Place, Vision, and Identity in Native American Literatures
Robert M. Nelson
It is hard to imagine trying to understand any group of people without taking into account their own stories of
who they are, where they came from, and what they stand for -- their core literary traditions. Only recently, however,
have Western-trained literary critics begun to study Native American texts in ways comparable to how they study, for
instance, the collected works of Chaucer or Emily Dickinson or William Faulkner. One thing Western-trained critics
like myself are learning is that we have a lot to learn about how literature means, or can mean. This essay highlights
one of the recurring values that has begun to emerge from the methodical study of Native American literatures: the
idea that the life of the land and human life at their best are inseparable.
Towards a Native American Literary Criticism
In order to distinguish between the kind of literary criticism that is practiced in most university English departments and the kind that has developed around the study of Native American texts, I want to call the latter "Native American literary criticism," even though that term can be easily misinterpreted as "literary criticism as practiced by Native Americans" rather than "critical approaches to Native American literatures."1 In the sense I mean, Native American literary criticism has only very recently become thought of as appropriate to English or literature departments. As late as the first half of this century, Native American literatures were more likely to be studied by cultural anthropologists than by English majors. About that time, Franz Boas and his first generation of students began to develop the subdiscipline of cultural anthropology known as ethnography (the attempt to describe--and write out--the unique or characteristic ethos of any ethnic group). Arguably, Boas and his followers were the first academics to pay close, often quite respectful, attention to what Native Americans had to say about themselves, both as individuals and as members of non-Western cultures. Boas and his followers were also some of the first scholars to methodically transcribe Native American oral performances into written texts; later ethnographers, as well as literary critics, came to regard these written versions as examples of "authentic" Native American literature. Few of Boas's immediate followers, however, had any formal training in literary appreciation--as "scientists," they were prone to treat Native oral performances not as works of art but rather as objects to be gathered, sorted, and preserved for later study.
The next step in the development of a Native American literary criticism was the development of ethnopoetics--literally, the study of the poetic sense of an ethnic group--as a site where the disciplines of ethnography and literary criticism intersect.2 By the 1960s, such scholars as Karl Kroeber, Jarold Ramsey, Dell Hymes, and Dennis Tedlock, often working with earlier transcriptions of Native American oral performances collected by Boas and his followers, were learning how to look beyond the transcriptions to the pre-texts, the original-language oral performances themselves, in order to recover the art of these performances (such as rhythm and intonation, recurring phrase, and other verbal nuances) that had so often been lost in translation. Their pioneering work in ethnopoetics established some crucial principles of subsequent Native American literary criticism. They taught that an oral tradition is a species of literature. Like any other body of literature (including any print-text literature), Native American oral traditions have both culturally specific content or subject matter and culture-specific esthetic criteria; these aesthetic norms regulate the composition of performances and these same criteria can be used to evaluate such performances. The ongoing attempt to identify and appreciate these distinctive values still drives much of Native American literary criticism.
In addition to the development of ethnopoetics around mid-century, a second historical phenomenon, which has been called the "Native American Renaissance" by literary critic and anthologist Kenneth Lincoln, has made the study of Native American literatures a viable discipline in its own right. The period since the 1970s has seen an exponential increase in literary texts written in English by Native Americans, thus augmenting the ongoing oral literatures of their respective cultural traditions. In their poems, short stories, novels, plays, memoirs and autobiographies, and essays of all sorts, many of these new writers have been working to find ways to adapt traditional Native American literary and cultural values to these Western performance modes--sometimes, by revising the modes themselves to accommodate non-Western materials and values in exciting new ways.
My comments in this essay are directed primarily toward this newer part of the ongoing Native American literary tradition, and even more particularly towards Native American poetry and fiction composed and published in the second half of the twentieth century.
Native American Identity and the Land
Understandably, one of the recurring themes of recent Native American literature3 is the issue of Native American identity. What is sometimes hard to grasp is that "identity," correctly speaking, is not an attribute of either the individual or of the context--the environment, including cultural traditions--in which the individual is embedded. Rather, identity is an event that takes place in the creation of the relationship between individual and context. In recent Native American literature, as in many of the cultural traditions this body of literature refers and defers to, identity, like life itself, derives from the land. Whoever wishes either to recover or to sustain a healthy state of existence, then, must enter into some working identity not only with a cultural tradition but also with a particular landscape.
