"I was born here," breathed Chona reverently, "on the Land."
I wish I had some magical, some almost holy translation for the Indian word she used. Land, to me, was a possession to be claimed and fought over by farmers, builders, exploiters-- yes--and patriots. For this old Papago woman and her kin, I was to learn, it is the land that possesses the people. Its influence, in time, shapes their bodies, their language, even, a little, their religion.
--Ruth M. Underhill, Papago Woman
As I hope this study helps to show, one of the fundamental tenets of the creative vision
informing American Indian fiction, as represented in the novels Ceremony,
House Made of
Dawn, and The Death of Jim Loney, is the proposition that place,
understood as a living
physical landscape invested with the same type and degree of spirit as humanity, has the
power to shape the identities of the People, individually and collectively, whose lives take
place there. In the novels of Silko, Momaday, and Welch, alienation is a disease whose cure
depends on the individual's willingness to enter into identity with a particular landscape. This
proposition might sound suspiciously romantic, simplistic, or even absurd to a non-Native
reader. To these writers, and to the American Indian cultural traditions their protagonists
represent, however, this proposition is both axiomatic and realistic. The land, as a living
reality, simply and surely precedes whatever values humans, as individuals or as a cultural
collective, might later impose upon that reality. To see clearly the reality and life of the land
is to see clearly the very context and pretext of every event that takes place there, whether
the event is taken to be as pluralistic as the life of a culture or as individualistic as the life of a
single human being.
Taken as a premise, this claim in turn predicates the possibility of individual identity not only with the land but with the cultural traditions grounded there. For the protagonists in these works, overcoming alienation by recovering identity is a matter of shaping one's vision and motion to a particular landscape, a process requiring surrender to the power of place rather than personal imposition upon it. Coincidentally, such an act of reidentification and self-verification in terms of place brings the individual into identity also with the life of the People, whose collective traditions have evolved out of (and are verified by) a similar process. Understood as texts, the individual's story or personal myth and the myth of the culture share a common pretext: both are humanized stories--versions--of the land. What differentiates these texts from other works of postwar American fiction is that their pretext is not just another contrived fiction. The referent (pretext) for both the personal and the cultural fiction (texts) is, rather, the physical reality of place. It follows, then, that where place is acknowledged as the basis for all subsequent evaluation, there is no fundamental difference between individual and cultural experience or perception: both arise out of, and may be understood as articulations in differing voices of, the same preverbal reality.
The key term here may be "articulation." As I've mentioned before, much of the available criticism of these novels treats these texts as though their proper pretext and context were the satellite cultural traditions--Keresan\Laguna, Towan\Jemez, Kiowa, Navajo, Gros Ventre and Blackfeet--that the novels' characters hope to preserve or recover. From this critical perspective, we can say a protagonist's formulated perceptions and actions--that is, acts of individual articulation--are "authentic" when they conform to cultural norms recorded elsewhere in some oral or written textual form. But insofar as a cultural tradition itself is an articulation of a way of life, the oral and written pretexts for these novels, be they literary, historical, or anthropological, are themselves fictions. To evaluate one fiction in terms of another is to risk getting lost in the mirrors of contemporary critical reflexivity, and in the process to become as rootless and dislocated as Tayo, Abel, or Jim Loney at their most dis-eased. The point made over and over in these novels, as well as in the cultural traditions we tend to identify as their pretexts, is that tradition confirms but does not create identity. Articulation of identity must be preceded by an act of identity to articulate. In these novels, as in many other works of American Indian literature both traditional and recent, identity with a physical landscape precedes cultural re-entry.
Even knowing how fundamental landscape is to Native American cultural identity, a reader can easily confuse stories about the land with the land itself and go on to privilege the issue of identity with cultural tradition over the issue of identity with the land. To cite one relevant example: addressing the possibility of using "concern with the landscape" as a critical tool in her seminal article "The Death of Jim Loney: Indian or Not?" Katherine Sands says that "for Loney the landscape isn't a potent force and not a healing one" because it doesn't function in this novel the way it does in other major contemporary works of Indian literature:
Is [Loney's] alienation from the land a crisis of spirit similar to Tayo's in Ceremony or Abel's in House Made of Dawn? No. Loney has never had the traditional view of the land these protagonists can rediscover. . . . Loney has no grounding in the stories or traditions that animate landscape. . . . So what we might expect to contribute to some unraveling of the novel, landscape, oral traditions, Indian wisdom and life ways, in Welch's hands are ironic or defeating. (6)
My own contention is that in in all three of these novels landscape functions to animate
cultural tradition, not the other way around: the cultural traditions affirm the life of the land,
but they do not engender that life. While it's probably fair to say that Loney does not have the
traditional view of the land that overtly characterizes Tayo and Abel as Native protagonists,
it does not follow that such a view is therefore unobtainable--to Loney or to anyone else. If
Loney cannot rediscover the possibility of identity with and in the landscape of
Montana, still he can, and does, discover it.
Even so, the notion that "the stories or traditions . . . animate landscape" continues to be a widespread and particularly seductive contention in much of recent literary criticism of American Indian texts. Perhaps this is because story and tradition can help open our eyes to aspects of the life of the land that we might otherwise be blind to--blinded by our own presumptions about the preeminent value of human life over all of life's other forms, and made deaf perhaps by our preconceived idea that silence signifies an absence of life. Arguably, traditional story does function confirmatively in Ceremony and House Made of Dawn, not only for the reader but also, to some extent, for the protagonists in those works. In Ceremony, for instance, the embedded Keresan recovery story involving Pa'caya'nyi's introduction of Ck'o'yo medicine into the lives of the People, and the subsequent effort by Hummingbird and Green Fly to return Our Mother Nau'ts'ityi to the Fifth World, functions broadly as a template for Tayo's overall quest in the novel to reinvigorate the life of the land and the People, including his own, while another traditional Keresan story involving Sun Man's quest to recover the stolen rain clouds from the Gambler Ka't'sina Kaup'a'ta both previews and predicts the structure of Tayo's recovery of the speckled cattle in the Mount Taylor episode. Taken as pretexts, these stories certainly add an extra dimension to our understanding of Tayo's own motion.1 As texts, the story of Tayo and these Keresan stories interact to animate one another; they do not, however, animate landscape. Rather, the stories and the characters in them are animated by the landscapes through which they move. Silko makes this point by seeing to it that Tayo, though repeatedly asked for his story by the elders of Laguna (36, 106, 218, 228), makes no attempt to articulate his experience until after he has revisited all of Laguna land and reconstellated his vision to its life, including the Ck'o'yo element apparent in the recently savaged earth of the Jackpile Mine. Just as importantly, the oral text Tayo presents to the village elders in the kiva at the end of the novel derives its final authority not from its analogy to previous oral texts but rather from its structural geography, its grounding in particular, confirmable time and place: "they stopped him frequently with questions about the location and the time of day; they asked about the direction she had come . . ." (257). Similarly, Abel in House Made of Dawn remains "inarticulate" (58) until he utterly re-enters the motion of life at Walatowa, his vision given over entirely to a vision of the land taking shape at sunrise, at which moment Ben's song comes to make sense as a text congruent with the pretextual event of Abel's unqualified (re-) identification with the land. Even then, the words of the song are not uttered; no sound, no text has more authority than the landscape such healing texts take as their final referent. Momaday makes the same point through Ben, whose Navajo identity is grounded in a preverbal experience of identity with a particular landscape ("at first light you went out and knew where you were. . . . And you were there where you wanted to be, and alone. You didn't want to see anyone, or hear anyone speak. There was nothing to say" [169-70]), and again through Tosamah, the closest thing we have in the novel to an authorial persona, whose Saturday sermon to his congregation of the Relocated warns of the characteristically Euroamerican, and also non-Indian, tendency to substitute worlds made of words for the world itself. And finally, Welch ensures that Jim Loney, although knowing little or nothing of the Gros Ventre or Assiniboine cultural traditions associated with the land between the Milk River and the Little Rockies, nevertheless works himself back into identity with the faces (if not the voices) of the People by retuning his vision to the landscape of north-central Montana. In all these cases, the process of human spiritual regeneration, of healing, depends most immediately not on articulation (nor on acquiring a verbal text to articulate) but rather on conforming individual vision to the reality of a physical landscape. Ontologically, a vision of the land, alive, empowers the protagonists of these novels, much as some such vision empowers, characterizes, identifies, and authenticates the People and by extension their stories and traditions.
