N°2 | From Eco Politics to Fiction: Watershed or Percival Everett’s Adaptation of United States Indian Policy

Françoise Clary

Abstract :

The question of whether the readers of Percival Everett’sWatershed—a novelwhose structure was inspired by of a spy game—should know about American Indian Policy and Indian activism is the main basis of this study. It examines how Everett, as a story-teller, contrives both to re-read from the margins the primary source documents which marked significant formulations of policy in the conduct of Indian Affairs by the United States government and to turn history into fantasy by adapting tribal Indian history, linking environmentalism to Indian activism into fiction.

 Résumé :

La question de savoir si les lecteurs du roman Watershed de Percival Everett (un roman dont la construction s’inspire d’un jeu d’espionnage) devraient connaître la politique indienne américaine et l’activisme indien constitue le point de départ de cette étude. Elle examine comment Everett, en tant que conteur, s’efforce à la fois de relire, à partir de la marge, les documents qui ont contribué à la formulation de la politique du gouvernement des États-Unis en matière d’affaires indiennes et de transformer l’histoire en fiction en adaptant l’histoire de tribus indiennes.


Landscapes evolve sequentially except under extraordinary provocation, or in circumstances not at all to be apprehended, it is not probable that as many as five hundred Indian warriors will ever again be mustered at one point for a fight and with the conflicting interests of the different tribes, and the occupations of the intervening country by advancing settlements, such an event as a general Indian war can never occur in the United States.
(Everett 1)

        This excerpt from an 1873 statement by Edward Pamerlee Smith, who was Commissioner of Indian Affairs under President Ulysses S. Grant, opens Percival Everett’s novel Watershed (1996). Interestingly, the extract from Pamerlee Smith’s statement is an essential document for understanding the formulation of policy in the conduct of Indian affairs between1778 and 1883 (Prucha 144-46). Nevertheless, the reader may remain under the spell of an illusion about its significance as it serves as an introduction to a text that mimics the historical approach to government documents, emphasizing a narratorial presence that becomes increasingly apparent. The reason for this commitment to an illusion is that the reader believes he is being given a convincing account of the patterns of Western American Indian history while, to tell the truth, the text is a pastiche of several primary source documents illustrating the history of the relations between the United States government and a minority group. The text can therefore be perceived as an adaptation of the minority versus majority asymmetric warfare that haunts the book.

        Offering a model of a split narrative, intended to outline the contradictory impulses that mark the narration of the American nation, Everett proceeds to explore cultural compromises because they run against the hegemonic, ideological, historical discourse one needs to know when re-reading History from the margins, or even when writing about the margins. Consequently, to elaborate on the issue of adaptation as an epistemological strategy used by Everett to reach a plurality of vision involves contrasting minority belonging and majority belonging, that is, the “nation-centered view of sovereign citizenship” (Bahbha xvii). This involves locating Everett’s perspectival knowledge as he translates it into a novelistic point of view, then examining the creative possibilities of an enunciative split in Watershed and finally focusing on the author’s narrative insistence that identity and cultural difference are as much a question of history as a phenomenological and ideological issue.

Aesthetic Distance as Perspectival Knowledge

        Aesthetic distance or point of view provides a means of transcending the objectivity versus subjectivity debate. It also characterizes the stance that seems appropriate to sociological inquiry about the question of the subalternity of the voice. To illustrate this point, the novelist looks at the history of the relations between the United States government and the Native Americans, claiming that American citizenship and the state itself were founded on the need to dominate the indigenous population. In the process of adapting historical documents for a work of fiction, the author’s point of view as a resource for sociological analysis is therefore seen as the organizing principle in the novel that posits, from the very start, an implicit opposition to white supremacist patriarchy. Going deeper into the adaptation process, we notice that Everett traces a full circle of the history of Indian-white relations, and recounts by means of assembled primary sources, a system in which White equaled citizen, Black equaled slave, and Native American equaled subaltern individual. The chief materials used here show the relationships between the observer’s point of view and those of the people on whom he reports. In Watershed,for example, Everett’s command of his characters’ thoughts and actions allows him to shape various individuals, even though they have a life of their own, because in the adaptation process, the sociological perspective is tied to the historical one.

