The Native American Dream

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The Native American Dream


What is often depicted in mainstream society as American Indian culture is, in fact, a multitude of unique native cultures that once spanned the thousands of miles that make up the continental United States. For this reason, the notion of a single Native American dream is simplistic and hardly applicable to all Native Americans in any given time or place. However, the role of Native Americans in American society has long been determined by the ruling white majority. In this regard, the Native American dream can be seen as a reflection of how whites viewed American Indians throughout the history of the United States.

Europeans Arrive

The earliest depictions of the Native American dream are not derived directly from Native Americans, but they are recorded by early white explorers and settlers. Thomas Hariot was one such explorer; his "A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia" (1588) was instrumental in shaping European settlers' views of the native people they encountered in the New World. Though Hariot spends the bulk of his report itemizing every natural resource in Virginia that might be used or exploited, he devotes a section at the end of his report to the native people and their customs and beliefs. Hariot's vision of Native American life relates almost entirely to the way the natives respond to the white settlers in Hariot's group, or in how their beliefs differ from his own Christian perspective. Though he learns the Algonquian language and studies their customs with more care and interest than other European explorers, Hariot never appears to view the native people as equals in any way, calling their religion "far from the truth." He writes, "I rather believe that they will have cause both to fear and to love us," and notes that many of the natives look upon the white settlers as gods. This occurs after many natives mysteriously die after the settlers have passed through their town. While modern readers might view this as an example of indigenous people being devastated by foreign diseases to which they have no immunity, Hariot simply refers to it as a "marvelous accident." He offers this fateful observation of the native people he has encountered:

Compared with us, the natives are poor. They lack skill and judgment in using the materials we have and esteem trifles above things of greater value. But if we consider that they lack our means, they are certainly very ingenious. Although they do not possess any of our tools, or crafts, or sciences, or art, yet in their own way they show excellent sense. In time they will find that our kinds of knowledge and crafts accomplish everything with more speed and perfection than do theirs. Therefore, when they realize this, they will most probably desire our friendship and love, and, respecting our achievements, they will try to please and obey us. Whereby, if we govern them well, they will in a short time become civilized and embrace the true religion.

White Men: Friend or Foe?

Shawnee leader Tecumseh would be one of the first Native Americans to have his words and views recorded for historical posterity. In his 1810 speech to Governor William Henry Harrison at Vincennes (in what is now Indiana), Tecumseh protested the "sale" of large areas of tribe-controlled lands to the American government. Because the land was jointly owned by all native people in the region, he argued, any sale of land had to be approved by all who used it—and not just approved by a handful of Native Americans who did not have the legal right to speak for all the others. In the short speech, Tecumseh notes that his people were "once a happy race, since made miserable by the white people who are never contented but always encroaching." Tecumseh was unsuccessful in stopping the encroachment of whites, though he fought until his death alongside British troops in an attempt to drive back American settlement during the War of 1812. Tecumseh's simple, clear argument about communal ownership of native lands—and his argument that native peoples had first right to ownership, because they were the first to live there—would be used time and again by hundreds of different tribes, though such arguments met with little or no success when it came to preserving tribal lands from the encroachment of white Americans. The idea would become an overarching theme of the Native American dream, which existed above all tribe distinctions and served to unite many different native populations.

Cultural Conversion

Not all Native Americans resisted the encroachment of white American society entirely. William Apess, a Pequot Indian from Massachusetts, grew up in indentured servitude to many different white families over the course of his youth. His autobiography, A Son of the Forest (1829), is the first full-length work to be published by a Native American author. In the book, Apess tells of his conversion to Christianity and his experiences living among white Americans. Even as he accepts many aspects of white culture, Apess strives to serve as an example of the potential of Native Americans to shatter the prejudices held by many white Americans at the time. Apess's dream of a country in which Native Americans would be treated fairly and respectably by whites, and would likewise be free to adopt the beliefs and customs of whites as they wished, was as short-lived as Apess himself; after losing faith in the notion that whites and native tribes could coexist peacefully, Apess descended into alcoholism and obscurity, and died in his early forties.

