We are the land. To the best of my understanding, that is the fundamental idea embedded in Native American life and culture in the Southwest. More than remembered, the earth is the mind of the people as we are the mind of the earth. The land is not really the place (separate from ourselves) where we act out the drama of our isolate destinies. It is not a means of survival, a setting for our affairs, a resource on which we draw in order to keep our own act functioning. It is not the ever-present "Other" which supplies us with a sense of "I." It is rather a part of our being, dynamic, significant, real. It is ourself, in as real a sense as such notions as "ego," "libido" or social network, in a sense more real than any conceptualization or abstraction about the nature of human being can ever be. . . . Nor is this relationship one of mere "affinity" for the Earth. It is not a matter of being "close to nature." The relationship is more one of identity, in the mathematical sense, than of affinity. The Earth is, in a very real sense, the same as ourself (or selves), and it is this primary point that is made in the fiction and poetry of the Native American writers of the Southwest.
--Paula Gunn Allen, "Iyani: It Goes This Way"
This is a study of three American novels published within the past quarter of a century: N.
Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn (1968), Leslie Marmon Silko's
and James Welch's The Death of Jim Loney (1979). Each has at one time or another
hailed as a masterwork of what Kenneth Lincoln calls the Native American Renaissance.
Identifying them as Native American works also tends to marginalize them, since using the
label implies the validity of categorizing literature according to its ethnic antecedents. My
intention in this study is to show how the validity of these three works of recent American
fiction can be established without presuming ethnocentric criteria. This is possible because, in
these three works, the common referent that serves to define, evaluate, and confirm or
validate identity is a physical landscape rather than a social fabric.
Thanks in large measure to the efforts (and sometimes excesses) of the deconstructionist approach, whose proponents shaped critical inquiry during the 1980s, we have seen in recent years evidence of a willingness even among the more conservative elements of literary academe to review the traditional canon with an eye to revising or expanding it. During this period, the search for "representative" longer Native American texts written in English has usually stopped at one or another (or a combination) of the three works addressed in this study. Though all three of these writers have gone on to publish novels (most recently Momaday's 1989 The Ancient Child, Welch's 1990 The Indian Lawyer, and Silko's 1991 Almanac of the Dead) that are arguably more mature or even more "representative" of an emerging Native American novel tradition, and although a case could certainly be made that a number of other novels by other authors, written both before and after these three, are equally representative in this sense, still these three novels have come to be generally regarded as indisputably important Native American novels, and so I have chosen to treat them in this study.
Each of these three novels qualifies most obviously as a work of Native American literature because its author is a Native American.1 Beyond Indian authorship, all three works feature a Native protagonist (either halfbreed or mixed breed), settings that include Indian reservations, and a distinctly Native American texture deriving from incorporation of and/or allusion to various tribal traditions. This texture especially strikes first-time readers of these fictions as culturally exotic, implying as it does a creative vision responsive to cultural assumptions other than those already familiarly encountered in the Euroamerican literary tradition as preserved and transmitted in literature courses based on pre-1980 Norton anthologies.
As a literary text, then, each of these novels presents classroom challenges not only to students but, usually, also to their teachers. By far the greatest perceived challenge is, to borrow E. D. Hirsch's controversial term, to the reader's cultural illiteracy. The critical assumptions of '50s formalism and '80s structuralism notwithstanding, many readers cannot help presuming that, since the "subtext" in these works is culturally alien to them, the text itself is bound to be closed to all but fairly sophisticated (i.e., tribally literate) Native readers. Correlatively, much of the interpretative criticism available on these works is designed to provide the non-Indian reader entry to these texts by foregrounding and dealing with relatively unfamiliar, tribally-centered, mythic and social and oral-traditional motifs informing these works.
Let me hasten to add that I think such cultural exegesis is valuable work. I certainly don't intend to discount its usefulness for any reader trying to gain entry to these works, or to any other literary work. However, my own experience with trying to teach these texts to bright but tribally illiterate students suggests to me that such an approach makes these texts seem even more rather than less inaccessible to a non-Native reader: the acquisition of a cultural literacy, even using the technique of total immersion, requires more time than the average student has in the average course.
