For Literary Eyes Only: Budding Archetypes for the Native American Literary Tradition

I’m open minded and enjoy talking to people about their Native ancestry.  Folks get comfortable with me when they know I’m not going to judge them for admiring Native people, so they share their family lore.  If they’re writers, they’ll likely mention a project they’re working on where they have characters who are Native.  Out of respect, they’ll ask, “Can you make sure I’m not doing anything offensive?” and ask me to read their work.  If I have time in my schedule, I’ll gladly do so, but I’ve been busier than usual over the last year and haven’t been able.  This is part of the reason why I wanted to construct this list.  This article is a serious examination of character archetypes for the purpose of creating literature.  A unique approach situated from a Native lens.

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I like reading Native characters in books, and I’m often surprised when one comes up because usually it only happens in books that are specifically about Native people.  So when I’m reading an adult fiction book outside that context I don’t expect Native characters to arise.  As you can tell by this article, I don’t have qualms about non-Native writers writing Native characters.  I draw the line at exploitation.  Meaning, don’t pretend to be Native and try to take awards, resources, and space from aspiring Native writers (stealing from the smallest minority in the U.S. is disturbing, and we have the highest disparity rates so it’s harmful).  The solution is simple:  Write as an ally.  Everyone wins.

I say exercise your creative muscles and write a character who is Native.  All writers take a risk when we “create” our characters, especially those who are not our own gender, race, class, or sexual orientation.  Which is, more often than folks realize, every time we sit down to write.  My line of thinking falls in line with Zadie Smith, who wrote a succinct and brilliant article about the subject, “Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction.” I highly recommend you seek out her article in The New York Review of Books before you presumptuously make uneducated remarks in the comments section below.

Another reason I’m motivated to create this list of archetypes has to do with Native literature itself (and I’m not going to get into the debate about “Native Lit” as a category or not–I think having our own category keeps the exploiters in check).  The growing number of Native people writing literature has grown exponentially over the last decade.  More and more of us are ready to step up and fill this “unmet demand” for Native American Literature.  Readers are fascinated by our unique experience, and I feel they are seeking to “remake” their identity, or reconstruct it into one that’s less destructive.  I’d like to offer readers the opportunity to reflect on their identity by engaging with our own.  And if I can do my part to make the world a less hostile place, then I’ve done something beneficial for not only my children but future generations, who are tasked with one choice:  carry our trauma or carry our healing.

Mixed Blood In’din

I’m going to start with this one because I fall into this category and can speak to it quite effectively, lol.  You’ll see this archetype in just about every book written by a Native author.  The most recent is Tommy Orange’s novel, There There.  I highly recommend picking up this book for a contemporary examination of mixed blood heritage in an urban American environment.  It hits the mark in every way.  But there are a number of writers who speak to a mixed heritage motif, such as Louise Erdrich, Brandon Hobson, and Susan Power.  All of whom I would recommend.

So what should we consider when writing a Native character of mixed heritage.  From personal experience, being half Native and half Latinx, I’ve not had the self-hatred for being mixed, but that’s a popular way of presenting this identity.  It’s true that mixed bloods often run into discrimination for “not being In’din enough,” but I’ve run into the romanticization for being half Latinx more often than the discrimination.  Often I’m seen as an anomaly and people are fascinated by the story of my Kiowa/Cherokee mother, who is from Oklahoma, United States, meeting my father, who immigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico.  Typically, people want to know more.

I’m only one of a very few Natives from my generation who are half Latinx.  I’ll say this, though.  I live in Tahlequah, Oklahoma (in the heart of Cherokee Nation and work for Cherokee Nation) and there are many Mexican people who have married into Cherokee communities.  I work with Indian Child Welfare and I can say undoubtedly that the next generation of Cherokees will have a high number of citizens who are part Mexican.

As you’ll read in many contemporary stories and many personal narratives online the mixed blood or half blood narrative is one wrought with postmodern dysphoria.  Because of being constantly misidentified, people begin to look in the mirror and become dysphoric about what they see. This is where the self-loathing comes in.  There seems to be an inability to “own” the diversity in ones lineage so this leads to confusion.  The mix blood will suppress and even ignore the part of themselves that is White, Black, Mexican, etc. and instead attempt to only claim Native ancestry.  As you can presume, this creates a host of issues, such as becoming over righteous or asserting themselves as an Indian “expert.”  In this modern era, your character might always try to be seen with full bloods or take pictures with full bloods to post on social media.  There’s a subconscious desire to be included as a “full blood” by association.

