The Uses of Indigenous Literatures.
In a lecture on pragmatism, William James discerned a foundational split in philosophical perspectives between those that esteem "the one" and those that delight in "the many." In focusing exclusively on my own tribe's literary corner of the world, my work on Cherokee literature and culture in one sense puts me in the camp of "the one," although I try to make the case for "the many" groups that make up that one. Indigenous literature, too, might seem to some a narrow field, but as the examples in this special section demonstrate, its diversity makes Cherokee literature seem monolithic by comparison. In both cases, I'm reminded of James's challenge: "Philosophy has often been defined as the quest or the vision of the world's unity.... But how about the variety in things? ... Acquaintance with reality's diversities is as important as understanding their connexion" (Pragmatism).
Coming to that awareness, of course, much less the totality of both perspectives that James sought, risks entanglement when we take into account the diversity within the diversities of indigeneity. Besides belonging to distinct tribal groups across Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Australia (just stopping at the continental A's for now), the world's three hundred some-odd million Indigenous people belong also to communities rural and urban, impoverished and affluent, and anarchistic and bureaucratic, to say nothing of their spiritual practices and configurations. Our present optimism in transnational studies in indigeneity is enthusiastic about the potential for this globalized identity to recognize empathetic others after generations of fragmentation and isolation, to forge alliances among fellow communities long marginalized, and to consolidate voices frequently dismissed as inconsequential given their small populations. An imagined community of three hundred million could change all that. Forging it, however, won't be easy, if the tensions sometimes seen among Native peoples, even just in North America, are any indication. How we (by which I here mean Native North American nations) level the ground with others who reckon indigeneity by measures other than ours, with their potential to unsettle the structures upon which we have come to depend despite our frequent critiques of them, will determine how far a global sense of indigeneity can take us and how long it will endure.
Indigenous peoples are found across the globe, including places with scores of Indigenous groups like China or India as well as in European areas thought empty of Indigenous people--Greece and the Faroe Islands are represented in this issue. The character who stands in for Simon Ortiz in The Last of the Ofos, by Cherokee novelist Geary Hobson, might have been speaking of Indigenous people more broadly when he recounts his travels to "all places where there's not supposed to be any, or at least a very few, Indian people. But, you know, I find Indians all around--Indians are everywhere." So, too, for indigenes. But how to speak of such an expansive identity and literature? Since the dawn of Native American studies, scholars have warned that generalizations about the more than five hundred tribes in the United States alone can hardly hope to reliably say much specific or substantive about peoples so different in language, belief, and custom.
Despite these differences, "American Indian" as a category endures. With the attention building from increased scholarly research, widespread activist movements such as Idle No More, the United Nations' Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it's a safe bet that "Indigenous" as a category of identity, too, will manage the inaccuracies surrounding it. That it is here to stay is a safe bet, even if, as scholar Ronald Niezen suggests in his book The Origins of Indigenism, it extends primarily from political, scholarly, and activist doings. Although few people would lead off an introduction of themselves as "Indigenous," critical interest in indigeneity continues to grow, as the titles of several new releases attest. Keeping pace with the turn toward transnational perspectives, recent noteworthy titles on Indigenous literature include Mapping the Americas, by Shari Huhndorf; Trans-lndigenous: Methodologies for Global Native Literary Studies, by Chadwick Allen; Comparative Indigeneities of the Americas, edited by M. Bianet Castellanos, Lourdes Gutierrez Najera, and Arturo Aldama; and the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Indigenous American Literature, edited by James Cox and Daniel Justice.
For these scholars and for many of the writers in these pages, if there is a bankable feature of indigeneity, it concerns the abiding relationship between people and place--a connection whose significance is understood by some as established by supernatural order; by others as the source of psychological, physical, social, and cultural well-being; as rooted in history and ancestry; or as a home cherished, longed for, or irrecoverable. This is ground we're accustomed to, so to speak, in American Indian literature. In the moving thematic climax to N. Scott Momaday's 1968 novel House Made of Dawn, the link between the land (specifically, the black mesa at Jemez Pueblo) and the seasonal ceremonial life of the people is so intimate it is written directly on the body, for the people must know the mesa "as they knew the shape of their hands, always and by heart." Beaten and abused throughout the novel, the protagonist's hands, if they come to embody this knowledge, hold the key to Abel's healing. In Gloria Martinez Carrera's poem "Nguian ko tjo (Wind and Shadow)," a similar union makes possible a similar healing, if the spiritually ailing might learn to "Interpret the veins on your hands / with the leaves' words. / Demand the return of your spirit / with the water's force." With communion between people and place, nature and the enigmatic traces it has left upon the self can be called upon to aid in restoration.
The familiarity of the questions about land for American Indian literature suggests similar questions for Indigenous literature. What kinds of relationships develop in what kinds of places? Do urban places or those subsumed under settler colonial control retain their sacred qualities? Can Indigenous people also be diasporic, voluntarily leave a homeland, or never have been to it? Can traditional relationships to place be maintained in the aftermath of removal? Are relationships to place necessary and essential to being Indigenous? Mikeas Sanchez's "Nereyda Dreamed in New York" explores the profit and loss when relationships between speaker and home are disrupted, even when the home's material conditions are far from ideal. (Martinez Carrera's and Sanchez's poems are both featured in the online audio supplement to this issue.)
As long as I've broached the question of essentialism, we might consider whether other hallmarks theorized for Native identity pertain to indigeneity. We hear people describe themselves as spiritual but not religious--can you be neither and still be Indigenous? Or not speak a word of a heritage language, not meet a minimum blood quantum, not know who your family members are, not put community values before those of the individual? Too hard a line on any of these--still very important--characteristics can define identities right out of existence. Rather than try to pin down indigeneity to a controlling definition, it's better to understand it as a shifting matrix of many such cultural practices and beliefs. Taken together, the various ways that a people relate to a place they originally occupied, to one another in kinship and language, and to history and political structures can provide a robust appreciation of Indigenous identities, with emphasis on the plural. We might also get at some of the uses to which such identities and the literatures that come out of them might get put. (I'll come back to this cynical-sounding bit about "uses.")
The challenge, as Chadwick Allen notes, is how to arrive at anything like an encyclopedic knowledge of even a fraction of the world's Indigenous peoples that we'd like to have in order to say something deductive rather than inductive about Indigenous people's history, culture, or literature. (I'm not claiming this for myself--I've had Cherokee literature and culture in the middle of my thinking for over a decade now, and every one thing I learn reveals three things I don't know.) Allen's suggestion that readers call upon their training in formalist criticism is well taken, but we might also have to admit that induction about cultural knowledge is just something we'll have to live with in broaching a body of literature so expansive. Perhaps there are (revisable) categorical similarities that we can enlist to enrich our readings. Perhaps, too, from the examples with which we're familiar, we can identify some of the tendencies or prejudices that threaten the future of transindigenous collectivity.
The barriers to the political efficacy of Indigenous positions put up by mainstream political structures may be sufficient unto the day, but it's worth considering, too, what blocks Native peoples have constructed for ourselves. In Native North America, several federally recognized tribes have demonstrated an alarming willingness to lobby against others seeking to enter the family of domestic dependent nations, as tribes were called in the unfortunate precedent set by the US Supreme Court in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. My own Cherokee nation's government over the past several years opposed the expressed desires of formerly adopted Shawnee and Delaware members to separate from the Cherokee Nation and constitute independent bodies, even as it forcefully disenfranchised the Cherokee Freedmen, who are descendants of former slaves. It also lobbies against any tribes seeking state or federal recognition that it suspects of any trace of illegitimacy--according to measures it approves--by appearing before legislatures and the public, via delegations, websites, and well-produced videos. In such efforts, the Cherokee Nation is not alone. The Eastern Band of Cherokee urged Congress to withhold recognition from the Lumbee people in North Carolina, and the Navajo Nation resisted the secession of the San Juan Paiutes. Examples from across the nation evidence how closed a shop many American Indians would like to keep the official arrangements for recognizing indigeneity.
The "shop" metaphor may be more apt than it seems--we would likely find that tribes' desires to safeguard casino profits motivates much of their opposition to other groups' recognition, along with the reasonable general sense that they would see their shares of federally funded resources drop with every increase of eligible entities. Although this protectionism may be grounded in a desire to assure their constituents' futures, several collateral effects work against it. They include, externally, reinforcing the idea that Indians are people thoroughly known to the state, and knowable by them according to the measures it decrees; and, internally, cultivating suspicion and antagonism among tribes and undermining the spirit of alliance necessary to effective negotiation from a position of sufficient representational strength. Whether or not tribes that campaign against the indigeneity of others intend it, they propagate chauvinisms that bear uncanny resemblances to self-authorizing narratives that allow nations to consider themselves above reproach. They thus authorize the very marginalizing that Indigenous people struggle against. They further communicate that consolidating the power of the tribal state outweighs other concerns--worthwhile concerns that are worth foregrounding, such as advocating for the use of natural resources according to Indigenous principles of sustainability or promoting greater structural and economic equality for Indigenous peoples generally.
Scholars of Indigenous literature, too, occasionally lean on the side of exclusivity, as seen in the frequently skeptical response to Chicano/a claims of indigeneity that several authors note in Comparative Indigeneities of the Americas. It's true that laying claim to the southwestern US for an imagined Aztec homeland of Aztlan is far from uncomplicated in its disregard for the rights of the hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people already there. We should not, however, discount out of hand the Native descent of Hispanic people in the US or ignore the kinship we share with our cousins past the US's northern borders, in the cases of Metis and First Nations peoples. To do so buys into American exceptionalism and acquiesces to the colonialist narratives which hold that people's ideas of themselves as Indigenous, if not indigenes themselves, were successfully stamped out. It also fails to recognize, once more, the alliances that might come from organic relationships.