        Everett incorporates himself into the novel even though he does not intervene openly as the narrator. Indeed, the presence of an observer-reporter is felt from the opening lines since the novel begins with a contradictory point of view. In fact, unlike what can be read in the introductory lines drawn from a primary source document in which the Commissioner of Indian Affairs asserted authoritatively in 1873 that “such an event as a general Indian war can never occur in the United States” (Prucha 144), history teaches us that a general Indian war did occur in the United States three years after Edward Pamerlee Smith’s statement—Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa Lakota holy man, inspired his people to wage a war of resistance against the United States government policies and mustered a coalition of Native American tribes, the confederated Lakota tribes with the Northern Cheyenne. Under Sitting Bull’s leadership, the coalition of Indian tribes decisively defeated Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, annihilating Custer’s battalions at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana on June 25, 1876.

        By opting for a contradictory perspective in the very first paragraph of the text, Everett introduces Watershed as a biased adaptation of United States Indian policy into a work of fiction, letting it be understood that the history of United States Indian policy was, at times, written from the margins. This is a way for the author to mirror his commitment to the marginal and the peripheral. Undoubtedly, the concept of distance, or even “estrangement,” has an advantage for Everett in his adaptation process in so far as it permits the novelist to have a new approach to the history of the relations between the United States government and American Indians.

        It is in the present that the past is turned into “the past”. In Watershed, a work that draws from “the past” through government documents and valuable sources, such as Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall’s Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement, rebellious or stifling memories converge into a culturally meaningful space/time divide. To portray the disruption of chronology, there is an enunciative split, together with a fragmentation of the past into a variety of stories meant to shape the reader’s views about ethics and politics. First, there is something deliberately unsettling in the way storytelling alternates with italicized excerpts from historical documents that illustrate the evolution of the relations between the United States government and Native Americans, from the founding of the nation to the time of writing. Besides, the same type of combined presentation (documents alternating with narration) is repeated with excerpts providing natural, physiological, or geological data. It is therefore at this primary level of the structural organization of the narrative, hinging either on the history/fiction relationship, as in “Article 4 – The government of the United States and the said Indians, being mutually desirous that the latter shall be located in a country where they may eventually become self-supporting and acquire the arts of civilized life etc…” (Everett 38) or on the nature/fiction relationship, for instance, “Nymphs are meant to be fished near or on the bottom of the water and so must absorb moisture and/or be weighted so they get to the bottom quickly etc…” (Everett 3), that social existence determines social consciousness. Considering that this rising social consciousness is drawn from a specific historical phase of the general development of Indian militancy, we may then hypothesize that the various textual manipulations in the narrative are parts of the process of adaptation achieved by Everett—that of United States Indian policy adapted to fiction.

        As a matter of fact, Indian history finds its way into Watershed through a process of conversion that brings Everett to engage in the reconceptualization of various legislative enactments in the conduct of Indian affairs—more specifically those that highlight aspects of the history of the relations between the United States government and Native Americans. It is, consequently, a social and cultural rather than a historical re-formulation of legislative and administrative history that results from Everett’s process of adaptation of United States Indian policy to a work of fiction. There is, actually, a rich mix of manipulations in Everett’s adaptation process contributing to create a new fictional storyline. Two areas should thus be explored: the introduction of subjectivity of understanding and the use of parody or sociological irony before reflecting, in a concluding argument, on Everett’s decision to adapt United States policy in the conduct of Indian affairs to a rewriting of History from the margins that brings the reader to face the question of the State and Human Rights.

        Alternating upheaval and placidity, the use of the point of view of the observer-reporter in relation to the subaltern population (including African Americans as well as Native Americans) allows the storyteller to cut to the very heart of the questions we may have about the reformulation of History from the margins. The untold history of subaltern voices is reconceived as one in which the ‘sociological present’ of the Indian activists’ protest groups in the Plata reservation—that looking outward for a solution, as the black spokesmen did—is described as a break with the dominant paradigms of preceding generations. Indeed, for centuries, the colored subaltern population was historically dominated—and dealt with as the object of the enforcement of law and order—in the United States: This is part of the untold history that is voiced in Watershed from contrasting perspectives and points of view to adequately articulate the linkage of sociological distance and fictional adaptation of substantive documents which marked significant formulations of policy in the conduct of Indian affairs by the United States government. Without such a distancing as is provided by Everett’s use of point of view as an instrument of self-reflection, a re-reading of History adjusted to national minorities’ denunciation of their being considered as victims of the law would not have occurred. In Watershed,the discourse of the narrator as observer-reporter reflects a transcoding of the observations of Indian activists in the Plata reservation into report form. What is to be noted is that this transcoding of what is observed conveys the enlarged vision provided by the varied perspectives that highlight the opposing viewpoints on the narrator’s principal subjects in much the same way the sociologist Elliot Liebow moves from “inside” views to “over” views when he lays the emphasis on the “more complex phenomena marking the intersection of economic forces, social values, and individual states of mind and body” (29).

