PAB Entry #4 (Vizenor)

Vizenor, Gerald. “The Ruins of Representation: Shadow Survivance and the Literature of                               Dominance.” American Indian Quarterly 17.1 (1993): 7-30. Web. 25 October 2014.


Gerald Vizenor, prolific Anishinaabe scholar and writer

In reading Gerald Vizenor, it’s important to consider not what Vizenor is writing on the page, but rather what he is doing or demonstrating on the page. Vizenor is most well-known in his literary scholarship for the introduction of “trickster hermeneutics,” which he defines throughout multiple works, but also employs in his own works (hence the difficulty most readers experience with a Vizenor piece). Understanding Vizenor requires familiarity with his broader work, as his ideas are best understood through reading and connecting other ideas he has left, like clues, in various publications. To aid in my own understanding of Vizenor’s “The Ruins of Representation: Shadow Survivance and the Literature of Dominance,” I also had to read quite a bit about Vizenor’s life and scholarship, and one of the best companion sources I’ve found is David J. Carlson’s (professor of English at California State University) 2011 article “Trickster Hermeneutics and the Postindian Reader: Gerald Vizenor’s Constitutional Praxis.” Carlson’s article on Vizenor is particularly helpful because of the “Vizenorian Glossary” he offers to readers.

Using Carlson’s Vizenorian glossary and my own understanding of how Vizenor is using these terms in “The Ruins of Representation,” I provide an explanation of terms under each of the passages from Vizenor’s article, in order to understand the central purpose of “The Ruins of Representation.”  However, I must point out that these definitions are not static definitions, for as Carlson explains in his work, the meanings of Vizenor’s terms change according to the piece at hand and even change within a piece, depending on the context of the paragraph or page.

In this particular work, Vizenor is ultimately presenting a defense for the use of postmodern theory in reading and studying NA materials, and really, is arguing that postmodernism is actually helpful to Native American writers and scholars who seek to claim and continue their survival and way of being in the academy and in the larger world. Vizenor opens his article by providing his basic argument of his article:

The postmodern turn in literature and cultural studies is an invitation to the ruins of representation; the invitation uncovers traces of tribal survivance, trickster discourse, and the remanence of intransitive shadows.” Furthermore, “the traces are shadows, shadows, shadows, the natural coherence of archshadows, visions, and memories in heard stories. The postmodern shadows counter paracolonial histories, dickered testimonies, simulations, and the banal essence of consumerism; at the same time, trickster pronouns, transformations, and the shimmers of tribal consciousness are heard in literature . (7)

To help readers understand this point a little more clearly:

Ruins of representation:  the word “representation” refers to the postmodern term from Jean Baudrillard’s work Simulacra and Simulation, in which “representation” is not reality, but a representation of reality. Vizenor is implying then that postmodernism is a theory through which we can see through representations of the Native American, or see the ruins of representations of Native Americans.

Survivance: Carlson points out that Vizenor has defined survivance in his full-length work Manifest Manners, to mean “‘the right of succession or reversion of an estate, and in that sense, the estate of native survivancy’” (Carlson 16). However, Carlson also points out that Vizenor has intentionally used survivance in different contexts, with different connotations elsewhere. In this sense, we can perhaps understand Vizenor to mean that the application of postmodern theory to NA materials can help to uncover the return to a tribal understanding, or the return of power to NA communities.

Trickster discourse: this phrase also relates to Vizenor’s trickster hermeneutics; this is a discourse that is intentionally subversive and intentionally difficult to statically define. Trickster discourse also aids in or is a mechanism of the survival (physical and spiritual) of Native American communities and writers.

Traces and shadows: Throughout his article, Vizenor quotes and discusses the work of NA writers and scholars he admires, and who he believes captures the “traces” and “shadows” of “memories” and “visions” of “natural reason” (7), which he also relates to tribal consciousness.

Tribal Consciousness: as mentioned above, “natural reason” and tribal consciousness do relate to one another. As Carlson explains, “natural reason…is essentially form of dialectical thinking, the kind of thinking that Vizenor seems to believe characterizes traditional tribal consciousness and the trickster discourse that re-expresses it today. For Vizenor, the natural reason of tribal consciousness involves a rejection of the premises of formal logic” (Carlson 18). Tribal consciousness then, as Vizenor uses it in this context, postmodernity can help to reveal the evolving epistemology of Native Americans, through literature written by Native Americans.