One of the clichés of New Age Nativism, American and European alike, is that Native spiritual vision is rooted in animal or "totem" identity. Nativists also tend to assume that the larger the animal one calls one's ally, the more powerful one's own vision must be: self-proclaimed New Age shamans seem more predisposed to adopt names like Black Bear or White Eagle than Pink Piglet or Gray Titmouse. Within the context of Western hierarchical traditions, as formulated perhaps most clearly and dramatically in the Renaissance concept of the Great Chain of Being, it makes more sense to think of oneself (at one's "angelic" or most spiritually rarefied, at any rate) as being closer in nature to an animal than to a plant, and closer to a plant than to a mineral. In the universe as imagined by Western religious tradition, all life derives from God in such a way that one moves away from God in the direction of the earth and towards God in the direction of the sky. Accordingly, only the most degraded person would choose to identify with the worm rather than the eagle, let alone with the dirt the worm calls home.
But in the spiritual traditions of many Native American groups, the spirit and the life of the People derive from the land: life is a "property" of the land as well as of the creatures occupying it. In her groundbreaking collection of critical essays The Sacred Hoop (1986), one of the first large-scale attempts to apply Native American cultural (and literary) values to modern Native American writing, Paula Gunn Allen puts it this way:
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. . . . The land is not really the place (separate from ourselves) where we act out the drama of our isolate destinies. . . . 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. . . . 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. (191)
The notion that a human's relationship to the land can be more than an "affinity" or a matter of being "close to nature"
probably doesn't come easily to most students of American literature. But many Native Americans are born into
family and cultural traditions that not only end with statements of this identity (as Protestant traditions do: "ashes to
ashes . . .") but also begin with this fundamental vision of identity. Within the context of such traditions, the most
fundamental act of spiritual vision that one can experience is the act of seeing oneself as a living part of the living
place where one's life takes place.
Emergence and Identity in Native American Poetry
This conviction about human identity with the land has shaped much of recent Native American poetry. A good illustration of both the conviction and of how it works to shape vision is "To Insure Survival," a short dramatic monolog written by Simon Ortiz, a native of the Pueblo of Acoma. The words of the text are being uttered by a father to his daughter as she is being born, and so the opening stanza of the poem is to be understood as the very first "story" this child ever hears about the nature of the world she is entering. In these first, consciousness-shaping words, the event of the child's delivery is identified with the event of a sunrise in the high country of New Mexico:
You come forth
the color of a stone cliff
blue to red
to all the colors of the earth.
This statement offers two bases of identification: the sequence of colors that both land and child undergo, and the
unifying vision of both sunrise and birth as emergence events, as the "coming forth" of life from a relatively darker
state into a relatively lighter, multichromatic one. It is important to notice here that the identification of the child with
the land in this text depends upon an act of vision: it is an event that must be seen before it can be uttered, then heard.
Later in the poem, the child is told that later in her life, "In five more days, / they will come, / singing, dancing, / . . . / the stones with voices, / the plants with bells." Ortiz is alluding here to the katsinas. In Acoma spiritual tradition, as in the traditions of several other Southwestern Native peoples, the katsinas are the spirits of life who, on special ceremonial occasions, allow themselves to be seen in the form and motion of the masked katsina dancers. In Acoma tradition, if a newborn survives its first four full days of life, then the katsinas appear at the dawn of the fifth day to welcome this new human being to its extended family. In the traditions of this child's people, one's extended family includes spirit entities: Grandmother Spider (the Keresan creatrix figure who is weaving a life for the child to grow into in stanza two), as well as the "stones with voices" (the singing dancers representing the katsinas of the sacred mountains in all the directions) and the "plants with bells" (the dancing singers representing the katsinas of the corn and other nurture for human beings). The (re-)appearance of the katsinas is a promise of continued life to the People, just as the emergence of this child "insures" the physical survival of Acoma cultural identity for one more generation. The father's words can be read as both a prayer and a promise that the child will be there in five days to see and hear the katsinas dancing and singing in her honor. His words and the vision they encode also help to insure survival just the way oral tradition has always been helping the People, by articulating and passing along a vision of human identity with the land.
