Wow. I find your latest exchange with Debbie Reese, a wise old woman and the denial/responses from you and your fans very interesting and a bit scary. You all doth protest too much, methinks. Personally I think she rightfully called you out Mr. Gaiman on what I consider your ongoing and very nearly irremediable ignorance of all things Native American. For a man who clearly knows and has written a great deal about a great deal, you appear woefully damn ignorant to the point of redneckish when it comes to Native Americans. Long before this latest gaffe you have shown a marked tendency to wallow in cliché and stereotype when it comes to writing about anything Native American, if you write about Native Americans at all. A few examples worth noting –
Take a read through your run of Sandman comics - wherein you wander all across the globe and work in Gods of every kind from just about every single pantheon from every spot on the map - European, African, Asian etc. - hell even Sami – the whole world is there – except Native Americans. I kept waiting for at least a sidelong glance at something vaguely Native Americanish, but no. Nothing. Nada.
Lack of subject matter maybe? Unlikely. By my own woefully short count there are about 200+ Native American deities, all of them damn interesting and the vast majority of them still actively – healthily worshipped through song, dance and story, and appearing in a myriad of fine literary sources. But you sidestep them all. This is actually quite a lot of sidestepping and must have been exhausting. For a Native American like me, the end result of finishing Sandman is the eerie feeling that Native Americans and their Gods SIMPLY NEVER EXISTED.
As a side note of personal interest to me, you even have a main character in Sandman who is a Raven, and while you make allusions to Biblical, Norse and Greek traditions about the Raven, there is never a single mention of the very rich Native American take on that totem.
Consider also –
In your comic 1602, the closest thing to a Native American character is Rojhaz, a 1602 version of Captain America, the Marvel comic book hero. Rojhaz appears as a blond man in stereotypical Plains Indian garb - a buckskin loincloth, no shirt, long hair twined with feathers. All this, even though he’s living among tribes of the Northeast, who almost always wore full long sleeve shirts and pants. Rojhaz speaks in stereotypically ungrammatical and laconic "Me Indian", which comes close to Stepin Fetchit pure ole racism. He could have been written as English-fluent and intelligent, as primary sources from the time indicate most Native Americans were (and are) – instead he appears sullen and unable to communicate, conforming to the “Wagh, me Bigum Chief” stereotype. This is especially interesting, since one of your favorite bits as a writer is to play with an audiences expectations by presenting a known caricature or type in a new and enlightening way. That is to say, you normally don't hesitate to undermine a stereotype for effect. With Rojhaz however, you actually throw more dirt on the bulwark of ignorance that is the typical Native American caricature. You gotta wonder why?
In the same comic you also dredge up another little nugget of racist history when it is suggested that Rojhaz is a descendent of Prince Madoc, a Welsh character of legend that it is said to crossed over to the New World prior to that pendajo Columbus and his merry band or murderers. The story goes that Madoc and his decedents were responsible for the massive North American pyramids of the Mississippi River valley, since the savage Native American hordes couldn’t possible have built them. Hmm.
The only other Native American’s in 1602 appear in two panels, counted among hundreds, and they have no voice in the story.
Later on, Rojhaz makes the following speech in regard to the European settlers who he has decided he must protect;
Rojhaz: "This is my country. They need me. I can't leave them. We don't have to make the same mistakes again. We're here at the birth of a nation... of a dream. Nobody has to die. We can work together to protect them. My people.”
That is a breathtakingly arrogant and again, ignorant bit of speechifying. The birth of a nation? Really? There was already a nation – a massive confederacy of nations actually, that had been in place for some time before the Europeans meandered over the sea. This is speech about the birth of colonization, of invasion, of what you apparently doen’t know or doen’t care is centuries of slaughter, neglect, oppression, and broken promises by the colonizers. Which lead to, you know, um “a few dead Indians.” There is no other Native voice offering a dissenting opinion, or any opinion at all - there is only Rojhaz, a white totem to colonization acting as your mouthpiece.
