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Native Provenance: The Betrayal of Cultural Creativity

Native Provenance: The Betrayal of Cultural Creativity

by Gerald Vizenor

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Gerald Vizenor’s Native Provenance challenges readers to consider the subtle ironies at the heart of Native American culture and oral traditions such as creation and trickster stories and dream songs. A respected authority in the study of Native American literature and intellectual history, Vizenor believes that the protean nature of many creation stories, with their tease and weave of ironic gestures, was lost or obfuscated in inferior translations by scholars and cultural connoisseurs, and as a result the underlying theories and presuppositions of these renditions persist in popular literature and culture.

Native Provenance explores more than two centuries of such betrayal of native creativity. With erudite and sweeping virtuosity, Vizenor examines how ethnographers and others converted the inherent confidence of native stories into uneasy sentiments of victimry. He explores the connection between Native Americans and Jews through gossip theory and strategies of cultural survivance, and between natural motion and ordinary practices of survivance. Other topics include the unique element of native liberty inherent in artistic milieus; the genre of visionary narratives of resistance; and the notions of historical absence, cultural nihilism, and victimry.

Native Provenance is a tour de force of Native American cultural criticism ranging widely across the terrains of the artistic, literary, philosophical, linguistic, historical, ethnographic, and sociological aspects of interpreting native stories. Native Provenance is rife with poignant and original observations and is essential reading for anyone interested in Native American cultures and literature.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496218063
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 09/01/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Gerald Vizenor is a novelist, essayist, and interdisciplinary scholar of Native American culture and literature. He is professor emeritus of American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author or editor of more than thirty books, including Native Liberty: Natural Reason and Cultural Survivance (Nebraska, 2009), and three recent novels, Chair of Tears (Nebraska, 2012), Blue Ravens, and Native Tributes. 

Read an Excerpt


Gossip Theory

Native Irony and the Betrayal of Earthdivers

Native American Indians and Jews are the unmissable monitors of gossip theory, sorts of separatism, and cultural survivance. Natives were once boldly nominated in churchy hearsay as the descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Jews and natives were revealed as an ancestral union of tradition and torment, removal and murder, the outsiders in colonial discoveries, crusades, and crude missions of Christianity.

Thomas Thorowgood proclaimed in Jewes in America, or Probabilities That the Americans Are Jewes that the "Indians do themselves relate things of their Ancestors, suteable to what we read of the Jewes in the Bible, and elsewhere. ... The rites, fashions, ceremonies, and opinions of the Americans are in many ways agreeable to the custome of the Jewes, not onely prophane and common usages, but such as be called solemn and sacred."

Hallelujah for the suitable and the sacred, and three centuries later the disparate gossip theory of a spiritual and cultural union continues, but with a greater potentiality for survivance stories and a sense of ancestral unintended irony.

Native creation stories were protean, and the tease and weave of ironic gestures were badly translated by pioneers, missionaries, federal agents, and scholars. The conceits of these presiding renditions of creation and race linger in familiar conversations as the betrayal of native imagination and liberty. More than two centuries of sorry betrayal have converted some native stories into the uneasy sentiments of victimry. Yet the nostalgia of kitschy victimry can easily be rescripted with more ironic native stories of resistance and survivance.

Native earthdiver stories were totemic, a creative union of storiers, revelers, and later readers, and rightly the stories of risky escapades were never the same. The trickster created a new earth with teases and stories, and the creation was irony, not liturgy. The essence of an oral creation story was not absolute but deferred, and with respect to the tease and creative vision of another native storier. The ethnographic masters forever revise the methods and models of cultural interpretations, and the outcome of research is reported and compared in abstracts, but there are no federal, academic, or monotheistic contracts to bear or break in the creative stories of native ethos, resistance, and survivance over common gossip theory and victimry.

Avishai Margalit declares in On Betrayal that a "thick relation" is an element of betrayal. "For betrayal, the harm and the offence must take place between people who are presumed to stand in thick relations," and "thick relations, whether national or personal, are based on a shared past, that it to say, on shared memory." Federal agents and interpreters of native stories were more rangy than thick, and the gossip theories of totemic and cultural relations were undermined by reservation policies of separatism. Surely moral courage and perceptions of irony are better stands for interpretation.

