Sunday, December 26, 2010

"Laughing Boy" and Native American Literature

Post by Ingrid

 I recently finished reading the book Laughing Boy: A Navajo Love Story by Oliver La Farge, which caused me to evaluate my thoughts on Native American Literature. The main conflict that arises here is basically that this book was written by a white guy. How accurately could this man as an outsider represent Navajo people and culture?

According to the back of my book and Wikipedia, Oliver La Farge was born in 1901 in New York City, studied anthropology at Harvard, and eventually traveled to Navajo territory on an archaeological expedition. He learned the language and developed a love for the Navajo people. He was known for championing Native American rights and was president of the Association on American Indian Affairs for several years.

La Farge wrote Laughing Boy: A Navajo Love Story which was published in 1929 and went on to receive the Pulitzer Prize in 1930. This book was considered to best present "the whole atmosphere of American life," and was the first book about Native American life to receive the prize. I think that this book was one step forward in that it brought Native American culture into the general conversation, but ultimately failed to represent what it really "means" to be Navajo.

Three women in traditional Navajo clothing
(image via)
One thing that put me off right away was La Farge's dedication of Laughing Boy, which says, "Dedicated to the only beautiful squaw I have ever seen in all my life, whose name I have forgotten." I found it a bit strange that La Farge would use the word "squaw" which was considered offensive even when this book was written (La Farge even mentions this in the story.) Also the fact that he claims this particular women was the "only" beautiful Navajo women he had ever seen is not the most flattering thing to say.

Leslie Marmon Silko said of Laughing Boy:
In the summer of 1971, the Navajo students in a Southwestern Literature class at Navajo Community College concluded that Laughing Boy was entertaining; but as an expression of anything Navajo, especially with relation to Navajo emotions and behavior, the novel was a failure. And for the non-Navajo or non-Indian, it is worse than a failure: it is a lie because La Farge passes off the consciousness and feelings of Laughing Boy as those of Navajo sensibility. (via)
I agree with these students in that I found the book entertaining, even emotionally resonant at parts. Though unfortunately it was even easy for me to recognize a certain lack of the depth that I've found in Native novels actually written by Native authors. These novels are steeped with the implications of individual and societal conflicts the Native American people have faced in the past and face today. Laughing Boy had some interesting cultural details and descriptions of dances and ceremonies, but failed to legitimately address any of the extremely difficult and significant issues that come with being Native American.

Verdict: In between. Interesting if you are interested in Navajo culture, but ultimately this book feels distant and shallow.

What book have YOU come into contact with that were written by an "outsider"? Do you think it's possible for an author to accurately represent a culture of which they are not a part?