Friday, July 02, 2010

Contextualising the Modern Native American Romance

Theresa Lynn Gregor's PhD thesis, From Captors to Captives: American Indian Responses to Popular American Narrative Forms (2010) is available online from the University of Southern California's digital library. In the acknowledgements section, Gregor thanks 'Professor Tania Modleski, my dissertation chair, [and author of Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women] for helping me trace the early shoots of my fascination with the Indian captivity narrative into film and then through women’s romance' (iv).

Modern romances are dealt with relatively briefly, being the subject of the second half of Chapter 4, in which Gregor
situate[s] the reception of contemporary productions of popular romances by Native American Studies scholars alongside a critical reading of several examples from the genre written by Cassie Edwards (author of the popular Savage Series who publicly claims her Choctaw heritage) and Janet Wellington a relatively new and a non-Native romance writer who published an American Indian romance that feature the Kumeyaay culture, a large California Indian tribal group indigenous to Southern California, USA and Baja California, Mexico. (131-32)
In the section about modern romances, Gregor notes that
Although Edwards' novels are not reviewed by many scholarly periodicals, they have been the subject of critique in at least two scholarly studies: one by Peter Biedler [Beidler] that appeared in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal and another written by Christopher Castiglia in his book-length study of Captivity, Culture-Crossing and White Womanhood. [see Bound and Determined: Captivity, Culture-Crossing, and White Womanhood from Mary Rowlandson to Patty Hearst, pages 190-194] Neither critic commented on the fact that Edwards identified herself in her early biographical sketches as a Cheyenne descendent.(176-77)
Gregor's research leads her to conclude that
While Edwards' Savage romances are problematic and far from what I would consider proof that romances provide a “liberatory function” for female readers [...], Edwards' decision to write and publish the narratives are evidence of a Native woman's desire to rewrite Indian love stories from multiple tribal perspectives, which in and of itself politicizes her prolific publishing career. While the effect of her novels on Indian female readers is an area of scholarly critique I will explore for some time, my interviews about Edwards and her work reveal that the titles alone do not entice Indian women to read the books nor do the provocative pictures of the hunky Indian men on the cover. Instead, a picture of a nicely beaded bag or piece of Indian jewelry often catches the eye of the reader. While many of these readers admit that her “savage” titles are “racist” they contend that they simply read through the stereotype to see if the story has anything interesting to say. (180-81)
Moving on to examine Janet Wellington's Dreamquest, Gregor notes that, 'Unlike Edwards, Wellington assiduously lists her historical references, a Kumeyaay dictionary, and websites for further studies of Native American history, literature, and ethnobotany' (182). However, Gregor finds Wellington's work problematic too:
Perhaps the most insidious component of the narrative is the masquerade of the fantasy in the cultural and historical details; the veil of authenticity creates the “savage illusion” of a sympathetic, progressive, and pro-Indian romance. However, the Indian hero's “dream quest” is realized through the white woman's “dreams” or fantasies. Without her the Natives in the story have no agency, no reality, no vision, and no destiny; they are literally unimaginable.
The symbolic implication of the revelation is chilling: the white female author is literally the bearer of Native/American identity. (184-85)
The whole of Gregor's thesis can be found here.

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