Savage Success Scrutinised

By Laura Vivanco on

It seems to me that the heyday of the Native American historical romance is past. I may well be wrong, though, given that I'm in the UK and am therefore dependent on US review sites and the vagaries of's categorisation system for my information about this. In the 1990s, however, this area of romance was flourishing and attracting academic attention.

According to Peter van Lent, the

image of the Native American male as sexy has grown out of earlier archetypes [...]. In past centuries, the vision of violent sexuality was pretty standard treatment of Native men in popular genres such as the Indian captivity narratives. Today, however, Native American men are most often portrayed as sexual in "good" ways. Two familiar labels come to mind: those of "Noble Savage" and "Fearless Warrior."(211)

He noted that

In current popular culture popular culture the exoticism of the Native male is always carefully controlled. For example, most of the heroes of the Indian romance novels are of mixed blood - "half breeds" [...]. This convention provides a safety net against several sexual pitfalls. First, it checks the exotic image from being too alien and keeps it well within the bounds of "tall, dark and handsome." Second, it also avoids any squeamishness about miscegenation on the part of the reader. Since the hero is half-white, the romantic-sexual bond is not truly interracial and, once again, the "half breed's" appearance can be quite comfortably Caucasian. (216-17)

If "half-breed" heroes were indeed much more common (and I don't know about this first-hand because, as mentioned, I'm in the UK and this isn't a sub-genre that's been particularly common here), it would suggest that authors and readers had reasons for preferring them to heroes who were wholly Native American. I'm not sure I'd agree with van Lent that the bond between a half-White hero and a wholly-White heroine is "not truly interracial" but I suppose such a pairing would narrow the supposed cultural and racial difference between the protagonists. Certainly it would seem to allow authors to pick and mix the elements they find most attractive in both cultures/races: in Colleen Faulkner's Forever His (1993) "Harrison DeNay [...] is part Shawnee" (Wardrop 68) and

Faulkner makes it clear that Harrison does not represent the typical Shawnee. [...] Instead, Harrison represents the best of two worlds as evidenced in the scene in which he casts off his buckskins to impersonate a British officer: "In his coat and breeches with his hair pulled back in a queue he appeared nothing of the savage she had found in that Indian village. The question was which did she prefer?" (144). The answer is that she gets both: a sophisticated man of taste and intellect in the European tradition who is, unlike the European man, unconcerned about property and able to cry over the welfare of his son, more "introspective and expressive in his feeling" (144). (Wardrop 69)

S. Elizabeth Bird states that even when the hero of one of these romances

is full-blood, he is often seen as more rational and realistic than other men of his tribe, who have a tendency to raid, pillage, and fight among themselves when not listening to his wise advice. He is frequently seen as the voice of progress who realizes change is coming. In other words, the American Indian hero is a wonderful fantasy figure for the White reader. He is just wild enough to be exciting, but still civilized enough to be acceptable. (70)

A major advantage of Native American cultures, as depicted in these novels, is that they offer White heroines "increased freedom and choice and an equal partnership with her husband" (Wardrop 71). That the association with freedom is a key element of the appeal of the Native American hero is suggested in an essay by Cassie Edwards in which she stated that

I try not to write about the Indians during the times they were confined on reservations. This gives me less freedom of plot because while the Indians lived the sedentary reservation life, they had generally lost their pride because they were no longer able to fight for their rights. If I write about an Indian hero who is not confined to the reservation, he is allowed to perform courageously - he is free. (457)

By being selective in various ways, romance authors could therefore craft romances featuring Native American (or half Native American heroes) in which

the Native American male [...] offers as symbolic capital a utopian society in which women are valued for their social contributions; where they are sexually assertive members of a group distinctive for cooperation and solidarity; where women and men are helpmates within a (fictionalized) fairly androgynous division of labor. (McCafferty 51)

In addition,

In the choice of Native American (rather than African-American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Filipino, or Japanese American) lover, a tension concerning romantic love’s vulnerability to economic instability is avoided. The myth runs that the Native American man lived comfortably off the land, never enslaved by master or lunchbucket. The bounty of the earth, plus his hunting prowess, enabled him and his dependents to live a satisfactory if rough pastoral for thousands of years. In short, the Native lover is a good provider. (McCafferty 51)


Bird, S. Elizabeth. “Gendered Construction of the American Indian in Popular Media.” Journal of Communication 49.3 (1999): 61-83.

Edwards, Cassie. "Indian Romance." How to Write a Romance and Get It Published. Ed. Kathryn Falk. New York: Signet, 1990. 455-58.

McCafferty, Kate. "Palimpsest of Desire: The Re-Emergence of the American Captivity Narrative as Pulp Romance." Journal of Popular Culture 27.4 (1994): 43-56.

van Lent, Peter. “‘Her Beautiful Savage’: The Current Sexual Image of the Native American Male." Dressing in Feathers: The Construction of the Indian in American Popular Culture. Ed. S. Elizabeth Bird. Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1996. 211-227.