This study, then, is designed to propose and demonstrate the usefulness of a slightly different means of accessing such texts. It derives from the proposition, generally encoded in many Native American cultural traditions themselves, that place--in the sense of a real geophysical entity-matters, that "life" is a "property" of the land as well as of the life forms occupying it. As a cultural pretext, this concept fundamentally shapes both the individual creative visions of the writers of these texts and the collective visions of the Native cultural traditions represented in these novels.
One of the pitfalls awaiting the critic of any "marginalized" literary tradition is the necessity
of engaging in some degree of critical revisionism, because revision has a way of looking like
heresy from the point of view of whatever "center" generates the "margin" being addressed in
the first place. I approach this pit now as one who was immersed in the study and teaching of
"current literature" (a term that I now see as wonderfully self-reflexive, given the importance
of the "mainstream" metaphor that has been widely used to shape our Protean postwar
literary corpus into something like a canon) for about 15 years prior to drifting (or perhaps
being pulled by some unseen tide) out to the "margin" of this imaginary landscape of
literature written during the postwar years. From my point of view, concurrent "currents"
compose "current literature"--not a matter of center and margins, but rather of concurrent
streams of development.2 Taken
all together, the course of postwar prose, consisting of all
such currents, may still be usefully conceptualized as a mainstream, with sub-currents, fed by
branches that tend to enrich the mainstream at their confluences; at least, this is how most
people seem to see it. My job, now, is to try to locate these three novels in that conceptual
Like the European tradition out of which it primarily evolved, the American literary tradition by the 1960s had become characteristically postmodern in temperament. And while there is little enough agreement among critics about what that term means, still it persists, an acknowledgment of the shaping power of twentieth-century existential thought in postwar literature. Irving Howe's now-classic 1959 attempt to identify and define the salient qualities of the postmodern temperament blamed the phenomenon on a "collapse of social consensus"--a general loss of faith in the institutions of Western civilization triggered dually by the intellectual recognition that all such institutions were finally arbitrary (mass skepticism edging on mass nihilism) and by the shattering social dislocations brought about by World War II and its equally shattering finale, the atomic bomb. A little over a decade later, John Barth, in his Atlantic article "The Literature of Exhaustion," called attention to the element of literary self-reflexivity--of "novels which imitate the form of the Novel, by an author who imitates the role of Author" (33)--that has since become recognized as one of the most characteristic qualities of postwar fiction. Other attempts to characterize this fiction have foregrounded such major thematic concepts as antirealism, the antihero, and the impenetrable surfaceness of the phenomenological world. All such attempts depend for their logical integrity on the basic proposition, popularized in the postwar years under the rubric Existentialism, that the human condition disallows any discovery of meaning or value because the human entity is fundamentally estranged from the world as "Other." Underlying the postmodern temperament is this recurrent conviction that alienation is the human condition and that consequently all statements of meaningful relationship between the individual and anything/everything else are, necessarily, fictions.
In the mid-60s, and prior to publishing the Atlantic manifesto, Barth--in that decade generally considered one of the foremost of the American postmodernist writers as well as one of its most articulate spokespersons--had this to say about his own creative vision:
If you are a novelist of a certain type of temperament, then what you really want to do is re-invent the world. God wasn't too bad a novelist, except he was a Realist. Some of the things he did are right nice: the idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny is a master stroke; if you thought that up you'd be proud of yourself. But a certain kind of sensibility can be made very uncomfortable by the recognition of the arbitrariness of physical facts and the inability to accept their finality. Take France, for example: France is shaped like a tea pot, and Italy is shaped like a boot. Well, okay. But the idea that that's the only way it's ever going to be, that they'll never be shaped like anything else--that can get to you after awhile. . . . And it seems to me that this emotion, which is a kind of metaphysical emotion, goes almost to the heart of what art is, at least some kinds of art, and this impulse to imagine alternatives to the world can become a driving impulse for writers. (Enck, "John Barth" 8)
At about the same time, John Hawkes spoke of the "need to preserve the truth of the
fractured picture" and of the correlative freedom to create the "imaginary landscapes" (Enck,
"John Hawkes" 148-49)--the disturbingly Daliesque distortions of Italian and English
countrysides of The Cannibal and The Lime Twig, or the more overtly
milieux implicit in the title of an early collection of stories, Lunar Landscapes--that
appropriately as settings for such truths. Taken near to its extreme, we get the
characteristically anti-realistic fiction of Richard Brautigan, whose nameless antiheroic
protagonist finds himself near the end of Trout Fishing in America in the Cleveland
Wrecking Yard still searching for "America, often only a place in the mind" (72), or of
Thomas Pynchon, whose Oedipa Maas either discovers or invents the recognition that "there
either was some Trystero beyond the appearance of America, or there was just America and
if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be
at all relevant to it, was as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia"
As several critics have noted, postmodern American fiction, generally speaking, is a "literature of illness,"3 and the illness from which such protagonists suffer is essentially the illness of alienation, of estrangement--a sickness for which there is no cure, given the tenets of existential thinking, only the sedative of fiction-making. Or as Kurt Vonnegut puts it in a chapter of Cat's Cradle titled "A Medical Opinion on the Effect of a Writers' Strike":
"When a man becomes a writer, I think he takes on a sacred obligation to produce beauty and enlightenment and comfort at top speed."
"I just can't help thinking what a real shaking up it would give people if, all of a sudden, there were no new books, new plays, new histories, new poems. . . ."
"And how proud would you be when people started dying like flies?" I demanded.
I turned to Castle the Elder. "Sir, how does a man die when he's deprived of the consolations of literature?"
"In one of two ways," he said, "petrescence of the heart or atrophy of the nervous system. . . . For the love of God, both of you, please keep writing!" (189)
The American Indian works treated in this study also
address this postmodern disease.
To the extent that we can speak of a postmodern disease as having become a central concern
of the American literary tradition, and to the extent that a self-conscious state of alienation is
the signature of the postmodern protagonist, these three novels (Ceremony,
House Made of
Dawn, The Death of Jim Loney) fit neatly into the flow of the American
Each of these novels opens with its protagonist suffering from acute alienation, physically as
well as spiritually sickened in the postwar era. Existentially speaking, all three protagonists
awake into a state of consciousness every bit as culturally and psychologically estranged as,
say, Alain Robbe-Grillet's Mathias or Barth's Todd Andrews or Pynchon's Oedipa Maas. The
difference is that while the canonized postmodern protagonist goes on either to propagate
the disease or to succumb to it, the protagonists of these three novels (as in many other
postwar American Indian texts) acquire the blessing of a cure. As I hope to show, the
antidote to alienation and its consequences in these works is (to push this metaphor to its
limit) a rather old-fashioned-looking but still potent vaccine: geographical realism.4
I think worth pointing out here is that one (though by no means the only) symptom of the disease reflected in this "literature of illness" is the sense of the arbitrariness and hence meaninglessness of the physical world, of the inappropriateness of real landscapes as metaphors for what these writers and/or their protagonists recognize, or come to recognize, as the human condition.5 By and large, postmodernism rejects the possibility of an intrinsically healing relationship between the individual and the world prior to some act of attenuation or distortion of that environment through an operation of imagination. This is where the novels treated in this study diverge from the postmodern mainstream--or, seen another way, where these novels come to constitute a major contribution to that mainstream. As fictions, these texts take as an inviolable referent a physical landscape, one that exists prior to the fiction and then comes to exist (the way referents can be said to "exist") within the fiction as well. For both the writer creating the fiction and the fictional protagonist discovering or creating a viable identity, the physical landscape functions in these works as a dependable constant: the land as a place provides them with a referential framework that lies, undistorted by the imaginative operations of either the writers or their protagonists, "outside" the postmodern temperament but, as things develop in each of these fictions, as the basis for recentering of self-consciousness as well.
