Friday, March 23, 2018


When Europeans discovered how to build tall world-circulating ships, moving on the great wind currents of the planet, they went to other lands, including the Americas and were startled to discover that people lived there.  But they were very different from the people they knew and therefore they misinterpreted what they found.  No one understood ecology or DNA or the interaction between the two.  With typical hubris, the explorers judged everyone in terms of themselves and were delighted that sexual congress was possible.

Much of native indigenous “racial” printed material has derived from that.  Then everyone realized that people everywhere are indigenous, living in small communities fitted to the land, each according to the local ecology: fish Indians, bison Indians, corn Indians, irrigation Indians, woodland Indians — and none of them were even from India.  Shaped by their circumstances, the individuals and — more importantly to them,  the communities — acted out dramatic stories, sometimes about warfare and other times about collaboration.  But almost all of them were near-invisible, as the growing “white” community tried to cope with the collection of Africans they had brought to this continent and used as slaves.

Europeans had developed a style of writing fiction that was based on all this.  It was “romantic,” which began in Europe, developing from the word “roman” or story.  The implication is that a romantic person was “better” in something like the same sense as religion.  It was a conversion, a transformation.

Here’s one definition:  “Definition of romantic for English Language Learners. : of, relating to, or involving love between two people. : making someone think of love : suitable for romance. : thinking about love and doing and saying things to show that you love someone.”  (Merriam-Webster)

Then later: “In the context of romantic love relationships, romance usually implies an expression of one's strong romantic love, or one's deep and strong emotional desires to connect with another person intimately or romantically.”  (Wikipedia)

“A romantic is a person who believes in romanticism, which is like a philosophy on life. Romantics love nature, old things like castles and churches, love poetry and beauty, and have a tendency to get carried away by ideas. This can be both bad and good, as most of the original romantics stood up for their beliefs and greatly helped England, but also went to help people in revolutions and got killed. They also tend to get randomly depressed, but this is because the weather and colors and beautiful things make them act differently than others.”  (Urban Dictionary)

Since 1492 “Indians” have always been everywhere, which makes sense because they were already here when Columbus showed up.  In my childhood in Portland, Oregon, there were at least two teachers at my school.  One was Mrs. Eagle who finally understood how to teach my brother to read.  (We were Scots/Irish.)  The other was Mildred Colbert, an elder in her Chinook tribe and the author of “Kutkos: Chinook Tyee,” written in 1942 and now reissued.  No one made a fuss, as they did later in Browning, MT, when the tribal people began to be teachers.  It was just how things were.  One of my classmates had a white father who spoke Chinook with Miss Colbert.  A man on our block was a student and friend of indigenous people and offered we kids each a sample of pemmican.

Teaching in Browning in the Sixties was not romantic — because life here is pretty tough, if only because of the weather — but it has been an effective anchor and measure of romanticism as I’ve tried to keep up with “Indian” literature.  And it has meant a wide exposure to “Indians” of all kinds, from the oldest leaders (Chewing Black Bone who was more than a century old in the Sixties, a Blackfeet)  He was as “exotic” and “different” from whites as possible in those times.  But the word, "exotic", is entirely inappropriate, since it refers to someone or something from far away, foreign.  Like James Mackey who lives in Cyprus, is not American, has only been on this continent in brief visits, and studied in England by mail with a Portuguese female professor who was expert on post-modern thought, barely understood on the American continent.  Yet Mackey insists on styling himself as an expert on American pan-indigenous writing.

Since most indigenous “romans” are oral and most scholarship is written, this was originally a sign that “Indians” were “dumb.”  (Those who are not like us are “dumb.”)  Then a scholarship (at first white and later more and more indigenous) grew up around this oral language.  An example is a book contemporaneous with “Smoke Signals” and praised by indigenous people in the former, “Smoothing the Ground, Essays on Native American Oral Literature” edited by Brian Swann, an Englishman teaching in Manhattan, a translator of indigenous people of many continents, highly romantic and poetic.  These books are love affairs, though they are non-fiction.

Partly what makes indigenous writing, particularly that of the Americas, so riveting for Euros and Euro-descent people is that it is so romantic, a romance with the “Other,” even if the otherness is quite diluted in young people these days — at least most of them.  Old ladies of a literary type come to reservations and strike up relationships with young men who want their brains to be respected.  But the old ladies never quite gave up control.

What I mean by “control” is someone like Adrian Jawort,  He doesn’t worry about his publisher because “Off the Path” IS his publisher and “Off the Path” is HIS, along with partners.  He is enrolled.  The stories are about “now” and they are the kind of love stories that people write in war, because the poverty war is as real as any other, but secret.  There is a kind of hatred that is everted love, a desire to dominate and inhabit, to compel respect — on the “white” side the desire to escape guilt and on the “Indian” side the necessity of survival, two sides of the “roman.”

There’s so much more to say.  Much of it should be said by the indigenous people of this continent, whether or not they look like glamorous people waiting for you to save them, as a form of salvation for YOU, demonstrating your virtue.

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