Throughout the remainder of “The Ruins of Representation,” Vizenor defends and demonstrates the use of postmodern theory in NA literature, chiefly by weaving back and forth for the remainder of his essay in the following manner:

  • defending and explaining postmodern scholarship through quoting a number of postmodern scholars, such as Linda Hutcheon and Jean-Francois Lyotard, and making obvious reference to Simulacra and Simulation;
  • critiquing the social sciences (history, anthropology, and even NA literature) and particular scholars, such as Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat, for employing a structuralist approach in the study of NA materials;
  • discussing and praising NA writers who represent true tribal consciousness, such as Luther Standing Bear, William Apess, N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, Paula Gunn Allen, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Louis Owens, and A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff.

Though Vizenor’s work is difficult to understand and certainly can’t be read in a vacuum, he offers a compelling view of how postmodern theory can be appropriately applied to studying NA literature, particularly contemporary NA literature.


For more on Vizenor, see:

Carlson, David J. “Trickster Hermeneutics and the Postindian Reader: Gerald Vizenor’s Constitutional             Praxis.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 2011: 13-47.  JSTOR Journals. Web. 1 Nov. 2014.

PAB Entry #4 (Allen)

Allen, Paula Gunn. Introduction and “Kochinnenako in Academe: Three Approaches in Interpreting a Keres          Indian Tale.” The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston:              Beacon P, 1992. 1-7 (Introduction), 222-244. Print.

Keres-Laguna Author of The Sacred Hoop

Paula Gunn Allen

In her introduction to the updated version of full-length work, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, Paula Gunn Allen explains the premise behind the “Sacred Hoop,” or, as Allen’s grandmother once said, “‘Life is a circle, and everything has a place in it’” (1). Allen uses the analogy of the sacred hoop in order to introduce a discussion to traditional American Indian epistemology and to tell her story of becoming a Native American studies scholar. Allen explains that she transitioned from creative writing to teaching in the then-new NA Studies Program at University of New Mexico in the late seventies, then received her P.h.D in the field, and since that time has taught a range of courses in the field, including history, literature, women’s studies, traditional sciences, spirituality, and philosophy. (To note, Gunn sadly passed in 2008.) The introduction to Allen’s work is extremely helpful, as she delineates seven major themes or truths in NA communities that have influenced her work:

  • “Indians and spirits are always found together;”
  • “Indians endure” in two senses of the word: survival and longevity;
  • The tribal lifestyles of most NA communities, historically, are “never patriarchal” and most often are gynocentric—this is a major point that Gunn wants readers to understand, and is direct in her belief of the benefits to this kind of society, for gynocratic elements “make understanding tribal cultures essential to all responsible activists who seek life-affirming social change that can result in a real decrease in human and planetary destruction and in a real increase in quality of life for all inhabitants of planet earth” (2);
  • The genocide of Native Americans “was mostly about patriarchal fear of gynocracy” (3);
  • “There is such a thing as American Indian literature,” and we can divide it into traditional literature (ceremonial and popular works) and genre literature (contemporary in nature, as in poetry, short fiction, novel, drama, autobiography, and mixed genre) (3);
  • Western perspectives and studies of the NA tribal system are “erroneous at base because they view tribalism from the cultural bias of patriarchy and thus either discount, degrade, or conceal gynocratic features or recontextualize those features so that they will appear patriarchal” (4);
  • The sacred ways of the NA peoples are similar to other pacifist cultures on the planet, such as the Tibetan culture and tribal peoples in Southeast Asia (5).

To conclude her introduction, she briefly explains her methodology and an essential point for readers to remember: “my method is somewhat western and somewhat Indian. I draw from each, and in the end I often wind up with a reasonably accurate picture of truth…I would caution readers and students of American Indian life and culture to remember that Indian America does not in any sense function in the same ways or from the same assumptions that western systems do” (7).

In the seminal essay “Kochinnenako in Academe: Three Approaches to Interpreting a Keres Indian Tale” (222-244), Allen demonstrates what a tribal feminism theory looks like, and how we can apply it to NA materials. To start, Allen explains how she came to synthesize feminist theory and tribal epistemology, noting that while it was an uneasy melding, she believes that “both areas were interdependent and mutually significant to a balanced pedagogy of American Indian studies,” and therefore she explains, “if I am dealing with feminism, I approach it from a strongly tribal posture, and when I am dealing with American Indian literature…I approach it from a strongly feminist one” (222). Allen argues that a feminist approach is absolutely essential to the teaching of NA studies, because “the area has been dominated by paternalistic, male-dominant modes of consciousness since the first writings about American Indians in the fifteenth century. This male bias has seriously skewed our understanding of tribal life and philosophy, distorting it in ways that are sometimes obvious but are most often invisible” (222).

