The Allure of the Native American Romance
(November 3, 1997)
Author Chelley Kitzmiller is an active member of Aarlist, and like most authors on the list, I corralled her into writing a Write Byte on her specialty, the Native American romance. (readers should not be offended by the politically incorrect term of “Indian” throughout Chelley’s discussion – Native Americans were called Indians during the time when her books are set.) Chelley took her assignment on discovering the allure of this type of romance very seriously, and polled listserv members in addition to providing her own thoughts.
Here’s what Chelley had to say:
“The Indian is a peculiar institution. And still, he is a human being. A good many persons seem anxious to forget that fact.” General George Crook, 1871
What is the allure of the Indian romance? Is it the stoic Indian brave with his long, black hair, riding bareback across the plain? Is it the half-naked warrior fighting to preserve his home, his family, his people and his way of life against the greedy White Eyes? Or is it the forbidden love factor of the daring young brave and his white female captive?
In a recent on-line survey, I discovered it was all of these things and more. Which may be the reason why Indian romances have endured while several other sub-genres have fallen by the way.
Readers of Indian romances were generous with their explanations of why they loved these books. They were also specific, and I made an informal tally of the things they liked most. No one responding named a preference of one tribe, time period or location over another.
Since my own research and my two Indian romances deal with Apaches, I can only use examples of what I know of them. But I’m told that many of the other tribes have a similar culture and belief system.
Topping the list was learning about the beliefs, the customs and the culture. I emphasize learning because that word was used in almost every response, which leads me to the conclusion that readers like romance novels that actually teach them something.
Many Indian romance lovers are also avid readers of western romances. In general, they seem to like a grittier kind of book. One reader responded that she didn’t like things sugar-coated, which I take to mean that she likes realism and wants to be told how things really were. “I want to feel like I’m right there, living with them in their time period,” said another reader.
Personally, the Apache people have always fascinated me. They have a whole different way of life, a different way of thinking and a different way of looking at things, which is why I chose to write two books – going on three and maybe four – about them. The following are examples of this.
A Cultural Oddity:
Back in the 1870’s, General George Crook, a noted Indian fighter, was given the awesome task of bringing the Apache to their knees. But the Apache were born warriors – the fiercest of all the tribes. No other tribe could match them for their tracking and fighting skills. They used movement, concealment, surprise, even the land itself as weapons. Crook had orders to subdue and control the hostiles, but to do that he first had to find them. Crook learned early on that only Apaches could track down and kill Apaches. With this in mind, the Apache scout came into being. (The hero of Fires of Heaven trains army regulars to track, fight and think like Apache warriors).
Your first thought might be that any Apache who hired on to scout for the army was a traitor. But wait a minute – that’s the thinking of our society, not the Apache’s!
Unlike the White Eyes, the Apache did not live under a central government; the tribe was broken down into subtribal groups: divisions, bands, and large family groups. They could spend their entire lives without ever communicating with other Apaches. Consequently, scouts weren’t considered traitors because they had no one central government to be “loyal” to, only their immediate subtribal group.
Money attracted many Apache scouts. No one thought the worse of a warrior who sold himself to the Army for pay. Money provided the warrior with material wealth and wealth gave him status and additional wives. To gain wealth by killing one’s enemies was a virtue; to gain it by killing his own tribesmen was easily rationalized.
Second on the lists of likes was the Indian’s respect and love of the land. What a shame we White Eyes didn’t feel this way. We wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now!
Apaches didn’t believe that land could be bought or sold, nor did they measure the beauty of one place against another. To them the land was beauty, harmony and power and everything in it was invested with life. Much of the American Indian spirituality is derived from the land. The Mountain Spirits, for instance, are supernatural beings that helped the Apache in the beginning of creation. (The Wind Spirit plays a major role in Embrace the Wind) Indians believed that there is an order within the universe, that all things behave in relationship to all other things. Within this order, the Indian holds the memory of creation.
Right up there with land, readers mentioned the Indian’s love and respect for nature. The people were often named after animals – the wolf, the bear, the fawn. Television and the movies have shown us that while legendary heros such as Buffalo Bill Cody shot the buffalo for sport and left them to rot in the sun, the Indian killed the buffalo only as needed and used every part of the animal for something – food, warmth, shelter.
The Indian Hero:
In reality, few Apache warriors looked like Jeff Chandler did in Broken Arrow, when he played the famed Apache leader, Cochise. But Jeff, I mean Cochise, is a good example of what readers like in an Apache hero. They see the Apache hero as an honest man, a truthful man – a man who is strong in mind and body and who will fight and die for what he believes in, his people and his way of life.
Maybe the biggest allure of the Indian romance lies with the Indian hero. Right from the start of the book, the reader knows the he is going to be the underdog. And who can resist rooting for the underdog? The struggles that the Indians dealt with way back in the 1800’s are today’s struggles, too: land, a way of life different than the masses, a freedom of religious belief and most of all racial prejudice. The Indian hero of the romance novel is always able to rise above adversity and be bigger than the White Eyes trying to bring him down. “The archetypical view is strength, protection, honesty, love of the land, animals, and God. A very romantic archetype, I think!,” said one on-line respondent.
In researching and writing these books, I feel I’ve gained some understanding of the Apache people and their life way. What I don’t know about them, I ask the experts. I can’t say enough for my friend, David Faust, the curator of the Fort Lowell Museum in Tucson, Arizona. He has set me on the right path more than once.
I wanted to write a very realistic kind of Indian historical – a gritty story, a history-filled, fact-filled story. Most of all, I wanted to give back to the industry I love, to the industry that changed my life!
A few quotes from some of the nice women who contributed to the writing of this article:
- “Indian romances have changed my perception of the Indian population. I don’t look down on them. I look at what they can teach me.”
- “I hang my head in shame at some of the things our ancestors did. ”
- “I especially enjoy it when I read one (an Indian romance) that is believable. Though I do try to suspend my belief some so I can enjoy my fantasy.”
- “When I read an Indian romance, I sometimes wonder to myself what the country would have been like if they had been allowed to set policy.”
On another note all together, imagine if you will my shock to discover that my favorite western actor, Jack Palance, had read my first historical romance novel!
I had been out to Jack’s ranch (near my mini-ranch) a couple of years back when he was filming a TV show on Joaquin Murieta, the hero of my first book, Touch The Dawn. We found we had a similar interest in Joaquin’s history, which is sort of spotty. I gave him my book, certain that it would end up in the round file. Little did I know that he would actually read it.
This last February, I spent several days in Jack’s company and got to know him much better. What a neat guy and what a sexy voice – a voice to daydream by.
I went into my video library and pulled out all his old westerns and watched them. He played an Apache better than anyone. Those cheekbones, those piercing eyes – all warrior! I asked him how accurate the research was that was done for the movies and he said he thought it was very accurate.
As you might guess, I mentioned that I was currently writing about Apaches and that’s when he told me he had read my first book, like it very much, and was planning on writing me a review. After I got over the shock, I said, “Why don’t you read my new book and if you like it, write your review on it and I’ll give it to my publisher.”
For two long weeks, I sweated macho Jack Palance reading my book (the first time I didn’t know it, so I didn’t know to sweat). I wasn’t worried that he would criticize my style so much or even my historical data – it was the love scenes!
Think about it – City Slicker’s Curly reading, “in his haste, he practically tore off the button to get his pants undone.” Or how about the Apache warrior, Toriano, in the movie Arrowhead, reading, “He shuddered convulsively when he felt Ginny’s trembling fingers close over his….” You get the idea. When I saw him again, I tried to keep a straight face but I’m a blusher and I blushed up a storm, much to my chagrin!
Jack is the ultimate western hero. He’s 77 years young and still a hunk! I am enjoying my friendship with him so much that I’m writing him into my next book, a sort of follow-up to Embrace the Wind, as the hero’s tough father, King Kincade. Jack is sort of kingly, don’t you think?
You can find Chelley’s backlist at her web site at http://www.sff.net/people/Bookends