Sunday, December 25, 2016


When “publishing” was first devised as a category of commerce, it was meant to be something like becoming landed gentry, that is, a source of income that didn’t mean having to go work in a field.  The publisher harnessed the energy of writers rather than horses or oxen but tried to make everyone believe that it was an honor to be published, like the duke awarding you a medal at the Downton Abbey Fair.  To make books saleable objects they provided elegant bindings, as though announcing a man’s identity by engaging a bespoke tailor.  

But now publishing is quite different.  Maybe I can make the point with a joke I learned in seminary but could never use in a sermon.  A traveler checked into his motel room and looked around.  There was no television for his favorite kind of movie, the kind he couldn’t watch at home, but there was a curious little slot in the wall, evidently lined with some kind of fur or fuzz, and about as high off the ground as his zipper.  It was labeled, “your wife away from home,” and it appeared to be a little like those coin-operated “magic fingers” that make the bed vibrate.

The man had never seen anything like this before and was hesitant, but it seemed harmless.  So he stuck his dick in there and put a quarter in the money slot.  

In a second he was feeling the most awful pain in his penis, making him scream and struggle, but couldn’t pull out until finally the traitorous slot let him go and he staggered back, bleeding.  There on the end of his dick was sewn a shirt button.

Publishing is the equivalent of sewing a button on the end of your cherished writing.  A misunderstanding.

The foofaraw about who can write about indigenous Americans is starting up again.  This time it’s about Joseph Boyden who is basically presented as an historical writer who has tribal blood from early days.  A representative critic, Hayden King says, “The themes that push this narrative are a portrayal of Haudenosaunee peoples as antagonistic, the privileging of the Jesuit perspective, and a reinforcing of old story-telling tropes about Indigenous people. These themes work together to convey the message that the disappearance of the Huron and the loss of their orenda was destined to happen.” “Hayden King is Anishinaabe from Beausoleil First Nation on Gchi’mnissing in Huronia, Ontario.”  

I notice two things:  Beausoliel is a French word and both the author and his critic are handsome, prospering young men.  France is the home of the post-colonial thought that is so valued in academic circles.  I don’t know how to say “beautiful sun” in Haudenosaunee or what the cultural implications of the phrase are.  I think there are some in French, like the “Sun King.”

A friend who blogs as whisky prajer (preacher) at sent me a copy of “The Orenda” months ago and I confess I read half of it, found it was work, and set it aside for a rest, which hasn’t ended yet.  It has the markers of young men’s plot forces, like brave and competent men having to manage supernaturally gifted and rebellious young women (Buffy is as tough as the mythical Indian brave.) while contending with male v. male competition.  “Game of Thrones” stuff, suitably grim, a marker of serious young men with educations who want to explore and hope to be significant.

These following remarks are meant to be ironic rather than disapproving, but they are thoughts that are painful.  I’m after what’s in the wall, the mechanisms of flesh-based sewing, the source of the button, and where the coins go.  

Haudenosaunee and all other indigenous “writing” in America is oral and can only be written in print by using phonetics.  This must be done by someone with enough education (assimilation) to know how.  Novels by indigenous people are usually written by people using English or French and educated enough to compose a story in the Euro way: presenting problem, rising action, crisis and resolution.  The writer must be able to present the assumptions of one culture, dominated after first encounter, to the dominating (reading) culture without baffling or alienating the reader.  

This is much helped by a religio-philosophical Romantic movement in Europe (esp. Germany) that gave high value to the idea of an immanental God and the subsidiary idea that “natural” people are closer to God.  But books about the indigenous often have a character who is a “Blue Duck,” unnatural and therefore evil.  He’s often Machiavellian and enjoys the practices of torture, as in the Spanish Inquisition except that he is assumed to serve the Devil.

On the other hand is a pattern established at the World Fair of 1897, a sort of “pop-up” United Nations in Chicago that celebrated what they considered to be “religion,” meaning institutional or organized (euphemism).  Simon Pokagon was an activist Potawatomi who grew up in Michigan.  He made a lot of extravagant claims about his education and his eloquence sounded as though it were influenced by a progressive Victorian Christian lady, probably his lawyer's wife.  This set a sort of criterion for popular writing by redeemed “Indians.”  Pokagon is worth researching.

So publishing was done by colonials in pursuit of righteousness, in the bourgeois interest of making money by flattering readers who respond to European “Christian” values.  Venture capitalists are making objects for sale by using paper, ink, and fine bindings to capture Euro-type stories in a Euro language.  The ethnic origins of the authors are meant to be sales points.  In fact, these days what is sold is often more the persona of the author than the content of the story.  This is not just true of Indians but has been true from Robinson Crusoe and “Fanny” forward.

Indigenous authors, those who write in a Euro language for a publisher who sells to American readers passionately ambivalent about books by “Indians”, assume that they are selling well because they are writing about a privileged culture or perhaps a targeted and suffering culture.  They feel that inheritance is the only way to tell authentic NA books, thus excluding “Laughing Boy,” “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” “When the Legends Die,” and a host of other beloved examples.  They feel that publishing those books about NA’s will exclude them the true indigenous, as though there were a quota for books about indigenous people, like the quota for immigrants.  Indeed, this culture treats the original inhabitants as immigrants.  (“Quota” and “quantum” come from Latin.  Military originally.  Something like a tax or tithe on a conquered community.)

Quotas are a European idea, as were the original lists of members of groups of people traveling together and speaking the same language (possibly at heart an extended family that included captured women and children).  They were written on paper, documenting what became the whole original legal membership of a tribe only a little more than a century ago.  Unverified, because unverifiable. (Then, of course, after establishing membership in a tribe, the tribe must be recognized by the feds, so it’s not much use to be a certified member of an unrecognized tribe.)  Provenance is a Euro term of value that originally developed to describe the worth and origins of domestic animals.  Today it often describes the value of art or antiques.  “Provenance” is also a Latin word, meaning place of origin (Hereford cows come from Hereford, England), but most tribal people have been displaced.

On the Blackfeet reservation there are two cousins about the same age, both male, both intelligent, good-looking and well-connected.  One stays in the state and takes video classes (oral culture).  He “writes” a vid about rez dogs that everyone loves.  He is “enrolled.” so should have gotten some money from this status last week.  The other one goes farther afield, is not enrolled but has an MFA and is recognized as an outstanding writer of the “Indian” kind.  No tribal payout for him.  It’s always money in the end.  So which one is the one a publisher wants?  No one publishes vids.  Nor do outsiders edit vids, but they are often group projects.

Adrian Jawort is the guy who gets it.  “Off the Path Press” is his publishing house.  If indigenous writers want to be published in all their aspects and worldviews, there must be indigenous-owned publishing houses, not Manhattan publishing houses owned by German soup corporations who have 19th century druid ideas about indigenous people.

I’m going to pursue this a little farther.  I’ve done a lot of writing about Blackfeet people and I’m going to continue, but they may not be Blackfeet as you know them or as they think of themselves.  I refrain from being published, since I can blog for free without being edited.  Anyhow, I have no appendage suitable for attaching buttons.

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