I want to close this study of the relationship between vision and place in Native American fiction by returning briefly to the contextualizing concept of an American literary mainstream with which I began. At the same time, I think I should say a few words about the origins of my own research into this topic.
As a novice assistant professor during the three years prior to my first sabbatical in 1981, I had been teaching a set of courses that included two upper-level English courses, one listed in the catalog as "Current Literature" and the other as "Minorities Literature," and an ambitiously expansive team-taught, year-long, 13-hour interdisciplinary course entitled "Order and Disorder in the Twentieth Century." One of the eight or nine texts in Minorities Literature was Momaday's House Made of Dawn, a text that baffled but intrigued me; one of the three postwar literary texts for the interdisciplinary course was Robert M. Pirsig's rich, controversial, brilliantly idiosyncratic study of twentieth-century American cultural vision, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
At the time, as I recall, I was especially intrigued by Pirsig's use of climate and geography as controlling metaphors for the intellectual topography of conventional postwar American thinking and spiritual vision, by how conveniently changes in weather and landscape serve to telegraph or accompany changes in the drift and direction of the namelesss narrator's own thinking. The topological analogy between landscape and vision in the texture of this novel, I thought, brought into question some of our century's--and our culture's--most cherished assumptions about the primacy and autonomy of human consciousness. In Pirsig's text, the structure and motion of narrative consciousness seemed (and still seems) to me to depend as much on the physical landscape through which it moves as on the currents of the intellectually mainstream ideas it retraces. That is, for all the overt abstractness-- sometimes even abstruseness--of the novel's metaphysical subject matter, its basic structure seem fundamentally realistic, at least in the sense that the structure and motion of its plot remain consistently responsible to the topography of the physical landscape through which the protagonist moves. Mapping place names and descriptions on a Rand McNally road atlas, one can trace exactly the protagonist's itinerary all the way from Breckenridge, Minnesota (25) west to Bend, Oregon (294), then south along the Pacific coast towards San Francisco (372). I did this, and then I toyed for some time with the idea of replicating (that is, literally driving, though in an automobile rather than on a motorcycle) the narrator's itinerary, just to see whether Pirsig was being so topographically accurate and, if so, whether knowing this would make any difference to a reading of the novel.
I never made that trip. Instead, I ended up spending the limited travel time of my first sabbatical to make a different trip for similar purposes, going to see for myself the landscape of north-central New Mexico where, I suspected, House Made of Dawn was primarily set.2 How I managed to stumble on Walatowa's identity with Jemez Pueblo, and how that "discovery" changed my life, is a pretty hilarious story that doesn't want or need recounting here; I mention it only to show that my own interest in the role of landscapes in Native American fiction grew originally from a passing interest in the element of geographical realism in what I still take to be one of the most overlooked masterpieces of recent American fiction, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
One passage in particular from that novel brings together several lines of thought I'd like to conclude this study with. As the novel opens, the unnamed narrator is in motion, "heading northwest from Minneapolis toward the Dakotas" (3), his long-range itinerary replicating the mainstream culture's direction of flow during the Nineteenth Century. His purpose, he tells us, is to develop a Chautauqua3 that will "not . . . cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated" (7). The analogy here between a river and American cultural tradition continues to function, as it has since at least Huckleberry Finn, as one of the controlling metaphors of the narrator's unfolding Chautauqua; ultimately, as the novel's subtitle ("An Inquiry Into Values") acknowledges, the Chautauqua becomes a critique of the strange, estranging quality of traditional Western thinking and, beyond that, an attempt by the narrator to recover the ability and willingness to see beyond the "channels of consciousness" to the landscape--both the intellectual and the literal--that functions to shape (and for better or worse to be shaped by) both cultural and individual consciousness.