Not only in "To Insure Survival" but also throughout Native American cultural traditions, these two seemingly separate processes--the emergence of human life and the attainment of a vision of both individual and collective identity--often appear as aspects of a singular event. This unifying event is typically described in terms of sunrise, birth, emergence, or other original moment, though usually (as in Ortiz's poem) as a combination of several such occasions. What distinguishes Native American origin stories from those of most other cultures is that these emergence events take particular and distinct place: emergence is an event that belongs to the land. Although individual human beings "emerge" from a biological mother's womb, the understanding at Acoma (as in many cultures' spiritual traditions, Indian and otherwise) is that each corporeal being houses spirits that emerge from other sources to abide in that body during its life, and that one of these sources of spirit is the land, the particular place where that being was born. This motif of human/land interconnectedness continues to influence Native American storytellers, including novelists, some times very overtly. In both Anna Lee Walters's Ghost Singer (1988) and Louis Owens's The Sharpest Sight (1992), for instance, plots hinge on the recurrent idea that human bones are invested with a quality of spirit that attaches to the bones even after the individual's death, and that this bone spirit is liable to wreak havoc until the bones themselves are returned to their place of origin.4
Just as the lives of individuals originate with the land, so does the life of the People, an ongoing collective human spirit that stretches from the beginning of human time through the present. Typically, the life of the People is connected to the land at the sipapu5 or "place of emergence." In many Native American origin stories, this is the place where the People first emerged into the Earth Surface world. Unlike the origin places of some other cultural traditions (Christianity's Eden, for instance), Native American sipapus are usually located, known sites. For instance, in the origin stories of the people of Laguna Pueblo, the setting of Leslie Silko's novel Ceremony (1977), sipapu is a small spring a little north of the village of Paguate.6 In the Navajo chantway traditions, which as Susan Scarberry-García has shown are the pretext for much of Scott Momaday's Pulitzer Prize-winning House Made of Dawn (1968), the emerging place is at tségihi, literally "that canyon," possibly Cañon de Chelly.7 For the people of Taos Pueblo, sipapu is the sacred Blue Lake, the subject of the protracted legal struggle between Taos and the US Government earlier in this century that inspired Frank Waters's The Man Who Killed the Deer (1945).
In the origin stories of the Abenaki people, sipapu is located at a geyser in upstate New York--the setting, as well as the subject, of Joseph Bruchac's short poem "The Geyser." Like "To Insure Survival" a dramatic monolog, "The Geyser" opens with a statement of the relationship between human life, in this case the life of a group rather than of an individual, and the land from which it comes:
There is a story
some people tell
of how they came
from a world beneath
this world through a hole in the Earth.
Like the origin story to which he alludes, Bruchac then invites us to acknowledge that at least two events are taking
place at this sipapu: the ongoing life of the land ("feel the life that rises here . . .") and the ongoing life and vision of a
people who have themselves learned how to see, "like people coming out of the darkness / of a world with no Sun / to
this place of light," the intimate connection between their life and the land's. At the moment the narrator achieves that
recognition, he too becomes one in his vision with the "we" who "on that first day . . . saw this place." He, too,
becomes a part of the emergence story, still happening at his place, that "some people tell."
As we might expect, geographies as different as those of northcentral New Mexico and upstate New York give rise to different visions of life and how it is to be lived. Such differences of vision are the basis of differences in cultural identities, and such a difference underlies the dialog between the male and female voices in Joy Harjo's poem "The Last Song," about how life gets lived in northeast Oklahoma. From "the last song" of the man, we learn only that he is a native of New Mexico who feels out of place, a man who cannot "stand" the "hot oklahoma summers / where you were born / this humid thick air is choking me / and i want to go back / to new mexico." The identity of the female speaker, on the other hand, is one with this climate and milieu, and has been from birth:
it is the only way
i know how to breathe
an ancient chant
that my mother knew
came out of a history
woven from wet tall grass
in her womb
Harjo's wording here reiterates the idea of human identity with the land that so strongly informs the works of Native
American poets from other regions. She invites us to read "her"--the source of both the "ancient chant" and the very
breath of the narrating "i" of these lines--as either the speaker's biological mother or the earth, whose womb holds a
"history" that some humans cannot help but call their own. And, while the male presumably goes on to try to return to
his natal New Mexico, the female already knows that "oklahoma will be the last song / i'll ever sing."
