How Native American Writers Battled Racism in the 20th Century


By Daniel Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

First-person accounts of Native life have long been popular among non-Indian readers, but they were rarely written by Native American writers. The few that purported to capture a Native person’s voice were really filtered through the lens of non-Indian collaborators. Not infrequently, they were also made to tell stories that non-Indians wanted to hear.

Silhouette image of a Native American man
The first Native American stories were mostly told by non-Native Americans. (Image: Neil Lockhart/Shutterstock)

Going Against Stereotypes

Native American writers challenged the people’s expectations with their pens in the 20th century. During the late 19th and early 20th century, indigenous writers, such as Sarah Winnemucca, Lili’uokalani, Charles Eastman, Zitkala-Sa, and Arthur C. Parker, offered sometimes overt—and other times subtle—critiques of the majority society through their memoirs, fiction, poetry, editorials, and academic writing. 

That was certainly true of Sarah Winnemucca, a Northern Paiute woman who offered a stinging indictment of the U.S. government and the hypocrisy of civilization in her 1883 autobiography, Life among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims. She also lectured extensively, reportedly giving more than 400 speeches in the United States and Europe before her passing in 1891, at the age of 47.

This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Struggles of Hawaii’s Queen

By the end of the 19th century, the process of incorporating indigenous people into the United States extended beyond reservation communities. And it proved most complete in the Hawaiian Islands, where an alliance of American missionaries and businessmen undermined the Hawaiian monarchy during the 1880s.

Lili’uokalani, who became Hawaii’s queen after her brother’s death in 1891, continued the struggle for kanaka maoli, or Native Hawaiian independence. In 1893, she was forced to relinquish her authority, but she didn’t give up the fight. 

Instead, over the next several years, she traveled to the United States and used the power of her voice and pen to lobby against the ratification of an annexation treaty. Moreover, she advocated tirelessly for a new Hawaiian constitution that would enfranchise the kanaka maoli and restore power to the monarch.

Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen

An Image of Native American teepees
For the Native writers, helping people see the world through the eyes of a Native American was crucial to breaking stereotypes. (Image: Petr Podrouzek/Shutterstock)

In her 1898 autobiography, Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen, Lili’uokalani deployed—in ways surely unexpected by her audience—concepts such as citizenship, civilization, representation, international law, and Christianity in defense of Hawaiian nationhood. 

Lili’uokalani concluded by asking these penetrating questions: “Is the American Republic of States to degenerate and become a colonizer and a land-grabber? And is this prospect satisfactory to a people who rely upon self-government for their liberties?” Talk about unexpected questions.

U.S. President Grover Cleveland initially sided with her against the missionaries, planters, and American imperialists. But, to her dismay, Lili’uokalani wasn’t able to forestall annexation. When the U.S. went to war with Spain in 1898, American expediency trumped American values, and Hawaii was annexed. Lili’uokalani’s principles remain venerated. And her resistance galvanized a movement for either recognition or de-occupation that continues to this day.

‘No Race Is an Unmixed Race’

Other writers, including the Seneca Arthur C. Parker, offered their critiques by way of academic treatises. Parker was particularly adept at drawing upon his expertise in ethnology, joining other anthropologists in attacking antiquated ideas that equated racial inferiority with Indian blood. 

“No race, as we know races, is an unmixed race,” he wrote in a 1914 editorial. All so-called races are the result of mixtures. Humanity, or civilized humanity,” Parker stated, “will never realize…its mission until races come to understand their common ancestry and each will mingle with the other trustfully, without each dogmatically assuming its right to thrust its culture upon the other.”

Learn more about how the Natives challenged Assimilation and Allotment.

Luther Standing Bear

A black-and-white photo of Standing Bear.
Standing Bear insisted that the roles of Native Americans be given to Native American actors. (Image: Fæ/Public domain)

One of the most successful Native actors of the period was Luther Standing Bear. As an actor, Standing Bear saw himself engaging in the politics of representation. In this instance, the politics of representation revolved around who had the power to determine who portrays Indians in film, what stories those films would tell, who would write, direct, and produce them, and what messages they would convey to audiences.

As president of the Indian Actors Association, Standing Bear insisted that Native actors play Native roles instead of the typical non-Indian in brown face. He also served as an advisor to the era’s leading Western filmmakers and pushed them to go beyond stereotypes.

“I determined that, if I could only get the right sort of people interested,” Standing Bear later recalled regarding this unexpected form of activism, “I might be able to do more for my own race off the reservation than to remain there under the iron rule of the white agent.”

Learn more about the Ghost Dance and the Peyote Road.

An Era of Powerful Autobiographies

Through the 1920s and 1930s, Standing Bear continued to engage in the politics of representation as the author of a classic memoir, My People the Sioux, and the hard-hitting Land of the Spotted Eagle.

Published in 1928, My People the Sioux provided a first-person perspective on the Indian wars, the Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee Massacre, and the off-reservation boarding school experience. In so doing, Standing Bear offered insights, through his own life story, into the many ways Native people successfully adjusted to the radical and often traumatic change.

His 1933 work Land of the Spotted Eagle offered even more pointed commentary on the treatment his people endured through the late 19th century. He leveled sharp criticism at the federal boarding school curriculum and oppressive agency superintendents.

He defied the expectation that Indians were destined to assimilate. “While I had learned all that I could of the white man’s culture, I never forgot that of my people,” wrote Standing Bear. “I kept the language, tribal manners, and usages, sang the songs, and danced the dances. I still listened to and respected the advice of the older people of the tribe.”

Common Questions about How Native American Writers Battled Racism in the 20th Century

Q: Who was Sarah Winnemucca, and what did she do?

Sarah Winnemucca was a Native American writer who fiercely criticized Western civilization. She also went on lecturing tours after she wrote her autobiography.

Q: What did Lili’uokalani, Hawaii’s queen, do after Hawaii was annexed?

Lili’uokalani joined the many Native American writers who were telling their own stories through autobiographies. But she also challenged many institutions and raised important questions about concepts like citizenship.

Q: Why did Standing Bear engage in politics while being a successful actor?

Before being known as a Native American writer, Standing Bear thought if he could persuade the right people, he could change how Native Americans were being portrayed and also find work for unemployed Native American actors.

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