"Just whose life is this, anyway?" is a reasonable question for the scholar of Native American composite autobiography to ask. It is, in fact, the most essential question to ask of a genre of American Indian literature that is actually more process than product. It is the question that provides entree into the complex relationships of oral and written discourses and into the degrees of white and Native authorship that rise out of the omissions, manipulations, and cross-cultural negotiations encoded in the text of any collaborative inscription of a Native American life.
Personal narratives solicited from Native American men and women by non-Indian collectors who then structure, edit, introduce, interpret, and publish these autobiographies have been a particularly problematical subject in Native American studies. Personal narratives by Native women have been further problematized by gender bias. For decades, like most women's literary production, they were deemed too insignificant for serious study or relegated to case-study status which focused on content rather than attending to form, style, or narrative intentions.
Until the advent of feminist studies, Native women's lives were a consistently marginalized form of discourse, seen as irrelevant to the structures imposed on cultures by the almost exclusively male cadre of anthropologists who controlled academic politics and publishing norms. Collecting and analyzing the narratives of Native women for academic publication was risky business for scholars because it was an enterprise too literary, too divergent from the scientific model espoused for field projects to produce authoritative data.
Furthermore, there were no critical models for understanding the value of Native women's personal narrative until recognition of women's autobiography as a separate genre with characteristics and criteria separate from male autobiography gained the attention of established literary and feminist scholars in the 1970s. This led to the recognition of separate ethnic women's autobiographical forms and a substantial body of scholarship on Native women's autobiography. (1)
Exacerbating inattention to and considerable misinterpretation of composite Native women's personal narrative has been the dearth of contextual material needed for full understanding of the process of collection and publication of this genre of Native/non-Native discourse. Many of the life stories solicited and edited largely by anthropologists, not literary scholars, were collected before the advent of tape recorders. Consequently almost no verbatim records of producer / narrators' encounters with collector / interpreters exist. Further exacerbating the problem, field notes and manuscript drafts have rarely been placed in archives open to scholars. Thus, adequate evidence of the "emergent property of performance" (Mannheim and Tedlock "Introduction" 13), of the social positioning of the participants, or of the impact of cultural and disciplinary influences in the production of published autobiographies has seldom been available. This absence of data elucidating the narrative process--the Native woman's reasons for telling her life and her style of narration--and the editorial process--the collector's purpose in gathering the narrative and shaping it in a particular way for publication--has made it impossible to fully chart the provenance of any given autobiography. (2)
Left only with clues imbedded in texts and the selective data incorporated into the usually brief format of introductory matter and/or afterword, even a critically trained reader must puzzle on the transformation of discontinuous oral dialogue to written closed narrative and the motives and relationship of what are most likely unequal partners in what is not only a life story but a mediation of cultures. Collaborative autobiographies are not only intimate portraits of their narrators, but also, in sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant ways, portraits of their collector/editors. …