Super In’din

On the surface, this sounds like someone who might be a champion for Native communities.  And I’m sure if you asked this guy he’d agree with you, lol.  But the “Super In’din” is someone who weaponizes culture.  This would be someone who considers himself an “expert” on his culture but he’s not truly holding culture the way an elder might hold it.  Meaning, he’s not trying to pass on his knowledge and wisdom to the next generation. He’s more interested in the power his knowledge holds.  For character development, it might be better to view this person as a “gatekeeper” rather than an elder.

In order to write this character, you’re going to need some tribally specific knowledge for him to throw around.  And I keep using the gender “he/him” because typically this is a male character–not to say the character couldn’t be female, but typically this type of weaponized ego is a patriarchal trait.  The most common behavior of a Super In’din is to shame people.  So your character could criticize other characters for saying a word wrong or maybe wearing regalia in the wrong way.  Your character will have a snobbish demeanor about him and think he’s better than everyone.  The only time you’ll see him submit is when an elder walks into the room.  Then he’ll cower to the person who holds a more “respectable” way of carrying cultural knowledge.

Ultimately, the Super In’din does more damage to his tribal community than he does good.  It’s better to see him as an extension of the colonizer.  Meaning, he’s oppressing his own people and doing the dirty work for the colonizer, like a pet.  This is how a colonizer has reach into the center of a tribal community.  The Super In’din is the colonizer’s only way to penetrate the center.  Otherwise, a tribal community would be able to heal internally if these individuals didn’t exist.  But where there is opportunity for power, people will play.  So the Super In’din shames and humiliates his own people at every turn for self-fulfillment (hyper individualism).

Born Again In’din

The Born Again In’din could be confused with the Super In’din but there is a major distinction.  The Born Again In’din wants to share her knowledge–not weaponize it.  So this character will come into tribal culture at a time in their lives when they needed healing.  Many recovering addicts become Born Again In’dins, especially if they start attending Native American Church (NAC) as a part of their recovery, which is common.  But the Born Again In’din can also be an urban Native who comes to the reservation and gets swept away in learning tribal culture.  In about a year, the urban Native will think they’re more Native than the reservation Natives, if we’re going to use cultural knowledge as a measuring stick.

Your character will be overly excited to talk about cultural practices, like speaking the language.  They’ll start volunteering to say prayers at events.  They want to show people how “In’din” they are.  This is different than the Super In’din.  It’s better to see the Born Again as almost evangelical. They’re not trying to convert people, but they hold tribal knowledge in such high esteem that they are certain it’s going to help others.

Here are two common everyday comparisons:  If you had a friend who started martial arts and then became completely immersed to the point where all they talked about was martial arts, or if a friend started a new job that was interesting and new and they seemed to only talk about work.  This is a similar pattern for the Born Again In’din.

To capture this character effectively, you’ll also need to have some cultural knowledge, but this person will know everything there is to know about medicinal plants in a specific region.  So they’ll say things like, “There’s a cave outside Pumpkin Hallow where mushrooms grow just right,” and they’ll proceed to tell you at what phase of the moon when you should harvest said mushrooms.  They know their medicinal roots and how to turn them into medicine.  Also, they’ll be in the process of learning the language.  In fact, that’s where they’ll start.  They’ll be gungho about tribal language and use it as often as they can.  This is where the Super In’din can shame the Born Again by constantly pointing out where their wrong, which can be often because they are in effect “students” of their own culture and are trying to gain more knowledge.

The fruition of this character usually happens in one of two ways.  They can become like the Super In’din themselves and start shaming other Natives.  Or they can become a “savior” type and espouse wisdom to help the community.

Activist In’din

The Activist In’din has garnered some new attention with the rise of the #NODAPL movement, and now we have numerous protests around the world where protectors are standing up for ecosystems.  But this archetype began in the 1970s with the rise of the American Indian Movement (AIM).  In fact, AIM has maintained its presence since those early years and are the foundation for this current wave of activists.  If not for AIM, then the current identity of “eco protectors” would not exist.

