Red Land, Red Power: Grounding Knowledge in the American Indian Novel

Red Land, Red Power: Grounding Knowledge in the American Indian Novel

by Sean Kicummah Teuton

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In lucid narrative prose, Sean Kicummah Teuton studies the stirring literature of "Red Power," an era of Native American organizing that began in 1969 and expanded into the 1970s. Teuton challenges the claim that Red Power thinking relied on romantic longings for a pure Indigenous past and culture. He shows instead that the movement engaged historical memory and oral…  See more details below


In lucid narrative prose, Sean Kicummah Teuton studies the stirring literature of "Red Power," an era of Native American organizing that began in 1969 and expanded into the 1970s. Teuton challenges the claim that Red Power thinking relied on romantic longings for a pure Indigenous past and culture. He shows instead that the movement engaged historical memory and oral tradition to produce more enabling knowledge of American Indian lives and possibilities. Looking to the era's moments and literature, he develops an alternative, "tribal realist" critical perspective to allow for more nuanced analyses of Native writing. In this approach, "knowledge" is not the unattainable product of disinterested observation. Rather it is the achievement of communally mediated, self-reflexive work openly engaged with the world, and as such it is revisable. For this tribal realist position, Teuton enlarges the concepts of Indigenous identity and tribal experience as intertwined sources of insight into a shared world.

While engaging a wide spectrum of Native American writing, Teuton focuses on three of the most canonized and, he contends, most misread novels of the era-N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn (1968), James Welch's Winter in the Blood (1974), and Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony (1977). Through his readings, he demonstrates the utility of tribal realism as an interpretive framework to explain social transformations in Indian Country during the Red Power era and today. Such transformations, Teuton maintains, were forged through a process of political awakening that grew from Indians' rethought experience with tribal lands and oral traditions, the body and imprisonment, in literature and in life.

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Duke University Press
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New Americanists
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By Sean Kicummah Teuton


Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4241-0

Chapter One

EMBODYING LANDS: SOMATIC PLACE IN N. SCOTT MOMADAY'S HOUSE MADE OF DAWN By making Alcatraz an experimental Indian center operated and planned by Indian people, we would be given a chance to see what we could do toward developing answers to modern social problems. Ancient tribalism can be incorporated with modern technology in an urban setting. Perhaps we would not succeed in the effort, but the Government is spending billions every year and still the situation is rapidly growing worse. It just seems to a lot of Indians that this continent was a lot better off when we were running it. -Vine Deloria Jr., March 1970

You can forget about everything up there. We could see all the lights down below, a million lights, I guess, and all the cars moving around, so small and slow and far away. We could see one whole side of the city, all the way to the water, but we couldn't hear anything down there. All we could hear was the drums and singing. There were some stars, and it was like we were way out in the desert someplace and there was a squaw dance or a sing going on, and everybody was getting good and drunk and happy. - Ben Benally, in House Made of Dawn

This book grew out of my own experience of being displaced from my ancestral homeland. I am a Cherokee Indian from Appalachia, even though I was an adult when I first saw the old Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi. To say I am from a place where as a young person I had never been might confuse some readers, and it might even invite criticism. Many Indigenous people, however, understand themselves and their attachment to land through tribal stories about the history of that land, contained in the oral tradition. Listeners come to understand such stories in the context of many other related stories; such narratives of self, nation, and homeland are the inspiration for this book. I grew up in a large, low-income family, and I was the first ever to attend college. When I left for the east to enter graduate school, I found myself on the exciting yet fearful edge of a transformation in myself as an intellectual and as an Indian. I departed from the only Cherokee community I knew-that of my relatives in Oklahoma-to return for the first time to our ancestral homeland in the Smoky Mountains, and finally to set eyes on the holy places that I knew only from stories. Wondrous supernatural beings and their exploits-which took place on the very ground beneath me-began to live for me. These stories had kept our culture alive even after we suffered "removal" from these lands on which we had lived for centuries. In 1838, the United States dispossessed Cherokees of their land in the Southeast and marched them to present-day Oklahoma. It was a bitter trek and it took at least a fourth of the lives of our tribe. Upon arrival, Cherokees began to form a relationship with this strange land and to rebuild their community of social relations through their oral tradition. By recounting the tribal histories and legends that occurred on the peaks of certain mountains and at the banks of well-known rivers, and by creating new narratives of new lands, Cherokee elders provided the people with a moral and spiritual education. This is how the oral tradition continues to bind Natives to landscapes they have inhabited for centuries.

