People write to me, asking about La Farge's portrayal of American Indians---in this case, Navajos in his Laughing Boy. Published in 1929 by Houghton Mifflin, the book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1930. It is a Signet Classic and is included in books created to help teachers select literature for use in high school and college classrooms.
If you're interested in a critical essay about Laughing Boy, I suggest you read Leslie Marmon Silko's "An Old-Time Indian Attack Conducted in Two Parts." It is on page 211 of Geary Hobson's The Remembered Earth.
Since white ethnologists like Boas and Swanton first intruded into Native American communities to "collect" prayers, songs and stories, a number of implicit racist assumptions about Native American culture and literature have flourished. The first is the assumption that the white man, through some innate cultural or racial superiority, has the ability to perceive and master the essential beliefs, values and emotions of persons from Native American communities.
Silko notes that La Farge was educated at Harvard and spent several summer vacations doing ethnographic work on the Navajo Reservation. She writes that he cared deeply for the Navajo people. That time, though, and his care, did not make it possible for him to write a novel that accurately portrays the Navajo people. With respect to accuracy, Silko offers the response of her students:
In the summer of 1971, the Navajo students in a Southwestern Literature class at Navajo Community College concluded that Laughing Boy was entertaining; but as an expression of anything Navajo, especially with relation to Navajo emotions and behavior, the novel was a failure. And for the non-Navajo or non-Indian, it is worse than a failure: it is a lie because La Farge passes off the consciousness and feelings of Laughing Boy as those of Navajo sensibility.
As noted, the novel has a lot of accolades. Maybe that's why romance novelist Cassie Edwards used it to write Savage Dream, one of the titles in her "Savage" series. Some of my students start to laugh aloud as I read the titles in the series: Savage Love, Savage Intrigue, Savage Hope, Savage Destiny... There's over 20 books in the series. Edwards was in the news in January of 08 for plagiarism. If you want to see a point-by-point analysis of her use of Laughing Boy, see what Smart Bitches put together.
I'm sure high school teachers don't use books like those by Cassie Edwards in their classrooms. They are, after all, soft-porn romance novels. Lest you think, however, that she captures Native culture in a good way, discard that thought. And while you're at it, discard Laughing Boy if you're using it in your classroom. Choose a Native author instead. Silko, perhaps, or Simon Ortiz. Or James Welch. Or Louise Erdrich. Or Sherman Alexie. Or Thomas King. You do have choices. Take a look at the ones offered at Oyate.
And if you feel compelled to respond to this post, asking me if I think non-Native people have no business writing books about Native people, rest easy. I don't think that only Native people should write Native novels.
But... What is the motivation for the question in the first place? Concern for freedom of speech? Ok, I defend that, too, but if you're looking for good books about American Indians, don't you think it makes sense to look for Native writers? Choosing their books does not mean you defy anyone's freedom of speech.