Introducing the Subjectivity of Understanding

        The aesthetic point of view chosen by Everett is neither a pure reflection of US Indian policy nor an ordinary awareness of the relationships between the US government and Native Americans. Instead, it combines detachment with intuition while offering a sociological adaptation of Indian policy. Shifts in the reproduction of historically distinct elements of Indian policy are determined by the two main protagonists via a narrative that develops like a spy game with the murder of two FBI agents who were investigating a lake whose water had been polluted by chemicals. These two protagonists are the narrator, Robert Hawks, an African American hydrologist who is brought to testify that the water of the Indian reservation has been polluted, and Louise, the challenging Native American woman who turns out to be the spokeswoman for her tribe in the Plata Reservation. Everett’s modern conception of aesthetic perception emerges in his refashioning of the relationships of a mixed population; that is to say the relationships between white Americans, African Americans and Native Americans. The latter are made to represent the determination of the base, including African Americans, to resist bourgeois ideology.

        It is clear that by opposing United States hegemonic thought and entertaining the idea of “decolonizing” the reader’s mind through a focus on revolutionary Indian activism, Percival Everett aims to teach people how to think critically about history and society. To do so, he relies on the interaction between the information provided by the historical documents and the perspective offered by the adapted fictional text, more precisely Everett relies on the movement to and fro between italicized passages referring to Indian policy, ecology, physiology (Everett 48-49) or geography (Everett 66-67) and Robert Hawks’s narrative in which man as a biological organism must undertake a constant material exchange with nature.

        In Watershed the reader may sense that the story has several different meanings, layer upon layer of significance. In other words, when Robert Hawks, the African American hydrologist, finds himself involved in a fight over Native American treaty rights about the use of water in Indian reservations, he has to fit together the pieces of a rapidly unfolding drama: the casualties caused by spreading disease in the Plata Reservation whose water has been poisoned by chemicals the Army endeavored to get rid of. Meanwhile, the readers are given to see what the author expects or thinks they will see, that is to say a similarity between Native Americans and African Americans’ long-standing claims for civil rights. Indeed, once called back to memory by the hero, the pictures of African Americans’ civil rights protests merge gradually with those of Native American militancy.

        There is ample evidence that the framing effects introduced by Everett in the adaptation of the history of United States Indian policy implicate the responsibility of the government in creating ecological disasters and therefore point to the government’s cynicism in activating Native Americans’ militancy just as it had stirred the African Americans’ battle for civil rights. To lay the emphasis on the struggle led by two meaningful Indian characters, Louise Yellow Calf and Hiram Kills Enemy, is for Robert Hawks, a way to call back to memory his father and grandfather’s fight for rights that were claimed and repeatedly denied. This process occurs, for the most part, in secrecy and silence, combining pictures with words to make messages more memorable. This is not simply a splitting of enunciation, the reader’s imagination is guided by images hanging together in sequences that bring the meaning of the text to life.

        It is easy to see the influence of memory enhancement in the adaptation process thanks to a succession of visual stimuli that have an impact on readers’ attribution of responsibility and their laying the blame on the government. In other words, the interaction between the text and the reader and the use of signifiers map out an overtly political and explicit process that can be summed up in this way: Robert Hawks, the black hydrologist, opens the narrative by recalling the situation that has led him to be sitting on a bench in a small Episcopal church on the northern edge of the Plata Indian Reservation, holding in his hands a Vietnam-era M16, with seven other armed people sitting on the floor and National Guardsmen surrounding the Church. Robert Hawks is looking at an FBI agent sitting on the floor opposite him, hands bound, while another FBI agent is lying dead on the ground outside between two dead Indians. In the structure of comprehension that regulates the text/reader interaction, a racial ambiguity is deftly installed in the novel from the very beginning of the narration through codes that function symmetrically. Assuredly, while a mental association is established between the African American hero and the white FBI agents, a connection is also to be made between the hero and the Native Americans of the Plata Reservation.

