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Damage, Desire, and the Truth About Stories

abby rose's picture

Damage, Desire, and the Truth About Stories


Damage narratives are the only stories that get told about me, unless I’m the one that’s telling them.1


Historically, mainstream research and literature on marginalized communities have been overwhelmingly centered around damage-based frameworks. In “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities,” Eve Tuck identifies damage-based frameworks as the attempt to explain present manifestations of oppression -such as low literacy rates, poverty, and poor health - by looking at historical exploitation, domination, and colonization (Tuck 413). Though this approach to social change is so common that it is often the only framework of mainstream justice, focusing strictly on the damage that communities face creates pathologizing narratives of pain and brokenness that define communities entirely by oppression. Since damage-based narratives are typically authored by white writers and researchers, they un/intentionally reinscribe white supremacy onto marginalized communities and thus can end up causing more long-lasting harm than good in the communities in focus. However, these same communities often accept this framework from outsiders because it comes with the promise of social, political and material change. Predictably, these promises often fall through and leave an insidious path of destruction and further oppression in their wake.


In reaction to damage-centered research, Tuck promotes desire as a new framework for understanding marginalized communities. Desire, Tuck explains, is an “antidote” that counteracts the toxic effects of damage-based research. While damage is centered in the past, “desire is involved with the not yet and, at times, the not anymore... Desire is about longing, about a present that is enriched by both the past and future” (417). Desire-based frameworks simultaneously acknowledge the pain of the past as it affects the present, and pull the trans-temporal wisdom, hope, and vision of the community in focus into the future to create change.


Native author and educator Thomas King explores the tension between damage- and desire-based narratives about Indigenous peoples in his book The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Like Tuck, King describes stories as antidotal, as a tool to be used by Native peoples to heal from the pain of colonization and oppression and move forward into a stronger future; however, as King explains, stories by white authors about Native peoples are also dangerously powerful. Although “a story told one way could cure... the same story told another way could injure” (King 92). By storytelling his way through Native narratives authored by both whites and Natives, King illustrates the danger of damage-centered frameworks and the power of community desire in The Truth About Stories.


People have made their careers on telling stories of damage about me, about communities like mine.


Through their work, the usually well-intentioned researchers employing damage-based thinking (frequently white and outside of the communities in focus) who theorize about “at risk” communities end up perpetuating narratives of damage while increasing surveillance and scrutiny in communities that are already under white America’s metaphorical magnifying glass. Damage-based researchers therefore do not capture the complete picture or the full humanity of the individuals in these groups-under-analysis. Tuck explains the irony present in this situation; even when marginalized communities are over-researched, their existence, realities, and desires remain totally invisible and unaccounted for. In a similar vein, while speaking of the stereotypes of Native North Americans perpetuated by these same damage-obsessed authors, King asks: “[h]ow can something that has never existed -- the Indian -- have form and power while something that is alive and kicking -- Indians -- are invisible?” (53).


Damage is the only way that monsters and future ghosts are conjured.


The Truth About Stories brings damage-centered research into a new light by detailing the impact of literature and art created by white people about Native people. King introduces a truth of the power of stories early on in his text when he explains “once a story is told, it cannot be called back. ... it is loose in the world” (10). The following narratives, predominantly based in fiction, assumption, prejudice, and American Romanticism, are examples of stories told that unleashed havoc on Native communities in the United States.


Celebrated European American author James Fennimore Cooper enacts racism in his novels by asserting that whites and “Indians” are of inherently different ‘natures’ and that “‘skin makes the man’” (103). Cooper’s racism is accompanied by the work of photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis, also European American, who dedicated his life to capturing ‘authentic’ Native Americans on film. "Authentic" here implies visually representing Native peoples in settings and costumes--both crafted and supplied by Curtis himself--that signify popular notions of ‘Indians.’ However, the authenticity that Curtis sought was attainable only through the careful creation of stereotypical scenes not directed at all by Native people, but rather by Curtis’ misunderstandings of what Native life in the western U.S. was supposed to look like. Finally, King bemoans the trope of the Noble Savage: the “single, heroic [male] Indian . . . who was the last of his race” (33).


These narratives root Native peoples in the past, restrict them from growth and eliminate opportunity to voice desire, hope, and significance. They are further damaging because they restrict Native people within a box so narrow that it is unfit for human existence. Indeed, the trope of the ‘last Indian’ calls to mind associations of endangered species, a category reserved for animals. And, like damaged-based research, there is a similar futility to the ‘last Indian’ trope, for it is “simply the workings of a natural law that decree[s] that superior cultures should displace inferior cultures” (83). As is the case with research, these stories heavily influence public perceptions of Native peoples. The mainstream public that consumes these false narratives is comprised of the same people who hold office, write policies, run companies, and benefit from the general subordination of Native people--and are thus uninterested in changing the story.


Desire is a refusal to trade in damage; desire is an antidote, a medicine to damage narratives.


Throughout The Truth About Stories, King repeatedly mentions art and literature made by Native individuals about Native communities. In doing so, he creates a desire-based dialogue about the realities of Native North Americans. Native artists enact desire by writing poetry, recompose history through both fiction and nonfiction, and share their own story as Native peoples navigating life in heavily-colonized North America. They deny no shared history, acknowledge the present, and stretch into the future with roots firmly grounded in the past. These stories serve as an antidote to the tired, harmful tropes of Native Americans promoted by non-Natives, for they complicate, humanize, and claim individual and shared Native truths.


Desire, however, is not just living in the looking glass; it isn’t a trip to opposite world. Desire is not a light switch, not a nescient turn to focus on the positive.


And although powerful and healing, these stories are not entirely curative. The pain and oppression faced by Native peoples in North America for the past several hundred years cannot be erased; and while these stories exist and continue to flourish, the flattening and deafening ‘Indian’ narratives by European Americans have been allotted more legitimacy and institutional power by white authors themselves. King speaks of his close relationship with fellow Native author Louis Owens, who committed suicide in an airport garage before flying to an academic conference. Before his death, Owens penned an autobiographical story of being recruited as a low-income man of color to work over the summer in a labor camp. At the camp, Owens and many other young men in search of opportunity were exploited by the owners, turned out mid-summer, and forced to walk home up to hundreds of miles. After regaling this account of Owens’ King speculates:

“Maybe this was the story Louis told himself as he sat in that airport garage. A story about poor young men walking home alone. Maybe it was another. Whichever one it was, for that instant Louis must have believed it” (95).

King’s concerns about his friend speaks to the real, painful impact of stories. And stories, whether uplifting or oppressive, can be a matter of life and death. Native narratives like The Truth About Stories do not forget stories like Louis Owens’. Rather, they feel them, retell them, make life out of them.


Desire, in its making and remaking, bounds into the past as it stretches into the future. It is productive, it makes itself, and in making itself, it makes reality.


In attempts to capture Native realities, King explains that most Native authors set their stories in the present rather than the past. The reasoning behind this, King surmises, is that when Native authors confront the North American popular history, they re/discover that the only space permitted for Native peoples is in the past.  

“And to believe in such a past is to be dead. Faced with such a proposition and knowing from empirical evidence that we were very much alive, physically and culturally, Native writers began to use the Native present as a way to resurrect a Native past and to imagine a Native future. To create, in words, as it were, a Native universe” (106).

Native authors, “by looking backward and forward with the same glance,” (112) assert their ability and right to represent and sustain their own present, their own worlds; “[d]esire is about longing, about a present that is enriched by both past and future” (Tuck 417).  This act of looking forward and back is an assertion of (and, as Tuck argues, integral to) humanity.


I am invited to speak, but only when I speak my pain (hooks, 1990). Instead, I speak of desire.


The loudest narratives of Native peoples are those written by non-Natives, those that drown out the love, the hope, the survivance2, the desire present in Native lives. But the most authentic examples of these narratives are written by Native authors themselves who can structure their truths with a framework of desire rather than a framework of damage. King questions his readers: How do we imagine ourselves without stories (95)? They create, destroy, complicate, reinforce; they carry more weight than any community can bear. While reflecting upon his and Louis’ relationship to each other and the world, King expresses their shared understanding that their stories will not change the world, and their shared hope that they would (92). And now the question remains: Are these stories enough?

1. All bolded sections in this essay are excerpted from Tuck and Ree’s “A Glossary of Haunting,” 2013.
2. “Survivance, in my use of the word, means a native sense of presence, the motion of sovereignty and the will to resist dominance. Survivance is not just survival but also resistance, not heroic or tragic, but the tease of tradition, and my sense of survivance outwits dominance and victimry” (Gerald Vizenor via Tuck, 422).


Works Cited


King, Thomas. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2005. Print.


Tuck, Eve. "Suspending Damage: A Letter To Communities." Harvard Educational Review 79.3 (2009): 409-24.


Tuck, Eve, and C. Ree. "A Glossary of Haunting." Handbook of Autoethnography. Ed. Stacy Holman Jones, Tony E. Adams, and Carolyn Ellis: Left Coast, 2013. 639-58. Print.


Anne Dalke's picture

abby rose--
This is an interesting expansion of our work in class, a looking back @ an earlier essay that certainly “haunts” Tuck and Ree’s “Glossary of Haunting,” a way of thinking of stories as “tools” that can either “cure” or “injure.” Moving from the “Glossary” to Tuck’s essay on “Suspending Damage” means moving from stories about individuals to stories about communities and cultures, a trip into the “sociological imagination,” which insists that we are all individuals caught within larger structures that both determine our roles and allow us some space for push-back and revision.

I’m especially appreciating the way in which you are able to use that piece of educational research and theory to re-read King’s Truth About Stories, bringing the notion of “damage-centered research into a new light by detailing the impact of literature and art.” I like the interdisciplinarity here! I like, too, your explanation of how “authenticity” has often been represented, for Native peoples, by the evocation and reproduction of stereotypes, narratives that keep them in the past, refuse any new future. And I especially like your trope of “antidotal,” a nice conflation of “ “antidote” with “antecdote” that evokes the healing power of stories to heal (while still acknowledging that they are “not entirely curative”).

Along those lines, I’m a little puzzled by your ending. After explaining King’s belief that his “stories will not change the world,” and his “hope that they would,” you say the question remains whether they are “enough.” Enough for what? If not change, survivance? If not survivance, what? And how might you yourself answer this question?

If you’d like to go on exploring in these directions—since clearly King’s narrative spoke to you very strongly—you might want to consider taking one of Bethany Schneider’s courses. She’s now teaching Sidekicks: Natives in the American Literary Canon from Crusoe to Moby Dick ; she offers others on the “Literature of American Expansion,” “Subjects and Citizens,” “Native Soil,” “Native American Literature” and “Writing Indians.”

Glad to travel this path with you!