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New Wave of Indian Writing Sweeps Across Land : Literature: Little reflects the 'noble savage' caricature of the past, some of which turned out to be fraudulent. In any case, devoted readers will discover a new voice.

September 12, 1993|MICHAEL BEZDEK | ASSOCIATED PRESS

The long-lingering suspicion some American Indians had of writing is not surprising, given that the first pens they took up were put to treaties costing them everything they had.

English was thought to hold such potential for treachery that the Seminoles had a taboo on learning to read and write the language lasting into this century. Even some modern Indian writers have said putting their thoughts on paper in English can sometimes make them uneasy.

But the printed page today has become surprisingly rich with American Indian narrative. Now the great-grandchildren of the last warriors, urged on by the political awakenings of the 1960s, have begun to open their hearts.

Since N. Scott Momaday signaled the outpouring with his Pulitzer Prize novel "House Made of Dawn" 25 years ago, hundreds of books by American Indian authors have been published. A recently formed Native Writers Circle of the Americas has identified 300 authors as potential members.

Big publishing houses and reviewers have shown consistent interest in only a few native literary types, such as Momaday, Simon Ortiz, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Michael Dorris and his wife and writing partner, Louise Erdrich.

They are a distinguished group, counting among their laurels a Book Critics Circle Award for Erdrich's novel "Love Medicine," and one for Dorris's nonfiction "The Broken Cord." Ortiz has won a Pushcart Prize for poetry, and Silko's recognition includes a five-year MacArthur Foundation Grant.

But most of the writing has been done in a publishing world of small houses or university presses, especially those of Arizona, Nebraska, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

It can be quite a search for some of even the best work. But such searches create a little romance of their own, binding the reader to the Indians and their wanderings, to what Momaday, reflecting on the trek of the Kiowas, called "a whole journey, intricate with motion and meaning . . . an evocation of three things in particular: a landscape that is incomparable, a time that is gone forever, and the human spirit, which endures."

Along the way readers must first be wary, for serious literary efforts long have been overshadowed by "Indian" writing that has tried to capitalize on the popular fascination with "the noble savage."

These were often stories born of the stereotypical Indians, those of the "Oh-Great-White-Father" mode of broken, monosyllabic English; the mostly mute, humorless, natives who occasionally can muster some profound, simple utterance about life and the environment.

Much of it is strained, and some of the most widely read has been downright fraudulent.

* A popular "autobiography" of Indian life in the 1920s by Buffalo Child Long Lance was one of the many enterprising ventures of one Sylvester Long. He had talked his way into publishing, movies and all kinds of deals before his angry brother revealed to the world that the family was part white and more black than Indian.

* In the 1930s, Grey Owl, a reputed half-Apache, earned immense popularity with his native slant on protecting the Canadian environment. When he died in 1939, it was discovered that he was really an Englishman named Archibald Belaney.

* When the modern boom in Indian writing began, "Memoirs of Chief Red Fox," a history by a 101-year-old Sioux chief written in 1972 with a free-lance writer, also became a best seller. It turned out to contain large sections of plagiarized material from a 30-year-old book.

* The 1991 winner for the Abby Award as the book the American Booksellers Assn. most enjoyed selling was "The Education of Little Tree" by Forrest Carter. It had become one of publishing's all-time windfalls after the University of New Mexico Press bought paperback rights for $500 to the long-dormant book, and word-of-mouth publicity led to sales of 800,000 copies over the last decade. It was recently discovered that the idyllic story of a youth's boyhood spent with Cherokee grandparents was written by Asa Carter, a virulent white supremacist who denied his true identity to his death in 1979.

* Last year's ABA favorite was a children's book, "Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: A Message From Chief Seattle," which sold more than 250,000 copies. It turned out that some of the most revered passages from the chief's 1854 speech had been embellished by a writer in the 1970s for an ecology film. Seattle, for one thing, lived in the Northwest, far removed from where the buffalo roamed, and he had never in his life "seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie."

Writer and anthropologist Dorris said the chicanery and embellishments are all part of catering to "a whole motif about the way Indians are supposed to talk and look. You can see it in any movie, from 'Dances With Wolves' on back. It kind of dictates what the public expects."

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