) Arabs, have been cast in the roles of less-than-human characters in scenarios that elevate the virtues of majority white culture and the power of white men. Used as symbols and never fully human.  

However, the indigenous people of this land, I would argue, have been the victim of that kind of drivel more than any other ethnicity. And continue to be. You beg to disagree? Then hows come we don’t got sports teams named the New Jersey Jews or the Carolina Negroes?
Okay, ‘nough ranting. And before I go further, let me assure you that I like white people. Some of my best friends are. . . And I have white blood myself. (Which I keep in a jar in my desk.) Not trying to put down Anglo culture and achievements. I loves me my Shakespeare and my iMac and my Jimmy Fallon. (Assignment Numero Dos: Make your own list of western society’s Three Greatest Cultural Achievements)

But I also love balance. Which is one thing that is not an exaggerated stereotype about Native American cultures—a belief in the reality and importance of balance. That’s why in some of my novels, such as Sacajawea, Pocahontas, and Arrow Over the Door, I’ve told the same story from two perspectives—the viewpoint of a Native character on the one hand and an anglo on the other. It’s also why I’ve chosen, in other stories, to tell a story that may already be well known, but look at it from the American Indian side, such as my novel Geronimo or my books about Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

And I also inject what I usually find missing in most books ABOUT Indians written by non-Native authors. Humor. Major part of Native American life. If you are around a bunch of American Indians for more than half an hour and no one has cracked a joke then it’s either because they’re all sleeping or you have somehow been transported back in time to a movie set in the 1930s when all the Indians are being played by spray-painted white actors. (I have, so help me God, a photo of a young James Cagney being spray-painted for a bit part as an “Indian brave” in a western.) A elderly Native friend of mine named Swift Eagle who worked in Hollywood once joked that he could never get any major roles in the movies because he couldn’t speak Italian.

The other thing I’ve done as a writer is to not just write about Native Americans in the distant past. Such as my novel about Navajo Marines in World War II, Code Talker. Many of my stories take place in the present or at least not on the Great Plains in the nineteenth century where we must wait for Kevin Costner to tell us where we can find our buffalo herds. “Tatanka! Tatanka!”
(By the way, my Lakota buddies tell me that B.C. has a different meaning out in the Dakotas. It used to be “Before Custer.” Now it is “Before Costner.”)

Okay, let’s get back to the future. Steampunk. And time for a personal confession. I enjoy the genre. The Victorian era offers such an incredibly rich tapestry of possibilities. Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle were authors I cut my eyeteeth on, so to speak. And that whole idea of exploring a steam-powered world, one without electricity and computers just plain tickles me. I really am drawn to the idea of getting back to certain basics of technology—to a world that is not ruled by Edison’s inventions. Whether it is done through anachronism, through basing stories in that actual period or, as I did, creating a future world where things have reverted back to much older tech.

Frankly, I’m a sucker for genre fiction in general. I’ve been reading sci-fi and fantasy since I was eight years old. I have actually taught occasional college courses in speculative fiction. And can name a few SF writers who done good with Native American characters—such as R.A. Lafferty and Roger Zelazny. Or whose intelligent world view has been influenced in a positive way by real Native Americans—such as Ursula Kroeber LeGuin. Assignment Numero Tres—check out who her dad was. Google Theodore Kroeber. Google Ishi.

I am also, as much as anybody whose body is overloaded with testosterone can be, a feminist. Joking aside (but still within arm’s reach) one thing that characterizes our indigenous cultures here in the northeast is a deep awareness of the power of women. Women were and still are leaders in Iroquoian and Algonquin tribal nations. Further, it was and is nothing unusual for us about a woman being a warrior. And it’s not just in the northeast. Lozen, my character in Killer of Enemies was inspired by a Chiricahua Apache historical figure of the same name who fought by the side of her brother Victorio and was known for her psychic abilities. 

It irks me that so much speculative fiction lacks real diversity. It’s as if we are being told that the future has no room for us. Not something I am about the accept—not for my two sons, my three grandchildren, the seven generations that will come after me.

So, having said all that, let me state the obvious. If you are a writer and you admire a particular genre but bemoan its lack of something that you find missing—such as believable American Indian protagonists—what can you do? Duh.
Exit stereotypes—pursued by a bear.
Enter Lozen.

About this author

Joseph Bruchac lives with his wife, Carol, in the Adirondack mountain foothills town of Greenfield Center, New York, in the same house where his maternal grandparents raised him. Much of his writing draws on that land and his Abenaki ancestry. Although his American Indian heritage is only one part of an ethnic background that includes Slovak and English blood, those Native roots are the ones by which he has been most nourished. He, his younger sister Margaret, and his two grown sons, James and Jesse, continue to work extensively in projects involving the preservation of Abenaki culture, language and traditional Native skills, including performing traditional and contemporary Abenaki music with the Dawnland Singers.

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  1. I really enjoyed this post. And while not a fan of steampunk myself - I tend to gravitate around afterlife and sci-fi stories most of the times - the book sounds interesting. I wish it luck!


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