The Plight in Print

As the Plains and Pacific Coast Indians were forcibly cleared from their ancestral lands throughout the middle of the nineteenth century, very few Native Americans memorialized the tragic events in writing. Many relied on oral tradition, but such accounts often disappeared as members of the tribe died in battle or perished from the harsh conditions of the reservations. The task of capturing the tragic events was often undertaken by white Americans sympathetic to the Native Americans' plight; Helen Hunt Jackson was one such woman. Although her novel Ramona (1884) is a fictional account of a half-Indian girl and her struggles with the encroachment of white settlers, it incorporates many real-world events in an attempt to appeal directly to the hearts of readers. At the end of the novel, Ramona, having been repeatedly forced off the lands of her ancestors, decides that the only solution is to take her child and leave for Mexico. For her, there is no fulfillment of the American dream.

Though Jackson had hoped to bring awareness of the Native American plight to the American public—much as Harriet Beecher Stowe had done for African Americans in Uncle Tom's Cabin—many white Americans had already been conditioned to view Native Americans as hostile outsiders who stood in the way of the natural development of the nation. This view is expressed with brutal simplicity in Robert Frost's poem "The Vanishing Red" (1920), in which an Indian named John is killed by a miller who shows no reason or remorse for his actions. The meaning of the title is twofold: Although John himself vanishes down the wheel-pit of the mill, the "Vanishing Red" also refers to Native Americans in general, who were quickly disappearing from the American consciousness through death and through government-imposed abandonment of their cultural heritage.

Rewriting History

Indeed, Native American culture had almost vanished from the American landscape by the 1960s, when the civil rights movement brought renewed interest in the struggle of indigenous American tribes. At around this time, historian Dee Brown was scouring rare and obscure nineteenth-century historical documents in an attempt to create a comprehensive history of the American West from a Native American perspective. His groundbreaking book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970), was the first such account to penetrate mainstream American culture. Many of the facts Brown revealed about events such as the Sand Creek massacre and Custer's Last Stand were nothing less than shocking to most Americans, who had been led to believe that Indians had been the aggressors in such incidents. Although Brown meant to document the circumstances surrounding actual events of the American West as accurately as possible, the author clearly attempts to understand and value the traditions and views of the Native American tribes he discusses. He succinctly captures the philosophy of both sides of the struggle with this exchange:

In 1855 Governor Isaac Stevens of Washington Territory invited the Nez Percés to a peace council. He said there were a great many white people in the country, and many more would come; that he wanted the land marked out so that the Indians and white men could be separated. If they were to live in peace it was necessary, he said, that the Indians should have a country set apart for them, and in that country they must stay.

Tuekakas, a chief known as Old Joseph by the white men, told Governor Stevens that no man owned any part of the earth, and a man could not sell what he did not own.

Native Voices

In the 1970s, Leslie Marmon Silko was one of a handful of Native American writers who began to achieve a certain degree of literary success. Her 1977 novel Ceremony, about a Pueblo Indian named Tayo who returns to his tribe's reservation after fighting against the Japanese in World War II, is widely considered to be one of the greatest accomplishments in Native American literature. Tayo, who fights for the ideals of the American dream in a war against foreign enemies, comes home to find himself unable to participate in the American dream himself. Silko's novel is notable for being one of the first modern expressions of the Native American experience from an insider's perspective; at the same time, Tayo's experiences in Ceremony paralleled the experiences of many American soldiers who had recently returned home from the Vietnam War, and the book appealed to many readers for reasons unrelated to its cultural significance.

In addition to Silko, the 1970s and 1980s saw increasing success for other Native American writers such as George Boyce, who wrote Some People Are Indians (1974), a noted short story collection about the challenges faced by modern Navajos; and Del Barton, whose A Good Day to Die (1980), tells the story of her great-grandfather, the last Dakota chieftain.

