Undergraduate’s research shows popular fantasy fiction is misrepresenting Native American culture to millions of young readers.
By: Tom Robinette
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Christina Holtkamp
All things supernatural are big these days in pop culture. And oftentimes within the tales of fictional creatures of the night – vampires, werewolves, zombies – you’ll find references to very real Native American people.
The trouble is, these popular fantasy fiction stories can be misleading. That’s not a problem for the undead; they don’t exist. But when millions of young fans read about real Native American tribes portrayed as secretive guardians of powerful magic, such as the Quileute Indian Tribe in Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” saga, it misrepresents an entire population, according to Trisha Durham.
Durham, an international affairs and women’s studies major pursuing an international human rights certificate, presented her research on the representation and use of female Native American characters in popular fantasy fiction at the Native American Literature Symposium (NALS) in March in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
|Trisha Durham received a Taft Undergraduate Enrichment award to help fund her trip to the Native American Literature Symposium.|
“I found huge inconsistencies with the use of native culture in fantasy fiction,” Durham says. “This representation of Native American culture alongside vampires and werewolves is what today’s generations are understanding of native people. It’s their de facto history lesson.”
Durham points out the frequent portrayal of Native American women as alluring priestesses to make a fictional narrative more exotic. She noted how one of best-selling fantasy fiction author Patricia Briggs’ protagonists was written as Native American even though the only thing the character knew of her heritage was that it had given her special powers.
Durham says this treatment of native culture is especially unfortunate when considering the problems facing Native Americans today. The National Organization for Women reports that native women experience the highest rate of sexual and domestic violence of any group in the United States, much of which is perpetrated by non-natives. Native American communities are also beset by high rates of alcoholism and unemployment, which Durham says contribute to the widespread violence against native women.
Professor Amy Elder’s “Feminist Readings” and “Native American Women’s Literature” courses introduced Durham to native women’s issues. She soon discovered that little attention is given to Native American problems on local and national levels, which motivated her to begin what turned into months of research. Durham submitted her proposal to NALS this winter, hoping to make a direct connection with the Native American community and gain a better understanding of its plight. With financial assistance from the Taft Undergraduate Enrichment award, she attended the conference and gained an invaluable educational experience.
“Going to a Native American conference where there were like-minded people was a boost of motivation and reaffirmation that what I was doing mattered,” Durham says. “I enjoy the culmination of knowledge that happens if you assert yourself. I’m passionate about what I do, and going to a conference seemed like a natural part of that.”
Durham says her research is intended to point out how authors inaccurately present Native American characters but not necessarily deter them from writing about natives altogether. She wants to enlighten writers in order to bring about better, more culturally sensitive representations of Native Americans in contemporary literature. Durham says it can be done and done well, citing internationally acclaimed author Neil Gaiman’s novel “American Gods,” which was complimented by the Native American community.
“When you start using real cultures, it’s a slippery slope,” Durham says. “The conversation about Native Americans has to continue so that authors will heed that information and some of the fans will become aware that these are not accurate descriptions.”
Durham plans to graduate in June and continue her research on Native American women’s issues while pursuing a master’s degree in women’s studies. She intends to work in the social justice field and would like to get involved with United Nations Women. She encourages undergraduates who are serious about their studies and are interested in improving their marketability to consider the wide variety of research opportunities available in A&S.
“Experiences with research are critical to the growth of the person beyond college,” Durham says. “The things that I learned are all part of what I will do outside of college as a professional. If you’re at all interested in what you’re in school for, those are things that you have to reach out on your own to do, and they will make you more marketable and attractive to employers.”