A version of this piece first ran on Culture 11.
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When I first stumbled on a reference to the Indian Cinderella, I thought the phrase must be referring to a South Asian legend. When I realized the title was meant to refer to a Native American tale, I was…well, dubious. The whole Jungian universal-mythological-archetype thing makes my teeth hurt, and it sounded to me like this was some sort of post-facto effort to mutilate somebody else’s folk-tale-foot in order to fit it into a European shoe. I mean, how exactly would the Cinderella legend have gotten to pre-Columbian America? Did Thor Heyerdahl paddle over with it or what?

To those who caught the logical fallacy in the paragraph above, congratulations: you are smarter than me, and quite possibly less racist as well. The trick, of course, is in my knee-jerk assumption that an Indian legend would have to be pre-Columbian. I knew quite well that native life changed immensely in the years, decades, and centuries after the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Marie touched shore. Some cultures, like the Taino people of Hispaniola were wiped out more or less completely by a combination of European diseases and European policies of slavery, mutilation, and mass-murder. Other cultures sprang up, like the Florida Seminole, composed of members of the Creek nation and escaped black slaves — or, more famously, like the Plains Indians, who based their entire way of life on that European import, the horse. I even knew that Squanto, the Patuxet Indian who famously aided the Pilgrims in Massachusetts, was not, as he is often portrayed, some kind of innocent, friendly savage. On the contrary, he had been kidnapped repeatedly by Europeans, had lived in both Spain and England, and had served as a guide and interpreter on multiple British expeditions. He was probably more well-traveled and more cosmopolitan in outlook than the English people he assisted.

As I said, I knew all this before I saw that reference to the Indian Cinderella. And yet, still, when I think of Indian folklore, I tend to think of old, immemorial, stories, unblemished by European contact — stories about Raven, stories about Coyote, trickster tales. Somehow, despite half a millennium of contact, and despite the fact that I’m certainly over-educated enough to know better, in my head, Indians have their stories, we have ours, and never the twain shall meet.

The fact that I tend to say or think “we” when referring to European colonizers is part of what I’m talking about. The truth is that, geneologically, I don’t have anything more to do with William Bradford than I do with Squanto. While those two broke bread in Massachusetts, my Semitic ancestors were half way around the globe, being casually persecuted in Eastern Europe. It’s true that my son probably has some British in him. But then, he’s also got some “black Dutch” — a euphemism my wife’s grandmother used to obscure the fact that she was a quarter Cherokee.

Of course, I suppose you could argue that my culture is Western European even if my blood isn’t exactly. I speak English, after all; I live in a democracy based on an essentially British model; my whole liberal/atheist/scientific belief structure comes out of a Western latitudinarian tradition.

And yet, if it’s easy to downplay the European influence in Indian cultures, it’s even easier to forget or erase the native contribution to contemporary European — and especially American —life and thought. Perhaps most obviously at this time of year, much of what we eat was first raised by Indians — potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, and, of course, turkey. Thanksgiving itself, for that matter, is based on native harvest festivals. And, of course, the American English that I speak is dotted with native words, expressions, and place names — like the Susquehanna River, which flooded my house the year I was born.

It isn’t just food and names, though. Native cultures and traditions have worked their way pervasively into American history and thought. The first American pulp hero, James Fennimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, was an Indianized white man. In Cooper’s five Leatherstocking novels, published through the early 19th century, Bumppo was portrayed as a half-savage, comfortable in the wilderness, and ambivalent towards the white culture he saves. Certainly this view of Indians is romanticized to the point of insult…but its power shows the extent to which the Indians have shaped American identity. Bumpo’s distinctively native manliness has bequeathed a furtive Indian heritage to practically every American loner hero you can think of, from Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, to Han Solo, to Marvel Comics’ Wolverine.

As this suggests, many of our most distinctively American ideas and ideals are distinctive precisely because they have Native American aspects. In North America for the most part, native political structures were much more egalitarian, much more free, and indeed, much more conservative (in terms of limited government, at least) than anything on offer in the monarchies of the Old World. Benjamin Franklin noted admiringly of the Iroquois government, “There is no force, there are no prisons, no officers to compel obedience or inflict punishment.” Centuries later, Lucretia Mott and other feminists were shocked and inspired by the equal status of Iroquois women. Whether Indian government had a direct influence on the U.S. Constitution is still the subject of contentious scholarly debate (not to mention intense whining about multiculturalism by D’nesh D’souza.) But I think it strains credulity to suggest that our Founding Fathers (and/or mothers) built a nation on the principles of freedom and equality, and failed to notice how these virtues functioned in the societies of their closest neighbors.

So…what about the Indian Cinderella then? The story was apparently originally told in the mid-1800s by a member of the Catholicized Mik’maq tribe in Nova Scotia. It was written down by Silas T. Rand, a Baptist missionary, and published in 1884 by a scholar named Charles Leland. It is clearly influenced by Perrault’s “Cinderella,” which the Mik’maq teller had certainly heard. But it is ominous and melancholy in a way Perrault never was.

The tale is called The Invisible One. The title refers to a being of great power, who no one can see. He lives in a lodge by a lake with his sister, and it is said that if any girl can see him, she will marry him. Many try, but they all fail. Finally, a girl named Oochigeaska decides to make the attempt. She lives with her sisters, who treat her horribly — they even pushed her into a fire at one point, so that her face is covered with scars. Nonetheless, she gathers together some rags and goes off to try to see the Invisible One…and as she goes all the people of the village laugh and mock at her. Finally she reaches the lodge, and she does indeed see the Invisible One — who rides through the air on a sled tied with the rainbow, a symbol of death. Having seen him, Oochigeaska’s burns are washed away, and she prepares to marry the being — though no one ever seems exactly happy at the upcoming nuptials. Indeed, it seems possible that we are to take the Invisible One as death; Oochigeaska may have escaped her tormentors simply by going to the grave.

Paula Giese, a native author argues that this tale is a bleak satire.) Certainly Perrault’s assumption that blood-kin do not perpetrate injustice; his appeal to fine apparel as salvation; his reliance on the ultimate goodness of the nobility; all are here systematically and bitterly upended. Family cannot be trusted, money and its trappings are useless, hierarchies mean nothing. What matters instead are vision and faith — which lead to awe, to knowledge, to death…and perhaps to joy, or renewal.

This tale, made out of European materials, but decidedly un-European, is — obviously — a Mik’maq tale. But it is also an American one — or at least, set as it is in Canada, a North American one. The story is about a promise; a turning away from a decrepit civilization and looking, in hope and dread, for a new and unseen truth. That’s always been the promise of the New World. It’s what the Indian’s gave, not to the Europeans, or to the whites, or to “us,” but to the America of which they are a part. And it’s why, when America is most itself, it is — not alone, but in part —Indian.