Monday, January 14, 2013

Diversity 101: Not Injun Joe

Native American Stereotyping in Literature

Contributed to CBC Diversity by Joseph Bruchac 

No group in American culture has been more stereotyped than Native Americans. While other ethnic stereotypes now meet with disapproval, harmful images of native people are still accepted or defended within majority culture, even when Native Americans complain. There are images and characters in books and other media, expressions in current usage, the naming of places and sports teams, and negative expectations about the behavior of Native Americans. It is so pervasive that non-natives often don’t realize they’re saying or doing things hurtful to Native Americans. (And when it is pointed out, the response is often disbelief or denial.)

My Personal Connection
I’m of mixed blood. Native American and European. My Abenaki grandfather who raised me often told me how he left school in fourth grade by jumping out a window because his classmates kept calling him a dirty Indian. Not acting like an Indian--denying a tribal identity--was his way to survive, while working as a laborer, a lumberjack, running a general store.

I started school in upstate New York in 1947. All the kids played cowboys and Indians. I wanted to be a cowboy. I did not want to be one of those howling redskins who rode in circles around wagon trains and were shot off their horses by John Wayne. However, there were also “good Indians.” At Thanksgiving my classmates wore paper headdresses to look like the nice Indians who came to dinner with the pilgrims. In scout groups, my peers and I were taught “Indian ways” by grown-up counselors and given “Indian names.” The adult world of my childhood portrayed Indians as enemies and then urged us to be like them. It was confusing.

Native Americans, as the media portrayed us then, were distant and exotic creatures, not human beings or neighbors—though numerous families in my home town were of native descent. Indians were either noble, vanishing savages, such as Chingachook and Uncas in Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, or murderous savages such as Magua. Men were “braves.” Women were “squaws.” Children were “papooses.” “They” were different from “us.”

It was worse if (like me) a character in a book or film was of Native and European ancestry. That produced a treacherous half-breed. The classic example of that character is Injun Joe in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. Injun Joe is a drunk, a murderer, and threatens the life of Tom. Twain’s Injun Joe reflected and deepened public perceptions about Indians and alcoholism. While it didn’t create the cliche that Indians “cannot hold their liquor,” it reinforced it. In point of fact, alcoholism is common in economically and socially depressed communities throughout the world. And for over two centuries whisky was often introduced by white men into Native American communities to manipulate Indians into unfair land transfers.

Things have improved since my childhood. Because Twain’s book is no longer so popular among young readers, the character of Injun Joe is relatively obscure today. Thank goodness. I grew up sometimes being called “Injun Joe.” But, sadly, you do not have to look far to find images of the Indian as a savage, barely controllable being in contemporary writing for young people. Just open the door of The Indian in the Cupboard. Negative or inaccurate images keep being resurrected in the media or, in the case of sports teams with Native names and mascots, vigorously defended.

Things I'd Like to See
On the other hand, in the 21st century there are ways that we, as teachers, writers, and readers can get it right. Begin by avoiding not just stereotypes, but the generalities that lead to stereotyping. For example, don’t accept it when someone references a tale as a “Native American” or “American Indian” story. (Many stories published as “old Indian legends”--especially about doomed lovers from warring tribes--were concocted by non-Native writers.)

“Native American” and “American Indian” are collective terms. Over 500 recognized and distinct tribal nations exist within the United States. Languages, traditions, histories and overall cultures can be vastly different. Begin by identifying the specific tribal nation--such as Dine’ (Navajo). Don’t go first to Google or general reference books (which are loaded with inaccuracies about American Indians). Use well-researched, primary sources, especially those offered by Native groups and organizations. The National Museum of the American Indian, with branches in New York City and Washington, DC is a superb resource. The Dine’ nation is one of a number of American Indian tribal nations maintaining a very strong website. You can also turn to well-prepared Native American people themselves, teachers, librarians and writers, tribal leaders and respected representatives of their own nations. (But do not make the mistake of assuming that any random Native American will know everything about Indians or even about his or her tribal nation.)

I constantly turn to such well-qualified human resources. When I wrote my novel Code Talker, about the Navajo marines who used their language during World War II to send secret messages for the United States, I did not limit my resource to books. I spoke with actual code talkers. My drafts were reviewed by the Navajo Code Talkers Association, by Harry Walters who is a respected Navajo museum director, and by a Navajo language teacher.

It takes time to do it right. But as Swift Eagle, a Pueblo/Jicarilla Apache elder who was a friend and teacher, once reminded me, “Few good things happen fast. Be patient and listen.”

Two books offering useful guidelines and reviews of young people’s books by and about American Indians:

  • Through Indian Eyes. Edited by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin. New Society Publishers, 1987.
  • A Broken Flute, The Native Experience in Books for Children. Edited by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin. Altamira, 2005.

