I recently noticed that three novels I’ve read this year contained a similar plot element. Since three occurrences = a trend, I decided to try my hand at a New York Times-style trend piece. Said plot element was actually essential to all three novels, and I am a fan of each of them.
The Absolutely Untrue Story of Fake Indians
Like many young American novelists, Karen Russell explores non-Indians pretending to be Native Americans in her latest novel. Swamplandia tells the story of the Bigtree Family who run an alligator wrestling tourist attraction on a small island off the coast of Florida. The father of the family, known as Chief, is the instigator of the suddenly trendy subterfuge:
Although there was not a drop of Seminole or Miccosukee blood in us, the Chief always costumed us in tribal apparel for the photographs he took. He said we were “our own Indians.”
Karen Russell – A leader of the fake Indian literary movement
Mat Johnson takes a slightly different approach to the newly minted pretend-Indian genre that is sweeping the bestseller lists. Johnson’s Pym includes a meeting of The Native American Ancestry Collective of Gary (Indiana), a group of African-Americans who believe that their heritage is Native American:
Once the community center had been entered it was easy to locate the dozen or so NAACG members. This was not because they looked like Native Americans; to my eyes, they looked like any gathering of black American folks, some tan and most brown. What distinguished the group was their attire. The first man I saw in the room had a full Native American headdresss, a Stegosaurus spine of white feathers that reached all the way down to his moccasins.
Watch out vampires and zombies! Will people masquerading as Native Americans supplant occult romance as the new literary “it” genre. It may well be, if author Chris Gavaler has anything to say about it. Gavaler’s novel School for Tricksters begins at the famed Carlisle Indian School that included Jim Thorpe among its graduates. The novel doubles-down on Native American deception by alternating between the stories of a Black male student and a white female student (who was married to Thorpe) who pretend to be Indians in order to get a college education courtesy of the government.
Sociologists and other observers are uncertain where the beginnings of the faux Indian book craze began. Following the runaway success of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, winner of the National Book Award in 2007, perhaps it was inevitable that the floodgates were opened on a seemingly endless river of novels about identity and Native Americans. The new genre is so red hot that it’s appeal has even begun to spread beyond the shelves of your favorite indie bookseller.
HBO tapped into the First Nations fakery craze with their own pretend Indian, Albert “Big Chief” Lambreaux, on their hit show Treme. Lambreaux is “chief” of a group of Mardi Gras Indians that are steeped in New Orleans tradition but, ultimately, not real Indians.
With so many fake Indian stories swirling around, it seems only a matter of time until Hollywood brings a pretend Indian picture to your local cineplex.