Clarke Chambers, late professor of history at the University of Minnesota, kindly invited me as a new faculty member in American Indian Studies to dinner at his home. He escorted me to a side room and handed over a pair of stained leather moccasins. The historian was serious and expected me to convey the name of the culture and provide some footsy provenance of a surly warrior. "The warrior walked silently in the forests" was my first ironic tease, but the historian was focused more directly on the ethnographic features of the sacred footwear than the tease of an ironic provenance.

I closely examined the beaded decorations, blue beads, first acquired in the ancient fur trade with the French. Deer hide, and the soles were soft and thin, more worn around the house than on game runs in the forest. I then sniffed each moccasin and handed them back to the historian. My voice was resonant, of course, suitable for a discourse on the irony of the outworn moccasins: "Norwegian man, stinky feet, and he walked with a twisted foot."

"Dissembler" and "simulated ignorance" are the original sources of the meaning of irony, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. More precisely, irony is defined as the "expression of meaning using language that normally expresses the opposite," especially "the humorous or sarcastic use of praise to imply condemnation or contempt." Figuratively, irony is the discrepancy "between the expected and actual state of affairs" and the "use of language with one meaning for a privileged audience and another for those addressed or concerned" and those excluded in certain cultural situations.

The potentiality of native irony could be observed more critically as a condition embedded in the notes of discovery, in the documents and narratives of dominion, historical archives, ethnographic monographs, the fickle politics of blood quantum, and in the scenes that were once told and translated as traditional stories. These specific sources of irony are actually inside, at the very heart of the narratives, at the core of monographs and archives of native discovery, and not a coy imposition or outsource of irony.

Native stories, creation and otherwise, were seldom delivered as a catechism or liturgy. The many translations and transcriptions of native songs and stories established an archive of disparate narratives, and so many ethnographic interpretations undermined the creative irony and cultural traces of oral stories.

The ethnographic interpretations, however, now provide an unintended source of native irony. Clearly the irony is embedded, and only rarely implied, in the actual methods of transcription, in the general notions of structural analyses, thick or thin descriptions, and in the heavy sway of academic advisors and editors of monographs.

The moccasin game song about "bad moccasins," for instance, was translated and misinterpreted as the lament of a poor native, and with unintended irony. The gestures in the moccasin game songs were about the chance of losing the game, unlucky, not about poverty. The translation of the song must now be delivered as an irony.

The translated song or love charm by a native woman who said she was as beautiful as the roses was actually an ironic song created by a native woman who understood she was not beautiful. Frances Densmore noted in Chippewa Music that the singer was "a woman about sixty years of age and was the most dirty and unattractive woman with whom the writer has come in contact." The woman, in a thin and nasal voice, sang in translation, "What are you saying to me? I am arrayed like the roses, and beautiful as they." I favor a more concise and poetic translation, "I am as beautiful as the roses." The pictomyth or song picture shows a heart in a figure surrounded by four roses. Other singers who lived on nearby reservations recognized the pictomyth and sang the same song.

The ancillary sources of native irony, then, are implied in the translations and ethnographic interpretations of oral stories, songs, and narratives by and about natives. The unintended ironies are not derived from outside the native stories or transcriptions but are actually embedded in the medley of ethnographic methods, models, and simulations of natives and in the archives of historical documents.

"Irony and satire provide much keener insights into a group's collective psyche and values that do years of research," observed Vine Deloria Jr. in Custer Died for Your Sins. He focused on the humor in stories and the steady cultural tease in native communities. Custer and Columbus were the most common ironic stories in the past fifty years, and natives continue to "come together by sharing humor of the past."

Roger Jourdain, late elected leader of the Red Lake Reservation in Minnesota, met a group of professional women from Minneapolis on tour of the remote reservation. Jourdain welcomed the visitors as they exited the bus. One woman paused and said in a very serious tone of voice, "I have been waiting a long time for an answer to my question: What do Indian women do when they can't nurse their children?" The query revealed the cultural simulations of racial separatism, and the irony was unintended. Jourdain was prepared to provide a comeback that was concise and wry. He kindly told the woman, "Those children were nursed by porcupines."

