Academic journal article MELUS

Writing Nature: Silko and Native Americans as Nature Writers

Academic journal article MELUS

Writing Nature: Silko and Native Americans as Nature Writers

Article excerpt

Historians such as William Cronon (Changes in the Land, 1983) and Wilbur R. Jacobs ("Indians as Ecologists," 1980); ecologists such as Stewart L. Udall (The Quiet Crisis, 1963); and religion scholars such as Christopher Vecsey ("American Indian Environmental Religions," 1980) and Vine Deloria, Jr. (God is Red, 1973) argue that Native Americans respect and revere the land, the environment, and the human interrelatedness to that environment in ways foreign to the European immigrants. Since the Pleistocene, the ecological farming and hunting practices of many groups of Native Americans supported their millions of people for thousands of years without endangering the land or the land's animal and vegetable species.(1) What these historians and other scholars are discovering about the ecologically-minded Native Americans seems not only to be evident in religions, myths, and farming and hunting practices, but also seems to be reflected in their literature. Indeed, Native Americans -- along with such European Americans as Thoreau, Muir, Krutch, Leopold, Abbey, and Dillard -- contribute to the genre of American nature writing.

Although he does not anthologize any Native American writers in his collection of American nature writing, Thomas Lyon does acknowledge the importance of such writers: "in Native American mythic narrative there is a strong sense of the power of nature, particularly the dignity and the respectability, in the literal sense, of animals" (Lyon, This xv). In the Norton Book of Nature Writing (1990), the editors Robert Finch and John Elder also note the importance of the Native American voice, and their anthology includes pieces by N. Scott Momaday and Leslie Marmon Silko. With this exception, insofar as any such generalization is valid, Native Americans are the land's unheralded nature writers.

What is a nature writer, after all, if not one who sees the environment as a scientist but who describes it as a humanist? According to Lyon, the "best nature writing has [a basic rightness of gestalt], and has also the rehability of science" ("Nature Essay" 221). Joseph Wood Krutch suggests that nature writers keep an account of their experience with the natural world; whether engineers, surveyors, naturalists, adventurers, or journalists, nature writers are "concerned with 'knowledge about' only insofar as it helps define or color that experience" (xiii). Genre does not matter. Nature writing is writing about nature. For these writers, "reality is quite as likely as fantasy to provide powerful aesthetic and emotional experiences" (Krutch xiii). Besides scientific knowledge (astronomy and ecology, for example), a knowledge of nature is evident in the literature that transcends conventional Western scientific thought. In "Native American Attitudes to the Environment" Momaday calls this knowledge or understanding of the natural world "reciprocal appropriation," by which he means that human beings invest themselves "in the landscape, and at the same time incorporate the landscape into [their] own most fundamental experience" (80). Momaday's example is a story of an expectant father who refuses to hunt deer -- even though he and his family are hungry. As the man explains, "it is inappropriate that I should take life just now when I am expecting the gift of life" (82).

Comparison of American Indian literature with its contemporary Euro-American counterpart reveals the startling contrast between two approaches to the nonhuman world. The European attitude can be traced easily from the domination motif of the Old Testament to colonial writers such as Winthrop, Bradford, Gookin, Rowlandson, and Mather. As Cecelia Tichi points out, Puritans in New England used biblical authority to justify land appropriation and development (1-36). Even among nature writers there exists a dramatic difference between Native American and Euro-American approaches. Thomas Lyon points out, for example, that for "the Indian, as has often been noted, there was no wilderness here, in the sense of a dichotomous term opposed to 'civilization'" (Lyon, This xv). …

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