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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 Memorialpaulagunnallen.net. 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. hanksville.org/storytellers/vizenor/. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.