Tharp, Julie, Transformations
Allen, Paula Gunn, ed. Voice of the Turtle: American Indian Literature 1900-1970. New York: Ballantine, 1994. Hardcover. 321 pages. $24.50.
Krupat, Arnold, ed. New Voices in Native American Literary Criticism. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993. Paperback. 555 pages. $34.95.
Even ten years ago I could read nearly everything published by Native American writers, but that is no longer the case. The wealth of literature published in recent years has created a need for a central anthology of pieces that can be easily used in Native American studies and/or English classrooms. A proliferation of literary criticism within the field has consistently evinced the need for some consensus on culturally sensitive methods of approach to these literatures. Two new books help to meet these needs.
Teachers of American Indian literature should welcome Paula Gunn Allen's latest publication, an anthology of American Indian narrative literature produced between 1900 and 1970. The first of a projected two volume set, this anthology focuses on the roots of the contemporary blossoming of literature by Indian writers. Within the introduction Allen provides a general historical overview of the transformation of Indian narrative from oral storytelling to formal fiction and of other variations of literature created along the way. The anthology represents these variations well; in fact, that is one of the editor's strengths. Allen has managed to combine, in evocative juxtaposition, autobiographical narratives by writers like Estelle Armstrong and Luther Standing Bear; stories from the oral tradition such as those recorded by Charles Eastman; collaborative narratives like those created by Pretty-shield and Frank B. Linderman; and fiction by D'Arcy McNickle and Simon J. Ortiz. Allen's opening argument that "Native Narrative Tradition revolves around the theme of magical transformation" is amply supported by the transformation of genre evinced by her selections (8).
The other three subthemes she mentions - "social change, cultural transition, and shifting modes of identity" - figure largely in the content of the stories she has included within the anthology. As such, the anthology would lend itself well to an interdisciplinary course in American Indian, literary, or sociological studies. Allen also provides biographical, critical and historical context for the writers, their work and the events referred to in the pieces within short introductions to each selection. Within an introductory course, the anthology would provide students with a strong sense of the general concerns within the American Indian community. The instructor of an upper division course would want to supplement the text with background information on individual tribal and regional differences. A bibliography of other primary sources and a critical bibliography, particularly for college students, would have been handy additions to the book.
I am delighted to have discovered some works with which I was unfamiliar: one of the "little stories" gathered by Mourning Dove from her Okanogan relatives and friends, Canadian E. Pauline Johnson's "A Red Girl's Reasoning," and a fictional piece by Simon J. Ortiz, "Woman Singing." Two strong threads running throughout the collection - Indian boarding school experience and adherence to traditional culture in the face of change - are also striking, particularly because of the tension they generate. In a course, these two themes would create a strong backdrop for the exploration of a number of more recent longer works such as Louise Erdrich's Tracks or Love Medicine, Louis Owens' The Sharpest Sight or Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony.
In justifying her use of excerpts from longer pieces, Allen comments that all literature arises out of an "all-encompassing matrix" made up of cultural assumptions, backround and narrative traits. All readers have varying access to that matrix and therefore to the stories included, but Allen has done a creditable job of bringing together pieces that help to create, together, a matrix from which the reader can develop a greater understanding of the whole and of each writer's contribution to it. For instance, Allen's interest in woman-centered themes reverberates from the first selection, "A Red Girl's Reasoning," which on the surface describes the protagonist's disillusionment with her white husband when he fails to respect tribal custom, to Charles Eastman's "A War Maiden," a traditional story, to Prettyshield's "Women and War," an autobiographical piece, and on through others like Zitkala-Sa's "The Widespread Enigma Concerning Blue-Star Woman" and Ortiz's "Woman Singing." The selections begin to create the matrix of which Allen speaks by providing a sense of the mythical traditions within which people live and from which they construct narratives about their own lives as well as construct more formalized, fictional narratives.
An instructor could use a theme such as women's identity and explore its earlier meaning within the Native Narrative Tradition as well as within more recent narratives created by writers who are consciously working through the old ways as well as the new, both in content and form. An understanding of standard characteristics within a given oral tradition would help students to read more recent narratives with an eye for structure and variation. A greater appreciation for that matrix, for the context in which this literature has been produced seems to me a worthy goal for the instructor of American Indian literature, particularly if we are intent upon providing fair evaluations of the literature and meaningful experiences for our students. While Allen's feminist allegiance is clear from many of these woman-centered selections, her loyalty to American Indian culture is equally obvious in her balanced introductions. Voice of the Turtle is a rich and rewarding place for the reader to begin to appreciate the "magical transformation" of American Indian literature.