In this essay, Allen presents multiple versions of a traditional Keres of Laguna/Acoma Pueblo Yellow Woman story, “Sh-ah-cock and Miochin, or Battle of the Seasons,” which tells the story of Kochinnenako (Yellow Woman), who is the fulcrum between personified Winter, or Sh-ah-cock, and personified summer, or Miochin. Allen gives the version that was first translated by John Gunn (who is her maternal uncle, but who translates and situates the story in a western narrative structure), and then gives the traditional Keres version (as Allen herself translates it). She then provides three different interpretations of the Yellow Woman story and Kochinnenako’s significance in those stories —a traditional Keres interpretation, a modern feminist interpretation, and a feminist-tribal interpretation—in order to demonstrate the immense divide between all three interpretations.

She points out that a western interpretation of the story assumes that “conflict is basic to human existence” (hence John Gunn’s use of the word battle in translated title), and that a western feminist interpretation assumes that “women are essentially powerless” or constantly undermined (hence the need for feminist theory); the feminist-tribal interpretation does not rest on either of these assumptions, and is therefore radically different (237). A tribal-feminist interpretation of this Yellow Woman story would be based around the knowledge that Kochinnenako, or Yellow Woman, represents ritual agency (for the story is not just a story—it is story that is ritual and sacred), and “it is through her ritual agency that the orderly, harmonious transfer of primacy between the Summer and Winter people is accomplished” (238). Additionally, Allen also asserts the political implications of the narrative structure of John Gunn’s translation of the story, which are extremely problematic. Gunn’s translated narrative uses a typical western structure, with a rise, climax, and resolution, but Allen points out that the true Yellow Woman stories are actually “egalitarian” in structure, and to translate or read them in any other way is a further act of colonization (241).

Ultimately, Allen ends her chapter with a discussion of the significance of tribal narratives and of tribal women’s lives in those narratives; Allen urges readers to understand that the analysis she offers of this Yellow Woman story is not just an attempt to understand Yellow Woman’s place in Keres life, but “is about how a people engage themselves as a people within the spiritual cosmos and in an ordered and proper way that bestows the dignity of each upon all with careful respect, folkish humor, and ceremonial delight…It is about propriety, mutuality, and the dynamics of socioenvironmental change” (244). These elements are the fundamental elements of a tribal-feminist analysis.


PAB Entry #3 (Ruppert)

Ruppert, James. “The Old Wisdom: Introducing Native American Materials.” Teaching the Literatures of             Early America. MLA Options in Teaching Series. Ed. Carla Mulford. New York: MLA, 1999. 11-26.              Print.

In his article “The Old Wisdom: Introducing Native American Materials,” Ruppert presents a thorough overview of the issues that arise when first introducing Native American oral materials to a classroom of students unfamiliar with Native American materials and epistemology. To begin, Ruppert shares three points to keep in mind:

  • “an exploration of cultural values and worldviews seems essential;”
  • “the dynamics of possession, resistance, trade, and war, central to the colonial attempt to define the uniqueness of the American experience;”
  • “Native American oral literary traditions can challenge and illuminate the variety of human creative and literary expression that forms the groundwork of all meaning construction” (11).

As Ruppert notes, it is impossible to provide a complete overview of all Native American oral materials and traditions in one article, as there were well over three hundred different tribal cultures and over two hundred languages in the United States during the period of European exploration. Therefore, he divides his overview into these useful (though still broad) categories: Genre, Spectrum of Oral Narrative Types, Functions of Oral Narratives, Performance, Oral Style, Narrative Expectations for Typical Readers Today, Finding Meaning, and Historic Native American Materials.


Many NA oral objects of study are available in written form, and Ruppert notes that the tradition can be divided into the following genres: oral narratives, oratory, song, and religious expressions. However, he points out that these genres are anything but mutually exclusive. Interestingly, Ruppert points out that the genres of fiction, poetry, and drama—because of their relative contemporary nature in the long history of NA materials—are not as useful in studying the long-established epistemologies and cultures of Native America. The author additionally stresses that NA oral materials are often misrepresented as past or dead, and he chooses to break that academic tradition by stressing the significant, ongoing tradition of oral materials in still existing communities.

Ruppert briefly explains the following genres:

  • Oral narratives can consist of sacred or secular stories, and that designation determines who in the tribe (or who outside of the tribe) can hear which stories, at what age, and what time of the year.
  • Oratory, particularly in the form of historical and political speeches by historical or important leaders in the community, has recently generated particular interest in the academy, but has always been important to the NA community.
  • Songs can be also be of sacred or secular importance to a tribe, and many NA tribal songs in the past have been mis-anthologized as poetry, thus downplaying “the musical dimension” and context of the song (14).
  • Religious Expression, as Ruppert notes, can “range from dance dramas staged as public ritual” to the “personal vision songs of the Papago” (14). While oral narratives, oratory, and songs can be sacred or religious in nature, religious expression (as an oral genre) deals strictly with the sacred rites, rituals, and prayers of certain tribes; much of this particular genre outsiders of the tribe are not privy to.

To complicate issues related to genre further, the author rightly points out that the above genres were established by western scholars and academics; Native Americans can and have defined their own genres within their own communities. For example, tribal distant-time stories are one genre, and tribal historical narratives are another.

Spectrum of Oral Narrative Types

Ruppert provides a useful figure in this particular section of his article, which helps students the “spacious reach” of NA oral narratives (14):

Origin Era               Transformation Era             Historical Era
Distant Time    Movement toward social forms        Personal and communal memory
(Flux)                                                                          (Fixed Natures)

As Ruppert explains, on the left is the Origin Era, which contain origin stories, in which things are constantly in “creative flux, where the essential nature of things can change. It is usually inhabited by characters who are both animal and humans” (15). During the Transformation Era, things in the world become more “fixed and stable,” but “the relations among humans, animals, and the spiritual powers of the world have not yet been formalized” (15). Stories in the Transformation Era define how humans can and should “behave towards animals and spiritual powers.” The Historical Era contains stories and memories from the near-distant past, and “their function is to carry on the process of developing and defining the nature of people’s experience in the world” (16).

Perhaps the most important point to note is that “In Native American communities…the distinction is made not between the truth and falsehood but between distant time and recent time. The world was different back then; different rules governed the interactions among beings” (16). This means that students should not understand NA oral materials in terms of a western epistemological understanding of “cultural progress from an animal world to human culture or of a fall from an idealized paradise” (16-17), but rather as materials that explain how the world has transitioned into what it is today.

Functions of Oral Narratives

As he explains, the typical western narratives (parables, fables, fairy tales) are poor choices for comparison to which NA materials, particularly because of function. NA stories have three main functions in their communities, according to Ruppert, which include entertainment, instruction, and the creation of “harmony between a community and the sacred processes of the world” (17).

Ruppert writes that in stories, “vital elements of a worldview are also explored,” as “social wisdom is part of the instructional function” (18). Additionally, stories would often incorporate useful information on traditional practices, geography, or significant natural phenomena. However, the hardest concept of narratives for western audiences to understand is that storytelling in the community “heal, reestablish spiritual-human balance, and foster hunting luck” (19); therefore, the act of storytelling, in and of itself, is necessary and vital for the community.


Ruppert addresses the fact that when oral materials appear on the page, audiences are only experiencing part of the piece. An entire oral piece of any kind always includes the aspect of performance, meaning every piece is only performed in a certain way, by a certain member of a certain clan, in a certain part of the year; we miss these essential elements then when oral materials are translated into text.

Oral Style

In older anthologized translations of oral materials, Ruppert points out that the element of style was often left out. While there are many elements of style to consider across cultures, he notes that repetition (particularly in sets of fours or fives), as well as questions, indirect address, and code switching are just some common elements that occur across many oral materials.

Narrative Expectations for Typical Readers Today

Many modern, western readers tend to rely on and expect elements of realism (particularly in terms of chronology), reasonable motivation on the part of characters, and the typical elements of plot; but these conventions don’t really hold in NA oral materials. Ruppert reports that when teaching these materials to his students, he “must talk as much about what the stories are not as about what they are” (22).

Finding Meaning

Due to the difficult challenges western students and readers face, Ruppert offers the metaphor he gives his students when considering NA oral objects of study. Storytelling can be thought of “as a map across a narrative terrain,” which “consists of the diverse culturally moral subjects encoded by the story.” The storyteller then essentially chooses the path of the narrative, and “as one explores the motion of the narrative, one’s intent should be to understand the oral communal goals of the narrative” (23). This metaphor shows that readers have to be willing to follow the storyteller, and think beyond individual understanding and meaning to what the story may mean to the entire tribe.

