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Fall 1995, Volume 12.3



Louis Owens

"The Song is Very Short": Native American Literature and Literary Theory

Louis Owens (Ph.D., University of California at Davis) is currently Professor of English at the University of New Mexico. His most recent publications include the novels Bone Game (University of Oklahoma, 1994), The Sharpest Sight (University of Oklahoma, 1992), and Wolfstong (West End, 1991), and a critical study, Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel (University of Oklahoma, 1992). He is co-editor of the University of Oklahoma's American Indian Literature and Critical Studies Series and a member of the governing board for the American Indian Literature Prize and the North American Indian Prose Award.  See more of Louis Owens' work published in Weber Studies: Vol. 16.2.


I've taken the title for this essay—"The Song Is Very Short"—from Maria Chona's famous explanation: "The song is very short because we understand so much" (23). I think it behooves us to pay attention to the implications of this Papago, or Tohono O'odham, woman's words regarding cultural knowledge. Who are "we" who understand so much, and how do "others"—the "not-we's"—attend to the brief utterance of song shadowed by such cultural complexity and depth? When the song is sung beyond the circle of "we," how is communication achieved, if, indeed, it is achieved at all? Or, since political inequality is an unavoidable fact within colonized space, is it inevitable that what takes place within the transcultural frontieras the indigenous "text" is "read" by those in powermay be mere surface appropriation only, a shadow borrowing and simulacrum of tribal culture? In such circumstances, the short song may appear in ethnographic anthologies, most probably in translation, while that which it signifies remains locked away in cultural distance. Can or should critical theory attempt to enable the "not we" to access the "so much" that lies beyond the song simulated in English or beyond the song heard even in the original tongue by the linguistically adept outsider? More crucially yet, can theory illuminate transcultural zones in such a way that such "dialogically agitated space" becomes a matrix within which communication and comprehension are indeed multidirectional and multi-reflexive? Finally, what dangers must we keep in mind when we pose as intermediaries in this critical process?

When I was a boy, a friend and I used to keep pet crows. Every spring we would locate places where the flocks nested, and we would watch the eggs until they hatched. We would make friends with the hatchlings, visiting them frequently until they were almost ready to fly. Though shy at first, they quickly seemed to anticipate and enjoy our visits, craning their scrawny necks as we climbed up to them. Eventually we would each take two or three—whoever was in the nest—to our homes where we would put them in cardboard boxes and feed them Gravy Train dog food. In my memory they were delightful pets—friendly, extroverted, thrilled to be going on a journey, and apparently ecstatic at the discovery of Gravy Train. They bonded quickly and could be counted on to hang around once they could fly and were released outside. Mine would invariably perch in a dead tree near my family's home and swoop down exuberantly to caw their hellos whenever I appeared in the barnyard. They incorporated us humans into their constant games, hilariously plucking clothes pins from the line so that my mother's laundry would flutter to the ground, and harassing the dogs at every turn. When migration time came, the crows would sail around above the barn nervously for a few days and then join the great flocks as they went elsewhere. If they returned to nest another year, we never knew it. The next year we would adopt new crows and at the right time they, too, would migrate. For three years we had very fulfilling one-season relationships with our crows. Only one thing darkens the memory for me.

My friend Chuck was a gentle person who loved the natural world. However, his father, a silent man who still ranched the land his great-grandfather had settled—land that in his great-grandfather's day had been the home of Chumash Indians—had convinced Chuck that to make crows speak human words it was necessary to split their tongues with a sharp knife. It seemed to be an idea Chuck's father had inherited from his father, but where it had originated wasn't clear. All that was clear was the rancher's firm belief in his theory. Chuck and I argued and even fought over the issue, but finally, one season, I could not convince him to spare his birds' tongues. He wanted desperately to achieve something he thought of as communication with those crows, but strangely they never did learn to talk. In fact, while mine would often hurl themselves down from the dead tree with hoarse caws sounding very much like hellos, Chuck's birds appeared to lose even the joy of crow talk and seemed to become sullen and resentful. After that year, Chuck and I lost interest in pet crows. I moved away soon and lost contact with Chuck as well.

Over the years I've thought often about Chuck's crows. I still wince at the memory of the birds who finally took to the air no longer capable of the glib chatter and easy laughter so important to crows. And I wonder what happened to my friend who loved crows so much, who wanted so terribly to hear his own words spoken back to him. Perhaps like me he went on to a career in education; more likely, he is still ranching the land his great-grandfather appropriated from the Chumash.

Many of us have seen something like this story repeated with relatives, friends, and the characters who people literature by writers on the margins. Desperate to give his words to the "other," so that the whole world will ultimately give back the reflected self, the colonizer performs his surgery. The result, as we see again and again in writing by American Indian authors, can be what N. Scott Momaday shows us in the character of Able in House Made of Dawn. "Had he been able to say it," Momaday writes, "anything of his own language—even the commonplace formula of greeting 'Where are you going,'—which had no being beyond sound, no visible substance, [it] would once again have shown him whole to himself; but he was dumb. Not dumb—but inarticulate" (57). Echoing Momaday, Sherman Alexie asks, in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, "How can we imagine a new language when the language of the enemy keeps our dismembered tongues tied to his belt?" (152).

But people aren't crows, of course. We have the power to heal our tongues and learn to speak in any language on earth. When the season ends—even a five hundred year season of what the Chippewa writer Gerald Vizenor has called "word wars"—we don't always migrate, though we may have been relocated sometime during that long season. Most significantly, perhaps, we humans have the ability to appropriate and liberate the other's discourse. Rather than merely reflecting back to him the master's own voice, we can, in James Baldwin's oft-quoted phrase, learn to make it bear the burden of our own experience. We can use the colonizer's language, as Momaday demonstrates so brilliantly in The Way to Rainy Mountain, to articulate our own worlds and find ourselves whole. This has been, of course, the project of Native American writers for a long time. American Indians recognized very early the truth of Larzer Ziff's statement that "The process of literary annihilation would be checked only when Indian writers began representing their own culture" (Vizenor 8). The American Indian writer, of course, would pluralize Ziff's "culture" to correctly emphasize the several hundred distinct cultures still extant in Native America.

With the recent emergence of what Arnold Krupat calls the "voice in the margin," there seems to be a widespread sense that a new kind of critical-theoretical approach is needed if multiculturalism is to be more than another aspect of the familiar discourse of dominance, what has been called critical imperialism. As part of this argument, Gerald Vizenor has written that "academic evidence is a euphemism for linguistic colonization of oral traditions and popular memories" (183). More than any other Indian writer, however, Vizenor liberally sprinkles his texts with academic evidence, quoting and paraphrasing theorists to an extraordinary degree, gathering fragments of authoritative critical discourse the way a trickster magpie gathers the shiny and curious debris of civilization and weaving these shards into the fabric of his own prose. It would seem, to Vizenor at least, that critical discourse is a fruitful target for appropriation, abrogation, and re-articulation. In fact, despite protesting the academic evidence of structuralism, Vizenor has even edited Narrative Chance, the only collection of critical essays to self-consciously seek a "postmodern" theoretical approach to Native American writing. Among the essays in this collection the reader will find a Lacanian reading of Silko's Ceremony, a reader-response approach to D'Arcy McNickle's The Surrounded, and a Bakhtinian analysis of Vizenor's own work.

Elaine Jahner has echoed Vizenor's initial concern, writing that "critics need to be aware that conventional approaches and vocabulary are as likely to obscure as to illuminate both the form and the content of Native literature, oral or written" (212). Elaborating upon the dangers of critical imperialism, Krupat has further argued that

postmodern positions, regardless of what they call themselves… are all based upon models both of Western "scientific," "social-scientific," "rational," "historical" modes of thought, and of non-Western "religious," "biogenetic," "mythic," or vaguely specified "Indian" modes, that are grossly overgeneralized—overgeneralized, so that they may be reified as categories presumptively in (binary) opposition to each other. (5)

Having coined the word "ethnocriticism" to define his version of multicultural critical discourse, Krupat also goes on to confess:

But inasmuch as the conceptual categories necessary to ethnocriticismculture, history, imperialism, anthropology, literature, interdisciplinarity, even the frontier—are Western categories, the objection may be raised that ethnocriticism is itself no more than yet another form of imperialism, this time of a discursive and epistemological kind….(5)

Edward Said, in Culture and Imperialism, declares that "If the Japanese, East European, Islamic, and Western instances express anything in common, it is that a new critical consciousness is needed." Said goes on to state: "Instead of the partial analysis offered by the various national or systematically theoretical schools, I have been proposing the contrapuntal lines of a global analysis" (330), a direction that strikes me as not far from Krupat's argument for "ethnocriticism."

