Conflict between Indigenous and Modern Worlds

Children’s Literature: The Conflict between Indigenous and Modern Worlds

As the world continues to evolve towards a more modern existence, many indigenous cultures are assimilating more and more into the larger society. Books like Scott Odell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins and Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves expose the conflict between modern and traditional cultures for native peoples. These two beautifully written children’s tales describe the life of native people, close to the land and all the natural elements that are tied to it. Yet, it is clear from the works that this life is in direct conflict with a life of modernity. The modern world challenges traditional cultural identity in O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins and George’s Julie of the Wolves; the two authors are showing that because the two identities are so different, indigenous identities cannot exist within the constantly evolving modern context. Yet, this is not entirely negative, as the two female characters are allowed to transcend their traditional gender norms and become much more powerful and capable women who can fend for themselves and are no longer limited to their traditional gender roles.

Both works discuss the conflict that many native cultures have faced as they are influenced and pressured to assimilate into a more modern existence. The two books are essentially “something more than an anthropological document meant to engage our aesthetic sensitivities,” they can help protect “tribal history from becoming lost to future generations” (Doughty & Thompson 14). The primary themes are related in that they show the struggle of indigenous cultures in a world which constantly demands assimilation. This is not an easily won struggle, as both female protagonists deal with the weight of staying out of mainstream culture for as long as they can. Throughout both works, Karana and Miyax constantly demonstrate their cultural knowledge, which is what allows them to live and thrive off the land for so long in isolation from the rest of society. The two characters are left to their own devices deep in the wilderness after the violent deaths of their families leave them with the choice to conform to a more modern existence or to run away and try to remain true to their traditional heritage on their own, in the absence of others to help them along the way. Here, both girls are faced with a choice, and both really struggle with what to do. Still, they owe their survival to their cultural heritage as their traditional knowledge allows the girls to survive in the harsh natural environment. Karana is constantly reminded of a deep connection to the land of her ancestors. This is best illustrated when she finds the cave with the figures of her ancestors. Here, O’Dell describes her experience: “each one had eyes fashioned of round or oblong disks of abalone shell, but the rest of their faces were blank. The eyes glittered down at me, moved as the light on the water moved and was reflected upon them. They were more alive than the eyes of those who live” (O’Dell 128). Her heritage is very much alive within her. She is fighting for her people’s survival, because she is so invested in the traditional way of life. Miyax also shares this close connection with her heritage. She originally held a distain for conforming to a more modern standard of life. When called Julie, “she stomped her foot and told him her name was Miyax. ‘I am Eskimo, not a gussak!'” (George 81). Therefore, Miyax shares Karana’s deep connection to their indigenous identities.

The two girls also share a close relationship with the wildlife surrounding them in the wilderness, which comes from their cultural heritage and traditions. Their tribes have long lived in harmony with the land, which is something that is often not translated into modern cultures. From this traditional perspective, “humans are a part of, no superior to, the animal kingdom and so must recognize the significance of animals in the world” (Stewart 184). Thus, the two girls live in harmony with nature and the animals that surround them. O’Dell shows this with Karana’s enjoyment of her natural surroundings. At one point, she thinks “I was happy to be home. Everything I saw — the otter playing in the kelp, the rings of foam around the rocks guarding the harbor, the gulls flying, the tides moving past the sandspit — filled me with happiness” (O’Dell 69). She seems content living with nature like her people have done for generations. It is this harmony with nature that allows her to survive for so long all alone on the island. Additionally, both girls show a close relationship with the animal life they share the earth with. Karana believes that “animals and birds are like people, too, though they do not talk the same or do the same things. Without them the earth would be an unhappy place” (O’Dell 57). She befriends animals like they are her kin. This happens even with the feral dogs that were originally a threat after killing her brother Ramo. Eventually, she makes friends with the leader and becomes their ally. After naming him Rontu, she becomes extremely close with her animal companion, showing her deep connection to nature that stems from her cultural traditions. This is also illustrated in George’s work. The wolves, led by Amaroq, take in Miyax and help protect her in the harsh wilderness. Miyax also has a close bird friend named Tornait. Here, George writes that “she knew what she had to do. Live like an Eskimo — hunt and carve and be with Tornait” (George 152). Her connection to nature through these animals strengthens her roots with her indigenous traditions that respected animals and nature much more than modern cultures do. It is this respect and admiration for nature, stemming from deeply engrained cultural heritages that allow the girls to survive for so long on their own. With this, the two authors are highlighting how much strength can be gathered from remaining true to one’s indigenous cultural identity.