Historic Native American Materials

Ruppert ends his article by focusing on historical publications, such as speeches, autobiographies, tribal histories, and sermons, which can show readers “the confluence of Native American and European values” (23). What is important to understand is that though these historic materials may seem “old” to Euro-American students and readers, these historical oral documents are actually some of the most contemporary materials to most NA tribes. Some examples of these kinds of materials are the works of Samson Occom, William Apess, Elias Boudinot, and George Copway, which Ruppert (and other scholars) demonstrate reveal “a complex interface between two competing value systems, two forms of communication, and two worldviews” (23).

To close his article, Ruppert stresses that there is no simple, easy approach or strategy to introducing NA oral materials to a class of unfamiliar readers and students: the histories, epistemologies, and even styles are completely unexpected and vastly different from western texts. Nevertheless (and I wholeheartedly agree with Ruppert here), “using these materials may take a little more time in preparation, but the rewards are great” (24).

PAB Entry #3 (Murray)

Murray, David. “Translation and Mediation.” The Cambridge Companion to Native American               Literature. Eds. Joy Porter and Kenneth M. Roemer. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. 69-83. Print.

Catlin, George. See-non-ty-a, an Iowa Medicine Man. 1844/45. Paul Mellon Collection at the National Gallery of Art.  Ioway Cultural Institute. Web. 20 October 2014.

The Western notion of the Noble Savage, captured before he disappears. This notion was a common one, and salvage ethnography in the 19th century popularized it. See-non-ty-a, an Iowa Medicine Man by George Catlin, in 1844/45. Oil on canvas. Paul Mellon Collection at the National Gallery of Art.

In this article, Murray discusses the long-standing problematic nature of studying Native American materials in North America. Murray opens his article by explaining that the very concept of a Native American “literature,” separate from other literatures, is unusual, and should cause us to question “what is at stake for outsiders and insiders in establishing lines of difference between Indian and other literatures, as this is related not only to larger questions of cultural difference but also to the independent and sovereign political status of Indians” (69). For example, one obvious problem with defining Native American literature as authentically Native American is in the textual nature of literature; to most outsiders to the community, the “original Indian culture,” or “forms of expressions of pre-contact,” is chiefly thought of as an oral tradition—not a textual tradition (69). Of course, as he points out, if we believed that Native American texts were somehow any less authentically Native American than the oral tradition, that would be to believe that there is “only one way of being Indian,” which is of course, untrue (69). As Murray explains then, “we could say that in reading Indian literature we are always dealing with a process of mediation and translation.” This is the paradox of authenticity, or of trying to label or define Native American materials or objects of study. Citing Arnold Krupat, in his 1996 work The Turn to the Native: Studies in Criticism and Culture, Murray insists that we must understand that all Native American “’verbal performances’” (oral, textualized, written, performed, etc.) are hybrid, meaning “‘none are ‘pure’ or, strictly speaking, autonomous. Native American written literature in particular is an intercultural practice’” (70).

Throughout his work, Murray focuses on the issues of linguistic and cultural translation (or more so, mediation) of Native American objects of study, beginning with oral traditions and moving onto more contemporary Indian writing and representation. The author presents a succinct yet sound summary of nineteenth century “salvage ethnography” (70), or the western Romantic notion of preserving “disappearing” cultures. In nineteenth century salvage ethnography, the chief concern was recording or capturing authentic Native American expressions and materials, to the most scientific degree possible; of course, what resulted was Western understandings of the authentic Native American, which led to the still existent notion that all tribes share universal values, beliefs, traditions, practices, etc. This westernized understanding of the “authentic” Native American, materials, and world views has left us today with concepts such as the Noble Savage, the idea that all Native Americans care more about the environment than any other group, and with New Age spiritual or aesthetic cultural appropriations,  often referred to as “’white shamanism’” (72).

Contemporary Indian writing and representation brings yet more issues to mediate, even though we have now entered a period of Native American writers and artists authoring their own works. However, as Murray points out, readers and scholars must consider not just authorship, but “the conditions of production and circulation of any text” (74). Native American autobiographies cannot simply be read from a postcolonial lens, but rather should be understood as “sometimes undecidable, multifaceted, and perhaps multivoiced”—written not only for other members of the tribe, but also for wider western society, yet also as a critique of western society, etc. (76). Additionally, in an age and country where English is now the predominant language for all, and Native Americans live in all kinds of areas (not just reservations or tribal land), is another degree of authenticity lost? Murray cites a number of Indian scholars and writers, including Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird, Gerald Vizenor, Simon Ortiz, Louis Owens, Craig Womack, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, and Jace Weaver, who all argue for different ways in which to recognize, identify, and privilege authentic Native American expression and materials.

