"Native people living in the contemporary world are usually the last to know and to have something to say about what is being published concerning us. This is true whether the work is in history, anthropology, psychology, education or fiction? This unawareness appears to be true in the advent of the book, Hanta Yo, by Ruth Beebe Hill. Hill had the linguistic aid of a Mdewaktonwan Dakota who calls himself Chunksa Yuha. In my view, the two combine to make a "dreaming pair" and the book is evidence of this."
- Bea Medicine, "Hanta Yo: A New Phenomenon"
Hanta Yo: An American Saga embodies the very controversy it created. The author, Ruth Beebe Hill, is an Anglo-American who claims to have worked on the text for roughly 30 years interviewing one thousand Native Americans, traveling reservations, and studying intensively in libraries across the country. With the help of Chunksa Yuha, a Dakotah Sioux Native American, Hill claims to have translated the text from English to Dakota and then back into English using the 1806 version of Webster's Dictionary. An article written for Smithsonian Magazine in 1978 states, "Author Hill considers Hanta Yo not really a novel and not a documentary either. The names and the deeds of the four heroes are fictitious, but their tribe existed and ?everything really happened.' She calls it documented fiction (114)." The problem with this claim is that it is too bold, to broad, and attempts a task much larger than it was capable of filling. One book review reads, "Part of the difficulty arises with the claim that the book is a ?linguistic tour de force.' It is said to have been translated from present day English into an old Dakotah/Lakotah dialect and then retranslated into an English based upon the 1806 Webster's Dictionary. These maneuvers, surly very complicated, are supposed to result in a faithful reflection of the Indian idiom. Such a claim seems gratuitous, and it implies that the book is a kind of artifact, a museum piece, a curiosity. I suspect that one does not reproduce the language of the Indians by reverting to the English of 1806 (Washington Post Book World: January, 1979)."
I will begin by examining the political climate that created a market for Hanta Yo. In American history, there have been no greater atrocities committed than those against the Native Americans. After seizing land, killing tribes, and allotting them only a small portion of what was originally theirs, a majority of Native Americans dwell below the poverty line and the government does little to aid the situation. The Radical Historian explains, "The Indian represents human nature in a state of anarchy; wild and untamed, it is something to be conquered. More recently it dominated the Western dime novel, and appeared in cowboy-and-Indian movies. On the other hand, the Indian, when portrayed as a primitive child living in harmony with nature, also represents for us humanity in a state of primordial innocence. These are the Natives celebrated in the sixties counterculture literature (149)." In 1979, the publication year of Hanta Yo, the country was settling into the effects of the Civil Rights Movement, the war against Vietnam, as well as the Cold War. The Carter Administration maintained a campaign with strong commitments toward human rights, and this acted accordance with the influence of the "sixties counterculture literature," generating a growing interest in issues such as "Native America." In popular culture, "the western" (in the form of novels, television shows, and movies) was a thriving genre throughout the 1970's. Hanta Yo's audience would have been raised with figures such as James Dean, John Wayne, "Squanto," and "Geronimo." The "baby boomers" descending from a climax of radicalism and rebelliousness, would no doubt have been eager to read something that replaced these generic figures and gave a realistic identity to Native American characters. The political environment as well as the influence of "the Western" on popular culture created the perfect climate for a novel that attempted to come from a Native Dakotah Sioux perspective.
A Literary History of the American West, a text written by The Western Literature Association describes the marketability of this type of novel, "Long before eloquent Indian writers developed, white writers found potent material, usually tragic, in the destruction of native cultures; as a result, no other western ethnic group has been so much written about. From Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona, through Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge, to the more recent and controversial Hanta Yo by Ruth Beebe Hill, the list is long and in places distinguished (1028)." Considering that Hanta Yo was Hill's first novel, it received positive attention upon its publication due to the intensive research that was said to have gone into it. The Smithsonian Magazine article in which Hanta Yo was featured focuses on this aspect of the text, "The author, Ruth Beebe Hill, is not Indian but white. She tells a story that is true as an understanding of the ancient language and history can make it, for it is nowhere recorded. Ruth Hill put 30 years into the undertaking, the last 14 of them with the help of a bilingual Indian. She was so intent on making her book not only accurate but a reflection of what she calls the Indian ?altitude of the mind' that she translated her words into archaic Dakotah and then back into the English of the 1806 Webster's dictionary (111)." Reviews done by the Chicago Tribune, New York Times, and Washington Post Book Review, and Publishers Weekly all focused the research that the book required as the focus for the articles, namely Hill's relationship with Chunksa Yuha.
