The Great Pretendian, part 1

Random Thoughts


September 1, 2023

A few years ago, when I was in graduate school hoping to become an important historian of the American West (and land a job in a university), my advisor and mentor was an expert on Native American history.

He and my other teachers believed that anyone wanting to specialize in the American West must study what we called then “American Indian” history. I took two or three classes from my mentor as well as serving as his graduate assistant.

My graduate assistant job paid my tuition and gave me enough left over to rent a small apartment and lead a typical poor graduate student existence. I graded the exams my mentor gave, guest lectured occasionally when he was out of town, and did anything else he wanted me to do. I loved it!

This teacher was the most accomplished expert on the history of Navajos in the United States although he also had researched and written about members of other native groups. A few years after I was his student, he was elected president of the Western History Association.

In one of his classes, we spent a few weeks looking at Native American authors who were explaining and educating about American Indian culture through the medium of fiction rather than the more typical nonfiction history books.

Several Native American authors had become important in the U.S. literary world in the then-recent past. Chief among these was Oklahoma’s N. Scott Momaday, who is Kiowa and had won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel “House Made of Dawn.”

Another author I really liked was Leslie Marmon Silko (a member of Laguna Pueblo) who got rave reviews for her novel “Ceremony.” My favorite, however, was James Welch (whose parents were Blackfeet and Gros Ventre). Others we studied included Vine Deloria Jr. (who was Sioux) and Jamake Highwater.

The latter said he was “of Blackfeet/Cherokee heritage”—but, as it later developed, he was not an Indian but what critics called a “Pretendian” – as we will see next week in Part 2 of this article.


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