Ted Mahto, a native philosopher, invited me to trade stories many years ago at Hello Dolly's in Minneapolis. The notorious native bar was sour and sticky that late summer afternoon. At the end of the bar, three young natives were boasting about their scars from a Sun Dance Ceremony. The boasting was contemptible, and my friend excused himself, calmly walked over to the three young men, smiled, slowly unbuttoned his shirt, and pointed to the scars on his chest. Ted said, "Do you see those scars?" The young men leaned closer and examined the prominent scars. Ted shouted, "Chicken pox, 1940," and then turned away, buttoned his shirt, and we continued our stories.

The American Indian Movement carried weapons for the first time in preparation for an armed confrontation with licensed anglers on the opening day of fishing more than forty years ago on the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota. The urban militants were heavily armed and determined to fight for native hunting and fishing rights on the reservation, but not prepared for native teases and irony. The militants were not aware that the treaty rights had been decided in favor of the reservation by a federal court.

Dennis Banks, who wore a fur trade mountain man costume, and a dozen other armed leaders were invited to a meeting in an elementary school on the first day they arrived on the reservation. The militants meandered into the classroom and reluctantly sat on tiny chairs, their knees tucked under their chins.

Simon Howard, president of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, was the last person to enter the classroom. He sat on a tiny chair at the head of the circle and twirled his thumbs over a heavy stomach. Howard was at home, at ease in a bowling jacket, and he wore a floral print porkpie hat cocked back on his head. The militants were decorated with pantribal war vestments and carried new rifles and other weapons of menace and war. Howard had called the meeting to maintain peace between the local residents, fishermen, and the militants. The strategy to invite the fierce urban warriors to sit on tiny elementary school chairs was shrewd and marvelous.

"Stand up and introduce yourself," said Howard. One shy warrior stood in front of a tiny chair. He was dressed in a wide black hat, leather jacket, dark green glasses, and two bandoliers of heavy ammunition that did not match the bore of his rifle and carried a bayonet and revolver. "We came here to die," he shouted, then returned to the tiny chair.

The sound of heavy rifle fire broke the silence one night on a country road near the Episcopal Church camp. The novel warriors had been invited to stay in the church cabins on treaty land for the duration of the war against white fishermen. Federal marshals conducted a speedy investigation of the rifle fire and revealed that several militants had decided to shine for deer late that night. Seeing what they thought were the bright eyes of a huge deer, the warrior hunters from cities opened fire with advanced weapons. The animal in the dark was a milk cow owned by a local farmer. The farmer fired back at the warriors. Luckily there were no casualties, not even the cow. The warriors were rather new at riflery. The armed warriors seated on tiny chairs were strategic parodies, and the late night cow shoot was an inadvertent irony.

Clyde Kluckholn, cultural anthropologist, was teased as the man who pissed too much on the reservation. Some hitchhikers on the Navajo Nation told stories about the notorious scholar and his ostensibly weak urinary bladder. Kluckholn asked native hitchhikers about witchcraft and probably reasoned that natives would more readily reveal scenes and secrets of witches and skinwalkers in motion on the road. He listened to witchery rumors and hearsay but could only recollect about thirty minutes of stories. So he frequently stopped and pretended to piss but actually ducked behind a shrub or tree to quickly transcribe in a notebook what he had heard about witches. The natives were no doubt eager to remain in motion, especially at night and in bad weather, and they must have told the gossip theorist whatever stories of witchery that came to mind on the road.

Kluckholn published Navaho Witchcraft more than seventy years ago, and the stories of his witchcraft queries and unintended irony continue with great pleasure. One scholarly reviewer pointed out that the anthropologist had described his methods with care, but he did not provide specific information about the "informants." Surely most of his informants were hitchhikers because natives in ordinary situations would rarely mention scary skinwalkers or the ghastly practices of witchery. Other reviewers commended his "method of presentation." The monograph on witchcraft was a betrayal of natives, primarily a collection of simulations derived from hearsay and revised as gossip theory.