I also think you are being at best, disingenuous when you talk about “having very specifically written about them (Native Americans), and about that timespan (sic) in American Gods.” Almost exclusively American Gods is about contemporary Pan-European and Old Worlds gods who came along with the conquering hordes, with Native American characters/deities taking a very decided backseat. There is even a quote along the lines of America being a bad land for gods, implying there weren’t Native American gods any or they were too weak to survive, until the old world gods showed up. Oh yeah, there is also a deserted Indian reservation as well, apparently all the injuns long dead. I can remember only two Native American characters, ciphers actually, who show up at all, and then only for a very short time. You also makes some silly references to worshipping mammoth skulls and imply that Native Americans didn’t really have gods as such.
I also recall an interview where you talk about wanting to be “like Coyote” and “fuck things up and just carry on”, which implies a very deep and even insulting ignorance of the Coyote totem. Assuming of course you can point to which version of Coyote you're talking about it, which is unlikely.
Here’s the thing – if your latest silly comment about “dead Indians” was the only evidence of you ignorance, I could shake it off and move on. But I think it’s a manifestation of something deeper with you, a kind of rooted ugly ignorance that really acts as a denial of life, art and culture for an entire people. Sure, we don't number very many - but we are alive and well and we do care about our culture and how other people view it, and us. I’ve spent a good deal of my life trying to create a new representation of Native American people and life, so my children, who are part Native American can rock all their roots, not just the ones that came over the Atlantic. Hell, I think of it as my job to wash the old stereotypes and clichés away and replace them with something both very old, and very new. You aren’t making that job any easier.
I'll be glad to help clear things up for you if you're willing to come out to New Mexico and hang with some Apache or Navajo for a bit.
Neil doesn't read the message board, so if you want to e-mail him and call him a racist, you should do it via the FAQ page on his website. If you scroll down the page, there's a Contact Neil section.
I should probably leave it at that, but I think I need to make a few other comments.
Native Americans weren't likely to be buried in a graveyard established by American settlers in the 1700s. They just weren't. Pointing that out isn't racist, and isn't saying that Native Americans didn't exist on this continent. Neil was just saying that he was writing a story about a particular kind of graveyard, one that doesn't really exist in the United States.
Neil, as you suggested, may not be very knowledgeable about Native American history and culture. If that's the case, then he had very good reason not to include many Native American stories in Sandman. He might have made mistakes and called attention to his lack of familiarity with that culture.
But the Sandman comics were also written to tell a specific story with a specific beginning, middle, and end. That story included folk and fairy tales from around the world, when they related to the plotline, but it didn't include nearly every culture or every type of folklore. It couldn't possibly, without running hundreds of pages longer and taking focus away from the main storyline.
I remember an interview Neil gave a while back. He said that when he talked to Sandman readers, they would often suggest myths and folk tales they'd like to see in the comic (I believe a number of Greek myths were suggested), and Neil would have to say, yes, that's a great story, I love it, too, but Sandman isn't the myth-of-the-month club, and I can't fit everything in.
I'm not knowledgeable enough about Native American history or culture to address the rest of your points in any detail, but I will point out that Captain America has blond hair and blue eyes and comes from the twenty-first-century United States. When he traveled back in time to the 1600s, he had to disguise himself as a Native American, and circumstances required that he join the particular tribe he did. But given his background, it's not surprising that he fit in imperfectly. He's not an accurate representation of Native Americans from that time period, and I don't think he's meant to be. An argument could even be made that Neil was subverting stereotypes about Native Americans: He looks like a white man's idea of an American Indian because that's exactly what he is. He's a sort of parody. A real Native American would have looked and sounded different.
I didn’t call Mr. Gaiman a racist, nor was that my intention. I said, very clearly, and will say again that Neil Gaiman is woefully and surprisingly ignorant of just about all things Native American. Which is both sad, given how much Mr. Gaiman knows about so many other cultures, and dangerous, given the size and rabidity of his audience.