The credibility of the novel turned upside down when questions arose about the truthfulness of Hill's research. As Hanta Yo gained readership, especially within the Native American community, controversy began to brew. As an article in the Radical History Review written in 1981 reads, "The Sioux and other Native Americans oppose Hanta Yo and its entire philosophical premise? One effort is aimed at destroying the credibility of the author and her collaborator by demonstrating loopholes and falsifications in their claims of honest research. In Ruth Beebe Hill's case, this has been difficult. Most of the Sioux from whom she supposedly received information are dead. The manuscript which she claims to have translated into "archaic" Souix and then back into English of Webster's 1806 Dictionary is unavailable for inspection. Under pressure to reveal her sources, Hill now admits that she has taken information from the standard ethnographies. In most instances, however, she has misrepresented ethnographic data (155-6)." Another article written in the Indian Historian journal even goes so far as to debunk any positive criticism that the Smithsonian article (cited earlier) offered: "There appeared an article entitled, ?Ruth Hill Became Indian to Write Epic of the Sioux,' by Peggy Thomspon, in this Smithsonian (December, 1978). This article is ample evidence that Native Americans are still at the mercy of journalists, free-lance writers, scriptwriters, and other establishment media forces. The article, however, has given the book a certain authenticity lodged in the bosom of Smithsonian Magazine as an authority in the field of ethic studies, a reputation it does not deserve (3)."
While the controversy surrounding Hanta Yo could not have had a positive effect on its sales, these questions make it an interesting specimen to examine as a bestseller. The book was, as I have said, marketed primarily because it intended to function as a true reflection of Native American "historical fiction." Ruth Beebe Hill portrayed herself as an anthropologist and historian instead of an author; she claims to have gone out of her way to make her fiction less fictional. But according to the Sioux Native American who reviewed the book in The Radical Historian, "Not only does Hill misrepresent the Souix as individuals, she distorts their social relations as well. During the period covered by the novel, the Teton Sioux a foraging people who lived in nomadic settlements ordered around the idiom of kinship. Every Sioux was enmeshed in a far-ranging web of kinship relations. The idea that Peta and his nephew Plepi (main characters in the book) had no family is inconceivable. Without some sort of a kin connection in a Sioux community, a person became a social nonentity, a stranger, and a potential enemy (151)." Had she remained true to the western genre and created fictional and stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans, chances are that there would have been fewer objections, but she probably would not have made the bestseller list either. Hanta Yo attempted to transcend the boundaries of the Western genre and become a non-fictional fiction, but it ultimately did not fill these shoes. Because Hill claimed to be true to the Native Sioux's true form, she dug Hanta Yo a hole from which it has never emerged. Hanta Yo will never function as a "historical fiction" because it lacks historical truth essential to an accurate perspective of the Dakotah people.
All of these anecdotes make an interesting case for the public persona of the author. Hill's intentions, which initially were portrayed as well placed, were eventually criticized as just another capitalistic venture: "We have tried to show how, in the case of Hanta Yo, various aspects of corporate capitalism combine to package and sell what amounts to an expression of their own world view. The fantasy world portrayed by this type of cultural commodity is accurately reflected in the double-talk that masquerades as historical fiction (Albers, 160)." I must admit that I agree, except for the fact that a few months on the bestseller list could not prompt me to spend 30 years writing 834 pages of something intended to be corruptive.
I think Ruth Beebe Hill's intentions were pure; she believed in her cause and she believed in her book. Her downfall was that she did not account for how seriously her claims would be taken. I'm not sure that she considered the fact that an informed Native American reader was ready to be critical of her simply based on the fact that she was a white woman attempting to "become" a Native Dakota Sioux American. Combine this with the fact that she did not do create an accurate account, while claiming to have done so, and it is understandable why she was such an easy target for ridicule. I presume that, as she realized her life's work was destined for fame, she became slightly star struck and exaggerated certain aspects of her research as well as her intentions. It is interesting that, had Hanta Yo not been reviewed with the intensive research as the focus, Hill would have received less ridicule. In other words, the same aspect of the text that made it popular was also the ultimate cause for its downfall.
Focusing attention away from the criticism and towards the actual plot, Hanta Yo manages to provide a remarkable story. Though long-winded and intimidating to plow through, it cannot be denied that the book is fairly well written and provides the reader with a tale as removed from the mainstream as it promises to be. As an article in the Washington Post Book World reads, "Hanta Yo is substantial novel, impressive I both conception and execution. In the course of the long, many faceted narrative, there is revealed a fascinating world. In one sense it is a small, nearly private world, a world so exclusive as to be available only in the pages of a book. But it is a whole world too, full of good things and bad (4)."
In conclusion, Hanta Yo was an incredible attempt at an unbiased account of Native American life. While it does not fulfill the claims that were the focus of the book's reviews, it obviously cannot be considered a failure as a fiction considering that it remained on the bestseller list for several months. It seems that Ruth Beebe Hill was treading on thin ice when, as a white woman, she attempted to create an historical fiction of Dakotah Sioux Native Americans. This culture is so distinct that such a task should be reserved for first hand experience and knowledge, especially since this ethnic group has faced so many detrimental stereotypes and so many of their historical accounts have been filtered through people other than Native Americans.