The Columbia Guide to American Indian Literatures of the United States Since 1945 is the first major volume of its kind to focus on Native literatures in a postcolonial context. Written by a team of noted Native and non-Native scholars, these essays consider the complex social and political influences that have shaped American Indian literatures in the second half of the twentieth century, with particular emphasis on core themes of identity, sovereignty, and land.
In his essay comprising part I of the volume, Eric Cheyfitz argues persuasively for the necessary conjunction of Indian literatures and federal Indian law from Apess to Alexie. Part II is a comprehensive survey of five genres of literature: fiction (Arnold Krupat and Michael Elliott), poetry (Kimberly Blaeser), drama (Shari Huhndorf), nonfiction (David Murray), and autobiography (Kendall Johnson), and discusses the work of Vine Deloria Jr., N. Scott Momaday, Joy Harjo, Simon Ortiz, Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gerald Vizenor, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and Sherman Alexie, among many others. Drawing on historical and theoretical frameworks, the contributors examine how American Indian writers and critics have responded to major developments in American Indian life and how recent trends in Native writing build upon and integrate traditional modes of storytelling.
Sure to be considered a groundbreaking contribution to the field, The Columbia Guide to American Indian Literatures of the United States Since 1945 offers both a rich critique of history and a wealth of new information and insight.
About the Author
Eric Cheyfitz is Ernest I. White Professor of American Studies and Humane Letters at Cornell University. He is the author of The Poetics of Imperialism: Translation and Colonization from The Tempest to Tarzan.
Cheyfitz is Ernest I. White Professor of American Studies & Humane Letters at Cornell University. He has also been professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, and has taught as well at Southern Methodist University and Georgetown University. A truly interdisciplinary scholar, he is the author of The Poetics of Imperialism: Translation and Colonization from "The Tempest" to "Tarzan" (Oxford, 1991 - selected as an outstanding academic book by Choice in 1991) and many essays on topics in American and Native American literature. He holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and an M.A. in creative writing from The Johns Hopkins University. Cheyfitz has received grants from numerous foundations, including the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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The Columbia Guide to American Indian Literatures of the United States Since 1945
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Chapter OneAmerican Indian Fiction and Anticolonial Resistance
Arnold Krupat and Michael A. Elliott
Just as the usual dates (1620, 1776, 1865, 1914, etc.) and categories (Colonial Era, Age of Revolution, Transcendentalism, Age of Realism, etc.) conventionally used to periodize the literature of the United States are not particularly useful for framing Native American literature, so too 1945 is not a date especially important to Native American fiction-if taken as opening a period labeled "Fiction Since World War II." Considered, however, as a benchmark for acts of resistance on the part of colonized peoples, particularly in Africa and South Asia, that would lead to national independence and an end to direct colonial oppression, 1945 may be a useful date to invoke for a body of Native American fiction that can be read in the context of the global history of resistance to European colonialism. The force of colonial histories and legacies has produced significant affinities between Native American literature and the postcolonial literatures of other parts of the globe. However, the similarities remain limited, for there is no "post-" as yet to the colonialsituation of the indigenous peoples of the United States. Native nations continue to live in a condition that Thomas Biolsi and Larry Zimmerman have called the "late imperial" (4). They remain in the position enunciated by Chief Justice John Marshall when he described them, in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), as "domestic dependent nations." To undo this paradoxical or oxymoronic status as "dependent sovereigns"-to resist colonial limitations on their sovereign rights-is the foremost concern of Native nations today.
Thus the editor of this volume properly notes that "the central theme of post-World War II Indian writing in the United States ... is identity," where "identity" must be "understood in relation to the agenda of sovereignty/land" (Cheyfitz, this volume). This "agenda," as he has made clear, is played out against a specific body of federal Indian law. Native resistance to colonialism envisions as its farthest horizon nothing less than the full return of tribal lands and the right to administer tribal-national affairs within the boundaries of those lands. The urgency of this project is such that our history of Native American fiction since 1945 will be guided by an attention to and an emphasis on its literal or figurative, explicit or implicit resistance to colonialism.
This is not to claim that all Native fiction writers since 1945 are of one mind ideologically or politically, nor is it to suggest that each and every one of these writers foregrounds resistance. But if not literally by 1945, then by 1953, the period of Indian termination and relocation; by the 1960s and Red Power movements; by the 1970s and the emergence of AIM (American Indian Movement) activism (and its repression by the federal government); and today, in the face of deeply troubling statistics on life expectancy, joblessness, suicide, alcoholism, and diabetes among Native people-statistics that can be matched only in colonial (or, indeed, in some "postcolonial") settings around the world-resistance to colonialism of various kinds and in varying degrees marks a good deal of Native American fiction.
Our privileging of thematics or ideological content is consistent with the editor's claim that "Practical social power, not aesthetic originality or genius, is the category of understanding in Native art" (68). To be sure, we have no wish to reduce Native American fiction to a manifesto, ignoring form, technique, or, indeed, any relevant aesthetic issue, but we are in agreement that "for a Native community the beauty of expressive oral culture"-and the beauty in some measure of Native American fiction since 1945-is, if not "synonymous with its practical social power" (69), surely related to it. Thus, for example, it has often been noted that the texts of Native American writers have important relations to the oral tradition. So far as this can be shown for any particular text, the insistence on the traditional and the oral and the concomitant privileging of the voice and the face-to-face presence (literally or figuratively) of narrator and auditors may work to instantiate values different from those implied by the privileging of modern (and postmodern) written texts. Appeals to orality beyond an apparently obligatory and usually vague obeisance to a presumptive "Indianness" need not express nostalgia for the past and an imagined fullness of communication. Rather, the values implied by a commitment to orality may be seen as alternatives to textual and postliterate values acquiescing in the atomized, fragmented isolation of the so-called "global village" of anonymous intercommunicators. Invoking or, in Kimberly Blaeser's phrase, "writing in the oral tradition" (our emphasis) is thus not just an aesthetic choice for the Native American novelist but perhaps also an attempt to assert the ability of fiction to effect social change in concrete and immediate ways.
In similar fashion, representations of the boundary-crossing and convention-violating trickster figure of oral tradition, as found in a number of contemporary Native American novels, tend to work ironically toward subverting the limits imposed by colonialism and imagining a freedom beyond its constraints. Here, the "traditional" is marshaled for historically new (i.e., not strictly traditional) purposes. To tell stories with "plots" and "characters" different from those of Euro-America is, in Karl Kroeber's phrase, to offer "unique insights into the sources of unfamiliar modes of human imagining" (248), thus instantiating an alter-Native, or, simply an other and different, knowledge that contests the knowledge on which the colonial order is founded. On one hand, it is certainly true that readers concerned to know more about, for example, Laguna religion or the traditional referents for the colors Leslie Marmon Silko mentions in Ceremony will find our perspective less than fully satisfactory. Unfortunately, we do not have the space for such detailed exegesis. Yet our approach could theoretically engage these topics fully. We would do so in the hope of showing how the persistence of traditional religious beliefs and ceremonies, or the ritual instantiation of traditional color symbolism, works in the interest of asserting the sovereign integrity of tribal peoples and their resistance to the ongoing colonial policies of the United States.
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We will try to understand resistance to colonialism in Native American fiction as being articulated through three overlapping and potentially complementary perspectives: nationalist, indigenist, and cosmopolitan. The call for nationalist resistance in the Native American novel has been most strongly articulated by Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, in a manner that, as Eric Cheyfitz writes, "is first of all political in the activist sense of the word" (2001:21). This requires, Cook-Lynn states, that Native fiction "take into account the specific kind of tribal/nation status of the original occupants of this continent" (1996:93). Cook-Lynn herself, moreover, has publicly lamented the absence of a fully articulated nationalist perspective in Native American contemporary fiction, to the point that she has criticized her own novel (From the River's Edge ) for its "appalling" "intellectual uncertainty" about matters of politics and sovereignty (1996:85). As she suggests, the reader of Native American fiction written thus far is more likely to find a nationalist perspective in conversation with other approaches to the questions of anticolonial resistance.
From an indigenist perspective, it is not the nation but the "earth" that is the source of the knowledge and the values that constitute resistance to colonialism. In Linda Hogan's novel, Power (1998), Omishto, the narrator, remembers a time when "The whole earth loved the human people" (229). Power concludes with Omishto dancing, while "someone sings the song that says the world will go on living" (235). The "world" here is obviously not the domain of nations and nationalisms but the animate and sentient earth. Indigenists look to a particular relationship with the earth as underlying knowledges and values that can be called "traditional" or "tribal" and that have been historically lived by indigenous people. Moreover, in some cases, e.g., Hogan, Silko in Almanac of the Dead, and Gerald Vizenor in The Heirs of Columbus, Native authors recognize that these values can also be embraced by people who are not indigenous. We should also note that Power, a text whose commitment to the values of earth is a virtual model of indigenism in Native American fiction, also contains a certain muted nationalism: Omishto is a Taiga person, and, although she is not given to specific reflection on legal or political issues, she has a decided sense of what could be called the necessity for Taiga sovereignty.
Cosmopolitans understand the identity theme in relation to the "agenda of sovereignty/ land" against the backdrop of similar and different worldly or global identities and agendas after and/or in opposition to colonialism. Recognizing the importance of nationalism as a force against colonialism, cosmopolitans also recognize the way in which-as African examples sometimes make clear-nationalism can itself become an oppressor. Cosmopolitans are concerned to explore commonalities that exceed national boundaries. But unlike an older, now-discredited universalism that saw difference as a problem to be solved and offered "Eurocentric hegemony posing as universalism" (Appiah in Lazarus et al. 78), contemporary cosmopolitanism takes difference as a fact of human existence, and thus a challenge to all conventions of "common sense." Cosmopolitan criticism, to take terms from Paul Gilroy and James Clifford, understands "roots" as inevitably crossed by "routes." Rooted and routed, the cosmopolitan critic rejects no position, a priori, because of its race, nation, gender, or sexual preference, and selectively supports nationalist and indigenist perspectives in opposition to internal colonialism. These positions, although sometimes construed as in opposition to one another, are often, as we have noted above, overlapping and interlocking, and they may (although they need not) be complementary.
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Although this Columbia Guide to American Indian Literatures does indeed begin in the year 1945, our consideration of Native American fiction takes 1968, the year in which N. Scott Momaday's novel, House Made of Dawn, appeared, as its starting point. Momaday's novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969, inaugurating, it has plausibly been argued, a "Native American renaissance" in literature. Beginning, then, with Momaday, a Kiowa, we work forward in a more or less chronological manner. The reader should be aware that this is a guide to American Indian literature since 1945, not a comprehensive encyclopedia or history of that literature. We do not attempt to cover all of the many interesting Native novelists at work in the period of our concern-an impossible feat. Rather, we endeavor to introduce many important writers of Native American fiction since 1945, and, in particular, to offer a way of reading their work in terms of its resistance to colonialism.
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Strictly speaking, Momaday's fictional production has included only one other novel in addition to House Made of Dawn: The Ancient Child, published just over twenty years later, in 1989. Momaday has also published In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991 (1992), which consists of many previously published texts, and In the Bear's House (1999), also reproducing a good many previously published pieces, but adding eight "Bear-God Dialogues," conversations between Urset, a kind of Ur-Bear, if not Bear God, and Yahweh. Momaday has also published two prose autobiographies, The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969) and The Names: A Memoir (1976), along with several volumes of poems and reproductions of his paintings. From the time of his inclusion in Alan Velie's Four American Indian Literary Masters: N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald Vizenor, published in 1982, to Lee Schweninger's Literary Masters: N. Scott Momaday, published almost twenty years later in 2001, Momaday has been treated as the preeminent Native American novelist, virtually an iconic figure. We shall consider here only the two novels.
House Made of Dawn opens with its protagonist, Abel, a mixed-blood veteran of World War II, running at dawn, "alone and ... hard at first, heavily, but then easily and well," in a gray and rainy valley, where "snow lay out upon the dunes" (7). In the fourth and final section of the novel (four is an important pattern number in most Native cultures), Abel runs again, some seven years later (seven is a Euro-American pattern number, but there seems no particular reason for it here), also at dawn, now "on the rise of the song, House made of pollen, house made of dawn. Qtsedaba" (191). That final word announces the end of a story in the oral tradition at Jemez Pueblo, or Walatowa, where Momaday spent most of his early life, and it echoes "Dypaloh," the first word of the novel (in a prologue), the traditional marker of the onset of Jemez oral storytelling. The phrase, "House made of pollen, house made of dawn," is from a translation of the Navajo Night Chant, and it precedes the words with which the Night Chant closes-"In beauty it is finished"-which signal the completion of the healing or cure that is the primary purpose of the ceremony. Traditionally, the Night Chant was performed for a specific patient in need of its restorative powers, but it involved all or a good many people in a traditional Navajo community whose ongoing health was also at issue. Much of the criticism of HMOD over a period of more than thirty years has examined the question of whether Abel is indeed cured or healed; the question of whether Abel's fate does or does not bear on the health of a particular tribal community has been raised less often.
In an unfortunately neglected essay (Schweninger, who touches most bases, for example, does not mention it), Karl Kroeber notes that perhaps because it won the Pulitzer, "the novel's strangeness as novel has never been adequately investigated" (17). Besides remarking a "bothersome ... simple imitativeness" (18) in the writing-Kroeber cites a passage in which Abel's Navajo friend, Benally, offers a thoroughly Faulknerian passage of recollection; and imitations of Lawrence (Evers notes a Lawrentian "sense of place" ) and Conrad abound as well-Kroeber suggests that "Abel is inarticulate, as Momaday is without fluency in any native tongue. Without language there can be no imposition of a culture's symbolic order on physical surroundings" (21). Abel's killing of a mysterious albino whom he takes to be a witch is, no doubt, as Evers first suggested, in part an attempt to kill the "white" part of himself. But, Kroeber claims, "Abel's assumption of a personal 'duty' to kill the 'evil' Albino violates the fashion in which the Jemez community would exorcize such a malignancy" (19; first emphasis added). Kroeber continues, "as with the rooster-pull ceremony drawn from [the ethnographer] Leslie White and indeed, just with the use of the novel form, Momaday is caught up in a hazardous contradiction between his theme and the means available to him for its artistic evocation" (19).
One need not agree with every word of Kroeber's account (e.g., although the majority of Native American novelists are not fluent in a tribal language, they may well have heard a good deal of it spoken around them, or in some other way managed to tribalize their English) to acknowledge its profound implications for the most celebrated of Native American fiction works and for a great many that have followed in its wake. Momaday's "theme," to put it in admittedly oversimplified form, is Abel's identity problem and its possible resolution by other than Euro-American cultural and communal re-membering (Paula Gunn Allen may have been the first to hyphenate the verb, thereby doubling its significations). But the culture and the community-Pueblo or Navajo-are neither Momaday's (he has identified himself as Kiowa) nor, therefore, really Abel's. Looking back now more than thirty years, one can say that the impasse as well as the achievement of HMOD have been exemplary for the Native American novels that have come after. The reader should be aware, however, that this sense of Momaday's first novel that we more or less share with Kroeber is a minority view. From Matthias Schubnell's virtually hagiographic study of 1985 to Susan Scarberry-Garcia's detailed reading of HMOD in a book of 1990 to Schweninger's recent volume, already cited (2001), HMOD, however it has been interpreted, has been treated as something of a founding masterwork.
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Table of Contents
The (Post)colonial Construction of Indian Country: U.S. American Indian Literatures and Federal Indian Law, by Eric Cheyfitz
1. American Indian Fiction and Anticolonial Resistance, by Arnold Krupat and Michael A. Elliott
2. Cannons and Canonization: American Indian Poetries Through Autonomy, Colonization, Nationalism, and Decolonization, by Kimberly M. Blaeser
3. American Indian Drama and the Politics of Performance, by Shari Huhndorf
4. Sovereignty and the Struggle for Representation in American Indian Nonfiction, by David Murray
5. Imagining Self and Community in American Indian Autobiography, by Kendall Johnson
What People are Saying About This
The Columbia Guide to American Indian Literatures Since 1945 is a fine, fine read. The text offers an excellent analysis, examination, and perspective on poetry, fiction, nonfiction, autobiography, and drama. Eric Cheyfitz does an admirable job as editor of a volume that is a must for libraries as well as a book to be simply enjoyed.
The Columbia Guide to American Indian Literatures Since 1945 is an extraordinary tour of literary sovereignty, a masterly critique of creative liberty, singular cultures, poetic delights, political survival, and always a profound celebration of a great native literature.