Thursday, October 30, 2008


Occasionally a certified if controversial “do-gooder” issue hooks into an unbalanced person and spills over into violent, even evil, behavior. I’m thinking of righteous snipers who shoot abortion doctors or leftist wilderness defenders who spike trees. The great popularity of Ed Abbey’s "The Monkeywrench Gang" shows that this tendency is often just under the surface, especially in the American psyche. I always remember the morning I was preaching at a mental hospital where there had been a fight on the ward. Everyone was medicated except the young black male orderly and myself. A stubborn heretic patient yelled out during the service, "God is evil!" The orderly screamed at him, “God is LOVE, you sunnavabitch and you’d better admit it or I’ll tear your goddamn head off!” I sent him out in the hall to have a smoke and walk around a bit.

Since American Indian issues have such a split personality -- on the one hand the historical material about evil red scalping devils and on the other hand the Disney idea of childish and innocent dwellers in Eden -- that they hook people this way very easily. Most people who don’t ordinarily deal with NA writing or even real NA people whether in a city or on a rez, find the whole thing so confusing and their own feelings so conflicted that they simply avoid the subject.

So NA literature is already vulnerable. Add to that revolutionary theories about deconstruction and post-colonial political correctness and you’re striking a match next to a gas spill. It’s hard to argue about Indians writing about Indians -- at least for a white person -- because there’s a certain entitlement in “being one.” But often technically enrolled Indians know less about their own tribe or NA’s across the continent than whites/blacks/yellows who actually visit them, as well as reading about them.

Because so many see Indians as “vanished” except for the anthropological materials collected in the 19th century, which locates them only in the past and only in the remoter parts of the country, they literally cannot see and recognize the Indians around them in their daily lives -- they see “Hispanics” or Arabs or Mongols. I mean, who thinks of Heather Locklear as a Lumbee Indian, which she is?

This is fertile ground for someone who looks like Victor Mature to claim an Indian heritage. (Don’t forget that President Clinton -- along with zillions of others -- claims a Cherokee grandmother the way guys who are genetically hip now claim to have the blood of Genghis Khan.) Making such claims can backfire, either if they get the claimant reclassified with a victim population or if they get the claimant “unmasked” and vilified for false identity. This is complicated since some people firmly believe that a diplomatic ceremony of adoption, meant to obligate the recipient to work for the benefit of the family or tribe, is some kind of actual transformation into being a hereditary tribal member. Congress, ever loathe to tackle an unpopular issue, gave each tribe the right to identify its own membership, opening up a lot of political payback opportunities whether positive or negative. Both Ward Churchill and Jamake Highwater (neither genetic Indians) were defined as members of a tribe, either formally through the tribal authorities or through private “adoption” ceremonies. DNA had nothing to do with it.

The Native American Literature Renaissance was instantly infested with people who wanted to play “gotcha” with writers. Some were Indian and many were not. The true NA writers who portrayed contemporary, ecologically-based, poverty-laden, violence-afflicted people -- maybe not on reservations -- fell by the wayside. The faux NA writers who portrayed stoic, noble, 19th century figures (maybe a little sexy in a benign way) were best-sellers. There were two sub-sets: the “Stay Away, Joe” crowd who loved the trope of slapstick Dogpatch life and saw the silly side of dire deprivation (the good old Napi tradition) and the misery voyeurs who wanted to know just how bad it is, so that they could weep over the poor little victims. (Indians have sort of been crowded out of this genre by black ghettoes and Third World countries.)

In the midst of all this, theoretical rhetoric sometimes became a sophisticated version of the “Officer Krumpke” defense: “I’m depraved on accounta I’m deprived.” But it didn’t help the local bar fight scene keep racial epithets out of violence or the discussion of violence. It DID help build up a ceremonial equivalent to literature which tried to recover 19th religious events once so feared that they resulted in the death of Sitting Bull and now so technically discussed that German aficionadoes sometimes seem to know more about it than the people whose grandparents were once ceremonial leaders.

These things are very difficult to talk about and even trickier to live in the midst of, esp. if one is white. But that’s part of their attraction. One constant indignation is that white people, by writing about NA matters, prevent NA writers from being published. I’d like to look at this theory head-on.

No writers can keep other writers from being published. PUBLISHERS keep writers of all kinds from being published, mostly because they don’t fit the stereotypes and expectations of profit that publishers have. There are many kinds of publishers (no NA publishers that I know of). What a publisher does is to supply the capital for the physical production of a book, which is labor intensive in terms of preparation, actual construction of paper and binding, and then distribution. Major costs are in salaries for people who do the editing and formatting, advertising, and attracting and supporting reviews. There are mass publishers, genre publishers, micro-publishers, specialty publishers, directory publishers, and a host of variations -- all based on capital investment in the expectation of profit.

The issue is confused by the “honor of it all,” the status that comes from being “a published author,” which is sometimes confused with earning an academic degree since part of academic life is publishing in order to earn tenure. This would seem to impose the obligation for an author to be virtuous as well as skillful. But because of censorship battles, and because there is always more profit in the forbidden, there has always been a brisk interest in “wicked” or forbidden literature. I remember how agog one of my childhood friends was when she discovered what the Biblical Apocrypha was -- the books that didn’t make it into the major compilations that Christianity calls the Old Testament and the New Testament. And there are even MORE shocking bits of writing that didn’t even make it into the Apocrypha!

How is anyone supposed to get sense out of all this? I think it is a misguided expectation. Put away your Morality Monitors. Read with open eyes. Reflect. And maybe go to the actual place, meet some actual Native Americans. If you come to the rez, bring money but remember that if someone sells you membership in the tribe or a genuine imitation ceremony, they might have a bridge in their hip pocket. Think of how many books you could buy for the price of a bridge!

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