As Murray humorously but truthfully concludes his article, “what we see, then, is a very complicated situation in which every term seems contested” (80). Ultimately, Murray sides with Louis Owens, who writes in his 1992 work Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel, that there is a possibility of “‘a richly hybridized dialogue aimed at those few with privileged knowledge—the traditionally educated Indian reader—as well as those with claims to a privileged discourse—the Eurocentric reader. One effect of this hybridization is subversive: the American Indian writer places the Eurocentric reader on the outside, as ‘other,’ while the Indian reader…is granted, for the first time, a privileged position’” (82). As a modern reader living in a relentlessly globalized world—where the exchange, appropriation and misappropriation, co-opting and remixing of cultures moves at the speed of a Twitter post–I must agree with Owens and consequently Murray. As Murray quotes Owens in the last line of his article, the unavoidable compromise is “‘in giving voice to the silent we unavoidably give voice to the forces that conspire to effect that silence’” (82).

PAB Entry #2 (Womack)

Womack 1999, U of Minnesota Press

Cover Image, Red on Red

Womack, Craig. Introduction: American Indian Literary Self-                         Determination. Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism.           Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1999. Nook File. 9-30.  

In his polemical book Red on Red, Womack calls for an approach to Native literature that is Native, and more specifically, tribally-based, in the belief that in fact, “there is such a thing as a Native perspective and that seeking it out is a worthwhile endeavor” (12). In the introduction to his work, Womack actively defends his rejection of postmodernist approaches and theory (though he does not write in a “rejectionist mode”), as he is deeply suspicious of postmodern views of history, noting “it is way too premature for native scholars to deconstruct history when we haven’t yet constructed it” (11). Womack insists that a Native American literary critical framework and modes of production must continue to grow, evolve, grow, and avoid exclusion and prescriptiveness; he also insists that it is necessary for Native scholars to analyze Native texts, in order to establish a Native literary nationalism, for “without Native American literature, there is no American canon” (14). Womack employs assertive language throughout his introduction that may be difficult for some scholars to understand, particularly when he writes, “Understand this is not an argument for inclusion. I am saying this with all of the bias I can muster that our American canon, the Native literary canon of the Americans, predates their American canon”; in other words, Womack sees American literature and Native American literature “as two separate canons” (14), with different epistemologies, axiologies, and methodologies.

Womack’s work leaves readers and critics like myself with a serious question we must consider: as a white American scholar, do I have the ability or knowledge to appropriately study Native American Literature? I agree with Womack’s distrust of postmodern theory and approaches, and I even support the move towards separating the Native American canon from the American canon. But, as Womack believes there is a great need for Native scholars analyzing Native texts to explore a Native consciousness, we must consider: do non-Native scholars have the ability to appropriately analyze and participate in Native American literary scholarship? If we do not at the current time—particularly if we have only relied on the discourse established not by Native scholars, writers, or activists, but by white scholars—how do we proceed? Where do we start?

PAB Entry #2 (Hollenberg)

SAILs Cover Image

Studies in American Indian Literatures

Hollenberg, Alexander. “Speaking with the Separatists: Craig Womack           and the Relevance of Literary History.” Studies in American Indian             Literatures 2009: 1-17. JSTOR Journals. Web. 15 Sept. 2014.

In his defense of Womack’s work Red on Red and his theory of a literary separatism, Hollenberg argues that Womack’s work must be seen through the lens of literary relevance, or “what it really means for a literary history to be relevant” (2). Hollenberg—a white, Canadian scholar with a full understanding of the scary implications of “separatism”—argues that we should understand Womack’s work as a call for enriching and true dialogue, not as a schism between white and/or multiculturalist scholars and Native scholars/writers, but rather as (as Womack intends) a Creek sovereignty in which “a Creek community…defines and evaluates itself internally by reimagining its own borders” (2).

