Paper #6: What it Means to be a Scholar of Native American Literary and Cultural Studies

SAIL Image. Studies in American Indian Literatures 11.3 (1999).

From SAIL, or Studies in American Indian Literature

As a part of our exploration of English studies this semester, Dr. Luisa Igloria, creative writer and professor of creative writing at ODU, spoke to our class about the inherent issues of creative writing as a field. Though I am not a creative writer, nor am I exploring that field, I was intrigued by Dr. Igloria’s talk, specifically her approach to workshopping and helping creative writers discover the true direction of their work. Dr. Igloria asks her students to consider what their work is really about—to concentrate on and discover what the real message or point is, in order to determine how to frame or change their delivery. I’ve turned Dr. Igloria’s insight over in my mind since the night she made that comment, and I have spent the final weeks of the semester mulling over what my purpose is, or what my work in the sub-discipline of Native American literary and cultural studies should do, say, or mean. What message would I want to send through my scholarship in this field, what would drive my intention?

I knew the answer to this question at the beginning of the semester, or really, before our class even started. As I mentioned in the first PAB entry I completed for our class, which was on Ojibwe author and critic David Treuer’s 2009 talk “The Cultural Twilight,” this summer I visited one of the most frequented travel destinations in the world—the Grand Canyon—which also happens to sit on Hualapia land. As I mentioned in my PAB entry, the cost per person for entry into the park was forty dollars (and an additional thirty-five if a tourist wants to step out onto the Sky Walk), and there were busloads of tourists from around the world lined up to pay that amount on the day I visited (and I suspect on most days). Yet it’s abundantly clear that only a small portion (if any) of that money goes to the Hualapia people, whose community is in abject poverty. As we drove the thirty or so miles through the reservation to the entrance of the park, I distinctly remember the sun glaring sharply off of the sheet metal that was propped up against shacks and double-wides, and the plywood that covered windows or served as a door to someone’s home. Though there were many homes, there was only one post office and one convenience store, both joined together and sitting in the middle of this thirty-mile desert stretch, in the middle of a community that looks as if it had a total of maybe ten cars. When I look back on this, it’s easy to realize what drives my intention in Native American literary and cultural scholarship, and what drives my desire to participate in this field: blatant, unapologetic injustice. When I read American history, see another popular stereotype in action, or simply drive through tribal lands to visit a global destination, I can’t believe there’s an injustice so loud and so obvious, yet so unnoticed and accepted. Though I was fairly certain I knew what drove my work in academia prior to our course and our opportunity to delve into any subfield of English studies we wished, I can say now—at the end of the semester, after consideration of the conventions of NA literary and cultural studies, and after reflecting on my motivation and purpose—that I want my scholarship to help, in any small way, heal the injustices wrought against a peoples.

But is that desire ethical? Is it right? Is it fair for a young, white scholar who knows very little about tribal histories, stories, and tragedies to insert herself into a conversation in this field from the platform of academia, a mistrusted institution that continues to legitimize and then de-legitimize the field of Native American literary and cultural studies? These are the questions that have plagued me all semester long. In the past, I have been quite comfortable completing ecofeminist, environmental justice, and postcolonial scholarship, but perhaps that is because in that kind of scholarship, I can openly acknowledge that I speak from the hegemonic center as a white, middle-class female, and through that acknowledgement, it is appropriate for me to speak and argue against that center. Does the same hold true for NA literary and cultural scholarship, and should it hold true? For communities that have been literally and figuratively terrorized by Anglo-Europeans, then by the nationalizing cry of Manifest Destiny, and finally by modern globalizing and economic forces, I can’t help but think a resounding credo for these communities would be “Stay out.” Furthermore, western academia is still not completely trusted as an institution, for it has only (relatively) recently become a destabilizing, decolonizing force in the world since the feminist and Civil Rights movements of the 1960s; indeed, it wasn’t until the 1960s that Native Americans began translating and theorizing about their own materials in the academy.

The question of my legitimate or ethical place in the conversation in the field of Native American literary and cultural studies was further complicated by my research into conversations in the field this semester. Crow-Creek author and scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, in her 1997 work “Who Stole Native American Studies?” writes:

No thoughtful Native scholar suggests that the primacy of the Native voice should exclude any other. Yet such fears are harbored throughout academia. Even cursory readings in the journals read by humanities and social sciences scholars charge that the Native American Studies interest in this primacy is both racist and anti-intellectual. While it is certain that sovereignty and indigenousness are clearly matters for the Native populations (nations) themselves in collaboration with the U.S. court systems to address, they are, surely, questions for educators and intellectuals of all persuasions to explore. (21)

And yet, though Cook-Lynn insists the primacy of Native voice is not intended to exclude, in his 1999 work Red on Red: Native Literary Separatism, Creek author Craig Womack writes:

I say that tribal literatures are not some branch waiting to be grafted onto the main trunk. Tribal literatures are the tree, the oldest literatures in the Americas, the most American of American literatures. We are the canon…without NA literature, there is no American literature. We should not allow ourselves, through the definitions we choose and the language we use, to ever assume we are outside the canon; we should not play along and confess to being a second-rate literature. Let Americanists struggle for their place in the canon. Understand this is not an argument for inclusion—I am saying with all the bias I can muster that our American canon, the Native literary canon of the Americas, predates their American canon. I see them as two separate canons. (14)

Echoing Womack in his 2009 talk at the fortieth anniversary celebration of the UCLA American Indian Studies Center, Treuer asserts that:

Phil Deloria [Dakota author of Playing Indian, and son of Vine Deloria, Jr., author of Custer Died for Your Sins and We Talk, You Listen] was right—they tried to kill us in order to become us, and it was largely through the activist, legitimizing practices of NA studies along with activism proper and the activist agenda…that the United States had to settle with emulating us while we were still alive to berate them for it. In order to claim space for its expression, American Indian Literature and criticism argued, rather counter to mainstream critical practices, that its subject and method was other, different, because its subject was its method. Native American literature and criticism argued that even though the literature was largely in English, the structure and sense politics of the thing was Indian and derived from Indian ways of thinking and making meaning, from Indian people and Indian communities. If it wasn’t, it should be. (48)

Initially, the conversation taking place in the scholarship (as indicated above) that I read this semester seemed to confirm my fears: I was treading into territory that I did not belong, and becoming a participant in the hegemony I was trying to displace. I initially thought that though Cook-Lynn and others adamantly insist that the primacy of Native voice in studying Native materials should not and does not exclude non-Native voices, Womack and Treur’s language indicates that there is still understandable resistance against Native American materials—voices, texts, lives, beliefs, ceremonies, philosophies, etc.—being studied outside of “Indian ways of thinking and making meaning” (Treuer 48). However, it was towards the end of the semester, and in prepping for what I would share with my classmates about what it means to be NA literary and cultural scholar, that Cook-Lynn’s words especially began to click. When I stepped back, I realized the deeper extent of Cook-Lynn, Womack, and Treuer’s remarks: these scholars are not arguing that only Native scholars and voices are relevant and valuable. They are saying that to reject the primacy of Native voice and knowledge for the sake of following established academic methodology and criticism, or to continue to discount Native epistemology and methodology because it’s not yet fully vetted by the academy, is wrong and disrespectful. Cook-Lynn is arguing in “Who Stole Native American Studies?,” and later in her 2005 article “Reclaiming American Indian Studies,” that to label an academic field “racist” or “anti-intellectual” (or “purist” or “essentialist” as Womack points out in Red on Red) is to continue the tradition of discrediting Native voices, beliefs, and ways of being in the world. I realized then, as simple as it sounds, my confidence to enter a conversation in the field, would not come from empathy or sympathy, as I cannot empathize nor sympathize with members of indigenous communities because I am not from an indigenous community or anything remotely like it. My confidence to enter into the field of NA literary and cultural studies as a respectful, ethical scholar, I discovered, comes from my intention, and my belief and acceptance of the primacy of Native voice and epistemologies in the study, analysis, and discourse on NA objects of study (this seems obvious to me—how else could we study it?), and in my ability to care just as much about issues of sovereignty, indigenousness, and justice as Native communities do. For, as Cook-Lynn says, these are issues “for educators and intellectuals of all persuasions to explore” (“Who Stole?” 21).

I struggled with the question of my place as a scholar in this field all semester long, and I’m glad I did. I do feel that to be a scholar of NA literary and cultural studies (and really, a scholar of any field in which one is an outsider to that community), one must question and decide on her intention, and preferably be able to articulate it! (I’m still working on that, myself.) In my interview with Dr. Drew Lopenzina, professor of Native American literary studies at ODU, I asked Dr. Lopenzina about his experience and his advice on how to conduct appropriate, respectful scholarship in the field when he is not a member of any tribal community, like myself. He was kind enough to share with me the story of his rite of passage in the field in this regard. At a NA literary and cultural studies conference a few years ago, Dr. Lopenzina was speaking on a panel, and in the following panel discussion, he was challenged by one of the heads of the tribal council who had attended the conference. Dr. Lopenzina was openly critiqued and lectured to by the member of this tribe, and then was asked to explain the intention and belief behind his scholarship. Dr. Lopenzina told me he answered honestly, sincerely, and openly, and it is because of the honesty and sincerity, and respect, behind his answer and explanation that many came up to him after the panel and congratulated and thanked him. Eventually, he and this older gentleman from the tribe even reconciled. This story—Dr. Lopenzina’s rite of passage in the field—demonstrates to me that to be a scholar of this field means knowing your intentions, and making certain those intentions are based in truth and respect. (I imagine and hope though that this holds true in any field.)

