The Dilemma of Native American Appropriation in Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!

In 2012, Debbie Reese, who manages the blog “American Indians in Children’s’ Literature,” wrote a three-day blog post detailing disapproval with Karen Russell’s novel Swamplandia!. At the top of each page, she has an editor’s note reading: “I finished Russell’s book, and do not recommend it. It is redface. It is playing Indian.” Her chapter summaries detail why she believes the novel is simply appropriation without any redeeming qualities. However, by equating Ava’s voice to Russell’s and without acknowledging the influence of the Southern Gothic genre on the novel, Reese’s posts ignore the satirical aspects of the text. Ava’s defense of her own appropriation is fitting for her character: a naive and misled thirteen-year-old girl. Her first-person narration should not be taken as a defense of redface on the part of either Russell or the novel itself. While Ava and the rest of the Bigtrees are inarguably “playing Indian,” the novel does not condone their actions but rather uses their appropriation to show Chief Bigtrees ignorance and the ways children can be misled and tricked by adults.

The Bigtrees in Swamplandia! are essentially frauds. In Chapter 2, Ava describes the history of their park. Her grandfather, a white man from Ohio, founded it after losing his job at a mill. He changed his name to Sawtooth Bigtree to “outwit his old boss” who he owed money to. The name was picked almost at random, simply because he “liked its root-strong sound” (Russell 31). Ava is aware of the deception. She says that “although there was not a drop of Seminole or Miccosukee blood in us, the Chief always costumed us in tribal apparel for the photographs he took. He said we were ‘our own Indians’” (6). She goes on to describe their “museum,” a collection of objects from their lives that were placed there to make tourists think their family had a long legacy of alligator wrestling on the island. Ava notes that “often the deck of our past got reshuffled overnight. [The Chief] took down Grandpa’s old army medallions, which did not fit with his image of our free and ancient swamp tribe” (32). Even though Ava knows intellectually that everything about her “Bigtree” family are lies fabricated for tourists, she still forms her entire identity around it. For instance, she refers to Swamplandia’s alligators as “seths” not just when talking to tourists, but in her internal monologue. When a red alligator is born, Ava believes that it will save their park, which is going out of business after her mother’s death . She hides the  alligator from everybody, fearing that it will die if she shows it to her family. The fact that she builds up this fantasy about the park being saved by her “seth” even though her mouth “turned to sand” when she considered telling them about it proves that she herself believes at some level in her Bigtree identity (60).

The Chief tells her that she needs to call the park’s alligators seths because that is what they’re called on the billboard they lease on the mainland. “Tradition is important, kids… as promotional materials are expensive,” says Chief Bigtree. Here he is basically saying that the only reason their traditions are important is because it would be too expensive to change them. However, Ava doesn’t feel this way. All she knows is Swamplandia. Even though she is aware that their identities are fake, they are all she has. She feels no connection with people on the mainland, using the term “Loomis,” the name of the county they live near, as almost an insult. Loomis people didn’t understand her way of life. She also believes that her mother’s trophies are real. These trophies are displayed in the museum, next to all the artifacts that Ava admits are frauds. One trophy reads “NATIONAL CHAMPION, 1971. AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF ALLIGATOR WRESTLERS,” an obviously fabricated organization. Even so, Ava attempts to write to the association to let her compete in their tournament. In this scene, the Chief is hesitant to tell Ava the truth about the trophy being fake. He says “Just don’t send these guys any of your own money, Ava. Don’t get scammed” (54). Telling Ava not to “get scammed” shows how hypocritical he is. He has been scamming tourists his whole life. He acknowledges that Ava believes in her identity and isn’t sure how to break it to her that it’s all a hoax. This hoax has led Ava to be immature and naive as well as uneducated because of the lapses in their homeschooling. The damage that the Chief’s lies do to the children shows that the novel isn’t attempting to naturalize their lifestyle but rather condemn it.

