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 two—to 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.
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.