As Krupat amply demonstrates in his introduction to his volume titled Ethnocriticism, we could easily find any number of other writers arguing for the necessity of new theoretical approaches to multicultural literature. However, given the truth of Houston Baker's recent statement that "it took more years than anyone could possibly have imagined for the earth to move in the world of American literary and cultural studies" (5), it may be that we will have a long time to wait.

What are the obstacles we face in thus moving the critical earth? One of the foremost, I would suggest, arises from a twofold kind of resistance: (1) The resistance of the so-called "other" who very rightly suspects and frequently rejects the critical discourse of the metropolitan center as little more than further colonialism or cultural imperialism. And (2) the resistance of the privileged center itself which continues, in the face of what strikes me as often hypocritical posturing, to ignore the voices of Native Americans who would seek to construct and represent themselves.

Examples of this refusal to hear or recognize Native American voices are astonishingly and depressingly easy to discover. How else can we explain, for example, the fact that such a perceptive study as The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures, published in 1989, considers Euramerican literature within its discussion of post-colonial writing but ignores entirely the impressive body of literature written by Native American Indian authors? Is writing by an American Indian author less post-or-neo-colonial than that by a native Nigerian or by those other Indians from India? How could such an oversight have occurred? Were the authors of this study simply unaware of writing by North American Indians, or did they for some reason deem such writing insignificant? Similarly, how can we explain the fact that Werner Sollors, in Beyond Ethnicity, offers up a rich panoply of representations of American Indians in works by Euramerican writers but in nearly four hundred pages devotes only one phrase—not even a full sentence—to texts authored by Native American Indians, noting in passing one title each by Momaday, Leslie Silko and that other major figure in American Indian literature, Hyemeyohsts Storm? In his reference list for this book, Sollors includes works by African American and Asian American authors, and studies of Native Americans by Euramerican authors, but fails to list a single title by an American Indian author. More disturbing even than these examples is Edward Said's extraordinary description in Culture and Imperialism of what he calls "that sad panorama produced by genocide and cultural amnesia which is beginning to be known as 'native American literature'" (304). As a writer of what is often termed "Native American literature," and as an admirer and student of the works of Mourning Dove, John Joseph Mathews, D'Arcy McNickle, James Welch, Leslie Silko, Gerald Vizenor, N. Scott Momaday, Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, Lucie Tapahonso, Sherman Alexie, and many other Native American authors of the present and past, I find it both astonishing and insulting to see this rich and diverse body of works dismissed as a "sad panorama produced by genocide and cultural amnesia" which is, according to this cultural theorist, only now "beginning to be known as native American literature." Have we all, to quote Toni Morrison, simply been playing in the dark for all this time? For Said, who calls in the same text for "a new critical consciousness" to dismiss Native American voices in such an uninformed and condescending way suggests to me that, whatever new critical consciousness may emerge from his theorizing as well as that of Sollors and others, it will neither attempt to engage the kind of understanding Maria Chona implies nor recognize the tongue that has learned to heal itself and talk backwill not, in fact, seriously engage Native American writing at all.