This strange middleground Ava inhabits between accepting that her identity is fake while simultaneously embracing it lies at the heart of the novel’s themes. The novel is constantly wavering between truths and fictions. For example, for the entirety of the novel it is unclear whether the ghosts Ossie claims to see are real or fake. The underworld that the Birdman promises to take Ava to is also only revealed to be fake at the very end of the book. Choosing the grey area between fact and fiction is a common theme in the Southern Gothic genre. In his dissertation Disturbing signs: Southern gothic fiction from Poe to McCullers, Joseph Grant Bain writes that “Rather than resign themselves to a particular accepted way of looking at the world, Southern Gothic writers muster the courage required first to face deconstructed meaning and then to accept the responsibility of reconstructing it.”  This is what we see Russell doing with the Bigtrees appropriation of Native American imagery. It inhabits an ethically ambiguous area in the book, with characters never taking a stance for or against it or even considering for a moment that they should. In the southern gothic genre, however, it is not the duty of the author to explain the ethicality of their characters or to leave the reader with the impression that what they are doing is either right or wrong. In fact, to do so would be actively going against the point of the genre. Bain writes “These writers struggle to free themselves from certain imposed social signs, and therefore brim with the less rigidly structured potential of a precocious child. Hostile or pejorative critical reaction then becomes a defensive dismissal of liberated social meaning” (192).

This is not to say, however, that the novel is nihilistic. While it does not denounce appropriation outright, it shows the harmful effects it can have. In Chapter 15, Ava shows her surprisingly detailed knowledge of the “Seminole Wars.” She describes how the seminoles were “slaughtered or ‘removed’ to the western territories.” And yet she goes on to say that these are the same Seminoles that the Chief “envied in a filial and loving way” (238). To juxtapose the Bigtrees’ envy of these native people with descriptions of their genocide shows how ludicrous their appropriation is. Again, Ava knows something intellectually that she cannot fully understand.

Chief Bigtree’s appropriation is satirized heavily in the chapters where he is working at the casino in Loomis Country. The casino, “Pa-Hay-Okee Gaming” is a Seminole casino. Jessica Cattelino’s Book High Stakes: Florida Seminole Gaming and Sovereignty details the history of Seminole casinos. In 1979, Hollywood Seminole Bingo opened, becoming the first “tribally-operated high-stakes gaming venture in North America” (1). The book describes the complex history of tribally-operated gambling and both the benefits and drawbacks it brings to communities. In Chapter 18, Kiwi is horrified to see his father hosting a beauty pageant at the Seminole Casino. He is taken aback because he has never seen the “Chief,” who he associates with their fraudulent Indian identities, acting like a mainland person, stripped of his fake Indian headdress and buckskin vest. This Casino is legitimately run by the tribal government. It is the actuality of the Native American people that the Bigtrees are imitating. The irony is that Chief Bigtree’s job as an announcer at the casino is a far more realistic depiction of the modern Seminole community than the “Indian” personas that he and his family put on for tourists. This satire adds to the books Southern Gothic tone, one that puts it at odds with traditional southern literature that imagined itself as “a last line of defense against a soulless, rootless, corrupt urban industrial (hence, ‘norther’) modernity” (McWhirter 1). The book flips this dynamic on its head by having the northern Bigtrees from Ohio finding themselves rebelling against the modernity of the genuine Seminoles on the mainland.

All of these elements combine to make the Bigtrees look ridiculous. Although Ava is initially proud of her family’s history, the novel shows time and again that she isn’t capable of understanding the larger issues at play in her life. This makes her an unreliable narrator and–since the book is told from the first-person perspective–it makes everything she says suspect. Throughout the novel she is tricked by adults, specifically Chief Bigtree and the Bird Man. This shows that while she participates in and supports her family “playing Indian,” she is not in a position to defend it and is unable to understand its toxic effects. Rather than read this as the novel trying to normalize and condone redface and appropriation, it should be read as showing way adults can mislead impressionable children into participating in things they have no way of comprehending.

 

Works Cited

Bain, Joseph Grant. Disturbing Signs: Southern Gothic Fiction from Poe to McCullers. Diss. U of Arkansas, 2010.: ProQuest Dissertations, 2010. ProQuest. Web. 5 May 2016.

Cattelino, Jessica R. High Stakes: Florida Seminole Gaming and Sovereignty. Durham: Duke UP, 2008. Google Books. 14 July 2008. Web.

Mcwhirter, David. “Introduction: Rethinking Southern Literary Studies.” South Central Review 22.1, “Southern Literature”/Southern Cultures: Rethinking Southern Literary Studies (2005): 1-3. JSTOR. Web. 05 May 2016.

Reese, Debbie. “American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL): Day One with Russell’s SWAMPLANDIA!” 2 Jan. 2012. Web. 05 May 2016.

Russell, Karen. Swamplandia! New York: Vintage, 2011. Print.

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