Joseph Bruchac is a writer and storyteller whose work often reflects the American Indian experience. Author of over 120 books, including Code Talker and Dragon Castle, he is a graduate of Cornell University, the Syracuse University Writing Program, and holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the Union Institute of Ohio. Photo by Eric Jenks.


  1. Excellent. Thank you so much for this perspective.

  2. Mr. Bruchac, I always appreciate your books and your talks and your connection and articulation about the cultural confusion you experienced. It's hard to have a foot in two worlds, and this resonates in many ways even with ideas of African American cultural confusion.

    Thank you for the commentary and list of resources!

  3. Your comments are important for all of us to hear, especially those who develop curriculum and choose books for young people. Thank you for your articulate discussion regarding the need to support and celebrate literature that is free of stereotypes and misinformation. Nancy Bo Flood

  4. This was nice succinct analysis of what is wrong with many portrayals of Amerindian people in fiction, as well as offering some good advice for writers who want to do their Native characters justice. Thanks for posting this.

  5. Of everything you've said here, I particularly appreciate this: "It takes time to do it right."

    I think many of the errors out there are more due to careless rushing than ill-will. And it's a struggle to get the time to devote to a well thought out and thoroughly researched book.


  6. Thanks, Joe, for this piece. And thanks, CBC, for publishing it. Joe obviously had the will and family/community support to push back and move past the negative experiences of his youth. I had it, too. But the low graduation rates of Native students tell us that far too many Native children are choosing to drop out, or, are pushed out, or just give up.

    Imagine, for a moment, what a difference it would make if Native culture wasn't misrepresented or vilified in the books children are asked to read, and in the curriculum they're given. Imagine a curriculum, for example, built on Joe's books! They affirm Native ways of life, and inform the reader, too, in beautiful ways.

    In a chapter I wrote some years ago, I opened with Joe's work. Most readers know him because of his children's books, but he is far more than that. Here's what I wrote about Joe:

    If asked to name a Native American (or American Indian) author of children’s books, Joseph Bruchac, of the Abenaki tribe, is likely to be at the top of the list. Readers should note Bruchac’s tribe (Abenaki); Native Americans prefer to be identified by a specific tribe rather than Native American or American Indian when possible. Bruchac has written numerous children’s books about Native Americans.

    His work spans several genres: The Story of the Milky Way (Dial, 1995) is traditional literature, The Heart of a Chief (Dial, 1998) is contemporary realistic fiction, Arrow Over the Door (Dial, 1998) is historical fiction, Crazy Horse’s Vision (Lee & Low, 2000) is biography, and Bowman’s Store (Lee & Low, 2000) is his autobiography.

    What is not well known in the field of children’s literature is Bruchac’s role in mentoring aspiring Native authors. Indeed, he is recognized as the single most important force in the nation in publishing and promoting the work of emerging Native American writers (Lerner, 1996). Bruchac was instrumental in establishing the Returning the Gift festival in 1992. Held in Norman, Oklahoma, it was conceived as a gathering at which Native authors could share their work and talk with and/or mentor aspiring Native American authors. It evolved into an annual Returning the Gift festival and the formation of several organizations whose goals are to publish the work of Native authors and provide beginning authors with mentors. Native American authors who serve as mentors include Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo) whose Ceremony is widely used in high school classrooms, and Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d’Alene). Also serving as a mentor is Gayle Ross (Cherokee), known for her picture book retellings of traditional literature and oral storytelling, and of course, Bruchac himself.

    In addition to the festival, Bruchac established the Greenfield Review Press, a small publishing house devoted to publication of Native authors. Without question, Bruchac has been significant, not only for his own writing, but also for his efforts to mentor and promote the work of other Native authors.

  7. Thank you. We need more authors with this quiet courage and integrity.

  8. I hadn't though of the change in literature popular amongst youths as a factor in stereotyping. Very interesting point of view. I will go forward with a fresh perspective in mind while reading some of my favorite books.

  9. 5 February 2013. Good morning. I read the article entitled Diversity 101: "Not Injun Joe". From what I read and from what I have told by my family grwoing up, Indian stereotyping has been going on for many more years than I have been alive. I come from a very mixed ethnic background to include: the Chumash, Yaqui and Commanche, English, Dutch, German, Spain, and French. Although I am Caucasian, I am very proud of my Indian Heritage. My grandmother told me that she remembers growing up that she recalled seeing some instances where some family members had been drinking, but they were not drunk all the time as the stereotype indicates. We need to better educate ourselves if we are to break the stereotyping of the Native American Indians. Chuck Horton 5 February 2013