A “few dead Indians” is an ignorant - to the point of offensive - remark, no matter the context. There were millions upon millions of Native American people in the America’s pre-European contact; some recent estimates hew close to 50 million. And some tribes in North America had concentrated populations with burial sites very much like the Europeans. The Powhatan Confederacy of 1600 alone numbered more than 20,000 people, measured against Jamestown’s 600. The North American pyramid builders of the Mississippi River valley lived in cities of 10,000 or more. They buried their dead with grave markers very much like a European graveyard. If Neil cared, he could glean this kind of information in minutes. But in this case his autodidactic tendencies apparently failed him. And that was the point I was making. Neil Gaiman is ignorant sans excuse.
As, apparently are you.
For example, your statement that Native Americans weren’t (aren’t) likely to be buried in American settler’s graveyards is dead wrong. Depending on the tribe and their relations with local settlers, there are quite a few common burial grounds, complete with grave markers all over New England, the Midwest, Northwest, the South and the Southwest, including Jamestown. You see, Native Americans and Europeans lived together, breed together, died together and were buried together for quite some time before it was decided to go all segregationist and simply erase Native Americans as a people, as well as their history and contributions from our common historical record.
A shout out to American heroes like James Adams, Andrew Jackson, Supreme Court Chief Justice Marshall , Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, General Philip Sheridan, L. Frank Baum, Teddy Roosevelt etc. for their efforts along these lines. Go assholes. Oh, and to add insult to proverbial injury, let’s carve the worst fucking offenders faces on some mountains sacred to a “few dithering redskins.”
And interesting that you suggest if you don’t know about a culture, instead of taking the time to learn about it and contribute to it by writing about it, which is an enriching exercise, why not just do the easy thing and simply fucking ignore it. If Neil doesn’t know anything about Native American’s how about get out of the house and take a trip to any of the eleven tribal offices I’ve visited in Wisconsin, which I believe is the state in which he currently resides. By the way, the Ojibwe of Wisconsin bury their dead in a burial mound with a wooden marker, inscribed with the deceased's doodem, or clan mark. Which, I believe, is close to what a European would do? And they’ve done this for about a thousand years. You can find burial mounds, complete with doodem all over Wisconsin.
Agreed btw that Sandman isn’t and shouldn’t be a simple compendium of cultural references and stories, but when you create something as encyclopedic/inclusive as Sandman, the missing folklore and characters stand out. I think it’s pretty accurate to say that there is in the Sandman opus a character, story or cultural reference to just about everybody except for Native Americans. Which is a glaringly obvious omission. If, like me, you have a love and knowledge of stories of every culture, including Native American, when you meet up with a piece of literature that features snippets or whole fabric from every major culture but one, it’s a bit disconcerting.
Regarding Rojhaz. Yeah, I got that Captain American stepped back in time. But I still have to ask, why the Stepin Fetchit act? If he’s trying to fit in, why not act like we know from primary sources Native Americans of the time acted and spoke. Pocahontas, for one, was known as a fine conversationalist in English, as were most of her contemporaries. Rojhaz as written in 1602 would have sounded like a moron, not a contemporary Native American, wearing the wrong clothes and generally appearing totally out of place.
Now, had Mr. Gaiman done a modicum of research, something he apparently does for everything not Native American, he’d have know this.
As for your final argument about using a stereotype to subvert itself. I don’t buy it. It’s the same silly argument people have used for years to justify Native American mascots, and it’s an unacceptable justification of the privileged assigning cultural signifiers over the wishes of the oppressed.
Here's the statement.
But I agree it is best to discuss this directly with Neil.
Thanks, Chris. That's much clearer, at least to me. What did you think of the character of Sam in American Gods?
I've written Neil directly as suggested.
From what I can remember Sam was a Native American woman who plays a very minor role in the book. At one point she does have a great bit of speechifying about the nature of belief and what she personally believes. I always thought her words were a direct expression of one of the major themes of the book - that belief is a powerful/contradictory force that both mortals and Gods must abide, even if it causes us pain. After that monologue I kept waiting for her to play a bigger part in the book or end up being a God herself, Raven perhaps. But alas, she just kind of disappeared.
And thanks, btw, for your patience and good humor.
And thanks for yours, Chris. I try very hard not to speak out of ignorance but sometimes fail.
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