Yet, this traditional identity is also in danger because of the constant influence of the modern world, which both girls are exposed to. There is an innate conflict between traditional and modern cultural identities. Ultimately, this shows the affect of “transcultural interaction” which influenced native cultures around the globe (Marian 1). Exposure to modern societies has a luring temptation for many indigenous people, causing many to leave their cultural heritage to join the modern world. Eventually, both girls return to a more modern civilization, shedding a pessimistic light regarding the survival of more traditional, native cultures. Thus, both authors are illustrating the notion of the “vanishing Indian” (Stewart 182). As the modern world becomes more and more alluring, indigenous traditions are vulnerable to disappearing. Unfortunately, this is a pessimistic view, which in many ways does go with the traditional ending for many Native American stories that do not have the typical “happy ending” of Westernized folk tales (Stewart 184).

In the Island of the Blue Dolphins, Karana lasts a long time without falling to Western influence. Yet, towards the end of the book, her friendship with Tutok reinvigorates her desire to be with society. She thinks, “below me, Rontu was running along the cliff barking at the screaming gulls. Pelicans were chattering as they fished the blue water. Far off, I could hear the bellow of a sea elephant. But suddenly, as I thought of Tutok, the island seemed very quiet” (O’Dell 119). It is clear she desires human company, and that essentially means leaving her cultural heritage to travel to the mainland. Her choice to leave is illustrated with the symbol of the dress. O’Dell describes Karana’s disliking for the modern clothing, but she reluctantly accepts it because she is willing to assimilate into modern culture; “the dress reached from my throat to my feet and I did not like it, either the color of it or the way it scratched it was also hot. But I smiled and put my cormorant skirt away in one of the baskets to wear when I got across the sea, sometime when the men were not around” (O’Dell 179). When she puts the dress on she is putting on a new, modern identity.

This symbol is repeated in George’s work, but is tied to the concept of names rather than clothing. The name Julie is so foreign compared to Miyax. The assigning of English names shows how much mainstream culture is influencing native people. Here, George writes “they called her father Charlie Edwards and Miyax was Julie, for they all had two names, Eskimo and English” (George 80). They were called by their English names during the summer, when there were mainland tourists around. Yet, during the winter, they were able to go back to their true ethnic roots. This illustrates a connection with tradition, but one that is often put to the side to join in on a modern existence. In fact, Miyax is drawn to the glamour of a modern lifestyle, even though she shows a desire to remain true to her culture. When she is out in the wilderness, “leaning over the pond, she saw in the glassy water the hollows of her cheeks. She was pleased, for she looked almost like the gussak girls in the magazines and movies — thin and gaunt, not moon-face like an Eskimo” (George 67). Here, Miyax sees herself resembling the white models and actresses she had seen in the past. This shows how she does have the desire to assimilate into a more modern identity. External cultural influences are pushing her inner desires to stray further form her cultural heritage. It becomes more and more clear that Miyax is being drawn away from her cultural heritage and towards a more modern identity. George describes how “the many years in seal camp alone with Kapugen had been dear and wonderful, but she realized now that she had lived a strange life. The girls her age could speak and write English and they knew the names of presidents, astronauts, and radio and movie personalities, who lived below the tope of the world” (George 85). Miyax is slowly becoming ashamed of her cultural heritage. She sees it as strange to a certain extent, especially in comparison to other more modern girls around her. When she adopts a modern lifestyle she does reassess the power of her cultural heritage, and “with that, Miyax became Julie” (George 89). Yet, this in direct conflict with her inner closeness of nature. For example, her father represents a more modern lifestyle that conflicts with the balanced ways of tradition. Kapugen hunts from planes, which is exactly how Miyax’s beloved wolf companion Amaroq died. This fact disgusts her, yet she seems to have no other choices as life on her own seems to daunting for her to attempt anymore. However, it is clear that out of the two girls, Miyax has less of a choice in returning to civilization. Still, George stays much closer to the actual traditions of Native American culture compared to O’Dell. George even presents more traditional story-telling strategies, while O’Dell creates a narrative that is more streamlined and modern. Native American authors often “write multi-viewpoint, non-chronological novels” (Stewart 180). The flashback and entire narrative is out of the traditional chronological order as “it challenges our definition of multicultural texts because it introduces the unique narrative traditions of Native American culture” (Stewart 180). George embeds native traditions within the actual formatting of her text, thus preserving some of the very customs that she clearly shows are in danger because of modern influence. It is true that “Native American literary narrative, with its roots in oral tradition, differs from Western literary traditions by utilizing multiple narrators or multiple perspectives to emphasize the communal aspect of storytelling” (Stewart 186). It often relies on cyclical order that is not always in chronological organization. George emphasizes this tradition, as the three books of the narrative are out of order. The book starts with the present situation, where Miyax is with the wolves, then goes back to a flashback to explain her ordeal, eventually finishing off in the future.

Yet it is this break from tradition that allows the girls of the two books to break free of restricting gender norms. Both books present strong female characters challenging gender norms. Typically, in children’s literature, the female characters are limited by strict gender roles. However, these two narratives “offer readers strong, independent female characters who serve as counterexamples to Wilder’s paragon of girlhood” (Burden 4). The two female characters take on very male roles as they try to survive in the harsh natural environment without the help of others. O’Dell is very clear with Karana’s evolution beyond her culturally limited gender norms. After the bloody battle, the village is left without able bodied men. Thus, “Most of those who snared fowl and found fish n the deep water and built canoes are gone. The women, who were never asked to do more than stay at home, cook food, and make clothing, now must take the place of men and face the dangers which abound beyond the village” (O’Dell 23). Yet, Karana takes this even further when she is alone on the island. She has to develop in order to survive. She makes spears and weapons in spite of the laws of her tradition. O’Dell writes “as I lay there I wondered what would happen to me if I went against the law of our tribe which forbade the making of weapons by women — if I did not think of it at all and made those things which I must have to protect myself” (O’Dell 69). Miyax also shows extreme independence and strength when she strikes out on her own. It is within this context that hope is provided for the future. Essentially, the two authors are sending the message those female children readers do not have to sit back and accept their restrictive gender norms. They can expand and do anything a man can do.

Works Cited

Burden, Lauren K. “From Alice to Ella: Female Protagonists in Children’s Literature.” The Raucous Librarian. 2013. Web. Retrieved 23 Nov 2013 from

Doughty, Terri & Thompson, Dawn. Knowing Their Place? Identity and Space in Children’s Literature. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 2011.

George, Jean Craighead. Julie of the Wolves. Harper Collins. 1997.

Marian, Veronica. “Multicultural Perspectives Strengthen Native American Identity, Says Stanford Scholar.” Stanford News. 2013. Web. Retrieved 23 Nov 2013.

O’Dell, Scott. Island of the Blue Dolphins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2010.

Stewart, Michelle Pagni. “Judging Authors by the Color of Their Skin? Quality Native American Children’s Literature.” Multi-Ethnic Children’s Literature. (Summer, 2002): Pp 179-196.

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