Printer Friendly

The Zuni Man-Woman.

Beth Cuthand, a Canadian Cree writer, believes "there's something happening in |contemporary~ Native American writing" (Lutz 40). In the collective sound of American Indian writers' voices, she hears an emergent "contemporary story" with profound cultural and political implications. Cuthand suggests that this emerging "story" might help us someday "come to terms with cultural differences, with racism, and . . . free up humanity to do better things than to kill each other" (Lutz 40). Clearly, there is "something happening" in American Indian writing in the United States, for over the last twenty-five years, the number of fictional and nonfictional works by and about Native Americans has increased dramatically. The new Native American writing by such authors as Leslie Marmon Silko, N. Scott Momaday, Louise Erdrich, and others is changing the course of mainstream literature in the United States.

In Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak, Laura Coltelli interviews eleven well-known authors: Paula Gunn Allen, Michael Dorris, Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan, N. Scott Momaday, Simon Ortiz, Wendy Rose, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gerald Vizenor, and James Welch. (Coltelli counts ten authors, presumably because Erdrich and Dorris are interviewed together. However, since she did not interview "Milo North" -- Erdrich and Dorris's collaborative pen name -- it seems more appropriate to count them as two individuals.) Coltelli gives each author the chance to speak at length and candidly about the pressing issues that interest him or her. Overall, the interviews are concerned with the ways in which Native American literature can be distinguished from other literature, how the writers perceive their Indian and non-Indian audiences, and finally, what the act of writing means, personally, to each author.

The answers to Coltelli's questions chart the mental landscape of a group of writers who are diverse in their tribal origins and individual points of view. Most are of halfblood or mixed blood heritage. Perhaps partly as a result, they have thought profoundly about the questions that Coltelli poses. An especially sensitive question concerns the increasingly "Pan-Indian" identity of the more than three hundred tribes that exist throughout the United States. Variously critical of Pan-Indian unity because of its tendency to obscure tribal and individual differences and to promote certain stereotypes, these writers nevertheless share some common political and social interests as Native Americans that they believe the Pan-Indian movement fosters.

The Pan-Indian world view has been succinctly summed up in The Sacred: Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life, by Peggy Beck, Anna Lee Walters, and Nia Francisco. They list six fairly universal beliefs that most North American Indians share. Indeed, these fundamental principals find specific expression in much contemporary Native American literature, including the works of Allen, Momaday, Silko, and the other writers Coltelli interviews. According to Beck et al., most Native American people share

1. A belief in or knowledge of unseen powers, or what some people call The Great Mystery.

2. Knowledge that all things in the universe are dependent on each other.

3. |A belief that~ personal worship reinforces the bond between the individual, the community, and the great powers. Worship is a personal commitment to the sources of life.

4. |A belief that~ sacred traditions and persons knowledgeable in sacred traditions are responsible for teaching morals and ethics.

5. |A belief in~ trained practitioners who have been given names such as medicine men, priests, shamans, caciques, and other names. These individuals also have titles given them by The People which differ from tribe to tribe. These individuals are responsible for specialized, perhaps secret knowledge. They help pass knowledge and sacred practices from generation to generation, storing what they know in their memories.

6. A belief that humor is a necessary part of the sacred. And a belief that human beings are often weak -- we are not gods -- and our weakness leads us to do foolish things; therefore clowns and similar figures are needed to show us how we act and why. (8-9)

This world view implies a distinctive set of ethical values, especially about community and ecology. Such values are often the focus of American Indian artists' critiques of the dominant, excessively materialistic Euro-American society where, for example, a "land ethic," in Momaday's words, is conspicuously absent (95). The interviewed writers all share a keen sense of the role of Native American art in contributing to an alternative, communally- and environmentally-oriented ethics in American society. Some, like Allen, are confident that American Indian voices are at last being heard: "We're publishing more than I can keep up with. . . . And well, you wait till 2050, we'll be one of the major forces in the literary world. I'll lay you odds" (28).

If Allen is correct, she raises one of the most urgent questions facing non-Indians today who wish to teach or write critically about Native American works. Coltelli questions each author about his or her opinion of non-Indian commentators and interpreters of Native American writing. Most say they welcome critical attention from critics who have taken the time to learn about Indian people before they speak and avoided looking at Native American art through the ethnocentric spectacles of Western culture. Vizenor, an academic literary critic himself, perhaps values the attention most. He says that good criticism gives us all something to think, talk, and argue about. Dialogue in itself is valuable, he declares. Indeed, it breaks the silence too long surrounding Native American art, which has been ignored altogether, ignorantly interpreted, or appropriated by anthropologists as artifact rather than art.

Overall, these writers' remarks suggest their acceptance of informed, intelligent (rather than naively well-intentioned) criticism and commentary by non-Indians. However, like Linda Hogan, who admits that she "feel|s~ very possessive about her work" (82), most Native American writers justifiably suspect that yet one more part of their culture is about to be colonized. Therefore, the aspiring teacher or critic of American Indian literature should take general note of what most offends Paula Gunn Allen, who complains that far too often, those who comment on her works seem not to have read the book she thought she had written (29). Though nearly every writer, Indian or not, probably knows this feeling, Allen's point is especially well taken by outsiders to Indian cultures who might venture to interpret Indian art.

Books such as Coltelli's are certainly helpful to anyone wishing to understand Native American literature, and (supporting Allen's prediction) the number of such people is growing, not only in the United States and Canada, but also in Europe. Indeed, two of the best and most recent collections of interviews with North American Indian writers (Coltelli's and Hartmut Lutz's) have been put together by Europeans. Apparently, Europeans are still "discovering" America, often revealing the value of North American writers we had not sufficiently understood or appreciated. Though the idea of being discovered yet again by Europeans might give Native Americans pause, there is much to be appreciated in Coltelli's collection of interviews, in which we hear authentic and original voices as "Native American writers speak."

Besides the important matter of the non-Indian's perspective on Native American literature, a related question arises from Coltelli's interviews: are contemporary Indian writers preserving their cultures or transforming them? After all, to write is, by definition, to adopt a non-native mode of communication, an act replete with profound implications too numerous to review here. Most of the writers who converse with Coltelli quickly concede that they are to some extent reinventing their culture through the written medium; however, like Simon Ortiz, they apparently believe that the "Native American writing tradition being developed now is in line with the oral tradition" (105). That is to say, Native American writing both preserves the past and corrects the errors recorded throughout history by non-Indian writers about Indians. Native American writing also creates the present, thus helping to keep Indian culture alive, instead of merely preserved as a thing of the past. As American Indians such as Vine Deloria and others point out, and as the diverse works of Ortiz and the other interviewed writers make clear, Native American cultures as they exist today offer the world viable models for living that expand the range of alternatives for human existence.

An expanded range of human alternatives is likewise the subject of Will Roscoe's The Zuni Man-Woman, partly a biography of an extraordinary Zuni Indian and partly a history of the shameful U.S. policies of assimilation and decimation of the Pueblo peoples during the late nineteenth century. Recounting the life of Wewha, a Zuni berdache, Roscoe documents the existence among the Zuni of a "third gender" -- an alternative, socially (rather than sexually) determined role adopted by homosexual and bisexual males and females. Roscoe explains persuasively that this "lhamana" status (named for the "man-woman" kachina, Kolhamana) reveals the basis of Zuni gender roles in the type of work a person preferred to do, rather than in his or her biological sex. Indeed, the Zuni apparently categorized the famous anthropologist, Matilda Coxe Stevenson, as a member of the masculine gender because she did the work they associated with white males, despite the fact that they knew she was a heterosexual female married to James Stevenson.

Roscoe focuses on a male berdache, Wewha, who lived at Zuni Pueblo from 1849 to 1896, and who played the role of cultural ambassador between Indians and whites. He even spent time in Washington, D. C., where he met and educated some of the most influential Americans of the day. Typical of the lhamana, he wore the clothing and performed many of the traditional labors of the opposite gender. Never scorned or ridiculed (though sometimes good-naturedly teased) by his own people, this "Zuni man-woman" testifies to the Zunis' expansive "philosophy of gender" (127). Roscoe illuminates this Zuni philosophy of gender by introducing us to an impressive amount of authentic data from Zuni culture, as well as by bringing to bear upon his subject many of the ideas of Jung, Levi-Strauss, and Victor Turner. Roscoe presents the lhamana as a fascinating cultural counterexample to the Western European's near-obsession with extreme, often oppressive, demarcations of gender based on biological sex.