Hollenberg argues we should understand that Womack is arguing for the hybridity of Creek identity, in which a Creek individual exists within the Creek community and outside of the Creek community, which suggests a “permeability” of borders that should make clear (since a Creek individual exists in multiple communities outside of the Creeks) that Womack is not arguing for ethnic exclusivism, but instead for a Native consciousness that is “separate yet integrative” (5). Through this, the Creeks can create a literary history and theory “that speaks for and, even more importantly, to itself” (2). Hollenberg acknowledges this view is difficult for pluralists, multiculturalists, and postmodernists to swallow, and in his essay addresses the multiculturalist scholars Arnold Krupat and Elvira Pulitano’s reactions to Womack’s work. Hollenberg argues that their criticism of Womack’s work, along with the criticism coming from a number of multiculturalists and postmodernists, falls exactly into the trap Womack warned critics to avoid.

The biggest issue that Womack (and consequently, Hollenberg) point out is that Native American literature should not be used simply “as an instrument of canonical subversion—as if it exists purely to disrupt and defamiliarize the established discourse” (Hollenberg 5). In the cultural and civil rights movements of the sixties, seventies, and even into the early eighties, critics often used literature written by minorities (Native American, African American, Asian American, etc.) as a new lens through which to view and destabilize the center, or the established canon. However, Native American texts (oral or written) have existed far longer than the formal European/American literary canon, and even longer than European contact; in this view, even a cosmopolitan perspective, such as the one adapted by Pulitano in her criticism of Womack, falls short, because “it inevitably presumes that the Indigenous is always in a marginal position” (Hollenberg 7). As Hollenberg questions, “why, we must ask, is the Native subject always first constructed as a borrower in cosmopolitan criticism?,” or, why do “critics unwittingly posit the Native self as always victim” (7)?

Ultimately, Hollenberg fully supports Womack’s approach, and encourages others to support it as well, for “the point of reading a Native literary history is not to feel like a better multiculturalist (comfortable in one’s recognition of difference) but to locate for one’ self the capacity to dialogue and, also, to accept the possibility of not possessing the central and controlling perspective” (8). Hollenberg’s argument then gives me, and other white scholars like me, a direction for how to proceed in consideration of Womack’s work: we are the outsiders, and the traditional methodologies we’ve used to analyze literature won’t necessarily work or be appropriate in analyzing Native American texts. The question remains: what will an Indigenous-centered methodology look like (Womack’s methodology being one example), and how can a white scholar learn it?

PAB Entry #1 (Treuer)

Treuer, David. “The Cultural Twilight.” University of California in Los Angeles. UCLA American Indian      Studies Center, Los Angeles, CA. Gathering Native Scholars and Artists–A Celebration of Forty Years. 22      Oct. 2009. Conference Speaker.

David Treur, Author of Rez Life

David Treuer speaking on his book, Rez Life, at USC (2012)

In his speech to the 2009 Gathering of Native/American Scholars and Artists: 40th Anniversary symposium (celebrating forty years of American Indian Studies at UCLA), Treur outlines the history of the field of Native American literature and criticism, the current state, and his predictions and hopes for the future of the field.

Treuer opens his talk by quoting from Paul Apodoca’s preceding talk, “The Future of American Indian Studies,” referencing Apodoca’s idea of two approaches in Native American studies: the understanding that Native American Studies programs give the Native Community a voice (“‘activist positioning’”), and the understanding that “‘Native Studies is a legitimizing practice’” (48). Treuer references these two approaches in order to explain how the field arrived at its earliest methodology, in which “to claim space for its expression, American Indian literature and criticism argued…that its subject and method was other, different, because its subject was its method,” for “the structure and sense and politics of the thing was Indian and derived from Indian ways of thinking and making meaning” (48).

However, though Treuer concedes that this methodology was the acceptable during the Renaissance of the 1960s, it’s no longer acceptable, especially in light of the current conditions of reservations and urban communities–what he argues must now be the true work of American Indian Literature. As he contends, “what was happening in the academy in the 1980s and 1990s often had precious little to do with the mean struggles…to suggest that Indian academia and living Indian communities are on the same page, are even of the same paper, might dangerously privilege the academy and undervalue and undermine the concerns of Native American communities, many of which are struggling with issues of poverty and power and the fight to hold on to languages and cultures” (49).