With the right intentions, and with the belief that NA objects of study should indeed by studied from an indigenous, tribally-based perspective, I feel that to advance further in this field absolutely requires my learning about as much as I can about one particular nation or tribe. I specify one particular nation or tribe because I do not want to make the mistake of assuming I could learn all there is to know about even one particular tribe, let alone all North American tribes or nations. There will be knowledge that I, even as a scholar, will never be privy to, and even certain language and stories I could never learn (nor would I ever ask to, as that is a clear boundary). In order to even begin to understand, let alone apply, a tribally-based or indigenous perspective or methodology to a certain text (let’s say a novel, which I typically work with in literature), I would have to understand the basic epistemology or world view of the tribe, the stories and histories that are important to the tribe (as these will arise in NA literature), the way of speaking and perhaps even a basic understanding of the language, as this always informs the structure of the text and the connotations of certain words. This kind of work requires much more specialized study than I have completed this semester, which was more of a general overview of the state of the field as a whole. The field however, as a whole, accepts and expects a tribally-based approach in literary studies in 2014—so a specialized scholarship is required.

However, as I mentioned in my fifth paper this semester on my epistemological alignment in the field, a tribally-centered approach looks different to nearly every scholar in 2014, and literature is only aspect of NA literary and cultural studies. The field is incredibly, incredibly diverse and interdisciplinary, from the materials that can be studied in the field to the methodologies that can be used to study those materials. The number of possibilities and directions of study in this field is overwhelming, yet exciting. Again, I think to do honest and respectful work in this field, one must always examine her intentions, and where her true calling lies. For me, that means attempting to help alleviate—in some way—what are glaring and alarming injustices, and I often notice those injustices in representations of history, economic and environmental conditions, and education.

I believe Dr. Lopenzina and other scholars who work in historical recovery and righting false representation are doing incredibly important scholarship. Dr. Lopenzina has completed extensive work on William Apess and continues to do so, and his work is important because it reminds us that Native Americans were not just historically shoved off their lands or decimated. Many Native Americans, such as William Apess, were highly educated in early American systems, and used the tools of colonial discourse against colonizing forces. For me, I see promising scholarship in the bizarre myth, lore, and discourse put forth by history and stage productions (and by many North Carolinians) about the “Lost Colony” of 1585 Roanoke.

One of the most helpful and exciting works I read for my research into the field this semester was Laguna author Paula Gunn Allen’s 1992 (second edition) The Sacred Hoop, in which Allen, who was trained in traditional feminist scholarship but was also Laguna, demarcates the problem with applying traditional, western feminism to tribal texts, and thus argues for and demonstrates a tribal feminism. Her piece “Kochinnenako in Academe” not only kept true to the calling for a tribally-centered approach, but also offered outsiders trained in traditional western approaches a clear window to see into tribal stories and interpretation. Sadly, Allen is no longer living, however she published extensively while alive, and was extremely vocal and forthright in her antinuclear efforts. Her cousin, Laguna Pueblo author Leslie Marmon Silko, has also published extensively, and focuses a good portion of her writing on the environment, as Allen did. If I were to continue to work in literature (fiction and non-fiction), I would absolutely love to work more extensively with Allen and Silko’s texts and ideas, and would most likely bring my own understanding of ecofeminism and environmental justice to that work. In the past, I’ve typically relied on Vandana Shiva’s understanding of ecofeminism and environmental justice, and though I know I need to refresh my memory, I am confident there is overlap in Shiva’s concern for the exploitation of nature by multinational corporations (as I recall from her 1993 work with Maria Mies, Ecofeminism) and Allen and Silko’s concern over nuclear energy issues in North America.

Last but not least, I know there is real work to be done in education—for all. Though I know at my school, John Tyler Community College, a very small percentage of our students are Native American—but that’s only at my school, in my tiny corner of Virginia. Some of the research that I read this semester had nothing to do with English as a discipline, or Native American literary and cultural studies; however, it brought to my attention just how uninviting traditional academic institutions can be to Native American students.  Dr. Teresa Trumbly Lamsam’s (professor of Communication at U of Nebraska) work, “A Cultural Contracts Perspective: Examining American Indian Identity Negotiations in Academia,” and Stephen V. Flynn (Department of Counselor Education and School Psychology at Plymouth State) and Seth D. Olson and Adriana D. Yellig’s (Division of Counseling and Psychology in Education at the U of South Dakota) work, “American Indian Acculturation: Tribal Lands to Predominately White Postsecondary Settings,” both focus on undergraduate or graduate students who are self-identified Native Americans at four-year universities, but not at community colleges. As these scholars outside the field of English point out, Native American students are constantly struggling in negotiating identities, and typically have little support to do so. Though this work would be more pedagogical than literary in nature, that’s exciting to me; again, at the end of the day, I would like to contribute to this field in a way that tangible and helpful.

In closing, becoming a scholar in the field of Native American literary and cultural studies demands serious, thoughtful, and sincere reflection on one’s own desires, motivation, and intentions, particularly if you are an outsider to the community. Of course this is true for most any field, but I feel that it’s especially important in this one. In English studies, where we are constantly blending, differentiating, compartmentalizing, shifting, changing, and everything in between, Native American literary and cultural studies, as a sub-field of English, has often gotten lost or pushed off to the side, or relegated to only one member of an English department. My hope is that as the broader discipline of English grows and re-asserts its vital necessity in an increasingly disorienting and at times incoherent world, NA literary and cultural studies will also grow and re-assert its necessity as a field that seeks to strengthen and revitalize the communities and world views that have previously been dismissed and abused in the worst extremes. My hope is that English, as a discipline, will continue to house all of the sub-fields, such as NA literary and cultural studies, that are working to bring justice to the communities and peoples who need it most.

 Works Cited

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.

Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth. “Who Stole Native American Studies?” Wicazo Sa Review 12.1 (1997): 9-28. Web. 10 October 2014.

Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth, Tom Holm, John Red Horse, James Riding In. “First Panel: Reclaiming American Indian Studies.” Wicazo Sa Review 20.1 (2005): 169-177. Web. 10 October 2014.

Flynn, Stephen V., Seth D. Olson, and Adriana D. Yellig. “American Indian Acculturation: Tribal Lands to Predominately White Postsecondary Settings.” Journal of Counseling and Development 92 (2012): 280-293. Web. 15 September 2014.

Lamsam, Teresa Trumbly. “A Cultural Contracts Perspective: Examining American Indian Identity Negotiations in Academia.” Journal of Cultural Diversity 21.1 (2014): 29-35. Web. 15 September 2014.

Lopenzina, Drew. Personal Interview. 9 Oct. 2014.

—. Red Ink: Native Americans Picking up the Pen in the Colonial Period. New York: SUNY P, 2012. Print.

Shiva, Vandana and Maria Mies, eds. Ecofeminism. ZedBooks: Halifax, 1993. Print.

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.

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.  

Paper #5: My Epistemological Alignment In the Field of Native American Literary and Cultural Studies

The “Think Indian” Campaign is a part of the American Indian College Fund, which works to give funding to Native American students to one of the thirty-four accredited tribal colleges and universities in the United States.

Over the past few months, I have intensely studied and written about the sub-discipline of Native American literary and culture studies. My interest in this field really began in my undergraduate years, but my undergraduate institution (UNCW) only offered one undergraduate course in Native American literature, and typically offered that course at the exact same time slot as my required courses for a degree in American literature, ironically. This interest was sparked in the first place by the realization that my understanding of history, society, and culture had been, to put it kindly, slightly crooked from the start; I have the numerous scholars in the fields of feminism, ecofeminism, postcolonialism, and environmental justice to thank for this realization, and credit the scholarship and praxis emerging from those fields with leading my own academic career and passions in, I believe, an enjoyable and meaningful direction. With the knowledge that history has been misrepresented by empire, and that colonial hegemony has permeated nearly every aspect of our world, but especially our relationship with our environment and the life within it, I felt there had to be overlap in Native American literature, worldviews, and literary criticism. That was, of course, a very western/feminist presumption to make, but I still believe it to be a correct one.

In my first semester of graduate school at UNR, where I was receiving my Masters in Literature and Environment, I finally had the opportunity to test that assumption in my first course in Native American Literature. The course was taught by Professor Scott Slovic, who is a widely cited ecocritic and wonderful teacher, but unfortunately not a Native scholar (by no fault of his own, of course. And if I recall correctly, though the University of Nevada, Reno sits within forty-five minutes of Paiute lands, and a powwow gathering occurs every May on the campus, there were no Native scholars in the department.) The course was a survey, and we focused essentially on the most widely read pieces and authors in the field, chiefly from the NA Renaissance of the sixties and onwards: Momaday, Silko, Owens, Allen, Harjo, Bird, and Alexie. Significantly, as I look back on the course now, from the vantage of where I now stand, I realize that we never read Craig Womack, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Gerald Vizenor, etc., or any of the Native scholars who actively speak out for or complicate notions of sovereignty, in the political/historical/cultural sense of the term, and especially in the academy. I also completely understand Scott’s decision in this. If I was a non-Native professor teaching this body of literature (as I might be one day), where would I start, and why? And what would that approach say about how I align myself within the field, and what I would do in this field, which increasingly (and rightfully) asks for real, cultural, practical work to be completed?

