Academic journal article MELUS

"Spider Woman's Granddaughter": Autobiographical Writings by Native American Women

Academic journal article MELUS

"Spider Woman's Granddaughter": Autobiographical Writings by Native American Women

Article excerpt

Native American women's autobiographical writing addresses the issue of multiple marginalization through a historically constructed "othering" experienced by Native Americans today. The autobiographical project of Native Americans is unique in the sense that it is a reaction against a politically sanctioned attempt at extermination and a denial of culture, language, and beliefs. Ultimately, the historical specificity of the government's treatment of Native Americans contributes to the organizing principle behind the autobiographical agenda: these texts do not represent an act of translation--they exist in order to dispel American ignorance and a deliberately constructed invisibility.

The importance, and necessity, of autobiographical writing for Native American women is made evident by Paula Gunn Allen's statement: "Native women must contend with yet a third fact, one more difficult to notice or tell about: if in the public and private mind of America Indians as a group are invisible in America, then Indian women are non-existent" (Sacred Hoop 9). Writing their own lives, telling their stories, creates both the space and the identity for Native American women to establish their history and their subjectivity through an exploration of their unique and often overlooked cultural legacy.

In order to understand the distinct position of Native Americans in America today, it is necessary to understand the government organized policies of relocation and assimilation that resulted in the denial and decimation of their indigenous cultures. Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase marked the beginning of the removal of Native Americans from their lands. The decade of the 1830's was the decade of Indian removal; the Jefferson Plan became the Removal Act, continued by Andrew Jackson, who enabled the forced exile of the Native Americans onto what was acknowledged as Indian Territory. These Territories were guaranteed "as long as the grass grows, the wind blows, and the waters run" (Spider Woman's Granddaughter 1015). Unfortunately, the Railroad Enabling Act, the Homestead Act, and the Indian Allotment Act of 1887 further opened up the West for settlement and further denied Indians their land.

By 1880, of the original 150 million acres guaranteed by treaties, all but 50-60 million were reclaimed by the Western expansion, and at least half of what was left to the Native Americans was desert or semi-desert land. After the physical displacement of Native Americans was complete, the Indian School system was developed as a way to further institute alienation and forced assimilation that denied and decimated Native American culture and legacy. It is possible, then, to read the autobiographical project of contemporary Native American writers as a reaction to this renaming of the Nations as Tribes, to the Native American envisioned and imagined by the dominant discourses. (1)

Histories and autobiographies of Native Americans abound, both in literary and anthropological journals; however, these texts are biased by their editors or authors' expectations and assumptions about Native American culture. The problematic yet traditional practice of Native American autobiography is that they are "collaborative efforts, jointly produced by some white who translates, transcribes, compiles, edits, interprets, polishes, and ultimately determines the form of the text in writing, and by an Indian who is its subject and whose life becomes the content of the 'autobiography' whose title may bear his name" (Krupat, For Those Who Come After 30). Although the proliferation of such texts does serve to heighten awareness of the concerns of Native Americans, the linear structure and the standardized, Western English language of these mediated texts reflects a colonizing agenda. Western literary traditions prescribe codes of chronology, linearity, the quest narrative, theories modelled upon male sexuality--buildup, climax, denouement. …

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