Let’s talk about Indian romance novels

If you’ve ever gawked in disbelief at a hunky white man in redface, this one’s for you.


My mouth was blue from Slurpee and I was wearing my favorite pink SpongeBob shirt as I perused the supermarket’s paperback section. As a 13-year-old raised on a cattle farm, I devoured books obsessively. I stood in fluorescent lighting at the end of a checkout line, my boots caked with mud.  Suddenly, the image of a feather-clad half-naked fellow caught my eye from the shelves. Nestled between some Nicholas Sparks novels and glossy magazines, the embossed book cover glistened with a white man in a headband in an unconvincing long black wig, a swooning white woman clutched in his arms, the pair almost kissing in a deluge of feathers. How embarrassing, I remember thinking, lips blue, and I moved on to try to find something with a werewolf or vampire instead. Something more realistic. 

As I grew up, my window to the outside world widened to include romance novels. As it is in many extremely rural and conservative areas, sex was a taboo topic to ask about. Long Wyoming summers caught me in daydreams of sappy romances. Taylar, my darling, can I take you away from all this? a dashing man would say to me, seemingly out of nowhere. Oh, yes! I would reply, and we would ride into the sunset together, my dress billowing in the wind. All very standard stuff.

With all the joy romance novels can bring, there exists the widely ignored responsibility to look at the genre’s dimension of desire and colonization. Sex and being sexualized are often used as a weapon against Indigenous people. I’ve known for a long time that the contours of desire run along the political realities ascribed to our bodies.

A favorite early romance novel was The Trouble with Moonlight. A beautiful, aristocratic white woman named Lucinda could turn invisible in the moonlight, and she used her powers to recover items for a fee. At the time I was painfully shy, and I blushed when anyone talked to me — beet-red in an instant. I pored over this book, often reading next to a babbling irrigation ditch while cows mooed in the background. My little heart would race through its pages, because Lucinda was witty and fun and unashamed of her body, a quality that I took to heart. The “good parts” were good, but what I remember is the sense of confidence the book gave me. I had felt invisible, but The Trouble with Moonlight made me feel seen. It was nice to gain such insight from a $4 book in a forgotten corner of a bookstore.

How the fetishization of tribes play into the historical romance genre is a sticky subject, made more complex by the elements of desire and power. In my own dating life, I had been fetishized because of where I came from, and also called racial slurs by old lovers, so I didn’t think the world of Indian romance novels had anything new in store for me.

But I began to become interested in these books, the glossy well-worn covers with their colorful illustrations of white men and women playing Indian in the historical romance sections of thrift stores. There were so many of them, and I’ve always been fascinated by their popularity and cultural meaning. It was also funny to me that something so offensive could just pop out at you, like a bad scary movie. Like watching a decades-long car wreck: It was hard to look away.

The most notable author of Indian romance is Cassie Edwards, winner of the Romantic Times Lifetime Achievement Award for Best Indian Series. She wrote the “Savage Series,” a line of 35 books from 1993 to 2009. Titles include Savage Thunder, Savage Love, Savage Glory and Savage Intrigue. Perhaps you can see a theme. Stereotypes abound. At the end of Savage Spirit, the last line reads, “When they kissed, they were swept away again by the tempest of their love, their savage spirits united for all time.” Just books full of winning lines like that.

In these books, the places, the people, the issues all felt distinctly sanitized, removed from the political realities of Indigenous people during the 1800s and early 1900s in the Western United States, their common setting. And, like, I get it. It’s a romance novel, after all, not a piece of critical race theory, but still: In these books, the genocide and colonization of the American continent reads like sexy table-setting. The danger and intrigue are supposed to amp up the romance, raise the stakes, and make the romance even more tantalizing. Insulting, considering that Indigenous men and women were more likely to experience sexual violence than white settlers. These books are a manifestation of the ways settlers use the image of an Indian to settle their own misgiving and sate their own interests.

And, like, I get it. It’s a romance novel, after all, not a piece of critical race theory, but still: In these books, the genocide and colonization of the American continent reads like sexy table-setting.

Many Indian romance novels take a colonial stance on desire. The pleasure within the pages of these books is for a colonial gaze and allows a large section of the white audience to align Indigeneity with wild, untamed, uncivilized acts of lust — an insulting correlation. These books were very popular in the ’90s and early 2000s, where the settler-zeitgeist was sympathetic to tribes, but the books were more in the business of assuaging white guilt and commodifying our image than anything else. America was interested in fetishizing Indigeneity, not necessarily hating Indigenous people, but depicting us as attractive reminders of a vaguely spiritual pan-Indianism.

My little 13-year-old heart would have burst with excitement at the choices available now, though. At 30 years old, I still drink Slurpees and read gushy romance novels in muddy boots. It’s complicated, trying to interrogate the intersecting issues of desire and colonialism, but there are dimensions of Indigenous relationships that deserve the glossy romance novel treatment. We deserve to feel a part of the way the romance-novel world is taking shape. We deserve the kind of gushy love that’s embarrassing to talk about.

There’s an entire ecosystem of Indigenous authors talking about romance and romantic relationship stories that provide interesting tales of desire. Christina Berry (Cherokee) is the author of The Road Home, a gritty romance with a complex character, Jake Sixkiller, a musician and a lady’s man who is returning to the Cherokee Reservation to confront his past. Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee Creek Nation) is the author of Hearts Unbroken, a young-adult novel that handles the hard truths of being Native in a white high school. And Maggie Blackbird (Ojibway) writes of queer Indigenous romance in Blessed, where spirituality and love are examined in a steamy but forbidden relationship. These are books that build out the genre, and meld desire with contemporary Native issues.

To look squarely at historical Indian romance novels is to face an Indigenous identity that has been sanitized and resold to the settler public for years. If we take seriously the women-dominated genre of romance and meaningfully interrogate our collective history, we can respect the sappy writing that can tell us so much about the West and ourselves.   

Taylar Dawn Stagner is a writer and audio journalist who’s an editorial intern for the Indigenous Affairs desk at HCN. She’s Arapaho and Shoshone, and writes about racism, rurality and gender.

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