Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lecture 19


[image source]

Wk 10 - Mon (6/10), 3-4 pm lecture: HSB1

Louise Erdrich: Tracks (1988) -

The Native American Renaissance




For John F Kennedy's inauguration as President of the United States Robert Frost wrote a new poem entitled, "Dedication". Like many others he conceived the new president as … the perfect combination of spirit and flesh, passion and toughness, poetry and reality … But the poet was old (87) and he couldn't see the words because of the sun's glare that bright, cold January day [20 January, 1961]. The poem's newness to him and his unfamiliarity with and uncertainty about the way it went caused him to stumble uncertainly with his voice and tone and he gave up. Instead he fell back on an old one he knew perfectly, and in the most splendidly commanding of voices, recited it impeccably:

The Gift Outright

The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia.
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak.
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

– Jackie Jura, Orwell Today


Something about that iconic scene has always interested me.

This "land vaguely realising westward" is implied to be completely untenanted. But "the deed of gift was many deeds of war" - war against whom, then? It was, after all, "ours" before we were "the land's", which remained "unstoried, artless, unenhanced" until "we" ("still colonials) got there to occupy it.

The poem is a statement of manifest destiny -- an almost Hitlerian vision of Lebensraum opening up for the chosen people. Any stories or arts belonging to the original inhabitants of that land are clearly immaterial, since it is a "gift outright" - from whom? God, Destiny, History?

Compare Chief Joseph (1874):

I have carried a heavy load on my back ever since I was a boy. I learned then that we were but few while the white men were many, and that we could not hold our own with them. We were like deer. They were like grizzly bears. We had a small country. Their country was large. We were contented to let things remain as the Great Spirit Chief made them. They were not; and would change the mountains and rivers if they did not suit them.

and again, on a visit to Washington D. C. after his surrender in 1877:

All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers. The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it. You might as well expect all rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases. If you tie a horse to a stake, do you expect he will grow fat? If you pen an Indian up on a small spot of earth and compel him to stay there, he will not be contented nor will he grow and prosper.


By 1961, that story seemed to be over. The appropriation of the land appeared to have been accomplished, the so-called 'Vanishing American,' or Indian, latterly Native American, safely confined to reservations on barren, unwanted land.

When he published his book The Return of the Vanishing American in 1968, the cultural critic Leslie Fiedler was really only talking about the return of the Indian as a literary theme. It was the age of hippies and beatniks and Easy Rider, and somehow Native American lore had become cool again. He concludes his book by saying:
If a myth of America is to exist in the future, it is incumbent on our writers, no matter how square and scared they may be in their deepest hearts, to conduct with the mad just such a dialogue as their predecessors learned long ago to conduct with the aboriginal dwellers in the actual Western Wilderness. It is easy to forget, but essential to remember, that the shadowy creatures living scarcely imaginable lives in the forests of Virginia once seemed as threatening to all that good Europeans believed as the acid-head or the borderline schizophrenic on the Lower East Side now seems to all that good Americans have come to believe in its place.(186-87)

In other words, he sees the hippie cult of unreason as the natural heir to the complex cultural matrix of native American life. Interesting.

Then, however, everything changed.

The catalyst of that change was (as so often) a book. The book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970), subtitled "An Indian History of the American West," written by a hitherto quite obscure historian of the Great Plains called Dee Brown, had the effect of dispelling all the comforting lies which had grown up around the colonisation of the "Great American Wilderness."

It was a chronicle of broken promises, broken treaties, blatant racism and - essentially - genocide. "I cannot understand why so many chiefs are allowed to talk so many different ways, and promise so many different things," as Chief Joseph put it. "Good words do not last long unless they amount to something."

I am tired of talk that comes to nothing. It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and all the broken promises. There has been too much talking by men who had no right to talk.

His words, and those of the other great Indian chiefs, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, even Geronimo, had always had an eloquent, mythopoeic power to them, but now Brown illustrated, in inexorable, heartbreaking detail, the fact that not one of the treaties signed by the American Government had been kept, not one promise had been carried out. It read like a chronicle of Nazi expansionism written a century after Hitler's victory in the Second World War.

Brown, himself a patriotic American, had his own complex agenda, but the strength of his book was its dispassionate, documentary precision. Suddenly John Wayne started to look like Heydrich. And a great deal of breast-beating ensued.

The formation of the American Indian Movement, AIM, in the seventies was to some extent prompted by Brown's book -- but also by other political protest groups such as the Black Panthers or the Weathermen. The F. B. I treated them all alike -- as dangerous revolutionaries to be infiltrated and neutralised.

If you're interested in that story, and it's a fascinating one, I recommend Peter Matthiessen's 1983 book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, which tells the saga of Leonard Peltier, a member of AIM who was - many believe - framed for the killing of two FBI agents in 1975.


One thing that gives substance to Matthiessen's claim is the fact that his book was held up for eight years in court by a series of frivolous libel suits brought by various FBI agents and state officials after its first hardback publication. It thus became essentially unobtainable until his court victory in 1991.

The other long, complex and multifaceted story I'd like to tell, but hardly have time to do more than touch on today, is that of the growth of the literary movement called Magic Realism in world fiction. Why? Simply in order to understand the ground that a writer such as Louise Erdrich is standing on.

It's one thing for Brown and Matthiessen to tell historical tales of Native American oppression and dispossession, quite another to overhear the beginnings of a people speaking for themselves. If that's what we are hearing in Erdrich's Tracks and the other novels in her Dakota Quartet.


[Antonio Ruiz, El sueño de la Malinche (1939)]


Perhaps I can just mention a few salient names:


Louise Erdrich has had a lot of success in the American literary world. Is that comforting, or suspicious? Does it imply that she's a more acceptable face to Native American culture than activists such as Peltier or Russell Means? Is she, in short, subversive or assimilated?

We have to beware of essentialist arguments. Her books, finally, must speak for themselves - but then no book ever really does speak for itself, out of cultural context, without consideration of the means of production. I'm enough of a Historicist to make that claim, at least. Take the example of B Wongar, for example. Did his work cease to be of value when it was pointed out that he was not an Australian Aborigine, as he had claimed (or at least implied), but an Eastern European ethnographer?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Louise, love your work, love your passion but you're off base with support for Leonard Peltier. Read American Indian Mafia with an open mind and an open heart and you will come away with a much different perspective of how those two young men died.