Tag Archive | Silko

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.  

Paper #1: A Brief History of American Indian Literary Studies

N. Scott Momaday

N. Scott Momaday, Pulitzer Prize Winner for House Made of Dawn (1969)

As many scholars of American Indian literary studies will argue, a vast and diverse body of indigenous works–in the form of songs, ceremonies, poetry, fiction, nonfiction, oral, written–existed long before most literature departments did.  However, as Kenneth Roemer notes in the introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature, it was not until the Civil Rights and Feminist movements of the 1960s, and the accompanying academic movements of Ethnic and Women’s studies, that American Indian Literature(s) found a real entrance into academia. These historical movements, along with a rise in publications from Native American authors, the 1969 publication of Vine Deloria, Jr.’s Custer Died for Your Sins, and the awarding of the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for fiction to Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday for House Made of Dawn, paved the entrance for American Indian literary studies into the academy, as a subdiscipline to literature and American Indian Studies (an emerging discipline itself in the 1970s) (Roemer 2).

Indeed, it’s difficult to trace or study the emergence of the subdiscipline of Native American literary studies, as this field tends to be labeled as an emphasis in literature within English departments, or becomes a part of the interdisciplinary work of an American Indian Studies scholar. Though many English departments have created a specialization in Native American Literature since the 1970s, and though many universities have created interdisciplinary Native American Studies programs, there are a few universities which can distinctly lay claim to developing or supporting a niche for Native American literary studies.

The American Literary Studies program within the English department of the University of New Mexico (Albuquerque) holds the significant claim of being the central hub of the Native American Literary Renaissance of the late sixties and seventies. Though “renaissance” is a somewhat problematic term (see below), UNM has produced undeniably significant alumni who are central to the First Wave of the field, including: N. Scott Momaday (who is currently a visiting professor in the UNM English department), Native-Feminist critic Paula Gunn Allen, and writer Leslie Marmon Silko.

However, it is the University of Oklahoma English Department that asserts it was the first in the country (in 1969) to teach a Native American Literature course. The university now offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in this literary emphasis, but since 1994, over 100 hundred students have graduated from OU’s Native American Studies program, a department completely separate from English.

Similarly, UCLA’s English department does offer an emphasis in Native American Literary studies, but it is the UCLA American Indian Studies Interdepartmental program, which was created after student and faculty petitioning in 1969, that “strives to merge the concerns of the academy with research aims of the Native community” and “advocates a holistic framework for studying American Indian society, transcending traditional disciplinary boundaries.” Additionally, the UCLA American Indian Studies Center has published The American Indian Culture and Research Journal since 1971.

Due to the demands of the 1969 campus group the Third World Liberation Front, UC Berkeley created the Department of Ethnic Studies, which, as is written in its mission statement, “encourages the comparative study of racialization in the Americas, with a focus on the histories, literatures, and politics of Asian Americans, Chicanos/Latinos, Native American Indians, and African Americans.”

In 1974, a number of academic journals were established to support the growing need for critical scholarship in the field. The University of Nebraska Press began publishing the now prominent academic journal Studies in American Indian Literatures (SAILs), which began as a newsletter and went on to become “the only journal in America that focuses exclusively on American Indian literatures.” The U of Nebraska Press also publishes the journal American Indian Quarterly (AIQ).

As Kroemer asserts in the introduction to his anthology, the emergence of Native American Literary Studies was in response to the cultural and Civil Rights movements of the sixties and seventies, and its emergence in higher education could not have been possible without the pressures applied first by civil rights activists and feminists. Nevertheless, the guiding movement was the American Indian Movement (AIM), which demanded recognition of and aid in the struggles of real American Indians and their respective communities. As James Ruppert notes in his essay “Fiction: 1968 to the Present,” it was the Indian activist demonstrations and sit-ins at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington and of Wounded Knee in 1973 that “brought Native social criticism to the television,” and brought the resulting demand for more criticism, scholarship, study, and programs based around American Indian literature and perspectives to the academy (174).

This time period–specifically starting with Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize for House Made of Dawn–has been termed the Native American Renaissance. Rupport notes, however, this term is problematic, “because it might imply that Native writers were not producing significant work before that time or that these writers sprang up without longstanding community and tribal roots” (173). But, he goes on to note that “there is no question but at this time, the landscape of Native American literature changed” (173), for there was an enormous increase in publishing of Native American writers  between Momaday’s novel and Leslie Marmon Silko’s 1977 novel Ceremony. With the rise in publications and social pressure, the need and desire for scholarship in the discipline had never been greater (whereas before, it barely existed). Thus, the First Wave of American Indian literature began, and most scholars will agree, is quickly reaching a Fourth Wave.

As David Treuer notes in his 2011 conference talk “The Cultural Twilight” at the fortieth anniversary celebration of American Indian Studies at UCLA,  the First Wave of Native American Literary Studies “united activism and legitimization because Native American studies were seen as derived from and interfaced with Native American communities and cultures,” and that scholars of the First Wave “argued, rather counter to mainstream critical practices, that its subject and method was other, different, because its subject was its method” (48). Treuer praises the writers, artists, scholars, and literary critics of the First Wave in his speech, but uses the majority of his speech to call for the emergence of the Fourth Wave, a call which most modern literary critics in the field seem to echo. Though much was accomplished over the past fifty years in higher education, Treuer and others note there is much to be done, and he asks specifically that the field consider how specific tribal “language and cultural revitalization” become the “new activism” that ignites American Indian literary studies (53).

Works Cited

American Indian Quarterly. U of Nebraska P. n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

American Indians Study Center Press. UCLA. 2014. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

American Literary Studies Program. U of New Mexico (Albuquerque). n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

Department of Ethnic Studies. UC Berkeley. 2009. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

Interdepartmental Program in American Indian Studies. UCLA. 2014. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

Native American Literary Studies, Department of English. U of Oklahoma. n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

Native American Studies Program. U of Oklahoma. 2014. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

Roemer, Kenneth M. The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature. Introduction. Eds. Joy            Porter and Kenneth M. Roemer. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. 1-35. Print.

Ruppert, James. “Fiction: 1968 to Present.” The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature.             Introduction. Eds. Joy Porter and Kenneth M. Roemer. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. 173-188. Print.

Studies in American Indian Literatures. U of Nebraska P. n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

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.

Works Consulted

Baym, Nina and Robert S. Levine, Eds. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 2: 1865-                  Present. 8th Ed. New York: Norton, 2013. Print.

Bloom, Harold. Ed. Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Native American Writers–New Edition. New York:                Infobase Publishing, 2010.  Print.

Krupat, Arnold. “Native American Literature and the Canon.” Critical Inquiry 10.1  (1983): 145-171. Web. 7        Sept. 2014.