Treuer’s critique of privileging the concerns of the academy over the concerns of Native American communities rings uncomfortably true. In my travels this summer, I had the pleasure of seeing the Grand Canyon, and the absolute horror of seeing part of the Hualapai reservation as we drove to and from the entrance of one of the world’s most visited parks. Though each person’s entrance fee to the park is easily forty dollars–and though the park sits in the middle of Hualapia land–the community around the park lives in abject poverty. Shacks made of sheet metal, cardboard, and pieces of ragged wood lined the road, many homes were either burnt out, missing doors, windows, and parts of a roof, and the local post office (flying a giant American flag)served as the nearest food supply for forty miles–and serviced a community with less than roughly ten cars.

Treur continues his criticism of the academy and the state of the field throughout the remainder of his speech, in warning against “sentimental” literature and scholarship that has focused perhaps too long on establishing a literary nationalism (50). Through his comparison of Native American studies to the course the Irish Literary Revival or Celtic Twilight, he is concerned with and questions the possibility of acculturation in the field, in which “culture is something we talk about but never do,” hence the fear of a “cultural twilight” in the field (52).

Treur ultimately calls for a “new kind of modernism,” and agrees with American Indian poet Erika Wurth in her push for a “‘fourth wave’” of the field (53). The newest and most exciting work, Treur feels, is currently underway by younger American Indian poets and filmmakers, whose primary work seems to be language and culture recovery, and a real reconnection to their respective communities.


PAB Entry #1 (Roemer)

Porter and Roemer, Eds.

Porter and Roemer’s (Eds) Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature (2005)

Roemer, Kenneth M. The Cambridge Companion to Native American      Literature. Introduction. Eds. Joy Porter and Kenneth M. Roemer.      Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. 1-35. Print.

In the introduction to the 2005 Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature, Roemer provides an extensive history of the emergence of ever-evolving field of Native American Literary Studies in the academy. Though Native American writers have published since the nineteenth century in multiple genres, it wasn’t until Vine Deloria, Jr.’s 1969 Custer Died for Your Sins, and the awarding of the 1969 Pulitzer Prize to the virtually unknown N. Scott Momaday for his novel House Made of Dawn, that work by Native American authors began to appear in the canon, let alone in literature courses.

As Roemer points out, the “increased visibility” (2) of American Indian literatures of course coincided with the Civil Rights, Feminist, and American Indian Movements of the 1970s and 1980s, and by the 1990s, numerous reference works and anthologies were circulating, including A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff’s 1990 American Indian Literatures, which many label as benchmark scholarship, to Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird’s 1997 multi-genre Reinventing the Enemy’s Language.

Roemer details the collaborative efforts between the MLA and the Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures since the 1970s, and distinguishes academic journals (such as Studies in American Indian Literatures, or SAILs) and university presses (such as the U of Nebraska Press) which provide a platform for critical scholarship in the field.

Just as Ostergaard and Nugent (2009), McComiskey (2006), and Miller (2011) debate the “crisis” of plurality in English Studies, so does Roemer acknowledge the suspicions that arise when a field is so broad. However, Roemer makes clear that to not embrace the diversity of this field is faulty, due to some of the complexities listed below. Roemer also categorizes the field through these complexities, discussing the field’s older and newer characteristics:

  1. Problems in naming the field (Native American, American Indian, Indigenous, Amerindian literature, etc.);
  2. Diversity of the field, stemming from: genre boundaries(written or oral, songs, ceremonies, speeches, fiction or nonfiction, a combination of all, etc.); cultural and regional implications, and cross-fertilization occurring between cultures and regions; language variations (especially the problems of translation into English or back into original language); intended experience of the literature (performance, ceremony, song, etc.);
  3. Undoing the privileging of certain genres over others, such as fiction and poetry over sermons or political essays or treaties, and maintaining the growth of new genres, such as drama and film;
  4. Undoing ideas of appropriate content, which “should be defined flexibly enough to include the huge diversity of the topic and the possibility of seemingly non-Indian subjects by Native viewpoints” (8).
  5. Revealing an epistemology based on attitudes about a shared history (such as “attitudes reflecting complex mixtures of post-apocalyptic worldviews”), an awareness of survival, a “hope that goes beyond survival…to sense of tribal and pan-tribal sovereignty and identity,” and the interconnections of communal identity, language, place, and time (11).

The only issue that Roemer seemingly fails to address in depth (though he does point to some scholarship) is the question of teaching American Indian Literature(s)–particularly if the instructor is not Native American.

One question I will then leave the reader with is how should (or should not) one teach American Indian Literary Studies, particularly if that teacher has only an outsider’s perspective? What are the special complications in this pedagogy, distinguishable from other studies based around race or racial experience?