The story of Wewha not only illuminates the socially sanctioned androgynous role available to members of the Zuni (and other Pueblo) people; it also sheds much light on the ways in which Euro-Americans have often failed to perceive certain phenomena of Native American culture, especially when such phenomena contradict the dominant society's social norms. For example, thoroughly blind to contradictions of their own norms of gender, countless white people who met and worked with Wewha for years (including the Stevensons) did not realize that the extremely tall, powerfully built individual in women's clothing who did many traditionally female tasks was, in fact, a male. They did not realize he was male despite the apparent fact that no particular effort to conceal it was ever made on the part of Wewha or any of the other Zuni. Indeed, according to Roscoe, the Zuni were puzzled when white people inquired at Wewha's funeral whether he would be buried on the men's or the women's side of the cemetery: "'Is this not a man?' the Zuni replied with a smile" (126).

Like Coltelli's, Roscoe's book is a valuable and reliable contribution to Native American studies. Coltelli lets us hear some contemporary American Indian voices, while Roscoe allows us to hear with freshness and immediacy some important voices from the past. Many of these are especially important to reintroduce to Native American communities and to introduce to the non-native audience social and cultural alternatives. Roscoe's credibility as a scholar is underscored by the Zuni's gratitude to him for rescuing the "Zuni man-woman" from the obscurity of history. According to Roscoe, among the Zuni today there is very little memory or knowledge of the "third gender" option once available to those not cut out to play traditional male and female roles.

Roscoe's fourth chapter records the United States government's violence against the Southwestern Indians during the 1890's and accounts for some of the gaps in the Zunis' cultural memory. The story of the final years of Wewha's life is a sad one. The militant assimilationist policies of the United States Office of Indian Affairs effectively "dismantl|ed~ tribal cultures" (98). Forced to adopt Euro-American ways, the Indians abandoned many of the traditional practices contributing to a coherent, oral history of tribal culture. Young Zunis, for example, forgot much of the cultural history that they had been taught; still others were never traditionally instructed at all, especially those sent away to the notorious Indian schools that were designed, at least in part, to eradicate Native American identity.

Attempts to force cultural assimilation of the pacific Zuni also led to war. A result of one violent confrontation between the Zunis and the American soldiers was Wewha's imprisonment. The same Wewha who had recently won favor in Washington -- who had even shaken the hand of the President -- was put in jail for a month when he helped defend his people against government soldiers interfering in tribal affairs. Mistrust and suspicion soon replaced the attitude of good will between cultures that Wewha had done so much to encourage. Many decades would come and go before such an atmosphere could be even partially dispelled.

The apparent openness and comfort of Roscoe's and Coltelli's Indian sources suggest that both have earned the trust of the people whose culture and literature they study. In a sense, Coltelli and Roscoe have followed the example of Wewha, whose "career was noteworthy |in that~ he discovered a way to build a bridge to the white world. . . . He became, in effect, a cultural ambassador for his people. . . . Wewha brought the insights and imagination of his people within the direct grasp of non-Indians. . . . |so~ that non-Indian Americans would . . . be able to perceive American Indians as intellectual and social equals" (122).

WORKS CITED

Beck, Peggy V., Anna Lee Walters, and Nia Francisco. The Sacred: Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life. Tsaile: Navajo Community College P, 1977.

Lutz, Hartmut. Contemporary Challenges: Conversations with Canadian Native Authors. Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1991.

Rainwater is associate professor of English at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas. She is the author of numerous articles (in American Literature, Philological Quarterly, The American Journal of Semiotics, and Texas Studies in Literature and Language, among others), winner of the MLA Foerster Prize for 1990, and editor of The Ellen Glasgow Newsletter. She is also co-editor of two collections of essays on women writers.
COPYRIGHT 1993 West Chester University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Rainwater, Catherine
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Words:2402
Previous Article:The problem of the two testaments: pedagogical motives for shifting from "Old Testament" to "Hebrew Bible."
Next Article:A Poetics.
Topics:

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters