Disturbing Indians: The Archaeology of Southern Fiction

Disturbing Indians: The Archaeology of Southern Fiction

by Annette Trefzer


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817358815
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 12/13/2016
Pages: 238
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Annette Trefzer is an associate professor of English at the University of Mississippi.

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Disturbing Indians

The Archaeology of Southern Fiction

By Annette Trefzer

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2007 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-5881-5


Excavating the Sites

Indians in Southern Texts and Contexts

For decades, thousands of skeletons were gathered systematically and shipped away to be displayed and warehoused in museums. By the early twentieth century, it was grimly joked that the Smithsonian Institution in Washington had more dead Indians than there were live Indians.

— Jace Weaver, Other Words: American Indian Literature, Law, and Culture

Considering the long-standing critical tradition in American studies that scrutinizes literary and cultural representations of Native Americans for their ideological and creative functions, it is surprising that no such enterprise exists yet in southern studies. Although scholars are beginning to gesture toward the Native American presence in southern literature, this inquiry remains in its initial stages. Houston Baker and Dana Nelson have recently pointed out that "the South is thick with civilly disappeared history," including that of indigenous peoples, but their own volume ironically reflects rather than remedies this disappearance. Noticing the "disappeared bodies" of Native Americans from the southern landscape, Baker and Nelson write: "we know that the murder, displacement, and relocation of thousands of Native American bodies from the same geographies in which enslaved Africans in the United States worked the land is a critical area of investigation for a new Southern studies" (233). And yet, despite this acknowledgment of the Native American presence in the South, Native Americans — both as authors and subjects — are conspicuously absent from their volume, which renders the southern racial geography yet one more time as a prominently "black and white" territory.

This study responds to such a lack of critical attention by examining the discursive appearance of Indians in southern texts and by reinserting their presence into scholarly discussions about the South. Not only do Native Americans play an active role in the construction of the cultural landscape of the South — despite a history of colonization, dispossession, and removal aimed at rendering them "invisible" — but their so-far-under-examined presence in southern literature provides a crucial avenue for a new post-regional understanding of the American South. Centering on the textual construction of Native Americans in the South, this study seeks to participate in the articulation of a new American studies project that focuses comparatively on the intersection of two cultures marginal to the nation: "the South" and "Native America."

Not only do Native American signifiers appear in southern texts during times of violent cultural conflict, such as during the colonial period or the removal period, but they also appear frequently in the literature of the post-removal South. This study focuses on the imaginative reconstruction of the Native American past during the Southern Renaissance, when southern writers — among them William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Andrew Lytle, and Caroline Gordon — turned to Indians in their fiction. Writing between 1930 and 1942, these authors created works about the Spanish conquest of the New World, the Cherokee frontier during the Revolutionary period, the expansionist schemes in Mississippi Territory, and the slaveholding Indian societies of the American Southeast. Together these texts map a Native American South that stretches from Virginia to Kentucky, from Mississippi to Florida, and from Tennessee to present-day Peru. One hundred years after the forced removal of Native Americans from the Southeast, these writers return to an "Indian frontier" marked by colonial struggles and imperialist power. In the process of exploring colonial history from their position in the modern South, they engage with a variety of discourses about Native Americans: some celebrate Native American cultures as seemingly more wholesome and "civilized" than modern Anglo-American industrial culture; others reject concepts of cultural hierarchy and racial purity for a sense of the hybridity of modern identities; all of them respond to discourses of Manifest Destiny and the idea of the "vanishing Indian," concepts that lingered in historical and political discussions about Native Americans well into the 1930s. Through the discursive construction of Indians, these writers also participate in the ethnological debates of mainstream American modernism and in a kind of primitivism they share with writers outside the South.

In exploring the Native American signifier, southern writers engage in a double discourse about region and nation. On the one hand, discourses about Indians articulate a regionalist, if not nativist, thesis about the American South. Writing during the decade that began with the publication of the southern manifesto I'll Take My Stand (1930), these writers respond to and participate in the fabrications of regional identity by invoking the idea of the South's "native" heritage. The authors examined here engage in a kind of local particularism by using the Indians as a root discourse for the creation of a specifically southern landscape and ideology. On the other hand, their discourses about Indians point well beyond regional concerns, because the Native American signifier is always also anchored in national and international history. Through their Indian treatments, these writers participate in the shaping of American national ideology even as they seek to place themselves in a dialectic regionalist perspective to the nation. That is, these southern writers, far from merely acting as apologists and perpetrators of an insular local southernness, explicitly engage an international history of imperial expansion through the Indian figure. Haunted by the history of American colonization and plagued by questions of national guilt, the authors of these texts dip into the mythology of westward expansion and into the history of American and European imperialism. In doing so, they reflect not only on the imperialist past but also on the rising national anxieties of their own contemporary political moment, which is marked by the appearance of a "new nationalism" during the depression and by growing concerns over the increasing power of fascism abroad during the prewar years.

In order to examine how the Indian signifier contributes to the shaping of regional and national self-definitions as well as to the corresponding production of cultural, racial, and national others, I situate the discursive appearance of Indians in southern texts in the national and international climate of imperial expansion. I am particularly interested in how literary texts by white southerners characterize those "others" and how, through the discursive construction of the Native American presence, these writers condense the contradictory political, cultural, and psychological effects of colonial conquest. Faulkner, Welty, Lytle, and Gordon are particularly important precisely because they are entrenched in the hegemonic construction of a white South and a southern literary tradition whose precepts we know so well: the centrality of place, a respect for the past, a love for and hate of the South. I want to pry these writers from these old precepts of critical analysis and, by focusing a postcolonial lens on their work, examine them through new paradigmatic frameworks.

This study borrows from Foucault the archaeological metaphor, from Derrida its concern with textual traces, from postcolonialism its attention to imperial forces and colonial encounters, and from Native American studies its critical interest in the discursive construction of the Indian other. The concept of archaeology functions in two ways. First, it refers quite literally to the excavation of cultural artifacts in the South during the New Deal of the 1930s. New Deal archaeology, I argue, provides a crucial disciplinary context for the reappearance of the Native American signifier in the cultural consciousness of the South, a "surfacing" to which the southern writers are responding. Second, archaeology serves as a method that characterizes my theoretical approach for exploring the literary texts. Methodologically, I want to stress two intersecting discursive levels in my textual excavations. "Digging down" vertically, each text marks a trace (in the Derridean sense) into the rhetorical constructions of Native Americans at a particular, historically remote time. From the present moment of excavation in the prewar decade, these traces lead all the way back to the discursive construction of the Indian signifier during the Age of Discovery. Collectively, these texts offer a historical trajectory that leads from the sixteenth-century conquest of the Incan empire to Hernando de Soto's exploration of the American South; from the Indian wars during the American Revolution to the expansionist schemes of Aaron Burr; from the extermination of the Natchez Indians to the Indian removal under Andrew Jackson — and on into the present. In short, each vertical "dig" into the textual strata opens up a diachronic perspective and a deep historical range. Each horizontal "dig" lays bare the broad structure of (southern) culture and the texts' intersections with intellectual and ideological discourses of the same period to which the Native American textual trace points. Such an exploration will reveal, for example, the countercultural and critical function that Native American discourses carry for some of the writers examined here and the degree to which the fictional texts intersect with contemporary racial and cultural theories, with Native American policy, and with popular culture.

Digging Up: Contemporary Contexts

Before digging into these cultural contexts, I want to acknowledge the warning of cultural archaeologists against a simple understanding of surface and depth: the layers of discourse about Native Americans run deep and broad, vertical and horizontal, synchronically and diachronically. But they are also hybridized so that it becomes difficult to say which discourses are contemporary to the time period depicted and which are particular to the current understanding. Acknowledging this hybridization, I begin with a broad mapping of the contemporary inscriptions of Native Americans in the textual landscapes of the national culture during the depression and prewar years. The texts I will be examining are anchored in rhetorical constructions of Native Americans as part of a larger pervasive public discourse conducted in various disciplines, including literature, politics, and science. First, I want to situate these discourses as part of a modernist aesthetic that offers an ambiguous view of Native Americans suspended between celebration and condemnation and their usefulness for constructions of regionalist and nationalist identities. Second, I want to briefly examine the political rhetoric of the depression years and Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal administration, which supported not only dramatically new Indian legislation but also the recirculation of the (old) frontier thesis in politics and media. As we will see, federal intervention in American cultural space helped trigger the growth of a new cultural nationalism at the same time that southern writers were articulating their own regionalist theories. Finally, I want to turn to the archaeological and historical constructions of Native Americans in the source materials that were available to Faulkner, Welty, Lytle, and Gordon in order to examine how the proliferation of these studies under the New Deal helped shape their ideas about Indians.

When southern writers turned to Native American signifiers in their fiction, they were in many ways part of an intellectual mainstream of modern Americans who protested what they perceived as the increasing materialism of the United States. In southern texts, the cultural differences articulated through Native American figures offer at least a small degree of resistance to the hegemonic national culture of industrialism and capitalism. It is from the nation's southern fringe that these writers participated in such modernist resistance by positively identifying a Native American cultural difference in order to launch a critique of the colonizing and mechanizing impulses of U.S. capitalism. But this resistance is often double-edged, as the case of Andrew Lytle makes abundantly clear: born out of a conservative, universalizing humanism, his fiction critiques U.S. imperialism and the international operations of capitalism, but it turns a blind eye to southern segregation and exploitative labor politics in his own backyard. In short, the modernist "resistance" offered in the Native American figure of some of these southern texts may sometimes turn out to be fundamentally conservative.

In the national context, Native American culture has frequently served the same purpose as a counterpoint to hegemonic culture. In modern American society, the so-called pre-industrial lifestyle of Native American cultures was often used as a standard by which national progress could be measured. But for many American intellectuals, such "progress" based on materialism and the culture of capital became increasingly suspect during the ostentatious celebration of the national business culture in the 1920s. During this decade of high modernism, America's cultural climate led to a sense of alienation and fragmentation that prompted many writers to flee into European exile and others into a search for a new spiritual and cultural grounding. The collective intellectual critique of the United States' commercial priorities incited an interest in Indian cultures as a sanctuary for artistic and spiritual values. "Let us try to adjust ourselves again to the Indian outlook, to take up an old dark tread from their vision, and see again as they see, without forgetting we are ourselves," urged D. H. Lawrence (qtd. in Dippie 281). Many modernists shared this agenda and engaged the myth of a more harmonious, natural Indian culture in their fiction. They saw in Native American culture a cure for the malaise of modern civilization and those "false standards of measurement" — power, success, and wealth — that Freud had pointed out in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). Modernists in the United States now celebrated "primitive" cultures as an antidote to bourgeois modernity, and they increasingly perceived Native Americans as "inheritors of ancient wisdom" (Carr 200). This wisdom was to be found among the Pueblo cultures of the Southwest.

The revival of interest in Native American cultures began with the migration of intellectuals, writers, and public policy makers to the Southwest in the early 1920s, some of whom had gathered there to prevent the passing of the Bursum bill, which was endangering the land claims of Pueblo Indians in New Mexico. The list of artists and writers who congregated in Taos included D. H. Lawrence, Willa Cather, Mary Austin, and Mabel Dodge Luhan, as well as John Collier, who would later become commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). One of the most powerful men to influence Indian policy in the twentieth century, Collier was born in Georgia. But it was not the South that shaped the romantic vision of Indian life that underpinned his policies; it was his stay among the Pueblo peoples in the Southwest, where he discovered in the 1920s a healthy alternative to the "sickness" of his own capitalist and industrialist society. Deeply concerned about the lack of community in American life as a whole, Collier mourned what he perceived as "the lost reverence and passion for the earth and its web of life" (Indians 15). He was passionate about preserving Native American cultures, and even before becoming involved with the BIA he believed, like many other American intellectuals, that modern societies were fundamentally flawed. For Collier, Native American cultures held truths that could help heal modern Western societies. He saw Native Americans as "repudiating the materialism, the secularism, and the fragmentation of modern White life under industrialism for a simpler, more beautiful way of life that emphasized the relationship of humans with one another, with the supernatural, and with land and nature" (qtd. in Berkhofer 178).

Native Americans of the Southwest, particularly the Pueblos and the Navajos, were often portrayed as "an ancient people, peaceable cultivators, paragons of domestic virtue, deeply religious, hospitable, and patriotic" (Dippie 277). Promising spiritual and cultural renewal, Indians were now integrated into the national narrative by writers, artists, social activists, politicians, and even commercial marketers. Clear signs of this trend are not only the burgeoning tourism in the western United States but the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, which sought to include into the concept of American national identity formerly excluded native populations. In short, Native Americans, now increasingly perceived as a potential source for American cultural identity, were seen as having a rich and distinct culture. When Collier and his contemporaries turned to the Pueblo Indians as examples for an alternate cultural history, they did so partially because the Pueblos were sedentary, agricultural, and democratic, but also because they had preserved a degree of cultural authenticity that southeastern Indians seemed to lack. "Vanished" from the South, the eastern tribes had been transplanted to Oklahoma and in the process variously assimilated into the mainstream culture. As "civilized tribes" they could not provide the desired model of primitive genuineness and cultural tradition.


Excerpted from Disturbing Indians by Annette Trefzer. Copyright © 2007 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Maps ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

1 Excavating the Sites Indians in Southern Texts and Contexts 6

2 Colonialism and Cannibalism Andrew Lytle's Conquest Narratives 31

3 Gendering the Nation Caroline Gordon's Cherokee Frontier 65

4 Native Americans and Nationalism Eudora Welty's Natchez Trace Fiction 109

5 Mimesis and Mimicry William Faulkner's Postcolonial Yoknapatawpha 145

Conclusion 180

Notes 183

Bibliography 201

Index 219

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