Journey to the Sea

an online magazine devoted to the study of myth

Native America & Speculative Fiction: Interview with Amy H. Sturgis

Posted by Randy Hoyt • Aug 15th, 2009

Amy H. Sturgis is an author, speaker, and professor at Belmont University. She specializes in fantasy and science fiction and in Native American studies. In addition to her numerous book chapters, articles, and conference presentations, Amy has written four books on U.S. history and Native American studies (including Tecumseh: A Biography) and edited three works on science fiction and fantasy (including a collection of essays on C.S. Lewis titled Past Watchful Dragons). Her most recent book actually spans both categories: The Intersection of Native America and Fantasy.

[Editor's Note: The first part of this interview appeared in a previous issue as A Science Fiction Primer. The conversation below is a continuation of that interview.]


Randy Hoyt: What first got you involved in Native American studies?

Amy H. Sturgis: The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma is part of my family heritage on both sides, and my parents made sure that I was educated with that cultural awareness. I grew up in Tulsa and Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, and so from my earliest memories onward, I felt the influence of “Indian Country.” When I was at Vanderbilt University working on my Ph. D. in history (with an emphasis in intellectual history), I was particularly interested in constitutional studies. Most of the work in Native American studies at the time was related to social and cultural topics, not intellectual and constitutional ones. I ended up writing an in-depth analysis of the evolution of Cherokee constitutional thought for my dissertation. I found that taking these two disciplines (constitutional studies and intellectual history) and applying their analytical tools to the subject matter of Native American studies yielded some fruitful and fascinating results.

Of course, this put my work a bit outside of the mainstream work done by scholars in Native American studies and in constitutional studies: neither group seemed much interested in the work of the other, and I thought both had missed out on some valuable insights. That was the beginning step for me in bringing he Native American heritage that had always been a part of my personal life forward into my professional life in a conscious and intentional way. I ended up passing the foreign language competency exam for my Ph.D. not in French (which I’d studied in high school) or Russian (which I’d studied in college), but in Cherokee. I have since gone on to write investigative pieces and current policy work about Native America, as well, so my focus is no longer simply historical.

RH: The two books you have published in Native American studies both related to events from the first half of the nineteenth century, a biography of Tecumseh (who died in 1813) and a book on the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation from Georgia (the “Trail of Tears” in 1838-1839). I noticed that these dates correspond roughly to the beginning of modern science fiction we discussed previously. Is there any relationship or connection between these events?

AHS: Needless to say, this is an era that draws my attention and enthusiasm for many reasons. The connections between the two areas are interesting to consider. Tecumseh is a figure I find to be remarkable. He was the Shawnee leader responsible for the largest pan-tribal confederacy in the history of Native America, and he was one of the visionaries most responsible for challenging the peoples of the different Native nations to start thinking of themselves as American Indian instead of solely Osage or Potawatomi or Creek. Even before he was tragically killed in the War of 1812, he had become a figure of mythic proportions. He was described as a kind of King Arthur figure among his people, and their British allies drew on some very rich mythological language to describe him to their compatriots across the ocean. A number of Native American writers in the late twentieth century wrote alternate histories about what would have happened if Tecumseh had survived: it is interesting to see political scholars such as Vine Deloria writing essentially what is science fiction to talk about this great leader who was legendary even in his own age.

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), perhaps the leading contender for being the first modern work of science fiction, Frankenstein’s creature is out in the wild, living on his own and educating himself by eavesdropping on a family living out in the woods. When he hears about the plight of the American Indians, Shelley emphasizes that Frankenstein’s shunned, isolated, and mistreated creature — surely miserable in his own right — weeps for them. So even at the very beginning of the genre, science-fiction authors commented on the state of Native America. Throughout the nineteenth century, starting with the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Trails, one Native American nation after another was displaced from their original lands. By the time of H.G. Wells’s work and the beginning of what would become a golden era in science fiction early in the twentieth century, there’s a period of tremendous upheaval as the Native American nations were managed — or, more to the point, manhandled — by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the United States Government.

As science fiction was coming into its own, Native America was being dismantled in a systematic, military fashion. Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles (1950) reflects on those events, using Mars as a metaphor for North America. Some of the characters in the novel consciously identify what happened to the Martians with the de-population of Native America, and these characters begin to understand what is being lost only after it is too late for anything to be done. This has been an ongoing theme throughout science fiction, and a number of works engage it. One of my favorite contemporary science-fiction novels, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow (1996), also discusses these events using the metaphor of interspecies contact with life on another planet. It is a remarkable consideration of who is to blame when everything goes wrong and tragedy unfolds — as it did following the Columbian encounter with Native America.

RH: Do we have any evidence of how Native American myths and legends adapted or changed during this time?