New Voices in Native American Literary Criticism marks Arnold Krupat's second anthology of critical articles; the first such collection he edited with Brian Swann in 1987. This volume is the first in a series of studies on Native American literature projected by the Smithsonian. Krupat's introduction alerts the reader that while he had intended this collection to be far more focused than the earlier one, it remains a persistently eclectic text, combining as many different literatures of indigenous peoples as it does ways of approaching them. As such, the text neatly avoids espousing any particular theoretical agenda, other than the more general one of respecting and exploring the complexities of Native American literature and its study. An impressive text in length and scope as well as in the contributors' credentials and offerings, New Voices unquestionably adds to current scholarship in the field, even though it raises as many questions about the goals and methods of this scholarship as it answers.
Krupat has divided the text into three sections: "Performances and Texts," "Authors and Issues," and "Ethnocritiques." The first section examines various oral texts from individual Ojibwe, Koasati, and Shuar storytellers, Inuit writing, Hopi clowning, Huichol funeral oration, and contemporary poets' use of the ancient Nahuatl language. This section is the least familiar territory for me as it makes extensive use of folkloric methodologies for recording and examining oral stories as well as cultural critiques of the production and reception of various literatures. The contributors to this section are plagued by similar problems of outsider influence on texts, translation of Native languages, and critical positioning. Still, I am especially impressed by the exquisite care taken by Ridie Wilson Ghezzi in her recording and translation of two Ojibwe storytellers' differing versions of the same story and by the rigorous contextual analysis of Hans-Ulrich Sanner in his look at "Humor and Creativity in Hopi Ritual Clown Songs." Furthermore, the inclusion of Native literatures in their original languages greatly enriches the collection.
The articles within the second section of the book, "Authors and Issues," offer fairly traditional literary criticism by establishing a particular theoretical approach and applying it to works of literature. The primary authors considered in this section include Gerald Vizenor, Leslie Marmon Silko, Mourning Dove, Todd Downing, Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins and the editor Frank Linderman. The theoretical approaches range from post-modernist to post-colonial, from anthropological to biographical. The literary histories of Todd Downing, Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, and Mourning Dove are particularly informative, but the more theoretical pieces offer substantial insight into the problems associated with applying theory to essentially bi-cultural texts. Kimberly Blaeser's essay on Vizenor's mixed genre poetry, which draws on traditions of both Ojibwe dream songs and Japanese haiku, crystallized for me just how challenging and exciting much of contemporary Native American writing really is. All of the contributors within this section raise issues within the study of these literatures, such as what qualifies as "Indian" literature, what is the proper goal of studying this literature, whether or not non-Indian critics are seriously hampered, and other central problems within the field.
The final section of the text, "Ethnocritiques," invokes, as Krupat puts it, "the border or dialogical perspectives and procedures, my own term for which is ethnocriticism" (xxiv). The work in this category tends to cross the "borders between Western and non-Western - here, to be sure, Indian" (xxiv). Jana Sequoya's essay does so through an examination of indigenous ways of knowing and speaking about experience. Greg Sarris ponders the stories left out of Autobiographies of Three Pomo Women, based on his knowledge of Pomo women from his own childhood. Three of the essays present the work of "indigenous organic intellectuals" (xxiv). What they all seem to share is a certain distance from the academy as represented in the rest of the volume by literary and cultural critics. Diverging from professional jargon and methodology, they are nonetheless rigorous in their own approaches. This section is perhaps the freshest and yet also the most unsettling in that it decenters the carefully crafted analyses in the rest of the volume. The curriculum can respond to this kind of material by including within upper division and graduate literature courses a combination of the more traditional academic scholarship as well as the "ethnocritiques" included by Krupat. The latter would clearly suggest avenues of discussion and revision for current scholars. A recent publication, Killing Custer by James Welch would offer an interesting book-length ethnocritique since Welch "reads" not just historical texts but also texts generated by popular culture and literature, always conscious of his own relationship to the material.
In the introduction Krupat explains that New Voices is, in part, an approach to the serious concern within academia of how to go about researching not only "Native experience but Native constructions of the category of knowledge" (xix). He argues (briefly) that even with the best of intentions, by clinging to old "scientific" methods, we will not be able to move beyond the old ways of knowing. By setting up the volume in this manner, and by ending it with pieces by writers he perceives to be at the borders of Western and non-Western cultures, Krupat subtly advances his own agenda. By including those writers the text also lives up to its title, truly including new voices in an established setting.
In all, the reader and scholar of Native American literature would find their time well spent with either of these volumes.
Article copyright The New Jersey Project.
Article copyright The New Jersey Project.…
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Publication information: Article title: Book Reviews. Contributors: Tharp, Julie - Author. Journal title: Transformations. Volume: 6. Issue: 1 Publication date: March 31, 1995. Page number: 120. © New Jersey Project Sep 30, 1996. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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