The Paradox of Native American Indian Intellectualism and Literature

By Shanley, Kathryn Winona | MELUS, Fall-Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

The Paradox of Native American Indian Intellectualism and Literature


Shanley, Kathryn Winona, MELUS


   The indian is ironic, to be sure, and a conveyance of manifest
   manners. Natives must overturn the simulations of the indian and
   leave the treasons of that slave name to the arbiters of colonial
   authenticity.

      --Gerald Vizenor, "'Visionary Sovereignty"
      Postindian Conversations

   In 1855, on this site, Issac Stevens negotiated the Hellgate
   Treaty between the U.S. government and the Salish, Kootenai, and
   Pend d'Orielle Indians to create the Flathead Reservation. Bring a
   sandwich and enjoy this day-use-only park for reflection on these
   historical events.

      --Website for Montana State Parks
      www.fwp.state.mt.us/parks

I. Introduction

Native American Indians are often accused of stoicism. Creek literary critic and writer Craig Womack puts it well: "Non-Natives are often unable to connect comedy with Indian people because of the American guilt complex over Indians and the oft-embraced tragic view of the vanishing American" (Womack 136). Yet, if you ask a Native person whether or not Indians are stoic, he or she will probably laugh. What this contradiction of affect does suggest is that some Indians may display a different emotional character from mainstream norms. In postcolonial studies, it is imperative to ask how cultures instill emotional frames within the personalities of their culture-bearers (admitting a range, of course, of personalities, within any given culture, and recognizing that the idea of "any given culture" requires, at the least, thick description to make sense at all). (1) Simply put, what makes people of one group laugh, while people of another group do not laugh at the same thing; cry or not cry? What is involved in a people's determination of funniness--something more than the proverbial "inside joke"? What of other emotions, such as hopefulness or fearfulness? Along with that, how do the predominant emotional forces within a culture change in the face of cross-cultural contact and oppression as happens in colonial situations?

Questions about the relationship between emotions and culture could lead a scholar into anthropological study, reader-response theory, qualitative sociological studies, cognitive psychology, or down many other methodological paths, but I'm far less of a social scientist than a philosopher, so my focus becomes rhetorical, rather than teleological. (2) I'm also more interested in what Chadwick Allen terms, the "practical types of power" that "disenfranchised peoples like indigenous minorities" need to possess (2). American Indians need to possess the practical skills for negotiating within a matrix of institutional powers and multiple ethnicities in order to take care of their families and communities on a day-to-day basis and to intersect with future planning that affects their being recognized, legally and culturally, as peoples, however slippery the definitions of those realities may be.

I concur with Homi Bhabha when he espouses his belief in the centrality of affect to the politics of community. Bhabha writes, "I do think that in our contemporary moment, the politics of difference, the politics of community, the politics of communities of interest have such a deep and strong affective charge that we now have to start to understand the part that emotions, affects, play in the construction of community politics" (34). Getting at the "deep and strong affective charge" calls for analysis that feels beneath the surface of mainstream cultural ideas and images as well as academic theories to the historical imprint on the palimpsest.

In this essay, by way of exploring intersections between American mainstream cultural emotional frames and American Indian realities, I review the trope of the "Vanishing Indian" first, and then I set the stage for discussing "white guilt" as it has recently been theorized by Shelby Steele and extending the implications of his argument to Native Americans. …

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