Wardrop, Stephanie. 'Last of the Red Hot Mohicans: Miscegenation in the Popular American Romance', MELUS 22. 2 (1997): 61-74.

Meoskop (not verified)

Saturday, 5 April, 2014

While the NDN hero vs "mixed" hero isn't something I kept score of, it certainly felt like a half-white or partially white hero was the norm. Also we'd frequently have the fully white child raised in the tribe who identified with NDN culture but was also rejected by it. That always fascinated me, as the bloodline obsession of the white culture was transferred to the NDN culture and then castigatied. "Savage" romances declined sharply a few decades ago. I'd like to see NDN character return without the fetishization of same.

Thanks for the background info. There are a lots of gaps in my knowledge which I can only really fill by speaking to people who were reading US romances long before I started studying them. I can work out what NDN means, but what do the letters stand for?

Also, I came across something else in the How to Write a Romance volume which I found troubling. It's in Dorothy Garlock's essay on writing Westerns and she says that

there are two types of Western novels. The Western and the Fantasy Western. Fantasy Western romances are not authentic portrayals of the real West. [...] Speaking from a realistic standpoint, the Western Romance seems to be leaning toward the fantasy novel. In many of the stories the white woman falls in love with the handsome Indian chief and lives with him happily ever after. This situation is not realistic in that time period any more than it would have been for a southern belle in the 1880s to fall in love with and marry a black man. [...] Cynthia Ann Parker was the only white woman I can recall who fell in love with an Indian. She was taken from her family as a child and grew up as a Comanche. At that time the two cultures were so different that it would seem impossible for a woman raised in the ways of the whites to be happy to spend the rest of her life in a nomad existence, walking behind her husband carrying the tepee, while he rode the horse. (449)

I've been trying to work out what feels wrong about all of this and I've got as far as thinking that, quite apart from the fact that it would surely be possible to write a romance featuring a Native American couple, there weren't just "two cultures" since as far as I'm aware, there were many different Native American cultures. Also, don't romances, even the more realistic ones, often feature characters who are somewhat unusual in one way or another? Or who do unusual things? Then again, I wonder how many of us have ideas about the West which we believe are realistic but actually aren't. I remember recently I came across an article which stated that:

The most common image of the cowboy is a gun-toting, boot-wearing, white man - like John Wayne, or Clint Eastwood.

But the Hollywood portrayal of the Wild West is a whitewashed version of the reality. It is thought that, on some Texas trails, about a quarter of cowboys were black. (BBC)

So is Garlock even right about what was going on in the West or not? I feel like I'd need to do a whole lot more reading to be able to be sure one way or the other.

Thanks, that was interesting. Garlock had written that

White men [...] in the early fur-trading days, took Indian wives for sex and companionship. At the same time they would have held in contempt any white woman who took an Indian for a husband. (449)

However, Sandefur states that

There were, in fact, some legal attempts to promote inter-marriage between whites and Indians. In 1784, a bill was presented to the Virginia legislature providing that "every white man who married an Indian woman should be paid ten pounds, and five for each child born of such a marriage; and that if any white woman married an Indian she should be entitled to ten pounds with which the county court should by them livestock ...". In 1824, William H. Crawford advocated similar legislation before the U.S. Congress. Neither measure was passed, however. (2)

The proposed Virginian bill doesn't seem to show any sign of contempt for white women married to Native Americans.

There's a lot of writing from a point of 'everyone knows' in the Savage Romance. Everyone knows that in these times... (insert racism or hollywood western tropes or presumptions made from modern biases) and therefore... Everyone stayed a virgin until marriage, despite shot gun weddings, trial marriages, etc. It was alsmot unheard of to be homsexual despite... There were no black people in the court of Henry 8th, unless...  I'm sure that if you fast forward a few hundred years we won't recognize ourselves in the assumptions of their books.

Garlock is a special case. I actually DO recommend reading one of her books (maybe Annie Lash?) she was wildly popular and is really in love with underage heroines, rapey heros and odd power dynamics. Sort of the equivalent of some current authors (Ashley) in her class fetishes. 

I wanted to add a link to an interesting analysis of the sub-genre by Olivia Waite, who begins by describing it:

It’s Noble Savages all the way down. With this kind of othering so strongly at work in the subgenre, it’s hardly surprising that actual examples of Native American/American Indian romance authors are very difficult to come by.

And follows that with an analysis of a rare historical romance featuring Native American protagonists by an author who

explicitly identifies as Native American (specifically Navajo). Her Land, Her Love (Amazon link: publisher page is here) is the author’s first romance