Activist In’dins are our elite intellectual fighting force.  It’s better to see them as being more like a special forces unit, like Seal Team Six of the U.S. Navy.  In fact, many of its members are veterans.  If you’re writing one of these characters, you’re not going to see them very often.  You might hear about them.  But they are always serving as a protector at one of the many protests.  They’ll engage fully at one movement and when the protest is dismantled, then they’ll move to another.  In the flux, this character might show up in one of your stories, unless your story is about a specific protest.  But when they show up, they’ll be there for only a short time before they’re off to the next eco protest.

Behaviorally, your character will know the legal system.  Activist In’dins have been arrested dozens if not hundreds of times, depending on their age, and can name their rights at the drop of a hat.  Similarly, they’ll introduce themselves as a Prisoner of War, saying, “My name is Oscar Hokeah, Gkoi’gkoo/Tsa’la’gi, slave/prisoner of Indian Territory/Oklahoma forcibly relocated by the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 and the Treaty of New Echota of 1835.”  Not only are they historians but experts on specific treaties that affected their tribe.

You can draw your characters as having a military type of personality.  If you’ve had relatives in the military, then you can borrow from their demeanor.  They tend to be very serious and ready to argue.  Many of these individuals come from Law School and will spend a period of their young life at protests before they move on to budding careers as tribal lawyers.  I’d describe these characters as being ready to serve.  If you need something done, your Activist In’din character will be the first to volunteer to do it.

Hipster In’din

I saved the best for last.  The Hipster In’din is the newest archetype and started showing itself about ten years ago. Image became god with the rise of social media, and these guys love themselves more than their mommas ever could.  Lol, I’m teasing.  Kinda.  But the Hipster In’din is very concerned about trends and will jump onto the latest.  If the trend is a Native protest against a pipeline, then they’ll routinely post their personal opinions on social media.  As soon as the trend changes to the protest of a mountain, so will their tweets.  These guys are selling a product and that product is themselves.  But this archetype is a global archetype so we all know someone like this.  I’m just putting this into a Native context.

Behaviorally, the latest trend is to be cynical so cynicism is the language of the Hipster In’din, but it’s a special brand of cynicism.  First you have to say something very sincere and when real human emotions surface you stuff them back down with a cynical comment, like, “Trump wants to start a race war, but at least I have my coffee,” and then laugh.  Your Hipster In’din character will need to be seen at trendy locations or trendy events.  It’ll all come through via social media.  The major distinction will be the need to hold a certain “image.”   And the clothes will match the cynical language.

The Hipster In’din character will carry themselves like they don’t really care about anything or they are so disconnected that no one can hurt them.  They are too cool to care.  It can come off as arrogant, but it’s an arrogance that’s not fooling anyone.  Other people in your story will be able to see it as a protective quality.  The cynicism and arrogance is a way to hide from the pain of the world.  Which will in turn make them appear to be even more fragile than if they were genuine.

Closing Thoughts

The above archetypes are found not only in contemporary Native American literature but also in modern Native society.  They are the budding archetypes of our generation.  My intention behind the list is to offer Native writers and non-Native writers character traits when developing their storylines.  Discussions about literary archetypes, such as the hero, the villain, and the victim are common in literary classrooms, but we writers also consider the birth of new societal archetypes, such as the jock, the prom queen, and the nerd, which are then transferred into literary devices for writers.  In the same vein, I offer the above archetypes as a nuanced approach to the literary tradition.

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(Image borrowed from The Daily Aztec)

2 Comments

  1. What about native people from mexico who are not hispanic/latinx? The ones who still maintain their cultures, lands, communities, and languages divorced from Latin influences of the spanish? Called ‘indios’ (indians). This is also a category for (undocumented native americans by race and ethnicity)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is fascinating. I know next to nothing about Native American culture, except I am learning fast through you. But what strikes me as most interesting is the stereotypes that you find in any mix of cultures. I myself was born in England and taught to say I was British born of Polish origin. As a child I was very confused – I only spoke Polish at home and English at School. I became an English teacher. I married a Pole from Poland. Reading about your stereotypes made me realise how similarly peaople react the world over when they are in a displaced cultural situation. As an adult I have become more Polish than ever.Thank you – you put it very succinctly.

    Liked by 1 person

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