As is the case with most things in life, I find that the more I learn, the less I know. Through my investigation this semester, my understanding of the field of Native American literature and cultural studies has become far, far more complicated, in a very healthy way. The very name that I had originally given to my focus this semester changed: when I began the semester, I was interested in Native American literature, but after a few weeks, I realized that to remove the “and cultural studies” from the end of that focus is impossible. It’s impossible to read Native American literature without diving into interdisciplinary work, or into history, law, language, spirituality, ethics, identity politics—seemingly everything. Cultural work cannot be subtracted from Native American studies, and I fully intend to continue to learn about the culture, history, and worldviews of specific tribes. On that note, another essential point I have taken into my understanding this semester is that to treat the body of Native American materials available for study as coming from a pan-indigenous people is incredibly faulty; the languages alone—connotations of and rituals behind certain words—are so vastly different among each tribe that it’s foolish to make generalizations amongst tribes, even those in the same regions of the United States. As a non-Native scholar who is new to the field, I’ve found that it’s very easy to become overwhelmed quickly; however, in a strange sense, I also recognize that this feeling of being overwhelmed and somewhat lost as to where to start in the conversation is a good thing, or means that I’m perhaps doing something right. One of the largest criticisms aimed at Native American scholarship by non-Native scholars (and sometimes even Native scholars, for that matter) is the problem of speaking with authority and credibility for Native Americans, rather than speaking with the communities, their histories, desires, and needs. I can say that I approach the field with humility, and even if I do end up somehow teaching or publishing in the field one day, I will remind myself (and be reminded along the way, I’m sure) that I’m still learning and un-learning. In my position as an outsider and a new student, respect, listening, and learning is paramount.

In terms of what I can actively contribute to the field, whether in terms of teaching or writing, and in terms of where I can align myself theoretically/epistemologically, I see the most potential in two different areas:

  • I could use my knowledge of ecofeminist/feminist and environmental justice theories to somehow participate in the conversation on tribal feminism that Paula Gunn Allen began in the eighties with The Sacred Hoop, and that Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird continued in the nineties with Reinventing the Enemy’s Language. As I’ve mentioned above and in previous papers, there’s understandable resistance to applying theories that arose from the west to Native American OoS, as even the theories that are supposed to work to subvert colonial hegemony can often reinforce a sense of otherness or Indian-as-object-of-study. However, I also see the utility in applying ecofeminist and environmental justice theories to NA OoS, particularly as these two theoretical approaches have been widely influenced by those fighting colonial forces for quite some time, and as there is a dire need for not just conversation, but also real activism to quell land and resource misuse in Native communities, by forces imposed from the outside. Also, using theories that are more readily available and perhaps understood by a wider range of students at a college level should (hopefully) serve to stimulate even more interest in NA communities and their agendas. Additionally, after reading only a little of Vizenor’s work, I’m compelled by his argument that postmodernism can overturn dangerous and hurtful representations of Native American communities, through analysis of language and form. I’ve avoided postmodernism thus far in my academic career (as there has been some contention between postmodern and ecofeminist, environmental justice, and postcolonial scholars), but Vizenor has made me reconsider that position. Dr. Drew Lopenzina, who I had the wonderful opportunity to interview this semester, also works to re-examine and question historical (and ongoing) representation, and I believe his work has real value, particularly on the east coast of the United States, where some (stereotypically) believe that most Native Americans only live “out west.”
  • While I may never go on to publish scholarship in the field of Native American literary and cultural studies, and may never have a chance to work with the exciting theoretical apparatuses mentioned above, I do plan on teaching for the rest of my life—at least I always hope to, as that is what brings me the most fulfillment and joy in life. If my every-day life is based around working with students at the community college level, and I truly want to contribute meaningfully to the field, I can start where I am, by helping self-identified Native American students. My reading this semester focused nearly exclusively on the ongoing debates in Native American literature and criticism, but an issue beyond my focus this semester that I truly appreciated reading about was working with Native American students. Elizabeth Cook-Lynn and Craig Womack both provide insight into working with Native American students, and I also luckily stumbled upon Dr. Teresa Trumbly Lamsam’s (professor of Communication at U of Nebraska) work, “A Cultural Contracts Perspective: Examining American Indian Identity Negotiations in Academia,” and Stephen V. Flynn (Department of Counselor Education and School Psychology at Plymouth State) and Seth D. Olson and Adriana D. Yellig’s (Division of Counseling and Psychology in Education at the U of South Dakota) work, “American Indian Acculturation: Tribal Lands to Predominately White Postsecondary Settings.” All of these authors have worked with and studied undergraduate or graduate students who are self-identified Native Americans at four-year universities, but not at community colleges. As Cook-Lynn, Womack, Lamsam, Flynn, Olson, and Yellig all indicate in various ways in their respective works, Native American students are constantly struggling in negotiating identities, and typically have little support to do so. I’m not sure of what support may be needed, or where, or how it could be delivered, but my lack of knowledge of research in this area shows me that I could do more, and perhaps contribute to the field in this way.

Ultimately, I am still processing and discovering where I stand in the debates over tribally-based approaches and literatures, and the concept of sovereignty of Native American studies in academia, as scholars like Cook-Lynn and many others candidly urge. In a perfect world, each institution would have a lively, active, and well-funded Native American Studies program and department, taught by Native and non-Native scholars alike, with mutual respect, understanding, and tribally-based (and approved) methodologies and approaches. Perhaps that will happen in the future, and I do believe that this is a goal worth fighting for—it is for every group that has been effected in any way by the reach of empire. In the meantime though, I believe the best and most genuine way in which I can enter the field is through the two options I’ve listed above, and with a constant consideration and checking of my own respect and humility. Sincere listening and learning tends to be the best entrance into most of life’s arenas.

Works Cited

Flynn, Stephen V., Seth D. Olson, and Adriana D. Yellig. “American Indian Acculturation: Tribal Lands to Predominately White Postsecondary Settings.” Journal of Counseling and Development 92 (2012): 280-293. Web. 15 September 2014.

Lamsam, Teresa Trumbly. “A Cultural Contracts Perspective: Examining American Indian Identity Negotiations in Academia.” Journal of Cultural Diversity 21.1 (2014): 29-35. Web. 15 September 2014.

Paper #4: Allen’s Tribal-Feminism and Vizenor’s Trickster Hermeneutics: Two Theoretical Approaches to Studying Native American Materials

Paula Gunn Allen

Allen’s 1983 fiction work

Theoretical approaches and methodologies in the field of Native American (NA) literary and cultural studies have been in constant dispute since the inception of the field in the late 1960s. And it’s not hard to understand why—for centuries, Native Americans did not have primacy or power over their own objects of study (OoS), but were instead treated as objects of study (as one glaring example, Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, who was studied and housed in a University of California building until his death in 1916). Additionally, even when NA scholars finally gained entrance into the academy after the Civil Rights Era, the only acceptable theories and methodologies available to them were those created and perpetuated by the same social scientists who had misrepresented and misappropriated tribal peoples since the inception of the social sciences in the academy. The Civil Rights Era, of course, brought a monumental shift in higher education in America, and it was through the rise of feminism, multiculturalism, and ethnic studies that NA scholars were finally able to gain a voice and the power to study and interpret their own materials.

However, while it is generally agreed upon now that Native scholars and non-Native scholars have primacy over NA OoS in the academy, the theories and methodologies used to analyze those OoS is still a sensitive topic. Most scholars in the field in 2014 are in agreement that a tribally-centered approach (put forth by scholars such as Womack and Cook-Lynn in the nineties) is the only appropriate approach, although this approach can look radically different among scholars and among tribes. Additionally—and this complicates the scholarship quite a bit—most scholars in the field seem to have reached a consensus that much of postcolonial and cosmopolitan theory(s), and even multicultural and (western) feminist theory(s) is not acceptable to the field, as nearly all NA scholars, writers, and artists consider colonization, and any means of making knowledge coming out of the west (even if it’s to destabilize western hegemony), to be an ongoing struggle for indigenous peoples. However, this does not mean that all scholars have abandoned postcolonial, cosmopolitan, multicultural, or feminist theories or approaches to study NA OoS; for example, scholars Arnold Krupat and Elvira Putiano, two of the most widely recognized non-Native scholars in the field, argue that these approaches are valuable and relevant, and continue to employ them in their scholarship. As Krupat has argued in the past, there is no such thing as a “pure” peoples, and thus no such thing as a “pure” literature or a pure approach to studying that literature—we live in a globalized, hybridized, blended world (“Review: Red Matters” 660). Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that NA epistemologies are vastly different than a western epistemology—so how do we truly study NA OoS?

As expected, there are real problems with non-Native scholars using non-Native approaches: an outsider using outsider (and historically and understandably questionable) approaches. Furthermore, there has been real historical contention over Native scholars using non-Native approaches, even if those scholars have clearly tailored their approaches to be tribally-centered. Paula Gunn Allen (who sadly passed in 2008) and Gerald Vizenor are two prolific Native scholars, writers, and theoreticians who have taken western theories—feminism in Allen’s case, and postmodernism, deconstruction, and structuralism in Vizenor’s case—and arguably created tribally-centered theoretical bodies, regardless of the western origin of the original theory. Though scholars such as Womack and Cook-Lynn have critiqued Allen and Vizenor’s use of western-based theories in tribal scholarship, Allen and Vizenor have had an undeniably profound impact on the field. They were two of the first Native scholars to enter, teach, and write in the academy in the Native American Renaissance of the late sixties, and Allen’s tribal feminism and Vizenor’s trickster hermeneutics have made it so all scholars, regardless of race or tribal orientation, can actually begin to understand and enter the conversation on NA OoS and epistemologies, from a tribal perspective.

