Saturday, August 25, 2007


For a long time I’ve been convinced of the dangers of reducing categories to either/or -- as in either Indian or not -- and have been converted to the doctrine of Bibfeldt (both/and) as in both Indian and not Indian. What that conversion means is a category is more like a continuum or maybe, if one goes onto to an even more radical inclusion than “both,” a kind of constellation. Not the kind of constellation that forms a figure, but a constellation like the Pleiades, which Eldon Yellowhorn pointed out was -- at the time of Jesus (assuming he was a real person) -- the constellation that came up over the horizon in the location of the rising sun at spring equinox, thus signaling that all the bands should gather for the annual ceremonial cycle and hunt. (Nowadays it’s Aquarius that rises through the dawn and in another millennium or two, it will be Pisces. Go head -- make something symbolic of THAT!)

Anyway, what I’m doing right now is pointing out Pleiades of Indian writers: scattered clusters, constellations. In some cultures, the Pleiades have been used as indicators of good eyesight: the more of them you can see, the sharper your vision. But also, the Pleiades are often described in stories as people who have been short-changed or disappointed and who have therefore gone off angry to show their feelings. Go ahead -- apply that to Native American writers, for certainly many have gone off somewhere and I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them are angry about it. They have seemingly left our earthly lives (or the Publishers’ Pearly Gates have closed) and sometimes I wonder whether they will also fall out of the sky, forgotten and unread. On the other hand, I’ve seen photos of “star nurseries” where new stars are made. Surely that is true in the literary world as well.

I haven’t posted for a few days, in part because of trying to digest Sid Larson’s overview of Native American writing, “Captured in the MIddle: Tradition and Experience in Contemporary Native American Writing.” It’s a slender book (156 pages of text) which is what publishers like these days (maybe readers as well) but it is written in an almost epigrammatic style that sends me off to research concepts. One of the most powerful concepts he is exploring, which leads to a remarkable chapter discussing the difference between the Jewish experience and the Native American experience (a much needed set of distinctions in my opinion) is “post-apocalypse theory.” I’ll come back to that in a later post.

One of the rabbits I’ve been chasing is the practice of defining Indians in terms of blood quantum -- not scientific DNA evidence, but provenance: the presumed parentage back through generations. I think that Sid would grant that people tend to define the “privileged” group with which they identify to their benefit (like being a NA writer) in terms of their own ties to that community. Thus, low-quantum urban Indians who are connected to a tribe by provenance have made it their business to define an NA writer in that way and have attacked and demonized anyone claiming to be an NA writer in any other way, by sympathy or by ruse or by residence on a reservation. Since these LQUI people have often been well-educated, especially in post-colonial theory, they have made a powerful case that has been persuasive to many of the main gate-keepers of the media critics and of academia. The result has often been a kind of blaming of the victim.

To make this clearer, consider Ward Churchill, a man who has a “courtesy” membership in a friendly tribal group so that he can sell art described as “American Indian” without being arrested after the passage of the federal Indian Arts Act, which criminalizes selling art represented as Indian art that is in fact NOT made by an Indian. Churchill, who is not a genetic Indian (whatever that is) or at least has no identified NA ancestors (though many of us have ancestors who were actual but covert Indians), was hired by a Colorado university to participate in a “multicultural department.” Larson is frank (and quite accurate in my observation) that such a department is often considered a “lesser” or “junior” or “remedial” or “political” entity within the larger university and after the early romance of it all tends to apply thumbscrews in terms of requirements and bureaucratic accountability that gradually suffocate the faculty. Thus, Churchill -- who was given a quick look-over when hired -- was suddenly investigated in the strictest terms and found wanting. This was supposed to be his fault -- as though he had deceived the university on purpose, though they had violated their own rules by not either enforcing the same standards as everyone else or giving him a clear waiver of that necessity. It ironically hurts his case now (though it helped in the beginning) that he looks like everyone’s stereotype AIM Indian. Certainly, he speaks like one: in fact, so tellingly that it’s much to advantage of the status quo officials to discredit what he says by discrediting him.

Or take another writer, Tim Barrus, who spent years on the Navajo Reservation, noting the outrages of poverty, cultural holocaust, and bureaucratic oppression, and then couldn’t find a publisher for his narrative about it until he invented a name and implied that he was half-Navajo. Suddenly he was fashionable, and as observers have noted, his manuscript (unchanged) was worth much more money. (One critic told me frankly that he holds this against Barrus as somehow his fault.) At the time, he needed expensive double hip surgery, so he kept his own counsel, though the copyright, his flight tickets, and his publisher all used his real name. The media “revealed” who he “really” was and the scandal blew the publicity up to enormous proportions with most people blaming Barrus and, again, discrediting the uncomfortable subjects he addressed: boys exploited sexually and then again by the medical establishment when they were AIDS-infected.

Adolf Hungry-Wolf has never really triggered the firestorm outrage of these two writers, though there is always simmering criticism of him (as there is always criticism of Michael Dorris and Thomas King) probably because Hungry-Wolf’s focus is on the historical 19th century Blackfoot and he lives that life. Also, he was married to a Blackfoot woman and therefore has half-Blackfoot children. This protection also applies to Hugh Dempsey and similarly to Carter Revard who is genetically white but raised in an Osage family on the reservation. But then, there is also criticism of Louise Erdrich and James Welch, on grounds that they “write like European whites.” Famous people draw more criticism, of course, no doubt because it raises the profile of the critic -- or so they hope.

Larson’s strategy is not one of criticism. Rather he is looking for unity in multiplicity, a cluster of stars that includes the many without letting one outshine the others. Two important streams of thought he uses are “narrativity,” stories that explain and reveal; and post-apocalype theory. Narrativity I “get.” Post-apocalypse theory I need to read about. The blunt instruments of Google and Wikipedia had nothing. But I think that Larson is right in saying the Native Americans are not a “post-colonial” people, but a “post-apocalyptic” people. Their world ended. Now what?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have been working on the genealogy of a Blackfeet family: VIELLE.
I am interested in discussing the history of this family with someone knowing Blackfeet history. If you are willing, please respond to this e-mail @
Virgil Hoftiezer