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.  


3 thoughts on “Paper #2: The Question of Canonization

  1. Meredith – wow, what a comprehensive view of this debate, one I was not familiar with. I’m curious what this means for literary scholars who are not part of any Native tribe, and whether they can have authority in this field, based on Womack’s seeming call for exclusivity? I guess I mean, would a non-Native American (or any other nationality) have legitimacy in analyzing Native Literatures in the field, give Womack’s call for “separatism and separate canons”? Obviously from an outside, general literary perspective there would be legitimacy, but what about within the dialogue among Native theorists and scholars, given that there seems to be a sense that Native perspectives are what are emphasized in this debate?

  2. Meredith, it was really interesting reading your paper alongside our readings on literary studies this week. The question of whether Native American could/should be incorporated into the Euro-American literary canon or have a canon of its own connected well to Taylor’s point about canon (de) formation in literary studies. The notion of Native American literature constituting its own field also struck me as one at odds with the periodization characteristic of literary studies that our readings highlighted. Now, I must admit I know little to nothing about Native American literary studies, but as I was reading your paper, I was wondering if this field embraces or rejects periodization. For instance, would someone define herself as a nineteenth-century Native American scholar, or does that focus on chronology not fit with the axiology of Native American literary studies? If chronology isn’t an appropriate delineator, what is?

    • Julie and Meredith, I’m really interested in the question of whether or not scholars who are “other” than their texts have “legitimacy” in their studies. Though I admit that it’s on my “to research” as opposed to “have researched” list, I believe critical race theory wrestles with this idea. In conversations with Dr. Santo about racial representations in comics he often cites the idea of “ghettoization” – that is, the danger of saying only those who are “like” can write about an identity or idea, and therefore othering the scholarship itself. It’s something I hope to get into this winter, when there’s not so much other reading to do.

      On another note, I wonder at Womak’s assertion that there “is no American literature” without Native American literature…

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