In order to understand both Allen and Vizenor’s place in the field and the evolution of their respective approaches to NA OoS, it’s essential to understand the history of both scholars, as their own lives clearly inform their work. Harold Bloom’s anthology Native American Women Writers begins with a focus on Allen, and offers biographical information as well as excerpts from interviews over the years. According to Bloom’s anthology, Paula Gunn Allen (1939-2008) is of mixed-blood descent, born to a Keres-Laguna/Acoma-Pueblo mother and a Lebanese father, strongly identifying herself as Laguna-Pueblo. Allen is also cousin to Leslie Marmon Silko, the author of Ceremony. Allen originally received her MFA in creative writing in the sixties, and says she was influenced by Shelley, Keats, Stein, the Beats, and N. Scott Momaday. She was asked to teach in the newly formed Native American studies program at the University of New Mexico in the early seventies, and by 1975, she earned her own Ph.D. in American studies, with an emphasis in NA literature. Allen has published a few different volumes of poetry, and her first novel was the fictional The Woman Who Owned the Shadows in 1983, whose main character Ephanie (of mixed descent, like Allen) uses a vision quest to understand and accept her lesbianism, and it was shortly after the publication of this novel that Allen published her seminal scholarship on tribal feminism, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions in 1986, which was updated in 1992. Before her untimely death, Allen published numerous fiction and nonfiction works, poetry, and scholarship, and taught NA studies (with an emphasis on tribal feminism) at prominent institutions such as UC Berkeley and UCLA.

As Annette Van Dyke explains in her essay “Women Writers and Gender Issues,” the central tenet of Allen’s work is “delineation and restoration of [a] woman-centered culture” (95), and points out that The Sacred Hoop was “the first to detail the ritual function of Native American literatures as opposed to Euro-American literatures,” which is significant as “Allen’s belief in the power of the oral tradition embodied in contemporary Native American literature to effect healing, survival, and continuance underlies all of her work” (96). Indeed, Allen’s essay “Kochinnenako in Academe: Three Approaches to Interpreting a Keres Indian Tale” from the larger work The Sacred Hoop, offers all readers clear insight into a traditional Keres-Laguna Yellow Woman (or Kochinnenako) tale. In the essay, Allen demonstrates the central point of her larger work of restoring and detailing the feminine tradition in Native American literature, by offering readers three different versions of the Yellow Woman story of Sh-ah-cock and Miochin, or Battle of the Seasons: a translated, westernized version; a traditional Keres Indian version; and her own translated version. Allen then reveals to readers how translated versions of NA oral narratives, which are typically translated by white social scientists, often employ western narrative structures and patriarchal assumptions about women and men. Allen also reveals that the reason the traditional Keres version of the tale reads not at all like a “tale” is because it is an oral story told during the ritual that invites in summer or winter. In other words, ritual actions are taking place as the story is being told aloud, and therefore, no reader should read the tale as a “story,” but rather as a ritual that demonstrates Yellow Woman’s essential and significant place as balance and entry/exit for the seasons.

Most significantly in “Kochinnenako in Academe,” Allen walks readers through a tribal feminist reading of the tale, and details the significant difference between a western feminist reading and a tribal feminist reading. As a western scholar who uses feminist approaches quite a bit in my scholarship, I truly value Allen’s insight. As she explains, a traditional, western feminist (keep in mind, Allen is writing from the early nineties, and feminist scholarship has changed quite a bit since then) tends to automatically read with the assumption that women have no agency, and we tend to look for the ways that agency is stripped or the ways in which a female character tries to regain that agency. Allen notes that “a feminist reader might assume that Kochinnenako has been compelled to make an unhappy match by her father the ruler, who must be gaining some power from the alliance” (235), and given the western translation of the story, “a modern feminist would have good reason to make such an inference” (234). However, Allen points out that in a tribal feminist reading—which uses tribal understanding and history to understand the story—the idea of Kochinnenako being powerless, or that conflict and violent resolution of that conflict is inevitable, is overturned. From a tribal-feminist perspective, we understand that “agency is Kochinnenako’s ritual role here; it is through her ritual agency that the orderly, harmonious transfer of primacy between the Summer and Winter people is accomplished” (238), and that “a feminist who is conscious of tribal thought and practice will know that the real story of Sh-ah-cock and Miochin underscores the central role that woman plays in the orderly life of the people” (239). As a western feminist scholar who is unfamiliar with reading traditional Laguna-Keres stories and rituals, Allen’s reading opens a whole new understanding of NA OoS and epistemologies to me.

Overall, 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 the introduction to the larger work The Sacred Hoop, Allen offers several points that she herself has learned in her theorizing on NA literature, with the most significant tenets being:

  • The tribal lifestyles of most NA communities, historically, are “never patriarchal” and most often are gynocentric, and gynocratic societal features “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);
  • western perspectives on 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).

As a non-Native, feminist scholar, Allen’s work is exciting and extremely helpful to me, and allows me to more deeply understand the real, every-day-life implications of historical representations on Native Americans and their communities, providing a clear insight into NA OoS that I would completely misunderstand and potentially misrepresent.


Vizenor’s 1994 Work

Just as the one of the main aims of Allen’s tribal feminism seems to be her overturning of centuries-old historical representation of Native Americans, so too does Gerald Vizenor and his trickster hermeneutics work to overturn (literally, flip on its head) false representations or essentialisms of Native Americans. Again, in order to understand Vizenor’s work, it’s important to consider his life, and author Kimberly M. Blaeser, in “Gerald Vizenor: postindian liberation,” presents thorough insight into Vizenor’s life. Vizenor was born in 1934 to a mixed-blood Ojibwe father and a white mother, and identifies with the Crane clan of the White Earth Anishinaabeg; Blaeser notes that the crane, as animal and metaphor, appears and informs quite a bit of Vizenor’s work. Vizenor joined the army at a young age, and it was through his military travels that Vizenor was exposed to Asian literature and expression, particularly the haiku tradition. Though he barely had a high school diploma, Vizenor entered the university system, and eventually received a B.S. from the University of Minnesota in child development in 1960. In the early sixties, Vizenor also began working with Edward Copeland in his graduate studies at UM, and published numerous volumes of haiku collections, including Raising the Moon Vines (1964). Vizenor eventually made connections between haikus and Ojibwe dream songs, and in the mid-sixties throughout the seventies, published more volumes of poetry and discussion on the intersections between haikus and dream songs, including Summer in the Spring: Lyric Poems of the Ojibway (1965).

While publishing these volumes, Vizenor became actively involved with the political situation of the NA peoples in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and eventually became the executive director of the American Indian Employment and Guidance Center. During the seventies, Vizenor increasingly wrote freelance pieces for various newspaper publications, covering the growing unrest that became the American Indian Movement. Blaeser significantly notes that in Vizenor’s work as a journalist we start to see his theoretical language developing, particularly in his critiques of AIM leaders “for capitalizing on Indian stereotypes for publicity and their perceived failure to invest their time in working for long-term changes” (261). By the end of the seventies and into the eighties, Vizenor began publishing full-length novels and criticism, and the figure of the trickster begins to come into play. As Blaeser notes, Vizenor significantly writes in the preface to his 1978 collection Wordarrows: Indians and Whites in the New Fur Trade, “‘Language determines culture and the dimensions of consciousness’” (262). Vizenor’s most openly postmodern turn was, as Blaeser argues, his 1978 Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart, which “begins a trend of intertextuality” for Vizenor, as clues to Bearheart also lie in Wordarrows (262), and the trickster figure is consistently employed throughout.

While Vizenor is publishing in multiple genres (poetry, fiction, non-fiction, journalism) at an unbelievable rate and being politically active throughout the sixties and seventies, he also begins teaching at a series of institutions throughout the sixties, up until the nineties. Vizenor becomes a visiting professor at a number of institutions, and eventually returned to teach at UC Berkeley in the nineties. It was during the nineties that Vizenor began publishing some of his most influential theoretical discourse, which combined elements of postmodernism, structuralism, deconstruction, and tribal knowledge. His theoretical work often appears in academic journal publications or anthologies of NA criticism (such as “The Ruins of Representation: Shadow Survivance and the Literature of Dominance,” which appeared in a 1993 edition of the American Indian Quarterly), but also is reflected in his fictional novels, such as the 1991 The Heirs of Columbus or the 1992 Dead Voices. His 1994 Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance was a fuller collection of just his theoretical work over the past decade or so, and Manifest Manners clearly focuses on his theoretical use of trickster hermeneutics.

The details of Vizenor’s life presented above is (sincerely!) a very condensed list; Blaeser presents a much fuller treatment of Vizenor’s life and work in her piece, and even her piece is condensed. The sheer amount of projects and activism by Vizenor alone shows just how profoundly active and influential he has been in the field of NA studies, before the NA Renaissance—he truly is one of the top publishers and most outspoken scholars in the field. And yet, Vizenor has come under constant scrutiny and outright dismissal because of the amount he has published (criticism such as time absent from the real community, and too much time spent in the institution), and because of his use of postmodern theories (or western approaches) to NA OoS. Additionally, because Vizenor’s work centers around his intertextuality (as Blaeser points out) and what he calls trickster hermeneutics, Vizenor’s pieces are very difficult to understand, and to fully understand a single piece, it’s necessary to be familiar with his other work. In a back-handed compliment, Treur points out in his 2011 talk “The Cultural Twilight” that “Vizenor alone seems to be the critic everyone can agree is generative even if they can’t understand him, or perhaps that’s why there is agreement about his work” (53). To go on, David J. Carlson, in his “Trickster Hermeneutics and the Postindian Reader: Gerald Vizenor’s Constitutional Praxis,” writes that if we take to heart to the criticisms put forth by Native scholars such as Treur and even Craig Womack, “there would seem to be little place for Vizenor in an increasingly praxis-oriented field” (14). As a scholar who is only slightly familiar with postmodern and structuralist theories, I cannot offer a full argument as to why his work is valuable to postmodern or structuralist camps; however, I feel I can argue that his theoretical approach is relevant, helpful, and exciting in NA studies, because of the exact point Treur has made. Trickster hermeneutics, as Carlson helps to define them in his study of Vizenor, is “the reading practice into which his texts seek to interpellate their ideal reader” (13-14), or in other words, is a new way to knowledge, in which all readers—Native and non-Native alike—abandon previous readings or understandings of what a Native American is, does, or symbolizes. As Treuer notes, we can’t always understand Vizenor—and that’s the point. Vizenor works unceasingly to constantly shift, transform, mutate, undermine, redefine what it means to be Native or indigenous, because as Vizenor implies in “The Ruins of Representation: Shadow Survivance and the Literature of Dominance,” we should want to see the “ruins of representation” of the figure of the Native American, because there is no such thing as one figure or symbol.