From the cultural perspective of most American readers, these three novels may look like a new realism. Perhaps more accurately, what we're seeing is a renaissance of a species of literary realism gradually abandoned in the course of the Euroamerican literary tradition's evolution but faithfully maintained for centuries in American Indian creative onsciousness. By 1959 Howe could argue, persuasively, that social consensus was the true referent of both modernism and realism in the Euroamerican literary tradition; in 1959, it was also being maintained by Native storytellers (albeit rarely enough in print) that cultural identities, like individual identities, emerge not from class struggle but rather from the land.
While it is true enough that the protagonists of the novels treated in this study are culturally estranged (Tayo and Loney are "halfbreeds," Abel a "mixed breed"), the cure for the disease of alienation in their cases depends on their willingness and ability to enter (or, more precisely, in the cases of Abel and Tayo, re-enter) into identity with the landscape, the place where the event of their lives happens to have taken and to be taking place. The process of identification with place allows these protagonists to enter also into identity with whatever tribal traditions--encoded in stories and ceremony--happen also to have come about in these places. A degree of reidentification with some Native cultural tradition plays an important part in the healing process of these protagonists,6 but, in the pattern of these fictions as in their Keresan, Towan, and Blackfeet, and Gros Ventre epistemological contexts, stories grow out of the land just the way other forms of life do. Or to put the matter into existential terms, the "existence" of the land precedes the "essences" (cultural and personal identities, and the stories about those identities) that come into being there. Acquisition of a "realistic" vision of the landscape is, in these works, a prerequisite to the acquisition of a verifiable cultural identity. This is the premise that these Native fictions have in common, and this is the premise that at once controls the distinctly "Native" texture of these works and sets these works apart from much of the rest of the postwar American corpus.
My claim that a powerful respect for place, in the sense of a particular real landscape, is
characteristic of much of what we categorize as Native story--both fiction and poetry--is not
novel. And yet, such claims about the shaping power of landscapes upon the literary
imagination, made by writers and leading critics of American Indian literature alike, have
rarely been demonstrated methodically in critical writings about that literature. Generally
speaking, literary criticism resists the notion that the land has a life of its own and tends
instead to proceed as though vitality were a quality imposed on the land by human
imagination but not vice-versa. This sort of preemption of significance, or privileging of
human imagination, is one of the dangerous shortcomings of the Euroamerican humanistic
tradition in general and of a conventional humanistic approach to this literature in particular:
presupposing and then magnifying the shaping power of people in these stories limits our
ability to recover the pre-human context of the human condition in these
This is not to say that the humanistic impulse is not an integral element of American Indian fiction. Clearly it is. The test of humanity in these works, though, is the land itself rather than any ideology: the protagonists of these fictions prove their humanity not by conquering the land or by living in spite of it, but rather by finding ways--sometimes "traditional," sometimes "innovative," and sometimes a creative blend of the two--to live with the land, holding and being held by the life that precedes and survives the life of any individual, as well as the life of any culture.
About the "sense of place," a phrase that privileges the process of human identification with place that informs American Indian cultures, I have nothing new to say. Dozens of competent critics--Paula Gunn Allen, Keith Basso, William Oandasan, Larry Evers, and others--have done that already, and my purpose is not to write ethnography anyway. The scope of this study is more modest: I wish only to draw attention back to the particular landscapes--the geophysical landscapes that precede and at least partially determine the social or cultural ones that serve not only as the "settings" of these fictions but also as principal "characters" in them. Others have shown, and will continue to show, how the process of recovery for the protagonists of these novels can be understood as a process of acquiring an appropriate cultural literacy--a process of learning or re-learning, living or re-living, the stories and lifeways of the People (be they Keresan, Towan, Kiowa, Navajo, Blackfeet, or Gros Ventre) and thereby identifying themselves with a particular cultural milieu. My intention is to show how a key element of "cultural literacy," in these works specifically and perhaps by extension in American Indian cultural contexts generally, is an intimate knowledge of a particular landscape. As Basso has demonstrated for the case of the White Mountain Apache, this kind of knowledge is encoded in the stories of many Native cultures and is available in that form to the tribally literate; but of course very few of us 240 million Americans are literate if the referent is White Mountain Apache or Keresan/Laguna or Towan/Jemez or Blackfeet/Gros Ventre oral and written traditions. My contention in this study is that these fictions provide culturally non-Native readers with landscapes that function as pre-verbal, pre-conceptual, pre-cultural frames of reference, frames that shape the creative vision and language of these texts in much the same way the language and vision characteristic of the respective tribal traditions must have been shaped. Reproduced "realistically," the landscapes of these texts are themselves living texts and in themselves can be "read" in any language.
1Sometimes it's not all that simple. I'm not so sure it makes a lot of sense to call Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park a Native American text, even though Smith is Pueblo by birth; conversely, I'd have a problem with excluding the writing of Barre Toelken or Keith Basso from consideration in a course dealing with Native oral and written traditions, even if they were both born Anglos. But matters become hopelessly fuzzy when we accept, for instance, a definition like Momaday's that "We are what we imagine" ("The Man Made of Words" 167)--a proposition that has been used as an enfranchisement for apparently no end of New Age nonsense in recent years as well as, more insidiously even if equally naively, a license for literary cultural misappropriation (see Silko, "An Old-Time Indian Attack Conducted in Two Parts," and Hobson, "The Rise of the White Shaman as a New Version of Cultural Imperialism"). [back]
2I take it to be one of the crueller critical ironies of my field that the idea of centering (and the attendant attention to marginality), so close to the heart of Native creative vision, should happen to be at the same time one of the more useful ideas (at least as persuasive as the idea of a mainstream) for critics bent on marginalizing Native literatures--not to mention the works of other writers categorizable as members of socially or politically decentered groups. [back]
3I am indebted here for a phrase used by Scarberry-García in her Introduction to her Landmarks of Healing, in which she notes that (in addition to the postwar writers and works I've already mentioned) "many contemporary American novels, such as those by Bellow, Kesey, and Updike, are unfulfilled `narratives of illness,' according to critic Richard Ohmann" (1). [back]
4In his Foreword to Scarberry-García's Landmarks of Healing, Wiget makes a very similar point:
Like other contemporary Euroamerican literary traditions, much Native American writing acknowledges alienation and cynicism as the starting point for fiction. Native American writing, however, is attracting more and more readers, precisely because much of it does not accept the brokenness of the present world as an immutable condition of things, but invokes deeper patterns of order and meaning, often rooted in the themes and images of tribal oral traditions, as a means of restoring wholeness. (xi)
Wiget contends that these "deeper patterns of order" are encoded in Navajo healing ceremonies--that is, in socioculturally specific pretexts, and I think Scarberry-García demonstrates clearly how this is so. My point is that such ceremonies themselves take particular geographies as their pretexts. In the cases of these three novels, both the novel as text and the ceremonies as texts are validated by the land. [back]
5Critics before me have made this connection in the cases of individual writers. For instance, in City of Words, a brilliant survey of American fiction 1945-70, British critic Tony Tanner notes that in Barth's early fictions The Floating Opera and The End of the Road, "We find something approaching an absence or attenuation of environment: those things which usually circumscribe consciousness and with the direct pressure of their presence help to condition thought have receded or been excluded and in the resultant cleared ground the mind runs free. . . . signs tend to become more important than their referents. . . . any established notions of the relationship between word and world are lost or called in doubt" (240). Tanner then goes on to suggest some such "attenuation of environment" as a precondition for the kind of freedom so desperately sought by the protagonists of postwar American fiction--an act of provisional self-liberation that, he contends, vitiates the relevance of these otherwise sometimes "realistic" fictions. [back]
6As I suggested earlier, this act of cultural (re-)identification is often taken to be the quintessential event of the novel--a bias which has ironically kept much Native literature marginalized, since this approach requires the reader to be familiar enough with the cultural tradition to understand how it validates the experience of the protagonist. [back]