“Why do you write so much about Native Americans?” is a question I get all the time. In practically every story the hero and / or the villain as well as multiple supporting characters will be tribal members.
“I think Indians are about the most interesting people in the whole world,” doesn’t sound nearly intellectual enough—even though it is exactly right—so I usually say something like this: “The unbroken thread of mysticism that runs through Native American culture fits perfectly with my concept of magic realism.” If that doesn’t clear things up, I try a little harder.
Great events we don’t remember have mainstream Euro-Americans throwing salt over our shoulders, avoiding black cats, stepping over cracks, and leaving the thirteenth floor out of our buildings for reasons we don’t understand but must believe on some level. The same thing applies to Native Americans. They have a history that reaches back fifteen thousand years. Most of it isn’t written down but it’s been carried into the present by legends and ceremonies and lessons learned around the evening meal. It’s part of who they are.
Native American history is unique, so the way they approach the world is unique too. Whether they are lawyers, doctors, ministers, teachers, artists, writers, politicians, unskilled workers, soldiers, or criminals they put an American Indian spin on everything they do. That spin is what makes them the most interesting people in the world.
To get an idea how different background leads to different world-view, consider the Red Stick War.
In March of 1811 the brightest comet in recorded history made an appearance in the night skies over the United States. The Great Comet of 1811 didn’t lose the title of the biggest and the brightest until the appearance of the Hale Bop Comet in 1997. Remember what happened in southern California then? If you don’t, Google Heaven’s Gate.
When a Shawnee mystic named Tecumseh saw the comet he took it as a sign. He traveled around the country telling everyone who would listen that the fuzzy light in the sky was a supernatural message. The very nature of the Indians’ relationship with their tribal lands was about to change.
He encouraged tribes to unite against further white incursion on their lands before it was too late. He found a willing audience when he visited the Muskogee Creek, whose tribal territory (most of what is now Alabama and part of Georgia) was starting to look very good to white farmers.
Tecumseh promised a sign would follow his visit, which would prove his prophecy was true. When the New Madrid earthquake struck in December, a large number of Creek were convinced.
The Muskogee who joined the Tecumseh Confederation were known as the Red Sticks. The name may have come from red war clubs they carried, or from bundles of red sticks they used to count the days between strategic events. Half the Creek Nation joined in the movement and the other half were firmly against doing anything that would provoke the U.S. government. The division started a civil war inside Muskogee territory.
Ordinarily, the Red Stick war would have played itself out on tribal land but the War of 1812 had just started. The British armed the Creek Red Sticks and their Seminole allies and encouraged them to attack U.S. Army positions. When that happened, General Andrew Jackson moved his troops into Creek lands and by August 9 of 1814 he forced the tribe to sign the Treaty of Fort Jackson.
Despite protest of the Creek chiefs who fought the Red Sticks alongside Jackson, the Creek Nation ceded 23 million acres (93,000 km²)—half of Alabama and part of southern Georgia—to the United States government.
Eight years later, President Andrew Jackson forced the Creek to sign the Treaty of Cusseta, relinquishing their remaining lands east of the Mississippi and accepting “voluntary” removal to Indian Territory. The Army force-marched nearly 20,000 Creek across Tennessee and Arkansas starting in 1834. Three thousand five hundred Indians died in the process.
The Great Comet of 1811 really did portend a significant change in the Creek’s relationship with their land, even if it didn’t go exactly as Tecumseh planned.
That’s the unbroken thread of mysticism that fits perfectly with my concept of magic realism.