When I first set foot in the Smokies, I was startled by my sudden sense of outrage at the injustice of being restricted from our ancestral home, for I realized that without our lands it becomes difficult to hold the body of knowledge we use to maintain our cultural identity. In an odd mixture of anger and joy, I discovered that we had truly been kept from our motherland, its verbal art, its narrative history. From this awakening to Indigenous exile, I sought to understand the connection between identity and geography, and to explain how political awareness aids in the recovery of this connection. In those Cherokee lands, I began a long process to recover a relationship with the very earth to which our oral tradition refers, because I was now better able to attach the stories to the land. In theoretical terms, my new understanding of place and self was neither a given always waiting for me to uncover (as essentialist scholars tend to hold) nor merely invented and thus arbitrary (as skeptical theorists often claim). Rather, in tribal realist terms I began to discover a deeper sense of myself by reinterpreting my experiences of American Indian displacement and subjugation in the new yet ancient story-laden land. In the following chapters, I examine this process of cultural identification with tribal lands and its attendant claims. Part 1 of this book thus begins with "Red Land" to consider a central social construction in Native thought: that Indigenous people, by definition, grow from the land, and that everything else-identity, history, culture-stems from that primary relationship with homelands. In this chapter, I consider how the interactive components of oral tradition and bodily wellness mediate an ethical relationship with American Indian lands in N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn. In the next chapter, I extend this understanding of Native geography to explain the interpretive connection between Indian land and identity in the context of community and memory in James Welch's Winter in the Blood.

In 1969 N. Scott Momaday stood on the shores of Alcatraz Island. Though the author has always officially kept politics away from art, his novel House Made of Dawn gathers its greatest energy in portrayals such as that offered in the epigraph above, when Indians from various tribes drum, sing, and pray in the hills above Los Angeles. It is a scene surprisingly reminiscent of the Alcatraz occupation and the spirit of Red Power, in which Native people across Indian Country gathered to revalue their cultures and emerge politically. When House Made of Dawn won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969, some critics announced that American Indian literature had finally matured-that is, it finally reflected literary merits recognizable to U.S. mainstream culture. Winning this prize in 1969 (the same publication year of Vine Deloria's Custer Died for Your Sins and Alfonso Ortiz's The Tewa World), House Made of Dawn declares a beginning for the political awakening and cultural revival that was to characterize the era of Red Power. I thus begin this study by opening Momaday's fine novel, as a founding emblem of Red Power and the Red Power novel. In recent years, Momaday has been rebuked for his purported essentialism regarding Indigenous land and identity, but I show that Momaday's first work is demonstrably not essentialist. Instead, House Made of Dawn labors with the recovery of identity and culture, all through the struggle to know one's homeland. In its recognition of the need for a secure place in which to conduct this discovery of land and identity, the novel is consonant with the era, as well as with other voices of Red Power, such as Deloria's in the epigraph above. Considering this concern for essentialism in Momaday's work, I preface my reading of House Made of Dawn to discuss Indigenous peoples' cultural attachments to lands, which can find stable ground in the oral tradition.

Oral Traditional Homelands

In the preceding pages, I have been sharing my account of the loss of Cherokee cultural geography and the process for its recovery, which relies on the evaluation of experiences as they shape self-understanding. In that first visit to the Southeast, I soon discovered that to decolonize our lands we must first decolonize our identities. Since land, identity, and experience are inextricably linked sources of knowledge, the political struggle to decolonize Native America also bears close yet subtle ties to cultural identity: the deeper understanding of oneself as a colonized Indigenous person, dispossessed and displaced from ancestral lands, brings greater clarity to one's often vague experiences of oppression. In other words, the political is continuous with the epistemological. The recovery of ancestral places is thus, in part, a process of identification with lands. For this reason, the political defensibility of American Indians' relationship to the earth depends on the clarity of theories about individual and collective tribal selves. A clear understanding of Native identity thus explains the relationship to homelands, and, interactively, the land shapes American Indian self-understanding. Through this mutually constituting dynamic of land and identity, Indian people build what is often called a sense of place. Because Native cultural identity organizes experiences of homelands, dispossession, and exile, American Indian studies requires a thoroughgoing account of the constructed yet legitimate status of Native cultural geography. To support an Indian geopolitics, I propose a philosophically grounded approach to land and selfhood that I call geoidentity. Clearly, Native concepts of land, identity, and experience prove vital to Indian livelihood. In the next chapter, I focus on the concept of American Indian identity, and in chapter 3 I address tribal experience, but here I wish to introduce the interweaving of land, identity, and experience in the preservation of Indian culture.

Valuing such concepts, American Indian scholars are often reminded, and are thus well aware, of the problems with essentialist approaches to Native culture and lands. One obvious but rather prevalent use of essentialism has to do with genetics as a source of encoded tribal knowledge of homelands. One's blood, it is claimed, leads one back to one's land and people. To Indigenous scholars with essentialist leanings, biology not only determines whether one is a Native person but also how one develops socially, morally, and geographically. In Native studies, cultural critics such as Arnold Krupat and Elvira Pulitano object not only to the clearly racialist entanglements of such theories of biological essence, metaphorical or otherwise, but likely also to the analysis of American Indian placemaking that these views preclude. From this view, the relationship to lands can neither be examined nor developed, for it is believed to be given in advance, timeless and unchanging, and hence cannot be questioned. Perhaps underlying this critique of the uncritical identification with homelands is the worry among theorists of the postcolonial that strong attachments to lands contribute to a destructive form of nationalism, in which the idea of homeland relies on the absolute conception of territory as the destined extension of a people.

In her essay in The Remembered Earth, Paula Gunn Allen appears to express an essentialist view of American Indian cultural geography. She begins by stating, "We are the land. To the best of my understanding, that is the fundamental idea embedded in Native American life and culture in the Southwest. More than remembered, the Earth is the mind of the people as we are the mind of the earth. The land is not really the place (separate from ourselves) where we act out the drama of our isolated destinies. It is not a means of survival, a setting for our affairs, a resource on which we draw in order to keep our own act functioning. It is not the ever-present 'Other' which supplies us with a sense of 'I.' It is rather a part of our being, dynamic, significant, real" (1979, 191). Allen explains the Native attachment to the land as an almost mathematical equivalence rather than a mere affinity. In these terms, tribal people and the land are interchangeable homogeneous components of an organic whole. The distinction of American Indians from the land is an illusion, because Native people, Allen explains, are inseparable from the land. Allen accounts for the relationship of American Indians to homelands in these mystified terms that cannot be questioned. We, in fact, must accept her claim on terms of religious belief. Like faith in a deity, a strictly spiritual explanation of Indigenousness can either be accepted as truth or dismissed as superstition, but it cannot be examined. For this reason, Westerners have largely departed from ontology in philosophy, leaving the study of religion to the theologians-though this schism has no doubt diminished the moral understanding of human existence. When offered such nonphysical, tribal accounts of American Indian lands, scholars working within a European tradition that rejects metaphysical knowledge are likely to tolerate but not to seriously consider these explanations. To demystify Allen's approach to Native homelands, we might remember that, while the bones of our families form the earth under our feet, it is the stories of their lives that inform the land.

Allen's statement poses a critical problem to Native scholars theorizing place: How do we explain the Indigenous relationship with the land without appealing to spiritual concepts, which are often mystified yet fundamental to that relationship? Later in her essay, she begins to explain Native geography in social terms, thus shifting her holistic view of land to the place of humans, where she considers how Native writers suffer the pain of dislocation and await the recovery of homelands. In so doing, Allen recognizes that Native identification with lands can be wounded and "lost," remembered and regained. And if it can be regained, it can be explained. Of Navajo writer Larry Emerson's short story "Gallup" she claims: "The protagonist, lost on a Saturday in Gallup, alienated from himself, his people and his family, still can remember what was good about being, can wonder at its disappearance" (1979, 192). Allen thus migrates toward an admittedly underexamined, though finally nonessentialist, theory of American Indian dwelling as a conscious social practice. Jace Weaver understands this need to resist essentialist or romantic explanations of American Indians' connections to the natural world: "One strain of this stereotype of Natives as 'environmental perfectionists' holds that they did not use the land, existing on it as in some ecological stasis box and leaving no tracks or traces of their presence. This seemingly affirmative, if highly romantic, vision in reality contributes to the exploitation of Natives and their land. It denies Indian personhood and erases Natives from the landscape where they lived for countless generations before the advent of European invaders" (1996, 4). After all, since invasion, Europeans have justified on essentialist footing their very presence on Native lands, from the Puritans' idea of the preordained City on the Hill to the metaphysics of manifest destiny in the nineteenth century. In their potential also to serve empire, essentialist explanations of the human place in North American land should be tempered with a more self-examining, and thus politically enabling, theory of American Indian dwelling. On a realist theory of Indigenous place, American Indians critically construct, evaluate, and improve their relationship with the land through and for tribal identity. Linguistic anthropologist Keith Basso asserts that "place-making is ... a form of cultural activity" (1996, 7). In this profoundly social sense, selfhood is continuous with homeland.


Excerpted from RED LAND, RED POWER by Sean Kicummah Teuton Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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