I quickly realized in my own reading of Vizenor’s “The Ruins of Representation” that I would not be able to follow and properly understand unless I brought in other sources. Blaeser and Carlson’s respective works, which are both listed above, are immensely helpful, as is Kathyn Hume’s “Gerald Vizenor’s Metaphysics.” Additionally, as Blaeser pointed out that having an intertextual understanding of Vizenor is essential, I also referenced a few articles that Vizenor published in the same time period as “The Ruins of Representation,” or articles that included the same terminology, including: “Trickster Discourse” (1990); “Native American Indian Literature: Critical Metaphors of the Ghost Dance” (1992); and “American Indian Art and Literature Today: survivance and tragic wisdom” (2011). Throughout these pieces, a reader is led through Vizenor’s trickster hermeneutics, in which we are forced to constantly question his meaning for terms such as shadow(s), trace(s), survivance, trickster, tragic wisdom, postindian, warrior, aural performance, ruins of representation, manifest manners, and simulation. He repeats these terms consistently throughout all four of the pieces listed above (and others outside of the four focused on in this piece), and even repeats certain explanations nearly word for word. For example, as Vizenor outlines in both “The Ruins of Representation” and in “Critical Metaphors of the Ghost Dance,” he finds four postmodern conditions in the critical responses to NA literatures:

  • “the first is heard in aural performances;”
  • “the second condition is unbodied in translations;”
  • “the third is trickster liberation, the uncertain humor of survivance that denies the obscure maneuvers of manifest manners, tragic transvaluations, and the incoherence of cultural representations;
  • “the fourth postmodern condition is narrative chance, the cross causes in language games, consumer simulations, and the histories of postexclave publications.”    (“The Ruins of Representation” 7-8)

We can begin to understand these four conditions through reading Vizenor’s work intertextually, and through the insight provided by scholars such as Carlson, Blaeser, and Hume (who have all read Vizenor’s work extensively). There is a common thread that can be understood throughout Vizenor’s writing on the four conditions above, and on the ideas of survivance, the ruins of representation, and manifest manners. The central argument that Vizenor puts forth in these works, and which is particularly highlighted in “The Ruins of Representation,” is that postmodernism, deconstruction, and structuralism, as theoretical bodies that work to reveal the instability of language and representation through language, are actually incredibly necessary to modern NA studies, for without overturning static definitions of what it means to Native, the communities risk becoming static themselves, and thus succumbing to the very colonialist forces that have always set to define and destroy them.

As Vizenor argues in the opening lines of “The Ruins of Representation”:

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…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)

Vizenor is arguing that postmodernism, as a theory and a form of “trickster discourse” itself, can help readers to displace inaccurate and unhealthy representations, or “simulations,” of indigenous peoples, and can help Native writers find new ways to reveal “tribal consciousness,” through the use of trickster hermeneutics and constant “transformations.” To discover this argument, much reading and learning was required on my part. It must be said then that Vizenor did his job as a critic, for I was forced to read much of his work and even the work of others, and I was forced to consider what trickster hermeneutics means from his perspective, colored by his life as scholar and as a White Earth Anishinaabeg. His work forced me to see the mutability of language (as he changes connotations himself), and left me questioning the authorial flatness and one-dimensional language of historical and academic record and representation. In other words, I argue, along with Carlson in his work on Vizenor, that Vizenor’s writing is as much praxis as it is theory, and therefore should be considered just as relevant and exciting as any tribally-based approach, even if we have to spend a lifetime working through it. (Again, isn’t that the point?)

While the current state of the field demands and defines tribally-centered, and not Western-based, approaches as the most legitimate, Vizenor still writes on, and Allen would most likely do the same. Though I understand the need for more development of tribally-centered theories and approaches—and there is an undeniable need—I do hope for the continual evolution of Vizenor’s trickster hermeneutics and a tribal feminism of some kind, as these theoretical bodies open common ground for all scholars to appropriately study NA OoS and epistemologies. It seems the long-term viability of most subfields in English seems to point to interdisciplinarity and a wide range of approaches, and yet the tension of how to do this respectfully and appropriately in Native American literary and cultural studies remains. Though I am not Native, and cannot speak for any Native scholar or community, I can affirm that Allen’s tribal feminism and Vizenor’s trickster hermeneutics opened an entirely new perspective on the field for me, personally. I have to argue then that non-Native scholars who are serious about respectfully and appropriately learning a different way of seeing NA literature and even the world should seriously consider these approaches, as respect (to me) seems to begin with knowledge and change.


Works Cited

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, 222-244. Print.

Blaeser, Kimberly M. “Gerald Vizenor: Postindian Liberation.” The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature. Eds. Joy Porter Kenneth Roemer. Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 2005. 257-269. Print.

Bloom, Harold, ed. “Paula Gunn Allen.” Native American Women Writers. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1998. 1-10. Print.

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.

Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth, Tom Holm, John Red Horse, James Riding In. “First Panel: Reclaiming American Indian Studies.” Wicazo Sa Review 20.1 (2005): 169-177. Web. 10 October 2014.

Churchill, Mary. Paula Gunn Allen Online Web. 15 Nov. 2014.

Hume, Kathryn. “Gerald Vizenor’s Metaphysics.” Contemporary Literature XLVIII.4  (2007): 580-612. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.

Krupat, Arnold. Dead Voices, Living Voice: On the Autobiographical Writing of Gerald Vizenor.” Modern Critical Views: Native-American Writers. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1998. 151-159. Print.

. “Review: Red Matters.” College English 63.5 2001: 655-661. JSTOR Journals. Web. 24 Sept. 2014.

Peyer, Brend. “Non-fiction Prose.” The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature. Eds. Joy Porter Kenneth Roemer. Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 2005. 105-124. . Print.

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.

St. Clair, Janet. “Fighting for her Life: The Mixed-Blood Woman’s Insistence Upon Selfhood.” Modern Critical Views: Native-American Writers. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1998. 151-159. Print.

Van Dyke, Annette. “Women Writers and Gender Issues.” The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature. Eds. Joy Porter Kenneth Roemer. Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 2005. 85-102. Print.

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

—. “Native American Indian Literature: Critical Metaphors of the Ghost Dance.” World Literature Today 66.2 (1992): 223-227. Web. 4  Nov. 2014.

—. “Trickster Discourse.” American Indian Quarterly 14.3 (1990): 277-287. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.

—. “American Indian Art and Literature Today: survivance and tragic wisdom.” Museum International 62.3 (2010): 41-51. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.

—.Gerald Vizenor. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.

Paper #3: Native American Objects of Study: Issues of Legitimacy, Authenticity, and Power

In every field of study, there are object(s) of study (or OoS), or the material that must be identified and analyzed in order to generate knowledge in and about that field. Though each field’s OoS present their own difficulties and challenges, Native American (NA) literary and cultural OoS present particularly difficult challenges to scholars, due to struggles in legitimacy, authenticity, and power.

OoS, of course, depend on the discipline; many fields actively study Native American (NA) objects, including anthropology, ethnography, sociology, law, science, history, art, and religion. For example, to scholar Willard Johnson, NA prophecy is his OoS in his 1996 work for The Journal of American Academy of Religion, “Contemporary Native American Prophecy in Historical Perspective.” His article provides an extensive overview of the elements of NA prophecy from 1970 to the mid-1990s, particularly studying NA prophecy in the New Age movement. As a field, English, and in particular literary and cultural studies within English, tends to transverse and pull from all of the disciplines listed above (for better or worse, as discussed below), and therefore literature and culture studies scholars study quite a range of NA objects, whether or not they are textual in nature. Oftentimes literary and cultural studies scholars have done the work of recovery, or have critiqued recovery in other disciplines, such as critiquing the approaches anthropologists may take to NA OoS or NA communities.

The reach of English as a discipline over a range of NA OoS has been both fruitful and challenging. “Challenging” might even be a euphemism, as prominent NA scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, in her 1997 article “Who Stole Native American Studies?,” has outright called the sub-discipline of Native American literary studies a “disaster,” particularly when NA OoS are taught or used in a college course “as a way of subverting the Euro-American canon” (14). Cook-Lynn unfortunately is far from alone in her frustration with the academy. Consequently, as David Murray acknowledges in his 2005 article “Translation and Mediation” regarding scholarship on NA materials, “what we see, then, is a very complicated situation in which every term seems contested” (80).

Establishing that understanding of complications is the first step to studying NA materials. The next step is to start at the beginning of those materials, and see where those complications arise. As might be expected, there is an absolute wealth of oral material available to literary and cultural scholars. Many NA oral OoS have been translated into textual forms, and now with the advantage of technology, many can even be heard or viewed. Though NA oral OoS are now widely available in multiple forms—or perhaps because these OoS are available in multiple forms—there are major hurdles in western approaches to studying NA oral OoS.

