Word as Weapon: Visual Culture and Contemporary American Indian Poetry

By Rader, Dean | MELUS, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Word as Weapon: Visual Culture and Contemporary American Indian Poetry


Rader, Dean, MELUS


Poetry is revolutionary. It must be to survive.

--Lance Henson (Cheyenne)

In Sherman Alexie's novel Indian Killer, Marie Polotkin, a Spokane college student, explains to her Wannabe-Indian professor, for whom the Ghost Dance stands as a "beautiful, and ultimately desperate act," that Wovoka's vision was more than mere "symbolism" and "metaphorical beauty": "Don't you see? If the Ghost Dance had worked, you wouldn't be here. You'd be dust" (313). Indeed, though the Ghost Dance was not created as an act of violence, it was clear to its followers that this combination dance, chant, and religion would likely result in "white people and their culture be[ing] destroyed by a natural cataclysm" (Mooney viii). From the Ghost Dance to the Mayan power song "They Came from the East" to the Iroquois's anti-Anglo spell "Magic Formula" to the Yana's "Curse on People that Wish One Ill," Native communities have invested in language the ability to control identity and destiny. As scholar and linguist John Bierhorst argues, the "belief that words in themselves have the power to make things happen ... is one of the distinguishing features of native American thought" (3). When Wovoka and his followers performed the Ghost Dance, they trusted that their singing would "make things happen." If words, performative language, could reach their full potential, then, like a great spell, the unified chores of Indians would be able to act as an inverted Yahweh: they would speak all white people out of being.

The ghost dance is a provocative vision of resistance, and it stands as a complex example of how Native Americans see language as a viable weapon to protect cultural identity and sovereignty. When physical resistance is implausible, linguistic resistance becomes necessary; stories can be told about the white devil, power songs sung, spells invented, and myths constructed. Not surprisingly, Native American communities have emerged with a relationship to language most contemporary Anglos do not and cannot understand. That so many Chippewa, Choctaw, Laguna, Navajo, Cherokee, Modoc, Creek, and countless other clans and communities produce important poets is not a fluke. It is life.

To sustain the transformative power of charged oral expression, writers from these clans, communities, tribes, and nations have, in the latter part of this century, turned to the lyric poem as a mode of both connection and resistance. Like its oral ancestor, the lyric has always sought the dual catalyzation of author and reader but has not really cultivated a reputation as a welcome space for protest or resistance, especially in the United States. While lyric poetry in English has not been without its private contrivances or tropes of conquest, for the most part its ontology has been one of engagement. In its essence, the lyric project seeks relation and transformation, as Edward Hirsch rightly notes: "[r]eading poetry is an act of reciprocity, and one of the great tasks of the lyric is to bring us into right relationship with each other" (4). For Native writers, poetry not only functions as a relationship but also as something sacred and powerful that transforms reality for author, reader, and the communities of both. In fact, in her recent book on contemporary American Indian poetry, Robin Riley Fast echoes Hirsch, arguing that Native writers engage in a dialogic poetry that modifies the world for both speaker and listener, writer and reader. According to Fast, this "dialogic exchange" enacts a "concept integral to Native oral cultures--that of language's efficacy, its power to change the world" (214). Through the unusual and provocative conflation of public and private significations, performative powers, and subtexts of relation and confrontation, the contemporary American Indian poem has become a truly unique and effective form of simultaneous engagement and resistance.

In the following pages, I look at poems by three contemporary Native writers--Louise Erdrich (Chippewa), Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene), and Wendy Rose (Hopi/Miwoc)--in an attempt to understand how recent American Indian writers use the lyric poem as a mode of resistance that also participates in the cultural history of Native oral discourse.

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