Wednesday, October 29, 2008


“Indigenous literature,” as Europeans call it, varies greatly according to the point in history when first-contact with the local people was made, as well as other factors. One of the first problems, of course, was the difference in language, which in the Americas was usually oral, so that “literature” would have to be defined in the ways that would include European oral literatures: ballads, sagas, fairy tales, legends and so on. Since Euros considered their oral literature suitable for non-literate people like peasants and children, their impulse was to see NA oral literature also as primitive because it wasn’t written down. The tough and sometimes raunchy NA stories became Disney-fied.

As soon as the indigenous people along the east coast understood what writing was, they became literate in spite of efforts to prevent them, as well as slaves, from learning it, lest it give them an advantage. But to no avail. Benjamin Franklin had a helper who could set print, that is, as well as reading and writing letters to the editor, he could assemble print on a typestick in mirror-order. The biggest trouble in the earliest days was that when native people were around enough Euros to learn these skills, they caught germs for which they had no immune defense and died too young to accumulate much.

Since students learned to read and write in English or whatever, it took a while for the indigenous people to figure out they could write down their own languages phonetically. The kind of missionaries who were “book-focused,” mostly Protestants, were intent on providing translations of the Bible and various prayer books, so they were very helpful in learning the indigenous languages and providing a body of print. There were sympathetic Victorian ladies who volunteered to be interlocutors, giving many the idea that Indian Chiefs sounded like poetry-smitten governesses.

As industrialization began to change the face of Europe, ideas about the indigenous people became reservoirs for romantic thoughts about nature as a refuge from the pestilence and ordure of growing new cities full of factories served by gin-soaked wage labor. Thus in France and Germany, American Indians have become so identified with natural nobility and the innocence of animals and children that most folks don’t realize it is a concept -- they think it is actual fact. Because the first steam engines came to the American prairie as steamboats up the Mississippi/Missouri network and mighty railroads across the grasslands (often built by near slave-labor Chinese), the trope of the wild and innocent people who had lived there gracefully captured the whole world’s imagination, even that of the Indians themselves! Nineteenth century prairie tribes (AFTER the advent of the horse) became an idyllic version of Eden and their destruction by disease and massacre is the American Holocaust.

An email friend remarked that he didn’t know any Indians, that he was 1500 miles away from any Indians. I laughed. He was probably within five feet of an Indian descendant and if he was in a city he was probably within ten miles of a cluster of self-identified Indians. This continent is seeded with reservations, reserves, and ranchos (the California version). One hopes they do indeed constitute little seeds that protect kernels of wisdom from a badly fragmented set of cultures, but in any case they are there.

The idea of the “Vanishing Indian” (See Brian Dippie’s definitive book with that title) came out of the idea that Euros ought to hurry to record 19th century Indian culture before it escapes entirely. Thus the work of George Bird Grinnell, Walter McClintock, Frank Bird Linderman, James Willard Schultz, Doug Gold, and Charlie Russell -- all of them white men writing about Indians -- blurrily separated from “proper” anthropologists but were and are very popular, esp. when reporting legends or feats of bravery.

The next wave is writers who claimed they WERE Indians: Ernest Thompson Seton (Black Wolf), Grey Owl, Long Lance. This wave continued into the present, revived by the Aquarian revolutionary counterculture echoing the German Romantic anti-industrialists. This tendency has not settled down. A new twist is people who live like 19th century Indians, reporting from cabins and lodges. To most people, this IS unreflectively what Native American writing is all about, that yearning to escape to a better world.

But then came a wave of literary impulse supported by better education for Native Americans. A man like James Welch or a woman like Louise Erdrich could attend college and dare to be novelists in the adult Euro sense, writing about their own lives in the twentieth century instead of constantly putting readers into a time machine. They could employ such sophistications as Magic Realism. This was called the Native American Literature Renaissance, a host of Indians across the country writing about their own lives on reservations and in cities. I have a bookcase full of them from Adrian Louis to Louis Owens and back again with books of lit crit about them.

Woe to the unwary romantic who felt that he or she was psychically an Indian without a tribal membership to flash! The theories of deconstruction, post-colonialism, and other philosophies made the case that white men were stealing not only the land and the wealth of the Indians, but also their culture and their identities. The idea was that if the whites would just stop writing about Indians, then the Indians would get rich writing about themselves. At least those who ever got around to writing a book.

So why didn’t more Indians get to scribbling? Why weren’t they published, instead of posers? Academics leapt to the fray, universities serving as forts for the defense and interpretation of “pure” Indian thinkers by whites and Non-Americans. For a while there was a wave of books. Then they crashed into the remainder bins, leaving only a few in print and some rather embittered Indian intellectuals in the rubble of university departments.

About the time of the breakthrough understanding of the double helix of DNA, and about the time that a new generation of Indians were challenging whether or not their children should be on the tribal rolls if their blood quantum by provenance fell below a certain fraction, there was a great fascination with challenging the Indian identities of writers. For purist critics, only 100% blood qualified, which left standing maybe Ray Young Bear (whom no one read, though they ought to) and a half-dozen others. Bringing down best-selling “Indian” writers became a vicious pastime: Tom King, Ward Churchill, Louise Erdrich and Jim Welch, Paula Gunn Allen, Michael Dorris, and many others were attacked. As Sherman Alexie began to make money and become well-known, he was also criticized -- sometimes for a short story that hinted at homosexuality. One could demonstrate greater sophistication and inside knowledge by telling people the “real” stuff about Jay Silverheels and Grey Eyes. This quarreling and nit-picking, verging on Hollywood celebrity culture, discouraged ordinary whites from reading the books. Two sobering suicides of NA writers made some Indians reconsider their English majors. Probably the last blow was the publicity about reservation casinos. If one of the great pleasures of reading about Indians was nostalgia for a lost Eden, why worry about it if they’d all gone to Vegas?

Publishers didn’t much like contemporary realism about Indians anyway. Readers found it “so depressing,” their usual excuse for avoiding difficulties like poverty. Jim Welch found that his “Indian Lawyer” book would not sell, though the historical “Fool’s Crow” was everyone’s favorite. Publishers printed small runs, advertised very little, remaindered unsold copies early, and never tried to sell Indian books to Indians. Then they concluded there was no money in NA lit. The vortex grew. Attention to stories about lost innocence shifted to Africa where Djimon Hounsou replaced Cochise as Nature’s Nobleman.

More later. This is a long story. I'm composing it while wearing the red shirt with NW Indian canoeists on the back that Phillip Red Eagle gave me. Are you impressed?

No comments: