Every so often, well-intentioned non-Indians set out to write the
definitive chronicle of the "plight" of American Indians, the point being
to shock other non-Indians out of complacency in order to direct public
attention to the appalling conditions of life in Indian country. Perhaps
the most effective of these accounts were Helen Hunt Jackson's 1881 "A
Century of Dishonor", which played a direct role in the formation of the
Indian Rights Association lobby group, and Lewis Meriam's 1928 "The Problem
of Indian Administration", which led to a significant turn in federal
Indian policy. This sort of writing, which I call "literature of the
plight," explicitly seeks action and usually finds it.
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune's recent three-part series, "The Lost Youth of
Leech Lake" (April 25 - 27), seems to have been written in the same spirit
as its plight-portraying predecessors. Documenting a depressed reservation
youth culture defined by violent crime, addiction, abuse and neglect, the
stated purpose of the series was "to wake-up the outside world to a true
crisis," according its author, Larry Oakes. A Star-Tribune editorial
defending Oakes's depiction of "the violent, hopeless,
drug-and-alcohol-drenched lives" of Leech Lake youth called the portrayal
"reality" and suggested that a proper reaction wouldn't be "shock" so much
as "familiar sadness."
For most Leech Lakers and other Minnesota Natives, however, the reaction
has been anger and protest. When was the last time a newspaper story
inspired public demonstrations? There have been no fewer than three at
Leech Lake: first, Dennis Banks' three-day "We Are Not All on Drugs Walk",
then a youth rally, and most recently a reservation-sponsored conference
themed, "We Are Not Lost." Heated debate has lit up talk shows, oped pages,
Internet chatrooms, and dinner table discussions.
Objections to the series have basically centered on the way it 1) focused
on the worst of the worst, 2) ignored happy, healthy (not to mention
law-abiding) teenagers at Leech Lake; 3) generalized this sorry state of
affairs to an entire community, thus 4) contributing to another generation
of stereotypes of drunken Indians, deadbeat parents and dangerous teens.
Since the series also called into question the wisdom of the Indian Child
Welfare Act (without discussing its legislative purpose) and hinted that
"federal funding" is mishandled by the tribe (without offering any proof),
we can also add that the stories 5) implicitly attacked the sovereignty and
self-determination of Indian nations.
It is reasonable to insist upon accurate, balanced, and hopeful
representations of one's group. No community wants to be characterized in
essentially negative fashion, much less have their youth lumped together as
"lost." But the problem is compounded when the group represented is
American Indians, who have suffered under the weight of negative imagery
for over 500 years. From "soulless heathen" to "bloodthirsty savage" to
"noble savage" to "drunken Indian" to "lost youth," the parade of imagery
crafted by the dominant culture -- and we must admit that these images
never originate from Native sources -- is relentless. In other words, from
the Indian perspective, this latest round is nothing new. It is just
It is also typical. Consider the way the series was composed as a tragedy.
(I'm talking about literary form now, so think back to your old high school
English class.) As a particular type of narrative, with certain features
and forms, a tragedy like "Hamlet" or "Death of a Salesman" is meant to
elicit strong emotions from its audience -- Aristotle identified them as
pity and fear -- by presenting a human being facing insurmountable odds and
ending up in certain defeat. The protagonist is undone by his "tragic flaw"
-- the Greeks called this hamartia, and one example would be pride --
usually a bad decision made somewhere that comes back to haunt the hero.
Tragedy's appeal to audiences lies in its ability to produce catharsis, the
purging of emotions, which is why people enjoy crying at sad movies. One
appreciates tragedy for its ability to arouse feelings of pity and fear as
the tragic tale unfolds, while simultaneously feeling reassured that the
world isn't going to change. That last component is crucial: with the
tragic hero dead in the end, there's no impending change. Audiences are
just supposed to feel bad -- which actually feels good -- then reflect upon
The "Lost Youth" were composed as classically tragic figures, and they
appealed directly to the emotions of pity and fear. One pitied Sierra
Goodman, who only wanted loving parents, and feared Jesse Tapio, who drank,
listened to Tupac Shakur, picked fights, and called his victims "white boy"
and "whitey." Tragic flaws included the decision of teens to drink or take
drugs (the principal antagonist of every single story in the series), the
consumption of youth culture (rap, heavy metal, goth, etc.), and the
suspiciously ubiquitous presence of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (passed on by
apparently evil mothers). In the stories, the past functioned as a backdrop
-- not as history, but as fate -- thus, there's no need for serious
investigation of how things came to be the way they are. Root causes?
Irrelevant. Historical explanations? Unnecessary. Non-Indian
responsibility? Forget about it! No, the "Lost Youth" are simply doomed
because of cruel fates and tragic flaws. So dry your eyes, purge that
emotion, and pass the popcorn.
Oh, and by the way, the Indian Child Welfare Act is bad, because Indian
parents are bad, and federal funding can offer no help to a community of
poverty. Probably best to ban alcohol on the reservation and start praying
for help. Let's discuss values.
What a wonderful tragedy! But very poor journalism. Don't buy the lie that
just because the series was based on real people and actual events, it
depicted "reality." Most of Shakespeare's plays were based on "real" things
too, but no one reads them as fact. The crucial point is to recognize that
the series was written, put down in words by a writer, sitting at a
computer, surrounded by scads of paper, who had to take all of his
interviews, data, reports and the like, and fashion them into a readable
story for his audience. What Oakes ended up fashioning - that is, writing -
was a tragedy.
Representing Indians in the tragic mode is nothing new - think "Last of the
Mohicans" or "Dances with Wolves" - because, after all, Indians were never
meant to have a future in the first place. This is how culture has always
supported colonialism. To the extent that Natives are perceived as perched
on the brink of extinction, settlers can feel secure in their knowledge
that this really was an "empty continent," thus justifying their presence
on it. Purging one's emotions over the awful effects of colonization is
part of the process of justification -- hence, the persistent proliferation
of tragic narratives. But tragedy hasn't been the only narrative mode
non-Natives have employed to represent Indians. After all, the "dishonor"
in Jackson's "A Century of Dishonor" belonged to the whites, not the
Natives; and that's because she didn't write a tragedy, she wrote a
All writers (and readers) of the Indian story, wherever it happens to be
told, should immediately become suspicious whenever the Native tale takes a
tragic turn. There is always another way to tell the story, and the
Star-Tribune's mistake was to forget that important lesson. Leech Lake
youth face real problems today, there's no doubt; but one of the greatest
is a system that, when not ignoring them completely, pities and fears them,
casts judgment on their parents and values, and forever proclaims their