PAB Entry #3 (Murray)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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