In his poetry collection A Good Journey (1977), Simon Ortiz, a member of the Acoma Pueblo tribe from New Mexico, combines elements from traditional Native American myths with the gritty reality of life as experienced by his people in modern times. Several of the poems feature Coyote, a mythical trickster found in many Native American cultures. At the same time, poems such as "Grants to Gallup, New Mexico" reveal a keen eye for realistic detail as well as an understanding of the Native American search for a place in American society. As the narrator travels from Grants, Oklahoma, home to New Mexico, he meets an Indian hitchhiker who tells his story:

    Once, I been to California.
    Got lost in L.A., got laid
    in Fresno, got jailed in Oakland,
    got fired in Barstow,
    and came home.

The New Mexico home to which the narrator returns is not much more hospitable than California, though he calls it "The Indian Capital of the World." In the end, he confesses that he sometimes feels like leaving behind the world that no longer seems to have a place for him.

In another Ortiz poem, "Canyon de Chelly," the narrator tries to share his understanding of the eternal spirit of the natural world with his young son. This is significant in two ways. First, it keeps alive the traditional notion of the natural world as something to respect and behold, and something that is a fundamental part of human existence. The narrator finds that a rock fits his body perfectly as he lies gazing at the sky; his son places a rock in his own mouth, symbolically making the earth a part of himself. Second, it upholds the custom of passing this understanding down from generation to generation. At a time when Native American cultures are rapidly vanishing, a father and son keep one small piece of tradition alive.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Native American authors continued to explore the notion of identity and the Indian place in American society. None was more commercially successful than Louise Erdrich, an author of Anishinaabe (Chippewa) descent who grew up on a reservation in North Dakota. Her 1988 novel Tracks, like many of her novels, is set on the same reservation where she grew up; the book takes place at the beginning of the twentieth century, when members of the tribe face the possibility of losing their identity to both the dominant white culture around them and the indifference of younger tribe members. The character of Pauline in particular represents the struggle for identity faced by many people of mixed ancestry, who are too often not fully accepted by whites or by Native Americans. Erdrich's use of traditional Native American character types, such as the trickster who resides within Nanapush, provides a unique way of viewing the world in which the characters live.

In Indian Killer (1996), author Sherman Alexie depicts modern race relations in Seattle in the context of a series of murders committed by what appears to be a psychotic Native American. The killer, a full-blooded Indian named John Smith, was raised by white parents and has spent his life completely disconnected from his true heritage. Another Native American, Marie, rejects life on the reservation in an effort to help homeless Indians and educate whites in mainstream society. Another character, a white mystery author named Jack Wilson, openly embraces his Native American heritage—which, in reality, does not exist.


Throughout American history, the Native American dream has been less a single unified vision than a reaction to the American dream of the white majority in American society. Only in recent decades have Native American writers begun to make significant contributions to American literature. This, coupled with a continued resurgence in the interest to preserve the many Native American cultures that still exist in some form, might someday lead to a clearer understanding of the many rich pieces that make up the tapestry of the Native American dream.


Brown, Dee, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971; reprint, Owl Books, 2001, p. 317.

Frost, Robert, "The Vanishing Red," in Mountain Interval, Henry Holt, 1920; reprint,, 1999, (November 29, 2006).

Hariot, Thomas, "A Brief and True Reportof the New Found Land of Virginia," in Roanoke Revisited Heritage Education Program, (November 29, 2006); originally published in 1588.

Ortiz, Simon, "Grants to Gallup, New Mexico," from A Good Journey (Sun Tracks, An American Indian Literary Series, Volume 12), University of Arizona Press, 1977, (November 26, 2006).

Tecumseh, "Tecumsehto Governor Harrison at Vincennes," in World's Famous Orations, edited by William Jennings Bryan, Funk and Wagnalls, 1906; reprint;, 2003, (November 29, 2006).

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The Native American Dream

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