Saturday, November 15, 2008


The wars over Native American literary territory can be nearly as fierce as those over the terrain of the continent that America took as her empire. After the advent of post-colonial theory when ethnic information and narrative were recognized as treasure, Indians were bold about declaring ownership. Either that re-valuing or the fact that education was finally getting to the reservation (or the Indians had gotten far enough OFF through relocation or war jobs to mainstream their education) created a Native American literary renaissance in the Eighties and Nineties.

It would be hard to get consensus on a list (another case of center and penumbra) and don’t look at Wikipedia for answers: the person currently posting about NA’s there is a phony. I wish the Association for the Study of American Indian Literature (ASAIL) would take on that wiki as a project. Mainly the people I mean are Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Vine Deloria, Jr., Paula Gunn Allen, Simon Ortiz, Greg Sarris, Leslie Marmon Silko, N. Scott Momaday, Louise Erdrich, Diane Glancy, Linda Hogan, Thomas King, D’Arcy McNickle, Louis Owens, Luci Tapahaso, Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan, James Welch, N. Scott Momaday, Wendy Rose, Ray Young Bear and a double handful of others. Three stand out as interlocutors (meaning explainers and go-betweens) and mentors: Joe Bruchac, Gerald Vizenor and Carter Revard, who is not genetically Indian but was raised Ponca/Osage. Not one of these people is a 19th century Indian because all those people have gone on ahead, taken the Wolf Trail to the Sand Hills. By now some of the list above have also departed.

The real excavation of anthropological treasure had already been done by 19th century white men with their pens and paint brushes. Charlie Russell, the Taos Seven, George Bird Grinnell, and their ilk, plus a host of official anthropologists, adventurers, and photographers, made their livings by portraying Indians with what was supposed to be accuracy. They knew a people who were “old-timers,” whose ways were still those of a time when the tribe was a functioning culture. You’d have to go into the South American jungle to find such people now. They are numbered in dozens per group. (Remember the low-flying airplanes that recently came back with arrow holes?)

By the time the romantics of the Aquarian Revolution got to the reservations, the Indian population was very much mixed and diluted. Nevertheless, especially to people raised on those 19th century writers, the belief that the people were unique and noble persisted. The Indians themselves tried to be that way.

The trouble was that in actual fact they had been crowded onto reservations and reduced to poverty by the loss of their ecological fittingness to a tough place. When they began to write about their lives, their dukes were up and they could use all the help they could get. Academics, especially the French (who love revolutions), were happy to contribute and their criteria, theoretical, were harsh and purity-based. Bison are now considered to have been contaminated by cross-breeding with cattle, so the federal herds have been systematically tested for cattle genes. Where they are found, the animals are killed. Some try to do the same thing with NA writers.

Society, and I would include animal societies as I think this is basic ecology, maintains its identity by trying to make individual members conform. If they won’t conform, they are excluded. This is how there came to be tribal bands: those who agreed with the leaders (often relations) stayed together and those who made trouble had to be thrown out. Probably some just got angry and excluded themselves. If there were enough of them, they might start a new band. Connections among bands were maintained at annual celebrations or collaborative hunting parties.

The edges of tribes were vague and varying, because no one made maps, no one wrote down the borders or had conferences about where they ought to be, no one sewed insignia on the clothing or had auditions to see who could be on the team. There was just the core group and a penumbra of others who came and went -- outside of that were the “others” who might be friends and might not, depending on circumstances.

Whenever time and circumstance makes people uncertain and insecure, they tighten up that penumbra. In the old times, before passports and birth certificates, it was mostly a matter of how well people got along. Until the government began to hand out commodities. Then suddenly it was vital to be in that line to get enough food to survive. And there was a limited amount of food. Now blood quantum and tribal enrollment are treated as life-or-death questions, because sometimes they are.

This is the way that Indians have approached the issue of who can write about Indians, who can say they are Indians, because jobs were at stake, publishing contracts were at stake, personal status was at stake. Those who were “in” and making money felt that there were few chances and that they should take them, excluding “others.” They became very invested in unmasking whites who pretended to be Indians.

Of course, there were always whites who joined Indians one way or another: marriage, living with tribes, Indian “clubs” as in Germany where one imitates Indians, anthropologists, dealers. Some outsiders discovered they could at least temporarily become fellow travelers IF they were useful in persecuting the Other. Some of the most vicious critics of insufficiently documented Indian writers are themselves white. James Mackay is a good example: an Englishman living on Cyprus who writes about who is or is not an Indian writer, though he’s barely visited this continent. No one was so harsh a critic of whites as Ward Churchill, until the tide turned and he became the target. No one needs an old worn-out hitman when the stakes change.

The great irony is that in the midst of all this the big bestseller has been a phony account of a 19th century reiteration: “The Education of Little Tree,” long ago revealed to have been written by Asa Earl Carter, a white man with a history of racism. But his book -- I haven’t read it -- is said to be very much the kind of noble sentiment of sainted Indians that real living Indians also believe in, but have no chance to live out. It has made a huge amount of money for the academic press that publishes it. All the political resistance from Indian intellectuals, all the academic finger pointing, has meant nothing at all.

Anyway, publishers say that Indians are poison: they AREN’T noble, they make trouble, and they aren’t obedient. Surprise. When the political massacres started, the Native American Literary Renaissance imploded. Surprise. Another golden goose killed by genomics.


Anonymous said...

actually, Carter Revard IS "genetically indian"

prairie mary said...

And your source is???

Revard has a genetically Indian stepfather in a culturally Indian family. He is an honored and important member of his tribe. I sometimes think he should consider changing his name to "Revered."

He's a peacemaker and I admire him.

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

Carter was raised by his Osage full blood stepfather, Addison Jump, but his genetic father, McGuire Revard, was part Osage. Source: The Salt Companion to Carter Revard, ed. Ellen Arnold, p.12.

prairie mary said...

Thanks. This is new information to me.

Prairie Mary

Bronwen Edwards said...

Interesting blog, having just found it. Yes, Carter Revard is Osage. Question for you: should people who are genetically indigenous (or partly so) write from their tribal heritage? Or should they write from the heritage of another genetic fraction (such as Irish, etc.)? Or should "mixed" writers write what is in their hearts? Can we be tribal according to our genes even if we were raised elsewhere, do not speak the language of those ancestors, are not enrolled citizens of federally-recognized tribes? You know, now being 65, I have long ago stopped losing sleep over these sorts of questions. Still, interesting blog. Wendy Rose

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Carter Revard is such a good human being that he transcends all tribal considerations. First he was NOT Osage but raised by Osage, then he was Osage -- I don't really care and the the US government says it's up to the tribes to decide for themselves.

Your question, of course, applies to everyone in many dimensions. At 74 I have become allergic to the whole idea of binaries: this versus that. Male v. female, gay v. straight, adopted v. genetic, etc. etc.

It seems more useful to just write. Period.

It's lovely to hear from you, Wendy Rose!

Prairie Mary