Landscape and Identity in Native American Novels
Ever since the writings of Aristotle were "re-discovered" during the English Renaissance, the British (and, later, American) narrative tradition has been shaped by Aristotelian theories of composition. One of the most common, and most powerful, of these Aristotelian critical tools is the idea that a work of fiction can be analyzed in terms of plot, character, setting, and theme. Within an Aristotelian context, then, we might expect a landscape to function as a "setting" for a narrative, while the issue of identity might be a part of "character" development or maybe even a "theme" of the work. However, in many recent Native American novels (as in the non-Aristotelian oral narrative traditions they grow out of), particular landscapes function not only as the "settings" of the narratives but also as "characters." Further, the discovery or invention of the relationship between land and human beings (that is, the process of human identification) drives the "plot" and becomes the main "theme" in these works. Much of contemporary Native American poetry can be read as a celebration--or, sometimes, a cautionary reminder--of this individual or collective identity with the land. By the same token, many Native American novels can be read as more extended explorations of the process of discovering, or recovering, such an identity. Recent Native American fiction not only undercuts the principles of Aristotelian criticism but, in its emphasis on the process of identity, also challenges some of the truisms about the nature of fiction itself which have come to hold sway over American literature in the twentieth century.
One of these truisms, almost everywhere apparent in mainstream American literature since World War II, is the existentialist doctrine that the "human condition" is one of utter estrangement, or alienation, from the world in which we find ourselves. This condition, and a human being's predictable first response to it, is neatly encapsulated by Kurt Vonnegut in the satirical rewriting of Genesis in one of his early novels, Cat's Cradle (1963):
In the beginning, God created earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness.
And God said, "Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done." And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close as mud as man sat up, looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. "What is the purpose of all this?" he asked politely.
"Everything must have a purpose?" asked God.
"Certainly," said man.
"Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this," said God.
And He went away. (177)
As this little parable suggests, it is human nature to resist the "natural" condition of alienation; but any attempt to
discover or invent any meaning, any attempt to overcome the condition of alienation through an act of identification
with the world external to oneself, is doomed to failure. Accordingly, "character development" in many a mainstream
American novel consists of the protagonist's coming to terms with the dis-easing realization of his or her alienated
condition. In this paradigm of man's relationship to the universe, the only authentic act of identity is to dis-engage
from the world.8
Many of recent Native American fictions' protagonists also suffer early on from the dis-easing effects of alienation. A typical case in this regard is the title character in James Welch's The Death of Jim Loney (1979). Loney seems to be experiencing that state of spiritual malaise that in existential thought goes by the name of anomie--the inability to identify with the surrounding cultural milieu. Loney is a "half-breed": culturally and biologically his father is from Anglo-American stock, while his mother is equally fully Gros Ventre. Loney's girlfriend Rhea envies him his half-breed condition, because she thinks it gives him a choice about which "half" he can identify with. But to Loney--who, unlike Rhea, has to live with this condition--identity is a matter not of choice but of circumstance, and Loney is by circumstance neither Anglo nor Gros Ventre: to both, he is Other, and he knows it. As Welch presents it, then, Loney's alienation is both broadly existential and more specifically cultural. The protagonists of some of the best-known Native American novels of this century, including D'Arcy McNickle's The Surrounded, Welch's Winter in the Blood, Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn, Louis Erdrich's Love Medicine, and Louis Owens's The Sharpest Sight, are (like their authors) either half-breed or mixed-blood, but in either case born into a state of cultural alienation.
Unlike their twentieth-century literary counterparts, however, the protagonists of Native American novels typically overcome this alienation, along with the literal and figurative diseases from which they suffer (the most common ones being poor eyesight, indicative of the need for clear vision, and alcoholism, perhaps a metaphor for exposure to the sweet poison of genocidal U.S. social and political policies). By directly challenging the notion that alienation is the first, final, and necessary condition of human existence, these works and the cultural values informing them offer an alternative to the spiritual malaise and psychological anomie that so often accompany existential vision.
We can see this process of healing taking place in such exemplary Native American novels as Leslie Silko's Ceremony, N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn, and James Welch's The Death of Jim Loney. In all three of these novels, the protagonists initially suffer alienation, including cultural estrangement. Like Loney, Tayo in Ceremony is a half-breed, child of a Laguna mother and an anonymous Anglo father, while Abel in House Made of Dawn is a mixed-blood, his mother a Towan from Jemez but his father of some other tribe. As their respective stories open, all three feel separated from their surrounding communities, suffer from impaired vision (all three spend the early moments of their respective novels "blind drunk"), and seem strangely immobilized. Jim Loney spends much of the first half of the novel sitting at his kitchen table at night with a bottle of wine. The first time we encounter Abel, he is so drunk he cannot even stand up, and his grandfather must cart him home in the back of a wagon. In the opening moments of Ceremony, it is all Tayo can do to get out of bed, which he wants to do only because the morning light hurts his eyes, and he is too physically weak to keep his seat on the blind mule he is trying to ride a few hours later.
From such shaky beginnings as these, all three protagonists go on to overcome their alienation by shaping their vision and motion to a particular landscape (for Loney, the stretch of northern Montana between the town of Harlem and Mission Valley, about 50 miles to the south; for Abel, the place called Walatowa, the valley created by the Jemez River north and south of the village of Jemez Pueblo; for Tayo, the traditional Laguna lands in all directions from the present-day village of Old Laguna). Just as the voices in Ortiz's, Harjo's, and Bruchac's poems do, they recover their Native identities by becoming--and, just as importantly, by seeing themselves becoming--living extensions of the living landscapes they are part of.9 The cure for the disease of alienation in their cases depends on this willingness and ability to enter into identity with the landscape, the place where the event of their lives happens to have taken and to be taking place.
Personal Identity and Cultural Tradition
In the process of becoming identified with these landscapes, the protagonists of these and other Native American novels also move into identity with whatever tribal traditions--encoded in stories and ceremony--happen to have come about in these places. This should come as no surprise, because in these novels (as in the Native American oral-literary traditions from which they partially derive) the life of the People as a collective body, like the life of any individual who is a part of that body, is an extension of the life of the land. Or to put it another way, the life story of an individual and the life story ("literary tradition") of a cultural group are but two expressions or articulations of a common pre-textual experience: the experience of acquiring a vision of the living landscape that they both occupy. For both individual protagonists and the cultural traditions they come to represent, the process is essentially the same. First, there is the land, made visible at sunrise, a beginning time. The human being is also there, to witness and, in so witnessing, to become a part of, that landscape's (re-)animation. Only then is there the song, or the dance, or the story, or the ceremony that becomes the text of that vision, the articulation of that experience. The sum of these articulations is the literary tradition.
From the perspective of a developing Native American literary criticism, the key term here may be "articulation." We need to remember that from the time of earliest contact between the Europeans who came to this continent (as conquerors, missionaries, and finally settlers) and the indigenous peoples they encountered here, Native American literatures have been treated more as artifacts than as art: recall that even as recently as the turn of this century, virtually the only Westerners who were at all familiar with any Native American literatures were anthropologists, ethnographers, and museum curators rather than English professors. Perhaps as a result of this legacy, critics and readers today may think that Native American novels are not as "accessible" as others. It is easy to assume that the only proper context or frame of reference for understanding these texts is whatever particularly Native cultural tradition their protagonists are taken to represent. From this perspective Ceremony, for instance, becomes a novel about Tayo's recovery of an "authentic" Indian, specifically Keresan (Laguna) identity; the catch is that we cannot know whether he ever accomplishes this unless we already know which of the values or insights that Tayo acquires are specifically Laguna ones. In effect, this critical assumption assumes that the only authentic act of self-articulation is one that brings an individual into identity with some set of pre-existing cultural norms. Accordingly, we might be tempted to say that Ben Benally, the Navajo narrator of the third movement in Momaday's House Made of Dawn, is "really" Navajo while he is singing a passage from the Navajo Night Chant for Abel but has an "inauthentic" identity when he talks about the assembly line he and Abel work on in Los Angeles.
It helps to remember, again, that cultural traditions, like individual identities, are articulations of the experience of coming to terms with the life of that culture's landscape: both arise out of, and may be understood as articulations in differing voices of, the same pre-verbal reality. But if cultural tradition is an articulation of a way of life, then the oral and written pretexts for these novels--be they literary, historical, or anthropological--are themselves "fictions" in the very same sense that a novel is a fiction. To evaluate one fiction in terms of another is to risk getting lost in the mirrors of contemporary critical reflexivity, in the process becoming 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.
I certainly do not mean to imply here that Native American literary traditions are irrelevant to an understanding of contemporary Native American fiction, any more than they are to an understanding of recent poetry. Indeed, knowing something about such traditions allows us to see more in these works than we might otherwise see, especially about the nurturing relationship between tradition and the individual.
Throughout the novel Ceremony, for instance, Silko strategically scatters a number of traditional Keresan stories and story fragments, cast to look like portions of poetry embedded in the larger, framing prose narrative. One of these, the nine-part 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. Another of these embedded pieces, the traditional Keresan story of 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 that immediately follows. Taken as pretexts, these stories certainly add an extra dimension to our understanding of Tayo's own motion. As texts, Silko's story of Tayo and these pre-existing 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, despite repeated pleas from 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 re-adjusted his vision to its life. He does this by moving into identity with the spirit of the land in all directions from the village of Old Laguna: with Mount Taylor to the north west, with Patoch Butte to the southwest, and with the river-crossing to the southeast, but also with the dangerous Ck'o'yo element hovering about the recently savaged earth of the Jackpile Mine. Just as importantly, the oral text that Tayo finally articulates for the village elders in the kiva at the end of the novel derives its ultimate 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, Momaday in House Made of Dawn provides, sometimes directly and sometimes rather indirectly, "storysherds"10 from at least three very different Native American literary traditions--Towan (Jemez Pueblo), Navajo, and Kiowa (the title of the novel is, in fact, taken from a relatively well-known Navajo healing chantway). Still, throughout the novel a human being's (re-)identification with an immediate landscape precedes cultural re-entry. Abel, the principle protagonist of the novel, remains "inarticulate" (58) until he utterly re-enters the motion of life at Walatowa (Jemez Pueblo), his vision given over entirely to a vision of the land taking shape at sunrise. Only at that moment does Ben Benally's Navajo song ("House made of dawn, house made of pollen . . ."), which Ben sang to Abel at least twice during their time together in Los Angeles, come to make sense as a text congruent with the pretextual event of Abel's unqualified (re-)identification with the land. But even as Abel recalls the words of the song, they are not uttered; no sound, no text has more authority than the landscape that such healing texts take as their final frame of reference. 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]). He makes the point yet again through Tosamah, a Kiowa "orator, physician, priest of the sun, [and] son of hummingbird," and the three religious ceremonies that he conducts while Abel lies somewhere in the night, blinded and paralyzed, in Part 3 of the novel. In the first ceremony, his Saturday sermon to his congregation of the Relocated, Tosamah warns of the characteristically Euroamerican tendency to substitute worlds made of words for the world itself. Even more telling is the structure of his Sunday sermon, the final words of that section of the novel. The words of this sermon, which is also an example of personal, self-defining oral narrative, fix all of Kiowa cultural history as occurring between two moments of emergence: the first as the Kiowa people emerge from their sipapu, a hollow log somewhere in the vicinity of the Yellowstones, and the last as Tosamah, feeling terribly alone in the wake of his grandmother's death, witnesses a sunrise at Rainy Mountain in Oklahoma.
In these and other Native American novels, as in poetry such as Ortiz's "To Insure Survival" and Bruchac's "The Geyser," the process of human spiritual regeneration, of healing, depends most immediately not on articulation 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 and poems, much as some such vision empowers, characterizes, identifies, and authenticates the People and by extension their stories and traditions.
My claim that a powerful respect for place, in the sense of an actual and particular landscape, is characteristic of much of Native American poetry and fiction is not a new one. 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. Western ideological tradition tends to hold that vitality is a quality that human imagination imposes on the land, 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. The tendency to presuppose, and then magnify, the shaping power of people in these stories limits our ability to recover the pre-human context of the human condition in these stories; busily admiring the human ability to see, we lose sight of what is there to see--the land, alive, waiting to hold and be held.
This is not to say that the humanistic impulse is not an integral element of American Indian fiction. Clearly it is. But as I hope I have begun to suggest in this brief overview of some recent Native American texts, the test of humanity in these works is the land itself rather than any ideology. The protagonists of, and spokespersons in, these works 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.
1I use the word "literatures" rather than the singular "literature" to draw attention to the fact that there is no
singular, or even meaningfully representative, American Indian cultural tradition. Since any body of literature depends
for much of its meaning on the language in which it is encoded, it is much more accurate to say that, since the time of
European contact, there have been about 500 Native American literatures in the contiguous 48 United States alone.
Because many of these distinct languages, along with the oral (and sometimes written) literary traditions encoded in
them, are still in circulation, some works of Native American literature that are written in English are in fact
translations of Native language texts into English. [back]
2For a quick summary of the development of ethnopoetics as a methodology, see (for instance) William Bright, A Coyote Reader 3. [back]
3I use this term to include works of prose and poetry written by Native Americans. But even this seemingly usable definition of the term "Native American literature" is problematic. For instance, most people would probably expect any work in this category to also be about Native American experience, as somehow distinct from other kinds of recognizably "non-Indian" experience. But shall we then say that a novel like Gorky Park is not "Native American literature," even though its author, Martin Cruz Smith, is a Native American author? Or shall we say that Smith was writing "Native American literature" when he wrote Nightwing and Stallion Gate but not when he was writing Gorky Park and Red Square? To add to the difficulty, there is the very troubling question of who qualifies as a "Native American." The US government's longstanding use of "blood quantum" to make such determinations is at serious odds with many (if not most) Native groups' criteria, not to mention their best interests. For a somewhat one-sided, but nevertheless useful and eye-opening, discussion of this issue, see Ward Churchill's Indians Are Us? Culture and Genocide in Native North America. [back]
4This concept of bone-spirit helps to explain why some people so strongly support the recent NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatration Act) legislation, especially its provisions for museum repatriation efforts. [back]
5It is a little silly to talk about "standard" spelling of a language that never fixed itself in print the way most European languages have done: in such cases there simply is no "authentic" orthography, only those that have been used by one translator or another. I nevertheless suspect that if this useful term ever finds its way into some future standard dictionary, this is how it will be spelled (both Leslie Silko and Paula Gunn Allen, two of the most prominent Laguna-born authors and critics, spell it this way). Some other spellings that I have seen include "ship-op" (John Gunn, in Schat-Chen: History, Traditions and Narratives of the Queres Indians of Laguna and Acoma ), "cip'a_p` u" (Boas, Keresan Texts ), "shipapu" (Elsie Clews Parsons, The Pueblo Indians of Jemez ), "sipápuni" (Frank Waters, Book of the Hopi ), and "Sipofene" (Alfonso Ortiz, "The Tewa World View" ). [back]
6See Leslie Silko, "Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination" 91. [back]
7For one version of this emergence story, see Paul Zolbrod, Diné bahane' 35-78. [back]
8For a fuller treatment of this issue, see my "Introduction" in Place and Vision. [back]
9I analyze this process, in these three novels, at length in Place and Vision. [back]
10This useful term, which is a play on the term "potsherds," is Susan Scarberry-García's: see her Landmarks of Healing, especially 6, 118-19. [back]
Allen, Paula Gunn. "Iyani: It Goes This Way." Hobson. 191-93. Rpt. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in
American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon, 1986. 119.
Boas, Franz. Keresan Texts. Publications of the American Ethnological Society 8, Part 2. New York: American Ethnological Society, 1925.
Bright, William. A Coyote Reader. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.
Bruchac, Joseph. "The Geyser." Entering Onondaga. Austin TX: Cold Mountain, 1977. Rpt. Hobson. 35.
Churchill, Ward. Indians Are Us? Culture and Genocide in Native North America. Monroe ME: Common Courage P, 1994.
Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. New York: Bantam, 1984.
Gunn, John. Schat-Chen: History, Traditions and Narratives of the Queres Indians of Laguna and Acoma. Albuquerque: Albright & Anderson, 1917.
Harjo, Joy. "the last song." The Last Song. Las Cruces NM: Puerto del Sol, 1975. Rpt. Hobson. 109-10.
Hobson, Geary, ed. The Remembered Earth: An Anthology of Contemporary American Indian Literature. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1980.
Lincoln, Kenneth. Native American Renaissance. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983.
McNickle, D'Arcy. The Surrounded. 1936. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico, 1978.
Momaday, N. Scott. House Made of Dawn. New York: Harper, 1968.
"Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act [NAGPRA]." Title 25 U.S.C. §3001 et seq. 1994.
Nelson, Robert M. Place and Vision: The Function of Landscape in Native American Fiction. American Indian Studies 1. New York: Peter Lang, 1993.
Ortiz, Alfonso. "The Tewa World View." Teachings From the American Earth: Indian Religion and Philosophy. Ed. Dennis and Barbara Tedlock. New York: Liveright, 1975. 179-89.
Ortiz, Simon. "To Insure Survival." Hobson. 271. Rpt. Woven Stone. Sun Tracks 21. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1992. 48-49.
Owens, Louis. The Sharpest Sight. Norman: U of Oklahoma, 1992.