During the first afternoon of the narrative, after having introduced the topic of twentieth-century technology and its relation to contemporary feelings of alienation, disharmony, and dis-ease, the narrator meditates on a certain ineffable quality he associates with the visually boundless landscape of the Great Plains:
In my mind, when I look at these fields, I say to [Sylvia Sutherland, one of three traveling companions], "See? . . . See?" and I think she does. I hope later she will see and feel a thing about these prairies I have given up talking to others about; a thing that exists here because everything else does not and can be noticed because other things are absent. She seems so depressed sometimes by the monotony and boredom of her city life, I thought maybe in this endless grass and wind she would see a thing that sometimes comes when monotony and boredom are accepted. It's here, but I have no names for it. (18)
The next morning the "thing" he hopes Sylvia will "see" once again becomes a topic of discourse when Sylvia's husband, John, pauses to take photographs of the prairie somewhere between Ellendale and Hague:
After a while he says, "This is the hardest stuff in the world to photograph. You need a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree lens, or something. You see it, and then you look down in the ground glass and it's just nothing. As soon as you put a border on it, it's gone."
I say, "That's what you don't see in a car, I suppose."
Sylvia says, "Once when I was about ten we stopped like this by the road and I used half a roll of film taking pictures. And when the pictures came back I cried. There wasn't anything there." (42)
Of course, there is always something "there," in a photograph or in a verbal
image of the
landscape, but what the images are supposed to be of is, in the final analysis,
the photograph, or the description. To "see" it requires a moment of vision, a moment of
conceptual surrender to the immediate presence of the world, a moment of identification
between what takes shape in the mind's eye and what is there to be seen. And as
it, as she stretches out her arms in a gesture of both embrace and surrender, in that moment
"`It's so beautiful. It's so empty'" (42).
As several Navajo songs about hozhojii (a term often translated as "Blessingway") tell us, to move in the way of the land is to walk in beauty. Perhaps this is what Pirsig is saying, at the formal heart of his Chautauqua and in his Euroamerican way, when he has his protagonist (re-)discover that "Quality is not a thing. It is an event" (215) and that "Reality is always the moment of vision before the intellectualization takes place. There is no other reality" (222). Pirsig's narrator's "Quality" or "Reality," Welch's Loney's "possibilities of spirit," Silko's Tayo's recovery, and Momaday's Abel's return are all, in some sense, names for that "thing"--which is, when seen clearest, not so much a thing as an event, taking place--that inheres in the land, waiting to be recognized, waiting to become the informing element of healing human vision and, in works such as these, to become the indispensable controlling principle of articulation and choice.
1For a fuller analysis of these two story motifs as pretexts for Silko's own, see my article "He Said / She Said: Writing the Oral Tradition in Gunn's `Kopot Ka-nat' and Silko's Storyteller." [back]
2As clear as it may be to most readers today that Momaday's novel is set a Jemez Pueblo, it was news to me in 1981. The word Jemez appears nowhere in the novel, and none of the place names that appear in the text (Walatowa, Los Ojos, Vallecitos, San Ysidro) is indexed in the Rand McNally, my only research aid at the time. [back]
3The narrator glosses the term Chautauqua as an "old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer" (7). The reference is to the social and cultural agenda of the Chautauqua Society, inaugurated in 1874. Given the narrator's own concern with the origins of American cultural traditions as well as with the "mainstream" metaphor (vide infra), it's interesting that the term was originally appropriated from a Seneca phrase for a body of water where one can catch fish. [back]
alks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer" (7). The reference is to the social and cultural agenda of the Chautauqua Society, inaugurated in 1874. Given the narrator's own concern with the origins of American cultural traditions as well as with with the "mainstream" metaphor (vide infra), it's interesting that the term was originally appropriated from a Seneca phrase for a body of water where one can catch fish. [back]