        The codes become clearer and clearer as the story tracks the hero’s encounter with the Plata Reservation Indians: “My blood is my own and my name is Robert Hawks” claims the hero at the beginning of the story. The way the African American protagonist asserts his “biological” identity reflects the pride he takes in it, but it also acts as a relativistic referential that contributes to depicting the black hydrologist as a fragment of African American experience involving people of the same blood in the meandering of an intercultural exploration. No doubt the story renders identity a contested subject in a social landscape. What is to be inferred from it? By forcing the reader to reinterpret the US government’s policy towards its minorities from the social clues provided (though some of them are highly ambiguous), Everett exposes unarticulated racial codes. In fact, the whole text highlights the tension between truth and experience because Everett proceeds to adapt the history of US Indian policy for his fiction by framing the concept of causal responsibility for political issues as an essential building block of all social knowledge. The dominant paradigm in Everett’s adaptation of history to fiction is obviously to attribute responsibility to societal forces and institutions.

Approaching the Adaptation of History from the Margins: Sociological Irony

        No doubt the baffling elusiveness of Watershed results from the multi-faceted construction of Native American culture. First of all, the novel offers practical strategies for new concrete ways of thinking by introducing into the story excerpts from historical documents with perspectives on related socio-ecological systems.

        Everett, just like the protagonist of Watershed is a master of parody, which can be defined, if we refer to Linda Hutcheon’s Theory of Parody as “a form of imitation, but imitation characterized by ironic inversion” (6). Yet how is the reader of the adapted text to reach the truth? The counterfactual “truth” undoubtedly depends on a creative confrontation of perspectives. In Watershed,the adaptation process enables the reader to switch from hard historical facts to the ethical values of Native Americans’ culture. For instance, the reader’s perspective on the Indian community of the Plata Reservation opens onto a vision of the genuine simplicity of the American Indians’ way of life, whether it is through the thoughtful relationships Robert Hawks entertains with Louise after giving her a lift or with Billy the shaman. Anyway, all these relationships are based on understanding and mutual respect, as can be seen in the description of the ceremony that takes place at the Indian church: “The singing was repetitive, hypnotic, and beautiful. Much of the beauty was in the disposition of the singers and the listeners’ reception. […] The men took turns praying in Plata, occasionally offering some words of English—for my benefit, I believed.” (Everett 81-82).

        However, the puzzling relationships that develop between the African American Hydrologist and the Plata Reservation Indians may be taken as emblematic of the multicultural play of differences. The use of simplistic bluntness in the Indians’ speech and communication is significant too:

“Do you know the Yellow Calf family?” I asked.
“Do you know Louise?”
“Have you seen Louise?”
“Do you know where she is?” I asked.
(Everett 78)     

        Through the Plata Indians’ inability to join the American public sphere, the bluntness of their speech is meant to express an instinctive act of resistance, and is also an attempt at asserting their identity. It amounts, somehow, to a process in which a self-chosen difference stands in contrast to a functionally imposed diversity of speech, manners and attitudes. In fact, through an insightful handling of relativistic signifiers, Everett gives the reader to understand that social actors create rules by which they make sense of their conduct and govern it. By so doing, Everett introduces two main levels of consciousness into the narrative. The first level is that of the actor in the process of enacting conduct (whether this actor is an FBI agent, Louise an Indian woman or one of the Plata Indians). Then, Everett lays the emphasis on the second level of consciousness by bringing the reader back to the environmental and political issues. For instance, through his focus on nature writing with the numerous descriptions of the pleasure the protagonist takes in fishing or, on the contrary, with the denunciation of the damage caused to the river by an amazing pipeline, Everett sets ecology right in the center of his social analysis. In his adaptation of US Indian policy to his work of fiction, Everett’s aim is clearly to contribute to current efforts to strengthen debates about socio-ecological resilience.

        The social world is presented as an unfolding story. Distance, or disinterested attention, is introduced between the hero—who lives in a withdrawn place—and the surrounding world. Nevertheless, it refers essentially to a two-dimensional mode of perception, a sort of ontological standing apart from conventional categories. Irony, as a metaphor of opposites, a seeing of a political issue from the viewpoint of its antithesis, is used in the novel to bring perspective, though the chief mode of irony in the text is verbal. What can be noted in the author’s use of rhetorical irony is the emphasis put on the transcendent perspective that is achieved through some sort of superior knowledge shared by both the narrator and the reader. Thus, the conversation that goes on between Robert Hawks and the Plata Indians, members of the American Indian Revolution, highlights Everett’s linguistic strategy. Puns and jokes serve a political purpose in the conversation during which John Hat, an Indian activist explains to Robert Hawks why Native Americans consider civil rights as a hoax:

« If you’re an Indian you don’t believe in civil rights. It simply doesn’t make sense. They come and talk about equality again and again, but they always lie.” […]
“Besides,” John Hat continued, “we’re not American citizens. We’re Indians. We’re American Americans. You know, when we get this continent back, all you black people will have to leave.”
They all laughed and I found myself laughing softly with them. (Everett 138)

        The reader is thus made aware that cultural consciousness may be approached from the angle of irony, as when Robert Hawks confesses that he feels more at ease in an Indian Reservation than in an American tavern: “Everyone else was white and I understood why the reservation had felt comfortable to me” (Everett 53).

        The same ironic viewpoint allows Everett to refer allusively to political concerns, as can be noted when Robert Hawks, who is getting more and more involved in the Indians’ struggle against the federal government, starts investigating the dam built illegally on Dog Creek: “I sat on the wall of the dam and looked at it. It was an expert job. Certainly no campers had come up and built it in a week-end. Beavers weren’t the cause—they have no facility with concrete” (Everett 157).

        In such a mode of awareness, the taken for granted world of white hegemony and minority groups’ subservience is disconnected or distanced from real facts by the introduction of humorous understatements. The apparent incongruity of “Beavers weren’t the cause” (of the dam) is in fact made to yield a genuine insight into the US government’s cynicism.

Concluding Argument: Reality behind the Mask, or Adapting US Indian Policy from the Margins  

        The adapted text hinges on the paradox of aiming at objectivity by reporting on the people surrounding the hero while giving the reader to understand that the excerpts from historical documents that determine each story contain the inexpressible. Undoubtedly, the colorful arrangement of mixed people provides a significant means to implement the search for truth. What I suggest is that the reproduction of attitudes, gestures, faces, is basically a means for the author to introduce signs that may remind the reader of the archetypal figure that is supposedly understood. For instance: the rough cops, the self-conscious African American, the tormented Christian middle-class man, the diffident Native American, the resolute Indian activist.

        In this tableau, metaphors are used as a key to model building. Thus, the FBI and the AIR (American Indian Revolution) may be thought of as social metaphors while the representation of the Christian Church can be classified as a mode of social exploitation: “I didn’t need Christianity to dismiss people,”( Everett, 194) says Robert Hawks. In contrast, the Native American Church is described as the ritual enactment of a well-balanced society. We gradually realize that Everett uses the concept of rationality in a way that is reminiscent of Roland Barthes when the philosopher explains in Système de la mode that a similarity of consciousness can exist between unlikely subjects.

        How can we reconcile this use of social metaphors with the search for truth in the adaptation of US Indian policy? What can be noted is that while unearthing fragments of American Indian policy, Everett introduces the notion of “the marginal man”—strongly evocative of Stonequist’s The Marginal Man. A Study in Personality and Cultural Conflict,and his concept of the stranger—in his representation of people who can be perceived as the unfortunate products of the contact or merging of one civilization with another. We therefore reach the conclusion that Everett’s contrast of perspectives may be taken as criteria for the potential fruitfulness of paradigmatic innovations in the adaptation process of history to fiction. On the basis of this concept, cannot we consider that for Everett the right way of approaching history has emerged from minority groups, that is to say from the margins?

Works Cited

Bahbha, Homi K . The Location of Culture. London: Routledge,1994. Print.

Barthes, Roland. Système de la mode. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1967. Print.

Churchill, Ward and Jim Vander Wall.  Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. 1968. Boston, Massachussetts: South End Press Classics, 2002. Print.

Everett, Percival. Watershed. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 1996. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth Century Art Forms. London: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Liebow, Elliott. Talley’s Corner. Boston: Massachussetts: Little, Brown Book Group, 1967. Print.

Prucha, Francis Paul, ed. Documents of United Sates Indian Policy. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1994. Print.

Stonequist, Everett. The Marginal Man. A Study in Personality and Cultural Conflict. New York: Russell and Russell, 1937. Print.

The Author

Françoise Clary is Professor emeritus of American literature and civilization at Rouen University. On the roster of American Literary Scholarship, Duke University and a member of the Advisory Board of The Journal of Contemporary Communication, National University of Nigeria she is the author of several books and articles on African American and African literature. Her latest publication is Caryl Phillips’ Crossing the River (Atlande, 2016)