Parsons, Elsie Clews. The Pueblo Indians of Jemez. New Haven: Yale U P, 1925.
Scarberry-García, Susan. Landmarks of Healing: A Study of House Made of Dawn. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1990.
Silko, Leslie. Ceremony. New York: Viking, 1977.
---. "Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination." Antaeus 57 (Autumn 1986): 83-94.
Smith, Martin Cruz. Gorky Park. New York: Random, 1981.
---. Nightwing. New York: Norton, 1977.
---. Red Square. New York: Random, 1992.
---. Stallion Gate. New York: Random, 1986.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat's Cradle. 1963. New York: Dell Laurel, 1988.
Walters, Anna Lee. Ghost Singer. Flagstaff AZ: Northland, 1988.
Waters, Frank. The Book of the Hopi. NewYork: Viking, 1963.
---. The Man Who Killed the Deer. Athens: Ohio U P, 1945.
Welch, James. The Death of Jim Loney. 1979. New York: Penguin, 1987.
---. Winter in the Blood. 1974. New York: Penguin, 1986.
Zolbrod, Paul G. Diné bahane': The Navajo Creation Story. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico, 1984.
Some Native American novels (US and Canadian) published since House Made of Dawn and Ceremony:
Alexie, Sherman. Reservation Blues. New York: Atlantic Monthly.
Bruchac, Joseph. Long River. Golden CO: Fulcrum.
Carr, A. A. Eye Killers. Norman: U of Oklahoma P.
Hogan, Linda. Solar Storms. New York: Scribner.
Louis, Adrian. Skins. New York: Crown.
Penn, W. S. The Absence of Angels. Norman: U of Oklahoma P.
Treuer, David. Little. Saint Paul MN: Graywolf.
Bell, Betty. Faces in the Moon. Norman: U of Oklahoma P.
Erdrich, Louise. The Bingo Palace. New York: HarperCollins.
Henry, Gordon. The Light People. Norman: U of Oklahoma P.
Owens, Louis. Bone Game. Norman: U of Oklahoma P.
Power, Susan. The Grass Dancer. New York: Putnam.
Sarris, Greg. Grand Avenue. New York: Hyperion.
Barreiro, José. The Indian Chronicles. Houston: Arte Público.
Bruchac, Joseph. Dawn Land. Golden CO: Fulcrum.
King, Thomas. Green Grass, Running Water. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Maracle, Lee. Sundogs. Penticton BC: Theytus.
Querry, Ron. The Death of Bernadette Lefthand. Santa Fe: Red Crane.
Conley, Robert J. Mountain Windsong. Norman: U of Oklahoma P.
---. Nickajack. New York: Doubleday.
Owens, Louis. The Sharpest Sight. Norman: U of Oklahoma P.
Seals, David. Sweet Medicine. New York: Orion.
Vizenor, Gerald. Dead Voices. Norman: U of Oklahoma P.
Young Bear, Ray. Black Eagle Child: The Facepaint Narratives. Iowa City: U of Iowa P)
Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth. From the River's Edge. New York: Arcade.
Erdrich, Louise and Michael Dorris. The Crown of Columbus. New York: HarperCollins.
Owens, Louis. Wolfsong. Albuquerque: West End.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. Almanac of the Dead. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Hogan, Linda. Mean Spirit. New York: Atheneum.
Vizenor, Gerald. Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P.
Griever: An American Monkey King in China. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P.
King, Thomas. Medicine River. New York: Penguin.
Momaday, Scott. The Ancient Child. New York: Doubleday.
Erdrich, Louise. Tracks. New York: Henry Holt.
Walters, Anna Lee. Ghost Singer. Flagstaff AZ: Northland.
Hale, Janet Campbell. The Jailing of Cecelia Capture. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico.
Dorris, Michael. A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. New York: Henry Holt.
Slipperjack, Ruby. Honour the Sun. Winnipeg: Pemmican Publications.
Erdrich, Louise. The Beet Queen. New York: Henry Holt.
Smith, Martin Cruz. Stallion Gate. New York: Random.
Welch, James. Fools Crow. New York: Viking.
Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. New York: Henry Holt.
Seals, David. The Powwow Highway. New York: Plume-NAL.
Welch, James. The Death of Jim Loney. New York: Harper & Row.
Vizenor, Gerald. Wordarrows: Indians and Whites in the New Fur Trade. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P.
Smith, Martin Cruz. Nightwing. New York: Norton.