White images in the Indian mind: A study of the American Indian novel

Janet Zimmerman Marsh
Dept. of English, Northern Illinois University
July, 2006


This dissertation examines the development of white images in novels published between 1891 and 1996 by six authors of American Indian descent. The first three Native novelists, writing for a predominantly white audience, carefully crafted their white characters to instruct but not alienate their readers. As historical and social conditions changed, the later writers seemingly acquired unrestricted power to depict whites in any way they chose. Chapter One focuses on S. Alice Callahan's Wynema (1891), wherein Callahan utilizes sensitive, enlightened white characters to correct misconceptions about Indians, expose racism and sexism, critique the government, and show how mutual respect between the races and sexes may solve the problems facing the nation. Chapter Two examines Mourning Dove's Cogewea (1927), which contrasts trustworthy, color-blind white characters with whites who have betrayed Indians, such as members of the U.S. government and white fathers who abandon Indian women, stressing the unjust treatment of Native people. Chapter Three focuses on D'Arcy McNickle's The Surrounded (1936), wherein white characters, well-intentioned but destructive, represent the "civilizing" forces of America. From Catholic priests to policemen, they interfere in the lives of Native people and undermine tribal culture. Chapter Four deals with Anna Lee Walters's Ghost Singer (1988). Walters's portrayal of whites as arrogant, insensitive, materialistic, and narrow-minded contrasts markedly with her depiction of Indians, who have a vaster, more sophisticated view of reality. Chapter Five concentrates on Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water (1993), which comically depicts whites, brainwashed by Western master narratives to think hierarchically, as obsessed with power and control. Juxtaposing Western creation stories with Native narratives, King suggests that Indian stories are superior. Chapter Six examines Sherman Alexie's Indian Killer (1996). Looking through a prism of anger, Alexie exposes the deeply ingrained racism, blindness, and arrogance of his inherently hopeless white characters as he satirizes and condemns their bankrupt views. This study shows that over time, American Indian novelists have gained the freedom, audience, and opportunity to write back to the dominant culture, confronting and defying mainstream America's deeply embedded assumptions and stereotypes about Indians while illuminating some key components of white identity.