Mediating colonization: Urban Indians in the Native American novel

Date of Completion

January 2004


Literature, Modern|Literature, American|Sociology, Ethnic and Racial Studies




A great deal of Native American literature, history, and scholarly criticism presents sovereign land bases as integral to Indian identity in the twentieth century. This is certainly justified given the importance of place for native culture in the United States. However, often attendant to this is the assumption that non-reservation spaces such as cities are necessarily alienating and destructive settings for Native Americans, embodying the pinnacle of Euramerican colonization. I argue that a closer look at twentieth-century Native American novels challenges such a dichotomous view of reservation and city. Through novels by John Joseph Mathews, D'Arcy McNickle, N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Silko, Sherman Alexie, and Greg Sarris, I examine how literary representations of urban Indian experience have developed in the twentieth century. The culmination of this gradually evolving literary process is a multifaceted representation of the transcultural mediation central to the lives of urban Indians. ^ As a result of the United States' systematic federal assimilationist policies and assaults on tribal sovereignty, as well as widespread poverty among reservation populations, greater and greater numbers of Native Americans have refashioned contemporary native identities in cities. The political and cultural realities of twentieth-century urban Indian migration contextualize Native American novelistic portrayals of the city and emphasize how urban Indian characters synthesize tactics of colonial resistance and multicultural adaptation as methods of cultural survival. Though they are often conflicted about the viability of urban Indian culture and identity, all of the novelists I study do recognize the reality of urban life for Indians and the flexible identity politics required to maintain it. Even as many of these novels espouse traditionalist ideas about Indian identity, they also show us real urban Indians whose adaptability allows them to craft their own versions of Indian identity in the modern city. These glimpses of urban Indian lives problematize the novels' constructions of the city as an inhospitable environment for native peoples, revealing the transformative nature of contemporary Indian identity within traditional cultural structures. ^