The previous post looked at the roles of Native American main characters. This one is about all the rest, with a particular focus on love interests (as the major supporting role that exists).
Part III will discuss how a character is identified as Native American.
~ Trigger Warning: Discussion of Sexual Assault. ~
Books closer to the urban fantasy/horror end often have white love interests, but some of the more paranormal romance end have Native American love interests. This is usually a man, set opposite a Northern European or mixed race woman (who as described previously, is intended to represent a Northern European woman in most cases, even if she's mixed).
Unlike main characters, the love interest is emphasised as being other and mysterious. Descriptions of the love interest tend to be exoticised, focusing on him as savage, animalist and otherwordly. He has flashing black eyes and ebony hair. These will be mentioned frequently. In addition, it's rare for him to be mixed race and he will have grown up on a reservation.
This is likely to be an import from the romance genre, where there's a market for books with innocent white women falling into the arms of Native manly men. The reader is expected to identify with the white woman, not the Native American man.
There are a couple of underlying reasons for this trope:
- Sexual Stereotypes. There's a general stereotype of non-white people being highly sexual. The men will rape you (if you're a pure white woman). The women and children are there to be raped. This is because they're savage, so rape doesn't impact them or hurt them, unlike civilized white people! It shouldn't need to be said that this is an ugly stereotype. It's been used as justification for violence against people all over the world. Not just at the individual level, but as justification for taking over people's countries.
In American history, white men would ride out to capture Native American women to gang rape them. If the women's husbands tried to stop it, they'd be shot.
In modern times, it hasn't stopped being an issue. Native American women have a higher chance of being raped than other women (and Native American men probably do too, but in general, men are less likely to report rape). There are still survivors of some of the missionary schools, where Native American children were raped by white missionaries. In 2011, the Jesuits agreed to pay $166 million to some of the victims of this sexual abuse. This issue is still causing damage right now.
When a love interest is portrayed using this stereotype, it comes with a lot of hurtful history and racist baggage.
This doesn't mean he can't be sexy, but when he's described as savage, uncontrollably sexual and intending to force his interest on white women... there's a problem.
- White Guilt. Sometimes people feel guilty because their ancestors did bad things. They write a story where
theytheir main character falls in love with a Native American man. The main character is the ultimate anti-racist. No racist thoughts have ever crossed her mind and everyone in her new family will accept her without any comment, because she's just that great. This is often tempered with other white people being horribly racist, showing the enlightenment of the heroine*.
It's not a helpful position to take, as it deals with guilt by promoting a stereotype (rather than tackling modern racism, which includes stereotypes in fiction). It turns the love interest into a statement rather than a character.
And basically, it's a major dose of wish-fulfilment, at the expense of the Native American characters. Don't be this author.
The lack of reality in the relationships can be shown by the lack of realistic obstacles. There may be demons and ancient prophecies keeping them apart, but it's unusual for the heroine and love interest to discuss, or deal with, any repercussions of an interracial relationship. They won't consider if the children can be tribally enrolled, for example. The heroine doesn't have to challenge her own internalised prejudices as she enters into the relationship. She's usually depicted as effortlessly not having any. It's as though modern media never happened to her.
A few other supporting roles for Native Americans include:
- The villain. Skinwakers and wendigos get a lot of love (hate?). This isn't surprising, given they're scary stories that fit well into a genre with horror leanings. What is noticeable is few books follow the original Native American stories. Skinwalker is used to describe a whole lot of things, most of which wouldn't be called a skinwalker by a tribe with such stories.
It does raise a few eyebrows if the villains are the only Native Americans in the book, though many urban fantasy authors appear to have some awareness of this... if the protagonist is white, they'll get assistance from a not-evil Native American.
- Mystical mentor, offering sage advice to the main character, but having no apparent motivations of his/her own. In books by Native American authors, older people who are wise are common, but they have personalities and motivations.
- Family. Though being estranged from family is not uncommon, some characters do have family connections. Generally non-Native authors focus on parents and siblings. Native American authors have those too, but there's a stronger focus on grandparent/grandchild relations, as well as aunts, uncles and cousins.
Animal People Coyote
Though not Native American in the human sense, animal people** are common supporting characters***. However, the way they're depicted is imbalanced. Coyote is usually the one included, often to the exclusion of any of the others (if there is another, it will be Raven). Some books gloss over even mentioning that others exist, as though Coyote is a stand-in for a monotheist god.
Coyote also tends to be remarkably nice. In one book, this was taken to the extreme of him not doing anything trickstery at all. He was honest and helpful. Making a few jokes does not make someone a trickster.
Possibly some authors are worried they'll offend by having Coyote do bad things, but having a squeaky clean Coyote doesn't really work. This is one of those times when people might have taken being respectful the wrong way. It doesn't mean Coyote has to be portrayed in a way he certainly isn't in Native American stories****.
Thoughts on Supporting Characters
Stereotypes tend to make characters who are as flat as a pancake. Urban fantasy has a whole lot of pancakes. Love interests are prone to some of the worst of the stereotypes, complete with exoticising and squickiness. Other support types don't escape completely, with the old mystical wise person stereotype creeping in.
Some of it though, is just a little strange. Like the abundance of skinwalkers who aren't skinwalkers.
In many ways, the feeling here is the same as main characters: that the audience isn't intended to contain Native American readers. But there are also hints at some awareness of causing offense, such as cleaning up Coyote. It's almost as though some authors are on the edge of realising their audience is broader. They just haven't quite got there yet.
* Regular readers of the blog might find this very familiar. Where have we seen a special white woman, going to live with indigenous people and being totally anti-racist, when everyone else was so racist? It's Marlo Morgan among the Australian aboriginal people. The only difference is she didn't have an aboriginal love interest.
** 'Animal people' is another of those terms that tends to be more common in anthropologist circles.
*** Animal people weren't common supporting characters in the urban fantasy books by Native Americans. This is one of those times where an author's reading list needs to be wider, because there is Native-authored fiction featuring animal people elsewhere. It's also perhaps a commentary on non-Native authors tending to focus only on animal people stories. Native authors draw from a wider range of stories.
**** Doris Seale comments on the issue of respect towards Coyote, in a review of Jonathan London's "Fire Race: A Karuk Coyote Tale" (quote taken from: "A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children"):
London treats his Coyote with a whole lot too much respect. Coyote is not really a person we honor, in that way--more like, you better have a healthy respect for his ability to make trouble, and keep out of his way--even if you laugh at him.
Respect isn't about turning everything into Disney. After Pocahontas, I'd hope people realise Disneyfying can be the opposite of respect.
# The book cover is 'Savage Beloved' by Cassie Edwards - a classic example of the romance tropes involving Native American love interests. Urban fantasy may be less blatant about it, but this is the book cover I'm thinking of when I see those tropes in urban fantasy.