Franz Boas, cultural anthropologist, should have been honored by native scholars more than a century ago for his liberal and humanistic observations and teased at the same time for his fraternity as a clever linguistic relativist with no totemic associations and as an extraordinary émigré from Westphalia in Prussia. Franz Boas asserted, "we must fight ceaselessly against the racism that trammels the mind of man" at a faculty luncheon to honor the presence of Paul Rivet, the ethnologist and founder of the Musée de l'Homme in Paris.

Michael Silverstein, distinguished professor of anthropology, linguistics, and psychology at the University of Chicago, related that Boas finished the sentence on racism and then collapsed and died in the Faculty Club at Columbia University on December 21, 1942. His last spoken words about racial and cultural equity were a totemic testament and a scene of linguistic ideology.

Boas wrote in The Mind of Primitive Man, "It seems to my mind that the mental attribute of individuals who thus develop the beliefs of a tribe is exactly that of the civilized philosopher," and the "functions of the human mind are common to the whole of humanity." He appreciated the "similar traits in all languages, and also that languages were moulded by thought, not thought by languages." His research and philosophical ideas about language were a critical departure from the ethnocentric notions and gossip theories of the evolution of languages.

Boas pointed out the obvious, "that in many cases a people, without undergoing change in type or mixture, have changed completely their language and culture," as still other "people have retained their language while undergoing material changes in blood and culture." The Athapascan language, for instance, is spoken in several parts of the continent, yet the "forms of culture in these different regions" are distinct. The natives speak the same language but resemble the diverse cultures of California, New Mexico, Arizona, and regions of the Mackenzie River in Canada. "It seems most plausible to assume in this case that branches of this stock migrated from one part of this large area to another, where they intermingled with the neighboring people, and thus changed their physical characteristics, while at the same time they retained their speech."

Michael Silverstein pointed out that "Boas redirects our attention to the 'ethnographical' significance of language and of structural diversity of languages. Language is important not because it is a window on stages of mental and thus cultural evolution. Rather, it is a lens through which we can peer into the fundamental dialectic of human subjectivity, of mind in society — in effect classifying through formal structure what we treat as the 'reality' that surrounds us." Furthermore, "There is always an ontology immanent in a specific linguistic structure."

Silverstein argued that a common dictionary definition of "ideology" is "linguistic ideology in action" and the "codified authority on what words really mean," as the nature of authority in the educational establishment, encouraged by publishers. "I should clarify that ideologies about language, or linguistic ideologies, are any sets of beliefs about language articulated by the users as a rationalization or justification of perceived language structure and use" and in general might become "part of divergent large systems of discourse and enterprise."

Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf advanced the hypotheses of language and thought. Sapir studied with Franz Boas at Columbia University, and Whorf was a student of Sapir but not an academic linguist. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis presumes that language and thought structures reality, or "the particular language we speak influences the way we see reality because categories and distinctions encoded in one language are not always available in another language," otherwise understood as linguistic relativity.


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Copyright © 2019 Gerald Vizenor.
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Table of Contents

1. Gossip Theory: Native Irony and the Betrayal of Earthdivers
2. Survivance and Liberty: Turns and Stays of Native Sovereignty
3. Native Transmotion: Totemic Motion and Traces of Survivance
4. Natives of the Progressive Era: Luther Standing Bear and Karl May
5. Expeditions in France: Native Americans in the First World War
6. Visionary Sovereignty: Treaty Reservations and the Occupation of Japan
7. Cosmototemic Art: Natural Motion in Totemic and Visionary Art
8. Native Nouveau Roman: Dead End Simulations of Tragic Victimry
9. Time Warp Provenance: Heye Obsessions and Custer Portrayals
10. Trickster Hermeneutics: Naanabozho Curiosa and Mongrel Chauffeurs
11. Continental Liberty: The Spirit of Chief Joseph and Dane White
12. Pretense of Sovereignty: William Lawrence and the Ojibwe News

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