Forging abiding relationships among Indigenous groups won't be easy, not least because it is liable to require of North American Native nations many of the same things we ask of settler colonial governments--that the legitimacy of other Indigenous peoples' claims as first inhabitants of a place sacred to them be recognized; that the economic privilege that we enjoy at their expense be admitted; that our structural systems and measures of identity that marginalize others arbitrarily and divisively be revisited; and that some measure of power accrued through the advantages of our particular historical structural circumstances be relinquished. These are threatening proposals, and already-abounding uncertainties about the terms of global Indigenous identity, the slab on which political agendas are constructed, make the foundations appear a little sandy. Given North American Native nations' current lack of influence and understanding vis-a-vis the US government, asking them to give up some of their gains seems like an unreasonable demand. And there is still validity in the distinctions to be made among Indigenous peoples, not least the rights that extend from ongoing treaty relationships that form the basis of US Native sovereignty. It's unreasonable to ask that tribal nations give those up, nor to advocate opening up those rights and the resources they entail to any and everybody, given that they extend from specific histories and sacrifices.
Reimagining what it means to be Indigenous by situating ourselves more equilaterally among peers is a little scary, too, when we think of increasingly favored yardsticks of identity other than blood quantum, where many US tribes would not compare well to others. Heritage language use is a case in point. North American Native nations are undertaking great efforts to preserve and revive our languages, understanding how integral they are to Native thought itself. Things are much different in Mexico, where speaking an Indigenous language was requisite to establish Native identity until the year 2000. In The Red Land to the South, James Cox notes that half of the eleven million indigenes in Mexico currently speak a tribal language.
Despite the relative strength of Indigenous languages there, Chiapas poet Mikeas Sanchez's "Jesus Never Understood My Grandmother's Prayers" (page 31) reveals some anxiety over the fit between the speaker's ancestors' language, a tongue corporally connected to the spiritual forces of the natural world, and the contemporary environments of grandmother and granddaughter alike that are shaped and bounded by Christianity's influence. Yorgos Soukoulis's "Language of Stone," too, fears the eroding effects of time upon the building block of language, and worries to the point of reticence that even a single block might be mislaid: "If I cannot quite remember the word I will not write it. /I do not want there to be one in a hundred chances that I might get the word wrong" (page 33). I once got to eavesdrop on a group of Cherokee speakers who were correcting one among them according to this same principle. At stake for them, I believe, was not the loss of a word but a piece of the collective past, a past we are accountable to. Against this loss, so far advanced for so many Indigenous peoples, we must be on guard to the best of our abilities. The speaker in "Language of Stone" works at this with the paper at his side.
Among the many indigeneities, how might such pieces of culture and identity as heritage language and connection to place fit together, with their potential to both divide by contrast and unify by comparison? The potential uses of Indigenous literatures that I alluded to earlier might offer some prospects. These are not the uses of ethnology or cultural tourism against which David Treuer cautions. They rather run in a counter direction, in the sense that Indigenous literature can potentially put us as readers to use. Laying claim to Indigenous identity invites certain obligations. If indigenism was born in politics, as Niezen suggests, political responsibility is its birthright. As we increasingly draw strength from the international Indigenous community, reciprocity demands that we remain vigilant on behalf of the communities with which we affiliate against the threats posed to their autonomy.
At a basic level, this means we should find out from each other our histories, beliefs, and practices; our successes, challenges, and our failures; our needs, expectations, and, perhaps above all, what we can offer in the way of help to those who need and want it. Pursuant to these ends, we should learn, too, of the conditions in which other groups stand relative to the entities in their circumstances that are more powerful, less powerful, and adjunct (e.g., states, minorities within the group, and other tribes, respectively). From this we might glean all sorts of effective strategies, from political representation arrangements, to social inclusivity, to language and ceremony preservation. Other Indigenous peoples might profit by learning something of our histories as well: for instance, what did we discover in the aftermath of allotment, and what would we tell others about it? If we could go back and reject blood quantum as the measure of identity, what would we substitute for community boundary-drawing? Of the things we lost, what would we have worked harder to keep?
Besides connections between people and place, questions like these weave a common thread uniting Indigenous communities across the globe. These common concerns need not crowd out others more particular, so long as we remain committed to principles of mutual aid and respect for others' differences, goals we have long been advocating for our own sakes. While Indigenous peoples are indeed many, exploring the contours of this one appellation we share may help us appreciate crucial commonalities among the varieties of literary expression.
University of Oklahoma
Joshua B. Nelson (Cherokee) is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of Progressive Traditions: Identity in Cherokee Literature and Culture (University of Oklahoma Press, 2014) and other pieces on American Indian literature and film. He also helps organize the Native Crossroads film festival at OU.
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|Title Annotation:||SPECIAL SECTION: Native Lit|
|Author:||Nelson, Joshua B.|
|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2014|
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