My studies of Coleridge's primary and secondary imagination, as well as my teaching of technical and professional writing and editing in the last fifteen years, have turned me into a rhetorician—one who is fascinated by written language, by the way we work with writing, and by the way writing works on us. All these concerns are especially pertinent as we respond to the burgeoning riches of Native American literature.
Louis Owens asks perhaps the central question for most readers of this special issue: "Can or should critical theory attempt to enable the 'not we' to access the 'so much' that lies beyond the song [of Native American literature] simulated in English or beyond the song heard even in the original tongue by the linguistically adept outsider?" Issues of access and denial, of privilege and deprivation, of heritage and usurpation weave through the discourses of the singers whose songs are collected in these pages. For me, how I respond to these voices depends crucially on how I understand what written language is and what written language does.
Richard Lanham points to what, at first, may seem an incredibly unlikely touchstone for opening up one's understanding of written language in the context of Native American literature. In his essay, "the 'Q' Question" (South Atlantic Quarterly Fall 1988), Lanham takes on the question that he and other commentators have long felt the First Century Roman rhetorician Quintilian clearly defined and then just as clearly evaded: "Is the perfect orator…a good man as well as a good orator?" (653). That is, what are we to make of rhetoric, of language itself, when it is employed for evil purposes, when the art of writing well (excuse the easy shift from spoken to written language) turns "language, [a hu]man's best friend, into a potential enemy" (653)?
The ambivalence of language, its great strength and great peril, is a central issue in Owens's essay. For a more historically detailed example of how language (in this case English) may be a very real, not potential, enemy, read George Ann Gregory's essay in this issue. As I read through this issue, I confront language itself and the uses beneficent and malignant that generations of writers have made of it.
Owens refers to the "language of white thought," a phrase of Aldon Lynn Nielsen's, and then cites Gerald Vizenor's assertion that this language "has had to create the boundaries of its existence and to determine what will not be allowed inside." Perhaps the "language of white thought" is the legacy of another rhetorician, Peter Ramus, who in the 16th Century took on Quintilian and answered the "Q" question by severing rhetoric from philosophy, action from reason. Lanham writes, "rhetoric and grammar thus become cosmetic arts, and speech—and of course writing—along with them. Reason breaks free of speech and takes on a Platonic self-standing freedom" (656-57).
From this intellectual sundering, argues Lanham, comes the European and Euroamerican penchant for "dividing the seamless web of learning into self-standing and self-sealing divisions. [T]hought now had its own disciplinary arena. Knowing could now be a self-enclosed activity all by itself, pursued 'for its own sake'" (657). The rhetorical mode of instruction, of knowing, that had been "built upon the student's experience through time" Ramus changed to the academic world we know today in which "students change intellectual worlds every hour" and we largely privilege inquiry that values "abstract schema rather than human experience" (658).
All of the writing in this issue—the criticism, the fiction and nonfiction, and the poetry—offers a rhetoric of human experience. And all of it seems to me to struggle with the human need in our fragmented modern world to re-join reason, language, and action, to make some sense and some utterance that will figure forth the whole of the human experience of this continent that is most poignant for its wildly antipodal nature: at once heroic and cowardly, noble and despicable, exalted and common, sacred and profane, beatific and damned.
What hope have we? Perhaps this: Language is a trickster, and coyote is a rhetorician. With that thought before me, I can read on, strangely optimistic.
When Native American tribal members gathered in a traditional "talking circle," we are told, a feather was passed around. The one holding the feather got to talk. (How much simpler and more pleasant than Robert's Rules!) Now the phone has replaced the feather as the circle has grown enormously, for on 5 July 1995, the nation's first call-in radio program, "Native America Calling," took to the air from its offices at the University of New Mexico with "Chief" George Tiger fielding the calls.
In November 1994, Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, embellished with over a million artifacts of George Gustave Heye's Native American treasures along with thousands of others, was inaugurated to rave reviews. The museum is a testament to the descendants of more than 600 tribes of Native Americans that they and their art are well and alive, far from the extinction anyone may have feared in days gone by.
And every kid in America talks about the Disney movie Pocahontas. While supporting the booming economy generated by shoes, clothes, athletic supplies and whatnot spawned by the myth of the beautiful damsel and engineered by businesses, children are learning to admire and respect a culture they were often taught to ignore or devalue in the past. ("The only good Indian is a dead Indian," remember?)
Thirty months ago, when I talked to Scott P. Sanders about co-editing a Weber Studies special issue on Native American culture/literature, I had no idea we were part of a nationwide groundswell to understand and honor the Native American heritage of our multicultural country.
Right now seems to be one of the finest moments of Native American culture, both pop and high. Books published even in the last twelve months—Drex Brooks's Sweet Medicine, Adrian C. Louis's Bloodthirsty Savages (both reviewed in this issue), Gerald Vizenor's Anthology of Native American Literature, two anthologies of Native American autobiographical writing (one edited by Arnold Krupat and the other by Robert F. Sayre), along with a plethora of other work published by Native American writers, are all part of the renaissance that is taking place in our midst.
As millions of our nation's minorities and immigrants know too well, recognition and respect are not commodities that are available for the mere asking in our country. An outpouring of compelling books by and about Native Americans, however, is making a difference in the way we feel and think about these tribes who were once the only inheritors of the North American continent.
As much of the writing in these pages reveals, the most critical issue facing a Native American is the question of balance between assimilation in the majority culture and affirmation of a separate identity. It is a question not unfamiliar to most immigrants. Yet the question is perhaps acute among American Indians whose lives were drastically changed by the 1953 congressional policy ironically titled "termination." James Welch's remarks in the interview featured here give us a tantalizing picture of the predicament of its victims.
The essays, poems, fiction, and art work in this issue provide both an exhilarating and exhausting experience, for reading and seeing (as much as listening) involve a dialogical process, a renegotiation of our previous notions, and construction of new realities. One experience is sure to be new to most readers. We have featured here, for the first time, two poems in their original Navajo version alongside poet Mazii Dineltsoi's own translation of them into English. Read them both aloud, one after the other, or perhaps in tandem stanza by stanza and see if you too can be transported into an incredible world of intuitive comprehension that passeth all understanding.