Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

South to a Red Place: Contemporary American Indian Writing and the Problem of Native/southern Studies

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

South to a Red Place: Contemporary American Indian Writing and the Problem of Native/southern Studies

Article excerpt

THIS WATERSHED SPECIAL ISSUE OF MISSISSIPPI QUARTERLY GOES TO PRESS about forty years after what Jace Weaver (Cherokee) calls "the signal event in Native literature" (121): the 1968 publication of the novel House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa). (1) "After [this] novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969," Weaver writes, "it was as if floodgates had been opened, and through them poured a steady stream of books by Natives" (121). At about the same time, some of these Native books began to find moorings in an increasingly multicultural American literary canon. Southern literature was already there, having been "invented" and subsequently admitted, by the late 1920s or early 1930s, to a less multicultural--but not utterly white and Euro-American--version of that canon. (2)

Even today, however, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, Indians continue to be generally absent--sometimes by design--from the critical and institutional conversations about Southern literature. They often go completely unmentioned in non-Native-authored literary histories and critical studies of Southern literature, wherein one of the dominant paradigms has for a long time now been "the South in black and white." (3) Likewise, Southern Studies degree programs, conferences, and journals rarely acknowledge this less monochromatic "black, white, and red" South; in turn, Native scholars and teachers rarely see these professional venues as intellectual home places. All told, in such a climate, the ranks of those who teach, research, and/or publish on the intersections of Native literature and the South remain very slim; to date, there has been no critical monograph that focuses explicitly on American Indian literatures and cultures of the South. (4)

The situation is not entirely grim, however. Within the American Studies Association (ASA), for example, Native scholars have joined and to a large extent led a critical conversation about finding an indigenous place on non-Native ground. Indian intellectuals have participated regularly in the last several ASA conferences, served on ASA committees (including the program committee), and collaborated on a 2003 "Forum on American (Indian) Studies: Can the ASA Be An Intellectual Home?" published in the Association's journal, American Quarterly. The 2007-2008 President-elect of the Association is Philip J. Deloria, a distinguished Standing Rock Sioux scholar and the son of legendary intellectual Vine Deloria, Jr. But a great deal of work remains to be done, and, as I argue in another forum, it is important to bear in mind that "American Indians have not only been made separable from the South, especially in its literature; American Indian literature of the South also makes itself both separable and inseparable from Southern literature and the South" ("On Native Ground"). This special issue of the Mississippi Quarterly, then, marks a real beginning as it reveals, first of all, that Native writers of the South are doing important work and that they look at the South from a variety of places and perspectives, write with consummate literary skill in a variety of genres, and stand in respectful relation to one or more particular tribal-national literary histories. This issue also presents ways of seeing the various literary histories of American Indian nations of the South as interconnected and understandable as a cohesive intertribal literary canon, provided that one also bears in mind the distinctions among various tribal-national literatures--the ways in which, for example, Cherokee literature differs from Muscogee Creek. (5) And it argues persuasively that the Native literary work under discussion contributes, much more significantly, and subtly, than has generally been acknowledged, to Southern as well as to American Indian literature.

Of course, as I have already begun to suggest, Native texts, cultures, and histories differ from--even as they often intersect with--non-Native texts, cultures, and histories; this is as true of Southern Native and non-Native texts as it is true of Native and non-Native texts from or about other American regions. …

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