As Dr. Drew Lopenzina insightfully pointed out to me in a personal interview, western scholars and students still have trouble accepting oral OoS as reliable, credible, or strong material to study. As Lopenzina argues, oral material is often denigrated to the western label of “pre-history,” meaning that if the material not archival or in textual form, it’s ephemeral and therefore not as strong. Modern and critical readers of archival or historical work should already know that even when something is written down, material is still incredibly unreliable and biased, yet there is still a pervasive view that oral OoS are somehow less truthful or academic.

Interestingly, I noticed after my conversation with Dr. Lopenzina that the 2005 Cambridge Companion To Native American Literature does not really offer any focus on oral materials (though authors do mention them, as does Murray in his article from this same volume). As we can see from its table of contents, the editors and authors in this volume do examine historical and cultural contexts, and the issues that arise from those contexts. We see however much more focus on textual OoS, such as non-fiction prose, autobiography, poetry, fiction, theatre, and the work of specific and highly influential modern NA writers.

Besides the fact that there is a millennia’s worth of NA oral OoS to analyze, the most significant point to always keep in mind is that the oral materials contain and have shaped—and continue to shape—the epistemologies, sacred and secular traditions, rites, beliefs, practices, and languages of NA communities today. It is essential then that non-NA students and readers attempt to understand NA oral Oos through a tribally-centered epistemology, and not a western one. This, of course, is much easier said than done, particularly with a room full of undergraduates who have barely been exposed to western literature, let alone non-Western literature. Thankfully, Dr. Lopenzina kindly shared his process for introducing NA oral OoS into his classroom and his scholarship. He starts every semester with creation myths and other NA OoS, and takes half of the course—not a week or twoto explain the means of generation, production, translation and mediation to his students: where the oral piece (often a narrative) comes from, who can tell it and under what circumstances, while still stressing that piece’s multiple versions, and finally, who has translated and published that piece, for what reason. Dr. Lopenzina will spend half of his semester on oral OoS, because he rightly believes that to truly and fairly study NA literature, culture, material, a student has to have a strong understanding of the foundational material of these communities—material produced and revised eons before the western preference for written sources.

Similarly, James Ruppert, in his 1999 article “The Old Wisdom: Introducing Native American Materials,” stresses to his audience that there is no easy approach to introducing NA oral OoS to unfamiliar readers: the histories, epistemologies, and even styles are completely unexpected and vastly different from western texts. Nevertheless, he argues that teaching NA oral materials “may take a little more time in preparation, but the rewards are great” (24). Throughout his work, Ruppert provides an excellent synthesis of these oral materials and the issues to keep in mind when studying them, which is no easy task, as North American NA oral OoS can:

  • represent the influence of up to three hundred different tribal cultures, in over two hundred distinct languages;
  • fall into four inclusive genres, including oratory (such as speeches), song, narrative, and religious expression, which can all be sacred or secular (with the exception of religious expression, which is always sacred);
  • be guided by a completely different (to non-Natives) notion of chronology;
  • perform different functions (such as a sacred explanation of a tribe’s origin, or a secular explanation of what time of the year to hunt for deer);
  • have vastly different (to non-Natives) styles and often include performance of some kind, which means the reader should ideally be a present listener to the speaker;

Though the above concepts can be very difficult for western audiences to understand, Lopenzina and Ruppert argue that it’s essential for western readers understand them, as textual NA OoS—dating from the 1700s to present day—are also based on the concepts listed above.

In regards to NA literary or textual OoS, the connected problems of authenticity and power are huge, and shall always remain highly contested, as scholars such as Susan Hegeman and Murray point out. When scholars begin to label anything, standards of authenticity—or measures for how to identify or evaluate those OoS—come into play. Hegeman, in her 1989 article “Native American ‘Texts’ and the Problems of Authenticity,” provides an excellent analysis of the problematic concept of “authenticity” in identifying and studying NA OoS, particularly through concentrating on the polemical and competing representations of the “authentic” in NA ceremonies recorded by nineteenth and twentieth century non-Native American ethnographers and anthropologists, who attempted to make these materials more “literary” to a western audience. The academic debate, then, historically erupted over the degree of tampering a scholar would undertake in translating NA OoS, which would mean tampering with the “authenticity” of the OoS. As Hegeman explains, “‘Authenticity’ has always been a category of value in our culture, opposed to the copy, the fake, the derivative. The claim to authenticity in the context of native American works can apply to a whole range of problems regarding translation and the extent to which other aspects of the original oral, dramatic, ritual performances are presented in textual form—or, it simply grounds its evaluative assumptions by relating the work to an ‘authentic’ creator” (268). Furthermore, to equate the authentic with “good” literature “seems to derive not only from Romantic notions of poetic inspiration, [but] stereotypes of Indians as close to nature, instinctual, naïve, and given to bursts of oratory” (269). Hegeman presents a review of some of the most problematic approaches to studying NA OoS, and argues that at the close of the twentieth century, a “plurality of approaches to Native American texts” seems to be the best approach. Above all, we now live in a period where Native American writers and scholars should have the greatest input in “their own constructions of their cultural heritage” (282).

Echoing concerns raised by Hegeman, in his work “Translation and Mediation,” Murray questions if it’s even right to label NA literature, or textual NA OoS, as NA, and therefore label it as other. Many scholars question why we do this, and Murray opens his article by explaining that the very concept of a NA “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, Murray points out that one obvious problem with defining Native American literature as authentically Native American is the textual nature of literature; if students and scholars are properly aware of the vast oral tradition of NA communities, does a NA text become less “Native American” if it’s textual and not oral (69)? Of course, Murray points out that to believe that there is “only one way of being Indian” is ridiculous (69); however, this paradox—the ongoing issues of authenticity, representation, and power—lead scholars like Murray to conclude that western audiences, in studying, analyzing, and reading NA OoS, “are always dealing with a process of mediation and translation” (69).

Even NA writers and scholars struggle in the process of mediation in the academy, particularly when it comes to deciding what should be published and widely distributed (and thus become an OoS in NA studies). In discussing which pieces and authors were selected for Gloria Bird and Joy Harjo’s 1997 anthology Reinventing the Enemy’s Language: Contemporary Native Women’s Writing of North America, Bird writes that she had to “confront my own internalized views on what constituted literature and recognize the learned preference of written over oral literatures in academia…we often reject other authentic stories and voices every time we judge their worth through conventional Euro-American standards of what constitutes good literature” (28). To complicate matters even further, Harjo and Bird both explain in their introduction that “to write is often still suspect in our tribal communities, and understandably so. It is through writing in the colonizer’s languages that our lands have been stolen, children taken away. We have often been betrayed by those who first learned to write and to speak the language of the occupier of our lands. Yet to speak well in our communities in whatever form is still respected. This is a dichotomy we will always deal with as long as our cultures are predominately expressed in oral literatures” (20). In other words, NA scholars who seek to publish have to mediate between their voices and goals in their communities, and the rigorous and very western expectations the academy sets.

As the quest for the “authentic” NA OoS will, most likely, always endure, it is useful to identify the major theme or message present in the most common NA OoS today. Harjo and Bird best sum up the major contemporary theme of most contemporary NA OoS in the introduction to their work: survival. In the introduction to their own anthology, they are argue that themes of survival are widespread throughout all NA OoS, including oratory, ceremony, song, performance, narrative, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, etc.. In their own work, Harjo and Bird see their anthology divided into the four parts of a survival story, including genesis, struggle, transformation, and the returning (29). Similarly, Dr. Lopenzina, in his 2012 publication Red Ink: Native Americans Pick up the Pen in the Colonial Period, titles and focuses his introduction on “Survival Writing: Contesting the ‘Pen and Ink Work’ of Colonialism.”

In my interview with Lopenzina about his 2012 work, he revealed that his major goal was to create awareness of the fact that many tribes were, in fact, engaged in both oral and textual traditions—in the colonizers’ languages—early on. Most significantly, he wanted to do the scholarly work of presenting the Native American perspective on sovereignty—sovereignty in political terms, and sovereignty in textual identity. Currently Dr. Lopenzina is working on a biography of William Apess, the first NA writer (beginning of the nineteenth century) to publish six books on NA life, history, and activism. Apess was an activist during the Cherokee removal, and used narrative as a way to protest the destruction of NA tribes. Survival, as a theme, concept, agenda, and message, has been present in NA materials since colonization began, but really has only been analyzed in NA OoS in the academy since the cultural revolution of the 1960s. The focus on survival and “the returning” (Harjo and Bird 29), otherwise known as sovereignty (Cook-Lynn et al.), will continue long into the future of the discipline.

But who makes that decision? Who decides which NA OoS, and what to analyze or study within those OoS? The answer should seem obvious, but it’s not. As mentioned above, it wasn’t until the Native American Literary Renaissance (when M. Scott Momaday won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1968 for House Made of Dawn) that universities began actively seeking to hire Native American scholars, writers, and teachers; consequently, it wasn’t until the 1970-80s that Native American scholars finally had real voice and representation in their own OoS. Dr. Lopenzina also answered this question for the discipline in 2014: the general decision-making process of what gets taught in NA literary and cultural studies occurs at academic conferences, through dialogue and then consensus. Since Cook-Lynn’s call in the 1990s for a return to the original mission of promoting sovereignty through NA studies as a discipline, Womack’s supporting 1999 publication Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism, and after the ensuing decade of dialogue and debate in the 2000s around tribal-centered approaches and criticism, Dr. Lopenzina informed me that the most widely accepted praxis and theory now in the field is Native-centered, generated by Native writers and scholars (with a handful of white writers), who then choose the OoS and control the applied criticism and theory.