Even Toni Morrison, in Playing in the Dark, her wise and widely applauded 1992 reflection on "Whiteness and the Literary Imagination," demonstrates what strikes me as an impressive refusal or inability to seriously acknowledge the Native American presence in the figuration of whiteness in racialized America. Morrison opens her first chapter by declaring: "I want to draw a map, so to speak, of a critical geography and use that map to open as much space for discovery, intellectual adventure, and close exploration as did the original charting of the New World" (3). Although beginning with this unmistakable New World discourse of colonial discovery and appropriation that for any conscious reader foregrounds the presence of the American Indian, Morrison makes absolutely no mention throughout her text of the significance of the Native "red" presence that shadows both the black Africanist and White figurations within her discussion. The closest she comes is to ask rhetorically if America might be seen as "raw and savage" "[b]ecause it is peopled by a nonwhite indigenous population?" Her quick response is a simple "Per haps" before she goes on to ignore entirely the implications of her own question. She refers several times in her text to Melville and racial difference without once noting the existence or implications of a Queequeg or Tashtego or a ship named the Pequod. She refers pointedly to Hemingway's "Tontos," what she calls his "nursemen" who "are almost always black," but she does not pause to consider the problematics of this discourse of Indianness within her own text. Throughout Playing in the Dark, within the "critical geography" mapped by Morrison as space "for discovery," "exploration" and New World "charting," the invisible presence of the indigenous American looms disturbingly.

My point here is not to indict Morrison for not writing a different book, for after all her declared subject is the construction of blackness and whiteness, not Indianness, in America's racialized society. However, I have chosen this work by one of our most sensitive and sensible writers in order to stress what seems to many of us the continuing and astonishing invisibility of Native Americans and the silencing of the American Indian voice within the critical and privileged discourse of this country. The basic problem here seems to be that the center, even when it begins to define itself as something ambiguously called "multicultural," still does not always hear more than the echo of its own voice or see very far beyond its own reflection.

And this point brings me to the first kind of resistance I mentioned above: the suspicion by Native Americans that critical theory represents little more than a new form of colonial enterprise. Why should people who have borne the brunt of authoritative discourse for five hundred years participate in a theoretical discourse that originates from the very center of colonial authority? Why should Indians attend to what Aldon Lynn Nielsen has called the "language of white thought" which "has had to create the boundaries of its existence and to determine what will not be allowed inside" (Vizenor 10)? We are disheartened not only by examples such as those above, but on a different level when, for example, the New York Times Book Review finally decides to notice American Indian voices in a 3 May 1992 front-page review titled "Who Gets to Tell Their Stories?" and assigns the review to a professor identified as "the author of books about Dickens, Tennyson and Trollope." Although clearly an intelligent and generous man, the author of the review, by his own admission, had little or no expertise in the field of Native American literature and seemed more than a little nonplussed by his undertaking. Why, we are led to wonder, did the foremost review in the nation not find an authority on Native American writing to author this essay, perhaps—but not necessarily—even a Native American reviewer? It would not have been a difficult search. The answer, of course, must lie in the age-old imperial assurance that those at the privileged center can read—and write—the "other" with little or no difficulty, especially if that other is Indian. To paraphrase Mary Louise Pratt, the "imperial critical eyes passively look out and possess" Indianness.

More than tired of being what Vizenor has called "an occidental invention that became a bankable simulation" (11), a construction useful when Euramerican or Western intellectuals require a reflecting "other" to give them back culturally enhanced shadows of the self, the Indian may opt out and, in the words of M. Annette Jaimes, call ambiguously for "an autonomous Indian tradition of intellectualism" or take the approach of Robert Warrior in suggesting a kind of Indian "intellectual sovereignty" arising from direct attention to a community of Indian intellectuals (Krupat 84, 89). This kind of sentiment undoubtedly lay behind an Indian academic's rumored declaration that my own 1992 study of Indian novels, Other Destinies, was too "colonial" because of its fairly extensive incorporation of the theories of Bakhtin and other Eurocentric types.

Such separatist intellectual sentiments are easy to understand, but difficult in the end to entirely ratify. The real problem is that we do not have the luxury of simply opting out because, whether we are heard by Said, Sollors, or others, we already function within the dominant discourse. To think otherwise is naive at best, for the choice was made for all of us generations ago. Half a millennium of Euramerican attempts to both eliminate and re-imagine the Indian has resulted in a hybridized, multicultural reality clearly recognized in fiction as long ago as the 1920s and 30s by such Native American writers as Mourning Dove, McNickle, and John Joseph Mathews. As Krupat has written accurately, "from 1492 on, neither Euro-American intellectuals nor Native American intellectuals could operate autonomously or uniquely in a manner fully independent of one another " (88). The very act of appropriating the colonizer's discourse and making it one's own is collaborative and conjunctural. We have long since entered inescapably what Pratt terms a "contact zone" and what I prefer to call a "frontier," in James Clifton's words "a culturally defined place where peoples with different culturally expressed identities meet and deal with each other" (5). For those of us who, like McNickle and most of the authors we recognize as Native American, are mixedbloods, the frontier is quite clearly internalized, but fullblood or mixedblood, we all inhabit and embody this hybridized, polyglot, multicultural space.

Vizenor, the most aggressively intellectual of Native American writers, has illuminated Native Americans' problematic but unavoidable participation in this dialogically agitated discourse, writing that

The English language has been the linear tongue of colonial discoveries, racial cruelties, invented names, the simulation of tribal cultures, manifest manners, and the unheard literature of dominance in tribal communities; at the same time, this mother tongue of paracolonialism has been a language of invincible imagination and liberation for many tribal people in the postindian world.

Vizenor adds,

English, that coercive language of federal boarding schools, has carried some of the best stories of endurance, the shadows of tribal survivance, and now that same language bears the creative literature of distinguished postindian authors in the cities. (105-106)

The Euroimperialist center that dominates Graduate Records Exams, the publishing world, and the realm of critical discourse may hear only the short part of Maria Chona's song, or it may hear nothing more than its own voice echoed back, but it behooves the rest of us to liberate as much as possible "this mother tongue of paracolonialism." However, a very real danger faced by the Native American—or any marginalized—writer who would assume the role of scholar-critic-theorist is that of consciously or unconsciously using Eurocentric theory merely as a way of legitimizing his or her voice—picking up the master's tools not to dismantle the master's house but simply to prove that we are tool-using creatures just like him and therefore worthy of intellectual recognition. It is tempting to believe that if, like my friend Chuck's crows, we learn to say Lacan or Derrida, we may be heard at the distant center. The result of such a contrived pose may be, of course, a split that will not heal.

Given all of the above, the odds that an American Indian scholar will emerge to enter the critical dialogue are slim at best. Learning to say Lacan or Derrida, Kristeva or even Krupat represents a formidable challenge for the Indianor postindian to use Vizenor's neologism. Among all Ph.D.s granted in 1989-90 in all humanities fields, 9.2% went to minorities, while only 0.3% went to American Indians. In the field of English and American literature, the figure for Indians was 0.1%. Obviously, collaboration with the enemy's discourse remains a difficult goal should one even decide to undertake it. Krupat has defined the concomitant danger for the Euramerican or Eurocentric critic rather well, confessing that "the danger I run as an ethnocritic is the danger of leaving the Indian silent entirely in my discourse" (30). As we have seen, such silence is not uncommon.

Given the myriad difficulties and challenges, dangers and frustrations involved in attempts to achieve a theoretical discourse that might help to illuminate the complexities of multicultural literature, the question is how to proceed. I think most of us today have no difficulty with the concept that discourse exists within what Bakhtin defined as "dialogically agitated space," or that communication between cultures takes place within what Pratt calls those "social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other" (4). Such spaces are, as I suggested above, frontier spaces where discourse is multidirectional and hybridized. While within the language of the colonizer the term frontier may, as Pratt argues, be "grounded within a European expansionist perspective" (7), I want to suggest that when one is looking from the other direction, frontier is a particularly apt term for this transcultural zone of contact for precisely the reason Pratt cites. Because the term "frontier" carries with it the burden of colonial discourse it can only be conceived of as a space of extreme contestation. We can, for example, contrast the idea of frontier—that trickster-like, shimmering zone of multifaceted contact—with the concept of territory as it is imagined and given form by the colonial enterprise in America. Whereas frontier is always unstable, multidirectional, hybridized, characterized by heteroglossia, and indeterminate—a liminal space existing as a matrix for communication, including, of course, unequal political struggles—I would define territory as that space which is mapped, fully imagined as a place of containment, invented to control and subdue the wild imaginations of imagined Native peoples. Ultimately, of course, that same territory is space to be emptied and reoccupied by the colonial power. Indian Territory, to invert a statement by Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulations, both "precedes the map, [and] survives it" (Vizenor 9). This process is brilliantly illustrated in James Welch's novel Fools Crow, where, in Chapter 25, Welch describes a young white man's vision of the landscape of Indian country. For nearly three hundred pages we have lived within the world of the Blackfeet, and we have come to know the landscape as intimately and fully inhabited, rich in signification for the Indians. Through the white man's eyes, however, the place is emptied as Welch writes:

The rolling prairies were as vast and empty as a pale ocean, and the sky stretched forever…. The few small mountains, like islands in this sea of yellow swells, only seemed to emphasize its vastness. In the winter, when snow covered the land and lay heavy in the bottoms, the man was filled with foreboding dreams of an even larger isolation. (289-90)

Welch is showing us the aestheticization of space as a necessary prelude to colonial charting and appropriation. For Welch's white man, a post-Columbian visionary, the landscape is vastly uninhabited, empty of local significance, mirroring the "not-at-homeness" that informs postcolonialism.

For five hundred years, Native peoples have been systematically removed—literally and figuratively—to Indian Territory, that real and imagined space for which Huckleberry Finn could "light out" when the discourse of Euramerica became unbearable. Later, in Hollywood, John Wayne would roam a Territory emptied of Indians, Kevin Costner would re-enact (even parody) its romantic appropriation as he danced with Vanishing Americans, and Russell Means would mimic Cooperesque poses of the epic and tragic Indian who, as Bakhtin wrote, "by his very nature, must perish."

A danger seemingly inherent in much contemporary critical discourse concerning minority literatures, or multiculturalism, is a tendency to move in the direction of the binary structures postmodern theory so loathes. In Resistance Literature, for example, Barbara Harlow writes:

Resistance literature calls attention to itself, and to literature in general, as a political and politicized activity. The literature of resistance sees itself furthermore as immediately and directly involved in a struggle against ascendant or dominant forms of ideological and cultural production. (28-29)

In Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, Pratt defines "autoethnography" as "instances in which colonized subjects undertake to represent themselves in ways that engage with the colonizer's own terms," and adds that "autoethnographic texts are those the others construct in response to or in dialogue with those metropolitan representations" (7).

I would define literature by Native American authors about Native American concerns and informed by Native American cultures as undeniably both a deeply politicized literature of resistance and an example of autoethnography according to Pratt's term. And I find no disagreement with the principles articulated by Harlow and Pratt. However, as a writer, critic, and teacher of something called Native American literature, I feel oddly uncomfortable with these definitions. Perhaps my discomfort comes from the derivation of the very word "define": that is "to set a limit to, [to] bound." I suspect that Native American literature—a literature written almost exclusively in English by predominantly mixedblood authors steeped in Western education—well beyond its involvement "immediately and directly in a struggle against ascendant or dominant forms of ideological and cultural production," must like all multicultural literatures actually participate in myriad ways within that same process of ideological and cultural production. We must be careful of the tendency Henry Louis Gates, Jr., very recently pointed out when he wrote that:

…under the sign of multiculturalism, literary readings are often guided by the desire to elicit, first and foremost, indices of ethnic particularity, especially those that can be construed as oppositional, transgressive, subversive. (8)

Gates quotes John Guillory to the effect that "The critique of the canon responds to the disunity of the culture as a whole, as a fragmented whole, by constituting new cultural unities at the level of gender, race, or more recently, ethnic subcultures, or gay or lesbian subcultures" (8). In the same journal, Susan Stewart writes:

If scholars in our discipline constantly examine the relation between dominant and minority cultural forms as one of a colonizing appropriation and borrowing by the dominant, they end up, as nineteenth-century folklorists did, turning minority forms into something like nature—that is, a reservoir of spontaneity bereft of particularity and agency. (13)

Stewart goes on to write that "Narrative closure, cultural fixity, bounded knowledges are bought at the cost of tremendous violence to the possibilities of thought and action" (13). David Murray, in his Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing & Representation in North American Indian Texts (1991), defines the challenge well, writing that "difference, rather than being essentialised, [must be] seen to be in constant interplay with cross-cultural unities and continuities" (3). It is important to heed such warnings. In our desire to imagine an oppositional, culturally unified "other"—whether from an indigenous perspective or that of the "paracolonial" center—we run the risk of constructing what Vizenor has called "terminal creeds": those monologic utterances which seek to violate the dialogic of trickster space, to fix opposites and impose static definitions upon the world. Terminal creeds occur, says Vizenor, "in written literature and in totalitarian systems" (Owens 233). "Narrative closure, cultural fixity, bounded knowledges," as Stewart calls them, would terminate the possibilities that energize the multicultural frontier, opposing directly what Vizenor labels both "trickster discourse" and the literature of "survivance," and, as I read her, Pratt defines as "survival literature." A way of avoiding this critical dead end may be to pay careful attention to the admonitions of Vizenor, whose "trickster discourse" insists upon and celebrates the boundless zone of transculturation from a perspective beginning deeply within the traditional trickster narratives of Native America. Vizenor, I would suggest, has long been involved in an effort to move Native American literature in the direction of what Krupat has called the "project of ethnocriticism," a critical enterprise Krupat defines somewhat vaguely as "not only at but of the frontier," arguing that the "trope most typical of ethnocritical discourse is the oxymoron, that figure which offers apparently oppositional, paradoxical, or incompatible terms in a manner that nonetheless allows for decidable, if polysemous and complex, meaning" (28). Despite his tedious, at times gratuitous-seeming use of Latin tropes to organize his discussion of American Indian writinga very familiar appeal to authoritative discourse—and despite his failure to come to terms in any meaningful way with Vizenor's concept of trickster discourse, Krupat seems nonetheless to be breaking important ground in his search for a way of talking about this literature.

In the end, some songs, in Maria Chona's words, will remain very short, and some understandings will remain the domain of deep cultural response. To paraphrase David Murray, however, the challenge facing the critic is to avoid the error of imagining the encounter with Native American texts as a "meeting with the untouched and unknowable other" and to simultaneously escape the temptation to believe in the "unproblematic translatability, and transparency" of texts and cultures (2). Those of us who write, teach, and critique Native American literatures, whether we identify as American Indian, Euramerican, both or neither, face the complex challenge of attempting to body the invisible, give voice to the silent, mediate without violating, and, above all facilitate an awareness that the literature we call Native American is indeed an "other" literature that nonetheless—in keeping with tricksters' ubiquitous and uncontainable presence—participates profoundly in the literary discourse we call American and World literature. 



Alexie, Sherman. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1993.

Baker, Houston A. Jr. "Introduction to Multiculturalism: The Task of Literary Representation in the Twenty-First Century." Profession 93. New York: Modern Language Association, 1993: 5.

Chona, Maria. The Autobiography of a Papago Woman, Memoirs of the American Anthropological Association, no. 46. Ed. Ruth Underhill. Menasha, Wisconsin: The Association, 1936; rpt. as Papago Woman, New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1979.

Gates, Henry Louis Jr. "Beyond the Culture Wars: Identity in Dialogue." Profession 93. New York: Modern Language Association, 1993: 6-11.

Harlow, Barbara. Resistance Literature. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Jahner, Elaine. "A Critical Approach to American Indian Literature." Studies in American Indian Literature. Ed. Paula Gunn Allen. New York: Modern Language Association, 1983: 211-224.

Krupat, Arnold. Ethnocriticism: Ethnography, History, Literature. Berkeley: University of California P, 1992.

____. "Scholarship and Native American Studies: A Response to Daniel Littlefield, Jr." American Studies 34.2 (Fall 1993): 81-101.

Momaday, N. Scott. House Made of Dawn. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.

Murray, David. Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing & Representation in North American Indian Texts. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.

Owens, Louis. Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman: University of Oklahoma P, 1992.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Stewart, Susan. "The State of Cultural Theory and the Future of Literary Form." Profession 93. New York: Modern Language Association, 1993: 12-15.

Vizenor, Gerald. Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance. Hanover & London: Wesleyan UP, 1994.

____. "Socioacupuncture: Mythic Reversals and the Striptease." The American Indian and the Problem of History. Ed. Calvin Martin. New York: Oxford UP, 1987: 180-191.

Welch, James. Fools Crow. New York: Viking Press, 1986.


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