Had a conversation this morning with a friend about disproportionate pandemic death rates on the Navajo reservation and some of the characters and themes in my new novel, NO KILL CANYON. In the process I was reminded of two of my favorite novels involving urban Indians. Each provides inspiration for my laments about centuries of Native American deprivation and abuse. They are Sherman Alexie’s classic INDIAN KILLER and Tommy Orange’s deeply probing and enlightening, THERE THERE. The connection to NO KILL CANYON is the attention these authors pay to Native American pathologies underwriting murder and revenge knifed into modern and mostly white communities.
The principal bad guy in my novel is Max Deerthorn, a northern Paiute. Along with his Mojave cohort, Tom Jenkins, he seeks revenge and redress for the lost habitats, knowledge and magic of their ancestors, most immediately for the losses in their own families, by murdering what ails them in the oppressions of modern life. I made Max seriously talented and dangerous on a lesson I learned about fiction writing from the late great novelist, James W. Hall: make your bad guys really bad, repulsive, if possible. Readers should feel relieved if they get killed off in the story. But is that really a reason to hate Max? Some of his behavior reflects directly on a matter of conscience and understanding largely missing in modern society.
Don Wittington, my fictional editor of a daily newspaper in Needles, California, put it this way: “Deerthorn, if that is really who we’re aiming at here, seems to be as troubled as Tom was about the Great White Shark of culture change. Given all the trauma imposed on Native Americans over the past few centuries, why are we surprised to see current generations of their cross-cultural casualties produce individual pathologies? Why should we be shocked when the desperation of some individuals from marginalized cultures turns to bizarre, extravagant, or pathological methods for relief? Are we so naïve to believe that there are no psychological breaking points in that kind of conflict? Like Tom, the copycat killer is a special kind of serial killer: a missionary, out to eradicate what has hurt or beguiled him. He is a missionary working against missionaries or advocates of the people who have massacred his historical traditions, both in the larger sense and in terms of what it has taken away from him personally. It’s eye for an eye stuff, Aaron, and it has a definite pattern. I’m always amazed at the number of people who think Native Americans ought to be passive about their poverty, their loss of traditional identities, and their long history of abuse on so many fronts. Casinos be damned. They’re very popular because they provide entertainment for outsiders under the thinnest of veils covering guilt and charity for Indians. They make it possible to improve incomes for some tribal members, certainly not all. In a way they seem to me to be just another extension of our iron-willed abilities to look the other way when confronted by the homeless and downtrodden, on or off the reservations” (Brady 2020:256)
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