Pop Culture in Native American Literature
American popular culture pervades not only America itself, but many other cultures as well, and it says so much about the people and society as a whole that it attempts to define. American Indians are a group not usually connected with the network of popular culture in the way many other American ethnic groups are included, but Native American authors of many affiliations attempt to bridge this distinction and show how they are just as much a part of the global society as everyone else is. In works such as Truth and Bright Water by Thomas King and Storyteller by Leslie Marmon Silko, specific scenes reveal the ways in which pop culture is highly important in defining native cultures.
In King’s Truth and Bright Water, many references are made to the strangeness of an outsider looking in on Indian Country. Tecumseh comments on the look of Monroe’s hair when the two first meet; like it looks too typically Indian to be normal. Tecumseh also seems to have the idea of cars and driving in his head constantly, a conception that is not typically or traditionally “Native American,” as many who mentally (and inaccurately) antiquate Indian culture might consider the primary mode of transportation to be bareback on horses rather than buckled into a Mustang. Furthermore, Tecumseh makes constant references to movies, musicals, and music from white American culture. The most striking image of pop culture woven into this novel, however, is Lucy Rabbit’s insistence that Marilyn Monroe is Indian: “Lucy likes to hold the picture [of Marilyn Monroe] up next to her face” and compare herself to the famous icon” (19). The woman wants to look exactly like the star, but it is unclear why she does; perhaps she is trying to eliminate her own Indian-ness: “Well, you’d want to keep something like that a secret, now, wouldn’t you,” Lucy says about Marilyn being Native American (19). The rest of her community also seems to consider being Indian inferior to being white, since “At first, the orange was a little weird, but because no one else in Truth or Bright Water had hair anywhere near that particular shade, it sort of made Lucy a celebrity” (10). While the references to being someone outside the Native community are somewhat bothersome and distancing, Lucy’s references to Marilyn Monroe being Native “Cree or Ojibwa” (19) are actually uniting. Her love of this icon shows an acceptance and adoption of a culture as one’s own and defies the whitewashed society of American popular culture by creating a new, Indian icon.
Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Grandpa Graduated from Sherman Institute” deals with popular culture differently. In this very short story, Silko highlights the desire to fit into pop culture, at least in the time of her grandfather. Her grandfather, going to a traditional Indian school, aspired to be an automobile designer, but was told “that Indians didn’t become automobile designers.” He was to be trained vocationally because, in popular culture and white society, Indians did not have a place in such fields. Because her grandfather never was able to pursue his passion, and “there was some sadness he never identified.” Her grandfather finds other ways to satisfy his desire to fit in to this culture, however, subscribing to magazines originally marketed to white men, like Motor Trend and Popular Mechanics. These magazines record the trends and constant evolution of popular culture; through these magazines, Silko’s grandfather was probably able to appreciate the future eminence of vehicles and the potential for Native persons to become involved in this area of activity. Grandpa Hank’s love for something that is supposed to be outside his culture alienates him from himself and secludes his identity. His final ability to purchase a Thunderbird allows him to be at peace with his love to some extent, yet his interest is still stagnant and distanced.
Popular culture is an important part of society, no matter the perspective from which it is observed. In Native American culture, white American popular culture mingles with the popular culture of specific Native nations, as in the Yellow Woman stories Leslie Marmon Silko records. This mix of cultures is what makes someone fully human; secluding Native people outside of any particular culture hampers them from being fully formed people. While popular culture is not important to all people everywhere, it is something that unites a society and allows us to share a common identity, when groups are represented inclusively enough. Although each person will identify with such a culture distinctly, it is the unique blend of rich traditions, community, family, and the slightly more superficial popular culture that allows one to understand the world and find a place in it.
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