The romance genre has a problematic history with Native American protagonists. The “American Indian Romance” is often written by white authors and read by non-Native women.
The American Indian historical romance that readers know today became an established subgenre in the 1980s. However, its roots can be traced back to early 1800s American literature, most notably with The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper. Native American romance is often source material for academic research on racial coding, media representation, and even the development of women’s captivity narratives.
While there are hundreds of historical romances with an Indigenous protagonist, it’s rare to find Native American romance told in a contemporary setting. In “Her Beautiful Savage: The Current Sexual Image of the Native American Male”, Peter van Lent says, “Today, when the Indian man is depicted in his sexual mode, he is most often transferred back to the past, a time of traditional lifestyle.” van Lent also points out that almost all Native American film and TV representation show Native characters in the 19th century.
Sexy contemporary romances with Indigenous heroes can be found, but it’s rarely advertised as a First Nation, Indigenous or Native American romance. For example, Against the Wall by Rebecca Zanetti is a hot contemporary romance set in Montana. Jake is a Native American romance hero and the opening scene pays homage to the captive trope when he grabs Sophie while riding his horse.
As a cowboy and a tribal lawyer, Jake protects what’s his. It’s his job to prevent Sophie from doing her job as they battle over land. He’s connected to his family and his community, and he has made personal sacrifices to stay with his tribe. Jake wants Sophie, a non-Native, to be part of his world. Sophie’s hesitant to trust his pledge of commitment, but as Jake explains, once he catches her, he’s keeping her.
In her work “Public Conflicts and Private Treaties in Kathleen Eagle’s Fire and Rain”, Johanna Hoorenan says that the lack of Native characters in contemporary romance maintains the Vanishing Indian myth.
It suggests that there are no more Native Americans, or at least, no more “Real Indians” and that they have become extinct during the westward expansion of the United States, in keeping with the doctrine of the Manifest Destiny.
If a reader finds a contemporary Native American romance, the heroine is often non-Native. Stephanie Carol Burley argues in her dissertation “Hearts of darkness: The racial politics of popular romance” that the reason is fetishized racial boundaries. The Native American male’s appearance is often stereotyped and exoticized.
Yet in Tempting Fate by Pamela Clare, both protagonists share Native American ancestry. It’s a sexy love story about a contemporary native couple who value family and community while respecting Lakota traditions.
Set in Colorado, Chaska saves Naomi while hiking and helps her recover. Neither knows much about Naomi’s heritage. Abandoned as a baby and raised in a cult, she’s not a registered member of an Indian nation. When Naomi discovers the possibility that she’s from the Lakota tribe and has living relatives, she’s determined to find out more.
Heritage is the center of Chaska’s life. He had been training as a Sun Dancer, a role and a discipline to protect and provide for his community through rituals and daily life. When Chaska guides Naomi into finding out more about being Lakota, she must continue the journey of self-discovery without him. Chaska knows he has to let Naomi go so she can find her people but he’s not ready to make that sacrifice.
Contemporary romances with Native American protagonists often explore identity, heritage and community. And yet there’s a lack of #ownvoices in Native American romances. While some authors writing Indigenous romance fiction are related to people with tribal enrollment, they don’t identify as First Nation or Native American. “As a consequence,” Hoorenan says, “the subgenre perpetuates and re-inscribes a pattern in which Native American cultures are depicted by non-Native auteurs, be it in fiction, film, history, anthropology, or any other field.”
In this sensual category romance, Savannah needs a sponsorship as she competes in rodeos while Chase is in urgent need of a wife. A deal is made as they enter a marriage of convenience. Chase, a wealthy playboy living in Las Vegas, falls for his temporary bride who is a down home cowgirl from Oklahoma.
While it’s mentioned a few times that Savannah is Choctaw, her ancestry does not impact the plot or the romance. Her goals are influenced more by her lack of money and opportunities. However, her Native American roots occasionally affect how she interacts with secondary characters and how she has to navigate the world around her. These moments give readers a better understanding about the heroine.
Want more contemporary romances with Native American protagonists? Looking for love stories that feature First Nation characters set outside the United States? Wish there were more #ownvoices Indigenous romances? There are not a lot of resources, but readers can start the search with the Women of Color in Romance website.
The Native American romance might be an established subgenre in romantic fiction, but it still has a long way to go.
Looking for #ownvoices stories? Follow the #IndigenousRomanceReadalong! All the live streams are hosted on Beautifully Bookish Bethany’s YouTube channel.
How diverse is romance fiction? Find out here.