AHS: It varies depending on the nation and the stories, but to a degree we can chart some differences and note how evolutions and adaptations unfolded in the act storytelling, especially across Native nations. There are surviving oral traditions that explain, for example, the genesis of the Great Law of Peace (which is essentially the Constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy), which pre-dated contact with Europeans by quite a good margin; we can see how the origin stories explaining this remarkable compact evolved over time. New stories were told as a result of these events: new legends, for example, arose in the Cherokee Nation during the Trail of Tears. We can date the beginning of these stories and then see how they now permeate Native American literature. It is also interesting to observe how the stories and legends of these two drastically different cultures, Native American and European, in a sense cross-fertilized each other. Some of the Southwestern nations, for example, have Catholic symbolism informing their mythology after contact with the Spanish. Most of the stories were transmitted orally throughout this time period, but in the nations that adopted written languages, we even have a literary snapshot of stories, capturing them at the moment when they were first recorded, and we can track how they have changed — and how they have stayed the same — over the years.

RH: The Mythopoeic Press announced The Intersection of Fantasy and Native America: From H.P. Lovecraft to Leslie Marmon Silko, a book you co-edited with David Oberhelman from Oklahoma State University. What kind of material will readers find in that book?

AHS: I presented a paper in August 2006 as the scholar guest of honor at Mythcon 37 in Norman, Oklahoma. In that talk, I noted that taking the analytical tools from two disciplines (this time fantasy studies and Native American studies) could yield great results when each was applied to the other’s subject matter. Both sides I think are missing out on great opportunities to talk about and share the remarkable — and remarkably similar — literature in their respective fields. In my talk I recommended ways of bringing together those who love fantasy and those who love Native America. The Mythopoeic Press approached me about editing a volume on that topic, using my keynote speech as the first chapter, and the challenge I laid out in it as its guiding theme. We cast a wide net, finding an exciting international group of cross-disciplinary and multi-ethnic scholars to talk about three things:

  1. Native American mythology in literature,
  2. Native American authors writing works with fantasy elements, or
  3. non-Native fantasy authors incorporating Native America into their own work.

The final product includes some fascinating contributions from a wide range of able and accessible scholars on authors from H.P. Lovecraft, J.R.R. Tolkien, and J.K. Rowling to Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, and Gerald Vizenor, among others. I think it is a tremendous volume that shows how much scholars and readers in two different traditions can gain from expanding their horizons and bringing all of this rich material into one conversation.

RH: Let me ask about these points, starting with the last one. Many readers will be familiar with the use of other mythological material in works of fantasy. (Jason explored in a previous article, for example, material from Norse, Old English, and Welsh mythological traditions in Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.) What fantasy authors have done this same thing with Native American material?

AHS: Not enough have done this, but some have done it well. There’s Orson Scott Card; you have published a series of articles about his Alvin Maker series, in fact. His books take the reader on a journey through an alternate America — and what a place it is to visit with his kind of introspection! I think Card had real insight about how Tecumseh and his movement represented a kind of American myth that had reached legendary proportions in Tecumseh’s own lifetime.

Perhaps my favorite novel along these lines is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods: I think Gaiman did an elegant job of drawing on Native American mythology. Others like Charles de Lint and Michael Bishop also come to mind. One of my favorite authors of speculative fiction, H.P. Lovecraft, actually draws quite a bit on Native American mythology and settings. His short story “The Mound” (published posthumously in 1940) takes place at a real burial mound in Binger, Oklahoma, and a handful of his other stories draw on the richness of the Native American legends. His works are surprisingly well-researched for the amount of information that was available in the early twentieth century.

Many non-Native authors who have drawn on this material have done a spectacular job. Some others, of course, have failed to do justice to their subject matter.  But I think the number of authors who incorporate Native America into their fantasies is still too small. Many non-Native authors are simply not aware enough or comfortable enough with Native American mythology — or contemporary Native American ideas — to attempt it yet. Not only could these authors create great works in their own right using this material, but through them many more readers could be introduced to these great tales.

RH: What do you think it takes for non-Native authors to become aware enough and comfortable enough with the legends to be able to incorporate them into their fiction?

AHS: Tolkien’s use of other mythological traditions provides a good example: when he found himself interested in the stories from The Kalevala, he went and taught himself Finnish so he could read it in the original language. He did his homework before he incorporated other people’s myths into his own stories. If authors want to use Native American stories, I think they ought to research these tales to gain an understanding of their history, of their particular origins and context. This does not necessarily mean learning a Native American language (although that is an excellent place to start); there are fantastic oral history collections available for listening, and there are fantastic anthologies and collections of these stories available. It is not asking much for people today do the research to find accounts as close to the original as possible.

Moreover, Native America is alive and well today, and many of the contemporary settings and stories of modern American Indians provide rich sources for writers, regardless of their own ethnic backgrounds.

There is a great debate about who has the right to draw on Native American traditional material, about who is authentic and what is credible. These questions for the most part disturb me. We do see mythology incorporated into fiction badly and disrespectfully, but I do not believe the solution is to prevent non-Native authors from accessing and being inspired by this material. The authors who use Native American traditions without doing even the most basic research, drawing instead on inaccurate stereotypes, have failed as artists, I would say. It seems to work out that the non-Native authors who are sensitive, inquisitive, and respectful of these stories and traditions also end up creating beautiful and lasting art.

RH: You mentioned that the book also contains material on Native American authors incorporating their own mythological traditions into their fantasy stories.

AHS: Yes. Some of these Native authors produce works that are clearly fantasy by anyone’s definition: Drew Hayden Taylor and Daniel Heath Justice are two excellent (and recommended) examples. Others write books often considered to be “magical realism” or simply “Native American literature.” This again raises the discussion about how to classify works, which I mentioned last time regarding what counts as “science fiction”: these are games with which the critics and scholars are more concerned than the fans and the practitioners. My concern is that many readers who love fantasy literature never discover some of the great Native authors, because these writers’ publications are labeled and pigeonholed due to the artists’ ethnicity. It is my hope that our book will help to introduce fantasy lovers to great Native writers. Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, and Gerald Vizenor, for example, write works that incorporate elements of fantasy. (Gerald Vizenor, incidentally, also has written what I would consider a great work of Native American science fiction.) Some of these authors, such as Louise Erdrich, are gaining national and international reputations as “literary” authors: Silko’s works are taught in a number of universities and even high schools already, although usually in the context of Native American studies.

RH: After readers finish your book, what anthologies or sources would you recommend next for information about Native American myths and legends? Is there one particular book that provides a good overview of all the material available?

AHS: There’s not one perfect text out there as a good starting point. There are actually a lot of good collections, but none have put themselves head and shoulders above the others. I think anything by Joseph Bruchac would be a good first stop; he compiles and re-tells Native American myths in his books in a really compelling way. Another good source is the anthropologist James Mooney, who has a series of books written around the beginning of the twentieth century. He was compiling folklore from firsthand accounts, essentially writing down the oral history while it was still there. Mooney’s collections provide a great ethnographic perspective; I would recommend his work from a historical point of view and Bruchac’s work from a literary one. I like Lawana Trout’s Native American Literature: An Anthology as an introduction to Native stories both traditional and contemporary.

Recently I was pleased to be brought in as a scholarly consultant on Virginia Schomp’s 2008 book The Native Americans, which is part of the Marshall Cavendish Myths of the World series for younger readers. Schomp identifies the origin and context of each of the tales she relates and includes stories from the width and breadth of North America. Books such as this one give me hope that children of many backgrounds will be exposed to the delights and fascination of Native mythology; hopefully this first taste will lead to a lifelong appetite.

RH: What are your overall aspirations for the book? What do you hope the book will accomplish?

AHS: I hope that the book will help fantasy lovers to discover Native authors. I hope that it will help Native writers who write fantasy literature to be welcomed to the table of fantasy artists and studied by scholars of the genre. I also hope it will help non-Native American writers to feel invited to mine the wealth of Native American mythology to create new stories. But I suppose my main hope is that readers who love any of this material — whether it is Native American fiction or fantasy or mythology — will come away from the book with titles they want to read; I think it is a tragedy that works get pigeonholed in a certain genre or category in such a way that they do not reach readers who will appreciate them and benefit from their messages.


I have included links to all the books Amy recommended during the interview below. You can learn more about Amy’s work by visiting her web site, amyhsturgis.com. She is currently working on what sounds like an exciting new book, The Gothic Imaginations of J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, and J.K. Rowling, for publication with Zossima Press in 2010.

[Editor's Note: The first part of this interview appeared in a previous issue as A Science Fiction Primer. The conversation above is a continuation of that interview.]


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2 Responses »

  1. This is a great interview. Thank you so much for sharing all of this information with us. While I don’t appear to have any Native Americans in my family tree, I still enjoy reading the legends and oral traditions. Check out my first and recently released novel, Long Journey to Rneadal. This exciting story is a romantic action adventure in space.

  2. I am very grateful to have found this outstanding interview while researching something unrelated. There are so many quotable quotes, among them: “My concern is that many readers who love fantasy literature never discover some of the great Native authors, because these writers’ publications are labeled and pigeonholed due to the artists’ ethnicity.” And Native American history is not taught widely enough,