- Native American Mystery Writing: Indigenous Investigations by Mary Stoecklein
If the infallibility of Enlightenment rationalist materialism when wielded by a tenacious and insightful investigator is the Anglo-American murder-mystery’s major explicit theme, a recurrent and unspoken one is the trans-Atlantic movement of Europeans against a colonial-imperial backdrop. The heroes of the first detective story, Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), are a French genius and an American expatriate in Paris; in “A Study in Scarlet” (1887), Holmes and Watson uncover an American frontiersman’s hunt for Mormon polygamists from Utah to London via Russia; Agatha Christie’s Poirot investigates in pre-independence Iraq (1936) and Egypt (1937). The use of a racist nursery rhyme throughout another Christie mystery, 1939’s Ten Little N*****s (later Ten Little Indians) accidentally reveals the mental work imperialism requires: the reduction of colonized peoples to one-dimensional stereotypes. What colonized peoples might do with a genre centered on righting wrongs and exposing the guilty is the subject of Professor Stoecklein’s intriguing and eye-opening first book: a survey of around seventy Indigenous-authored murder-mysteries, whose protagonists battle “the inherent criminality of a settler-colonial society” (2).
Stoecklein articulates the purposes of these twentieth-century authors and their Indigenous protagonists (mostly Native American, with the exception of Native Hawaiian/Samoan writer Victoria Nalani Kneubulh) as entertainment, advocacy, and self-representation aimed at a Native and non-Native readership: to refute lingering Vanishing-Indian fantasies, to legitimate precolonial and traditional worldviews, [End Page 196] and to tell thrilling stories where Indigenous characters “are not always the victim” but “can be the hero as well” (27). Per Charles Rzepka’s concept of “alternative detection” (20–21) in which a protagonist’s difference from the mystery’s typical “Western, white, male” (25) detective accordingly changes their crime-solving skills, abilities, and approach, Stoecklein describes how these writers both follow and subvert the genre’s conventions. The investigators are male, female, and two-spirit; professionals including police and government agents, and amateur sleuths including teenagers; enrolled tribal members, mixed-bloods, or (in 2006’s Elsie’s Business) the African-American father of a murder victim. As in noir, the silence of Anglo-American law is conspicuous: the white antagonists who commit acts of theft, rape, kidnapping, and murder exploit white authorities’ indifference and loopholes in local and federal law, with Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe (1978) a horrific real-life precedent. As in mainstream murder-mysteries, protagonists may act as executioner against the guilty; unlike the Anglo-American tradition of vigilantism to express rugged individualism, these characters claim contiguity with traditional codes regulating revenge killings (12, 33–34, 124–27).
Unlike the isolated antiheroes of noir, these protagonists are supported by relatives and community members, and bolstered by precolonial belief systems and religious rites. Traditional definitions of justice and morality, crime and punishment, and good and evil, are presented as coeval to Biblical and Christian morality, with stories of such other-than-human beings as windigoes or Deer Woman offered by elders for precedent or insight. Protagonists’ knowledge of the landscape is often a decisive factor in catching the perp or escaping death. The stories are microcosms or metonyms for Euro-American depredations up to and including physical and cultural genocide, and the characters’ attempts to solve these problems “through the application of Indigenous methodologies” (127) is a statement about those worldviews’ ongoing relevance and survival.
These authors’ assertions for Indigenous epistemologies’ continuing relevance goes so far as to openly subvert the genre’s bedrock of materialist Enlightenment rationalism. As in real life, some of these crimes are never resolved by the criminals’ arrest and conviction in the American justice system; instead, partial resolution is offered by the intervention of ghosts (67–68) or Deer Woman (46–52). Stoecklein explores this at [End Page 197] greater length in Chapter 4 (73-93), comparing Anglo-American novelist Tony Hillerman’s Navajo-cop novels Skinwalkers (1986) and A Thief of Time (1988) with their PBS adaptations (aired 2002 and 2004) directed...