Thursday, September 03, 2015

"THE OLD BULLS SOCIETY:" American Indian lit crit

The Old Bulls' Society was the Plains Indian men that were seasoned, wise, and admired.  They didn't have to prove anything -- they just WERE powerful.  They had earned it.

In terms of today's Native Literature scholars, there probably ought to be three if I include Vine Deloria, Jr.  I'll come back to him.  

Gerald Vizenor

The two old bulls I’m thinking of are Gerald Vizenor, who is a member of the White Earth Chippewa tribe, which was once part of that troublesome diaspora of sort-of Indians who had no land, no reservation, and therefore in the Euro-way no national identity.  Now it is government-recognized but I don’t know the rules of membership for that tribe.  Vizenor is, from one point of view, Metis, which is included in the term “aboriginal” by Canadians.  Everyone sets up their own boxes.

Carter Revard

The other person I’m thinking of is Carter Revard, who was seen as a white raised by Indians until recently when he discovered Indian “blood.”  He is one of the most brilliant and generous of all those in the broad category of NA writers.  Both Vizenor and Revard are very much respected in Europe.  Revard and his wife spend a lot of time there because of his wife’s scholarly work.

In addition to “Indian” stuff, Vizenor uses a lot of post-modern philosophy and Revard is an expert on early English.  He can make delightfully raunchy explications of Chaucer and word play comes as easily to him as Gourd Dancing, the specialty of his tribal family.  In the late Nineties I was on Rez Net, a bulletin board for Indians only.  (I confess that I was there under false pretenses but some people recognized me at once, laughed, and didn’t rat me out.)  That was the time of the Flame Wars, which got a little bit mixed up with “snagging” and commodity cheese jokes.

Carter Revard kept us rounded up -- at least a little bit -- but not enough to suit Sherman Alexie, an “apple” always on the defensive so he was on Rez Net only weeks.   I don’t really know much about Vizenor’s work.  I haven’t thought much about Cree Chippewa until lately.  My focus rule now is Blackfeet or rez resident on the Blackfeet rez only.  (I left RezNet before I was thrown out.  I asked about going back now and they laughed like Napi and said, “Hell, no!”  No matter.  I’m too old for snagging.)

When it came to AIM, Vizenor was a dissenter, maybe because his Swedish mother was peaceful and maybe because his Anishanabe father was murdered when he was two years old, so that he has a high aversion to violence.  But his attempts to criticize them led to death threats.  He has been a bureaucrat, a reporter, and an international educator posted to China for a year.  Thirty books to his credit.  Be aware that VizJim (Mackay) of Wikipedia has pinned his credentials on Vizenor and dominates the man’s Wikipedia entry.  Vizenor has a lot to say about mixed blood people.  I do not know what he thinks of European citizens of Cyprus who have never been to the USA.

by Arnold Krupat

I would put Arnold Krupat in the company of these other two distinguished scholars, except that Krupat is white.  He attended Yale and teaches at Sarah Lawrence.  I don’t see any fiction or autobiography on his list of books.  I haven’t read them, so I don’t know how much of himself he slipped into his scholarly lit crit, but his emphasis IS on lit crit and not on his experience as an Indian.

Vizenor, of course, would challenge the very word “Indian.”  His contribution has been to question the assumed, much as Vine Deloria, Jr. and Ward Churchill have done -- the former of them genetically tribal and the latter attached to a tribe but without genetics.  These academically defined men, all of whom have been professors in major white universities, are not in the least what the tribal people on a reservation “look like.” In fact, I know very few who even read such rarified books or even Vizenor’s Napi-type stories.

But things like existentialism and post-modern theory have been -- well, I could say either “mined” or “cherry-picked” -- by politically active genomically entitled tribal people to embolden them to demand justice.  A reservation in the WWII years and immediately afterwards was a culture of compliance, still nearly colonial.  Those who could not be obedient, self-medicated with alcohol.  At least that’s one way of looking at it.  Vietnam set them free but taught them to use pot.  Or heroin.  These sorts of iconoclastic ideas have not created any new heroes in the larger culture other than AIM, which began as a city movement.  Nor do they really appeal to those who are now beginning to succeed as ranchers and small-town entrepreneurs, nor to the comfortable academic culture-definers.

Vizenor, Revard and Krupat are retirement age and soon will slip over the time horizon.  Their “type” is subtly related to a parallel generation of anthropologists who investigated the range of tribal indigenous people tribe-by-tribe without pressing them into the pan-Indian mold. Those who define “Indians” as “vanishing” are themselves vanishing, just as publishing has done and the academic world shows signs of doing.

The likes of Adrian Jawort and Sterling Holy White Mountain are stepping up now.  They are Millennial, MFA,  “Indian Country Today,YouTube.  They publish their own anthologies.  Only the alert and initiated know they’re what's happening.  I expect Revard knows about all this, partly because his descendent, Robert Warrior, is continuing NA scholarship in a hip and participatory way at the University of Illinois.  Sterling is one of Warrior’s Tweet followers.  Both stand in the hybrid-category “American Indian Literary Nationalism,” which is the title of an award-winning book.  I think they mean tribal sovereignty.

Prof. Robert Warrior

Recently the fiction dimension of NA experience has migrated to the movies like “Winter in the Blood,” and “Jimmy P.  “ which are produced by white people.  The latter film, produced and directed by a Frenchman, does not depend upon post-colonial political theory, but on psychoanalysis.  One could argue that “Winter in the Blood” is simply an indigenous Western.  At least it’s closer to contemporary experience.

“Contemporary experience” is always receding towards that time horizon that paradoxically erases old conflicts at the same time that it reveals new ways of thinking.  But not everyone has the awareness to keep track.  The academic experts are better at the past than the future.

1 comment:

northern nick said...

Well done.