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.  

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