It has taken roughly 600 years for Native Americans to gain their rightful place in the academy: to control their own OoS, to translate and mediate those OoS, to ask questions of and evaluate those OoS, to produce scholarship about their own OoS. Still, the fight for that power, for their own rightful representation as they determine it, continues. In 2005, in the consortium gathering of the Wicazo-Sa Review, Cook-Lynn, Tom Holm, John Red Horse, James Riding In, weigh in on the issue of sovereignty in the academy, in “First Panel: Reclaiming American Indian Studies.” The panel was intended as an update to Cook-Lynn’s 1997 piece “Who Stole Native American Studies?,” and James Riding In echoes her early sentiment in the following introduction:

Many of us in attendance today are committed to the development of AIS as a discipline, not as a stepchild of anthropology, history, English, social work, or sociology, among others. Our status as members of distinct political entities and the future of our respective nations is too significantly great to accept the practices, theories, methodologies, and canons of others. We cannot forsake meaningful service to our nations. American Indian studies must never function as the handmaiden of colonialism. The intellectual information we gather, analyze, and synthesize must be for the collective purpose of defending sovereignty, lands, economic well- being, human rights, and religious freedom of our peoples and our nations. Our careers in academia in any event are secondary to this goal. (169)

To Riding In, Cook-Lynn, Holm, Red Horse, and countless other scholars in the field of Native American studies, the only objective worth pursuing is sovereignty, and the only objects of study worth analyzing are those that directly support sovereignty. Through the goal of sovereignty—political, cultural, spiritual, environmental—we see new OoS emerging every day, including recovery of “lost” textual attempts at freedom (such as the scholarship Dr. Lopenzina is pursuing), the recovery and revitalization of tribal languages, and the reviewing and critiquing of legal texts and settlements.

To close, I will echo what those in the field have rightfully demanded: no matter the object of study today, our analysis of that object should ask and answer questions about sovereignty and sovereign representation; an analysis should give power back to the community that generated the object of study in the first place.

Works Cited

Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth. “Who Stole Native American Studies?” Wicazo Sa Review 12.1 (1997): 9-28. Web. 10 October 2014.

Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth, Tom Holm, John Red Horse, James Riding In. “First Panel: Reclaiming American Indian Studies.” Wicazo Sa Review 20.1 (2005): 169-177. Web. 10 October 2014.

Harjo, Joy and Gloria Bird, eds. Introduction. Reinventing the Enemy’s Language: Contemporary Native Women’s Writings of North America. By Harjo and Bird. Norton: New York, 1997. 19-31. Print.

Hegeman, Susan. “Native American ‘Texts’ and the Problem of Authenticity.” American Quarterly 41.2 (1989): 265-283. Web. 10 October 2014.

Johnson, Willard. “Contemporary Native American Prophecy in Historical Perspective.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64.3 (1996): 575-612. Web. 10 October 2014.

Lopenzina, Drew. Personal Interview. 9 Oct. 2014.

—. Red Ink: Native Americans Picking up the Pen in the Colonial Period. New York: SUNY P, 2012. Print.

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.

Porter, Joy and Kenneth M. Roemer. Table of Contents. The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. vii-viii. Print.

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.

Womack, Craig. Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1999. Nook File.

Paper #2: The Question of Canonization

Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism In Native American Literature_A Panel Discussion

2011 Panel, from left to right: Krupat, Brooks, Pulitano, and Womack

A prominent question pondered by scholars of Native American literary studies is where does or where should Native American literatures fall in the Euro-American canon? This question is a significant one, because the location of canonization of body of literature(s) often determines how they are read, analyzed, and discussed within the academy, but more importantly, how they are read, analyzed, discussed, and used to influence important decisions in wider society. We must take different approaches, methodologies, epistemologies, and axiologies into account when we move between bodies of literature, but what about moving into other canons? What does it mean, if anything, for a field to have its own literary canon? Another way to reframe this question is does Native American literature(s) even belong in the Euro-American literary canon? Or, should Native American literature be a separate canon entirely?     

This question has been entertained by scholars of the field since the 1970s, but really came to an open debate in the late 1990s. Interestingly, a reader of Native American literary scholarship can see the frustration that led up to the open and often contentious debate prior to the late nineties. For example, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn’s (Dakota-Sioux) 1996 publication Why I Can’t Read Wallace Stegner and Other Essays: A Tribal Voice, from the very subtitle A Tribal Voice, indicates the desire for tribal or indigenous perspectives on indigenous texts. In the seminal chapter, “Why I Can’t Read Wallace Stegner,” Cook-Lynn explains her deep resentment and frustration with Euro-American writers  who continually reinforce the mythological history of the United States, chiefly the myth that “the invasion of North America by European peoples…as a benign movement directed by God, a movement of moral courage and physical endurance, a victory for all humanity” (29), which coincides with distorted understandings of indigeneity and national identity on the part of Euro-American immigrants and their descendants, and the myth that the time or very existence of Native Americans (the truly indigenous) is over. Cook-Lynn aims her critique not only at Wallace Stegner, a prominent and influential author of both fictional and non-fictional Western regional writing, but at all writers, historians, and academics who shares Stegner’s point of view that “‘Western history sort of stopped at 1890’” (qtd. in Cook-Lynn 29), for this assertion, as she argues, supports “two troubling ideas concerning cultural nationalisms”:

First, if there is no challenge to the wrong-headed notion that Western history ended in 1890, its absence closes forever any further analysis of a period of time, and the result is that there will be no direction for new forms to take should they somehow emerge. Second, the unchallenged statement that the Plains Indians are ‘done’ forever excludes Indians from participation in the community of contemporary human thought. (29)

What happens then, she argues, is that the very nationalism and sovereignty of American Indians—who are still living and active in the Americas—is repeatedly “falsified or denied” (38). Thus, nostalgic or remorseful views of the West or frontier on the part of Euro-American writers or historians is actively and pervasively negating the fight for sovereignty and recognition of sovereignty that modern indigenous communities are continuing to fight for, today. Cook-Lynn’s work predates Craig Womack’s work by only three years, but it is clear that the call for sovereignty and tribal nationalism(s) in literature and the Western canon was increasing heavily in the 1990s.

In 1999, Craig Womack (Creek-Cherokee) released his polemical (and now widely cited) book, Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism, in which in his introduction “American Indian Literary Self-Determination,” he argues for a separate literary canon for Native American literature, and even specific tribes’ literature(s). Womack does not shy away from this controversial call, but states openly:

The primary purpose of this study is not to argue for canonical inclusion or opening up Native literature to a broader audience…I say that tribal literatures are not some branch waiting to be grafted onto the main trunk. Tribal literatures are the tree, the oldest literatures in the Americas, the most American of the American literatures. We are the canon…Without Native American literature, there is no American canon. We should not allow ourselves, through the definitions we choose and the language we use, to ever assume we are outside the canon; we should not play along and confess to being a second-rate literature. Let Americanists struggle for their place in the canon. (Understand this is not an argument for inclusion—I am saying with all the bias I can muster that our American canon, the Native literary canon of the Americas, predates their American canon. I see them as two separate canons.) (14)

Womack’s argument stems directly from his distrust of postmodern literary theories, and really any approach to indigenous literature that decontextualizes Native history and struggle. Furthermore, Womack distrusts the word essentialism, and finds it very problematic (and even convenient) that any scholar who is seeking a Native or indigenous consciousness is labeled an essentialist. As Womack explains, “the critics of Native literary nationalism have faulted Native specialists with a fundamental naiveté, claiming we argue that Native perspectives are pure, authoritative, uncontaminated by European influences. This misses the point. Native views are necessary because the ‘mental means of production’ in regards to analyzing Indian cultures has been owned, almost exclusively, by non-Indians. Radical Native view points…are called for to interrupt the literary status quo as well as the powers of the state—there is a link between thought and activism, surely” (12). What is extremely important to note in the language of Womack’s argument is that he is directly equating canonization (and the academic praxis that travels with it) to sovereignty and nationalism, and is thus directly equating the recognition of a Creek consciousness and Creek canon with Creek sovereignty and nationalism. Through this, Womack made the question of canonization about so much more than what is taught in a literature course.

The conversation around Womack’s 1999 work was swift by academic publishing standards, and has lasted through today. Though never mentioned in his book, Womack was clearly speaking to non-Native scholars of Native literature(s), such as Arnold Krupat and Elvira Pulitano, both of whom have used traditional postcolonial theory—particularly ideas of hybridity and cosmopolitanism—to approach and analyze Native American literature. Krupat is a known multiculturalist, Native American literary scholar, and Pulitano is postcolonial literary scholar.  Krupat and Pulitano were both quick to respond to Womack’s work, and Krupat in particular, in his 2001 review of Womack’s work entitled “Red Matters,” argues directly with Womack in his assertion for a Creek canon and Creek methodology, namely in the point that “Creek literature isn’t a literature entirely ‘unto itself’—there are no pure or separate literatures any more than there are pure or separate cultures or races—and Creek criticism isn’t either” (661). Similarly, in her 2003 work Toward a Native American Critical Theory, Pulitano also criticized Womack’s limited sense of cosmopolitanism and hybridity.

However, many were quick to defend Womack, or at least his call for literary separatism and separate canons.  Though Chadwick Allen, in the introduction to his 2002 book Blood Narrative: Indigenous Identity in American Indian and Maori Literary and Activist Texts, never mentions Womack by name, he is clearly harking Womack’s call for an indigenous approach or separate canon for indigenous texts. Chadwick writes, “the development of postcolonial theory and the rise of multiculturalism in the last quarter of the twentieth century have also tended to obscure the ongoing colonized status of indigenous peoples in the United States” (4), and states that the purpose of his work in Blood Narrative is to “better understand, that is, how indigenous writers and activists mark and thus construct contemporary indigenous identities as distinct from settler and other nonindigenous identities in their particular nations and in the larger global context” (7). Beyond Allen’s application of Womack’s ideas in his work, other scholars have come forward to outright defend Womack and offer a better understanding of his work. Michelle Henry, in her 2004 article “Canonizing Craig Womack: Finding Native Literature’s Place in Indian Country” and Alexander Hollenberg, in his 2009 article “Speaking with the Separatists: Craig Womack and the Relevance of Literary History,” both openly support Womack and argue that what may seem an exclusionary approach on the surface is actually a very sophisticated understanding of Creek or tribal identity and sovereignty—on Creek and tribal terms.

The question of the canonization of Native American literature(s), and what that canonization really means for indigenous populations, is ongoing, though now in much less polemical terms. In 2011, Womack, Pulitano, Krupat, and Lisa Brooks (Abenaki and scholar) all gathered at Emory University for an engaging and honest panel discussion entitled “Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism in Native American Literature.” Though it is clear all four scholars still have separate ideas about canonization and its ties to sovereignty and nationalism versus cosmopolitanism in a (post)colonial world, they all seem to agree that perhaps their ideas on canonization are not as mutually exclusive as they all once argued. Michael Elliot, the panel moderator, writes eloquently at the close of the panel, “At stake in these conversations is the purpose of reading Native American literature itself—the question of how literary expression relates to the tangled histories of colonialism, sovereignty, and community. For those of us who are privileged to be members of the academy, we must wrestle with what it means to teach this body of expression in the context of contemporary higher education.”

Works Cited

Allen, Chadwick. Introduction. Blood Narrative: Indigenous Identity in American Indian and Maori Literary                and Activist Texts. Durham: Duke UP, 2002. 1-24. Print.

Brooks, Lisa, Michael Elliot, Arnold Krupat, Elvira Pulitano, and Craig Womack. “Cosmopolitanism and                 Nationalism in Native American Literature: A Panel Discussion.” Southern Spaces 2011. Emory U                Libraries. Web. 27 Sept. 2014.

Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth. Chapter 5. “Why I Can’t Read Wallace Stegner.” Why I Can’t Read Wallace Stegner                and Other Essays: A Tribal Voice. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1996. 29-40. Print.

Henry, Michelle. “Canonizing Craig Womack: Finding Native Literature’s Place in Indian Country.” American               Indian Quarterly 28.1/2 2004: 30-51. JSTOR Journals. Web. 15 Sept. 2014.

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.

Krupat, Arnold. “Review: Red Matters.” College English 63.5 2001: 655-661. JSTOR Journals. Web. 24                 Sept. 2014.

Pulitano, Elvira. Toward a Native American Critical Theory. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2003. Print.

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.  


Paper #1: A Brief History of American Indian Literary Studies

N. Scott Momaday

N. Scott Momaday, Pulitzer Prize Winner for House Made of Dawn (1969)

As many scholars of American Indian literary studies will argue, a vast and diverse body of indigenous works–in the form of songs, ceremonies, poetry, fiction, nonfiction, oral, written–existed long before most literature departments did.  However, as Kenneth Roemer notes in the introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature, it was not until the Civil Rights and Feminist movements of the 1960s, and the accompanying academic movements of Ethnic and Women’s studies, that American Indian Literature(s) found a real entrance into academia. These historical movements, along with a rise in publications from Native American authors, the 1969 publication of Vine Deloria, Jr.’s Custer Died for Your Sins, and the awarding of the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for fiction to Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday for House Made of Dawn, paved the entrance for American Indian literary studies into the academy, as a subdiscipline to literature and American Indian Studies (an emerging discipline itself in the 1970s) (Roemer 2).

Indeed, it’s difficult to trace or study the emergence of the subdiscipline of Native American literary studies, as this field tends to be labeled as an emphasis in literature within English departments, or becomes a part of the interdisciplinary work of an American Indian Studies scholar. Though many English departments have created a specialization in Native American Literature since the 1970s, and though many universities have created interdisciplinary Native American Studies programs, there are a few universities which can distinctly lay claim to developing or supporting a niche for Native American literary studies.

The American Literary Studies program within the English department of the University of New Mexico (Albuquerque) holds the significant claim of being the central hub of the Native American Literary Renaissance of the late sixties and seventies. Though “renaissance” is a somewhat problematic term (see below), UNM has produced undeniably significant alumni who are central to the First Wave of the field, including: N. Scott Momaday (who is currently a visiting professor in the UNM English department), Native-Feminist critic Paula Gunn Allen, and writer Leslie Marmon Silko.

However, it is the University of Oklahoma English Department that asserts it was the first in the country (in 1969) to teach a Native American Literature course. The university now offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in this literary emphasis, but since 1994, over 100 hundred students have graduated from OU’s Native American Studies program, a department completely separate from English.

Similarly, UCLA’s English department does offer an emphasis in Native American Literary studies, but it is the UCLA American Indian Studies Interdepartmental program, which was created after student and faculty petitioning in 1969, that “strives to merge the concerns of the academy with research aims of the Native community” and “advocates a holistic framework for studying American Indian society, transcending traditional disciplinary boundaries.” Additionally, the UCLA American Indian Studies Center has published The American Indian Culture and Research Journal since 1971.

Due to the demands of the 1969 campus group the Third World Liberation Front, UC Berkeley created the Department of Ethnic Studies, which, as is written in its mission statement, “encourages the comparative study of racialization in the Americas, with a focus on the histories, literatures, and politics of Asian Americans, Chicanos/Latinos, Native American Indians, and African Americans.”

In 1974, a number of academic journals were established to support the growing need for critical scholarship in the field. The University of Nebraska Press began publishing the now prominent academic journal Studies in American Indian Literatures (SAILs), which began as a newsletter and went on to become “the only journal in America that focuses exclusively on American Indian literatures.” The U of Nebraska Press also publishes the journal American Indian Quarterly (AIQ).

As Kroemer asserts in the introduction to his anthology, the emergence of Native American Literary Studies was in response to the cultural and Civil Rights movements of the sixties and seventies, and its emergence in higher education could not have been possible without the pressures applied first by civil rights activists and feminists. Nevertheless, the guiding movement was the American Indian Movement (AIM), which demanded recognition of and aid in the struggles of real American Indians and their respective communities. As James Ruppert notes in his essay “Fiction: 1968 to the Present,” it was the Indian activist demonstrations and sit-ins at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington and of Wounded Knee in 1973 that “brought Native social criticism to the television,” and brought the resulting demand for more criticism, scholarship, study, and programs based around American Indian literature and perspectives to the academy (174).

This time period–specifically starting with Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize for House Made of Dawn–has been termed the Native American Renaissance. Rupport notes, however, this term is problematic, “because it might imply that Native writers were not producing significant work before that time or that these writers sprang up without longstanding community and tribal roots” (173). But, he goes on to note that “there is no question but at this time, the landscape of Native American literature changed” (173), for there was an enormous increase in publishing of Native American writers  between Momaday’s novel and Leslie Marmon Silko’s 1977 novel Ceremony. With the rise in publications and social pressure, the need and desire for scholarship in the discipline had never been greater (whereas before, it barely existed). Thus, the First Wave of American Indian literature began, and most scholars will agree, is quickly reaching a Fourth Wave.

As David Treuer notes in his 2011 conference talk “The Cultural Twilight” at the fortieth anniversary celebration of American Indian Studies at UCLA,  the First Wave of Native American Literary Studies “united activism and legitimization because Native American studies were seen as derived from and interfaced with Native American communities and cultures,” and that scholars of the First Wave “argued, rather counter to mainstream critical practices, that its subject and method was other, different, because its subject was its method” (48). Treuer praises the writers, artists, scholars, and literary critics of the First Wave in his speech, but uses the majority of his speech to call for the emergence of the Fourth Wave, a call which most modern literary critics in the field seem to echo. Though much was accomplished over the past fifty years in higher education, Treuer and others note there is much to be done, and he asks specifically that the field consider how specific tribal “language and cultural revitalization” become the “new activism” that ignites American Indian literary studies (53).

Works Cited

American Indian Quarterly. U of Nebraska P. n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

American Indians Study Center Press. UCLA. 2014. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

American Literary Studies Program. U of New Mexico (Albuquerque). n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

Department of Ethnic Studies. UC Berkeley. 2009. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

Interdepartmental Program in American Indian Studies. UCLA. 2014. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

Native American Literary Studies, Department of English. U of Oklahoma. n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

Native American Studies Program. U of Oklahoma. 2014. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

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.

Ruppert, James. “Fiction: 1968 to Present.” The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature.             Introduction. Eds. Joy Porter and Kenneth M. Roemer. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. 173-188. Print.

Studies in American Indian Literatures. U of Nebraska P. n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

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.

Works Consulted

Baym, Nina and Robert S. Levine, Eds. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 2: 1865-                  Present. 8th Ed. New York: Norton, 2013. Print.

Bloom, Harold. Ed. Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Native American Writers–New Edition. New York:                Infobase Publishing, 2010.  Print.

Krupat, Arnold. “Native American Literature and the Canon.” Critical Inquiry 10.1  (1983): 145-171. Web. 7        Sept. 2014.