More thoughts on Natives & Academics (ed. Mihesuah)

It's been an important little while for American Indian Studies (US) and academic work related to First Nations (Can.).

The death of Paula Gunn Allen of lung cancer is enormously significant, since it's safe to say that at 68 she had a great deal still to contribute, even taking into account her path-breaking work as a writer, editor, and teacher of Indigenous literature. More locally for me, the university announced this week the hiring of Dr. Waziyatawin (Angela Cavender WIlson) as Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, to commence on July 1 this year. I'd heard she was coming, and I was delighted by the news.

Both these women contributed essays to Mihesuah's edited collection Natives and Academics I just reviewed here, and Waziyatawin co-edited and contributed essays to Mihesuah's subsequent volume, Indigenizing the Academy, that I reviewed some time ago. It's my hope that Waziyatawin will find her new institutional home to be a welcoming one, but even if she doesn't (and based on the essays I've been reading in these two volumes, I'm unsure of most things connected to the place of Indigenous studies in the academy), I'm confident that she'll find committed supporters here - certainly not just me, though I'll be one of them.

Anyway, a few more thoughts have come to mind in relation to Natives and Academics in the last few days, during which I've been too busy to read and too busy to mark or adequately prep classes (sorry, kids).

First, I'm increasingly convinced that Paula Gunn Allen's essay is essential reading for anyone teaching anything connected to First Nations tradition. As she put it in the title, there are "Special Problems in Teaching Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony," one of the most celebrated works of American Indian literature, in Silko's case Pueblo literature. Allen suggests that Silko goes too far and shares too much of her own people's sacred, ceremonial stories, so much so that she herself feels dizzy, even physically ill, at having to teach the novel. She recognizes in herself the desire to to be transparent, to honour the (alleged) transcendence of truth which we academics value so strongly, but she also knows - more intimately, and more powerfully- that her allegiance to her own people has to come first, and so she could never share her own people's sacred stories, or the stories of another people, even if they had already appeared in print, unless the people themselves authorized such sharing.

As a teacher of literature, I'm now in the position of having to think about - and being able to think about - this paradox of competing truth claims in relation to accessing Indigenous tradition through story. There have been, as the essays in these two volumes make abundantly clear, writers who've shared so much private material that the people whose knowledge it was have repudiated the efforts as disrespectful at best: an insult, a betrayal, theft. I can go read these books and catch glimpses of additional layers of meaning in Indigenous literature, or in white literature about Indigenous people or places, and my allegiance to transcendent academia means that I'm supposed to do exactly that. On the other hand, my evolving allegiance to First Nations independence, and to decolonization, means that I need to refuse these books, to turn my students away from them. I need to earn the right to such knowledge first, and then share it only with others who've earned such a right.

This makes it more complicated to teach the really terrific poetry of Philip Kevin Paul, for example, which I hope I'll be doing in the spring (if the federal government decides it likes me - long story). I'm pleased to be figuring out this far ahead of time, and in this much detail, just how complicated it needs to be. I'll be a better teacher as a result of stumbling across Paula Gunn Allen's essay on this subject.

Second, I'm increasingly taken with Elizabeth Cook-White's ruminations on mixed-blood writers who are perceived by white audiences as Indigenous (whether or not they choose to speak as or for Indigenous people). Like Allen, she sees an important divide in American Indian literature: not between Indian and non-Indian, as with Allen, but between Indian and mixed-blood. As she sees it, the standard American story is one of self-discovery. Whether in fiction or life-writing, it's about the growth of the self. Mixed-blood writers fit this criteria really well, for the most part, with writers like Thomas King coming in for some fairly harsh criticism for writing literature that focuses on the self rather than on the community. (King's individuals, to me, tend to feel reasonably well embedded in their local communities, but I take Cook-White's general point.)

Her great fear is that if these mixed-blood writers are taken to be the authentic voices of American Indian experience, and as leading American Indian intellectuals, then the result will be an inaccurate view from outside of both. In the end, no one will be viewed as an American Indian intellectual by both Indigenous peoples and by whites, because the criteria fulfilled by the mixed-blood writers will make them seem to a white audience the representatives of AI intellectualism, whereas to an AI audience, they'll be indistinguishable from white intellectuals.

"Can't we all just get along?", I can hear you asking. Yes. Of course. But not if we only follow the terms set down by white literary, literate, and intellectual culture, because as Allen, Cook-White, Mihesuah, Waziyatawin, and others argue, those terms are profoundly inappropriate for Indigenous literary, literate, and intellectual cultures. One focuses on the self (maybe on the self within community); the other focuses on community. A bridge is not easily built here, not one that's stable enough for all of us to unproblematically get along - not just yet, anyway.


Anonymous said…
Fascinating ideas. Do you see any problems in the references to "blood"? I find the connection between racial purity and claims to knowledge a little tough to wrap my head around.
richard said…
Interesting, isn't it, the "blood" reference. (And pardon the length of this comment, since it could easily have become another post!)

I find it easier to wrap my head around the weight apparently given to racial purity if I remember how few non-Indigenous people are born in, live their entire lives within, AND die in First Nations communities.

If one takes the position that it takes a lifetime to understand these things as deeply as is necessary (or alternatively, that one learns these things best if one doesn't particularly have to unlearn another culture or competing perspective), then it makes a fair bit of sense that someone truly on the inside is better equipped to learn and know these things.

Of course, this concept excludes white learners like Julie Cruikshank, Nancy Turner and Keith Basso, who've all earned and maintained the trust of different First Nations communities (and have written terrific books as well, books respected by white readers and appreciated by the First Nations people who are closer to the subject matter).

Cook-White's objection to mixed-blood writers isn't because of their blood, though. She's upset about particular writers she names who are (in her terms) generally viewed by white readers as speaking for Indian communities, and as representative Indian intellectuals, when really worldview and literary stance is non-Indian.

For example, to qualify as a representative Indian writer, a mixed-blood or Indian writer has to write stories about community, not stories about individuals; it can't primarily be about personal growth, a trope she sees as characteristic of white fiction.

I really do think that if mixed-blood writers wrote books that met her criteria, she wouldn't worry about blood. I'm less sure about white writers, because there are some unresolved issues around historical privilege and access to audience, but she makes room for them as supporters and friends, as long as they earn it.
Anonymous said…
"I find it easier to wrap my head around the weight apparently given to racial purity if I remember how few non-Indigenous people are born in, live their entire lives within, AND die in First Nations communities."

Well, that's just it. I guess what I find challenging is what seems to be the essentialism at work here, something that Gunn Allen has been accused of in her work on native and the feminine. Is Philip Kevin Paul less "authentic" a writer because he's writing, at times, about himself? Personally, I don't think so. He's someone who, it seems to me, is committed to his local community and participates in the mainstream publishing world quite successfully.
richard said…
I couldn't find it now, of course, but I think that in one of the essays in Indigenizing the Academy, the writer remarks that essentialism's associations don't apply as successfully outside the Euro-American context. My summary reads like essentialism, you're right, but Cook-White's original essay doesn't somehow.

As for Philip Kevin Paul, yes, he's doing well in mainstream publishing as well as honouring his community. I'm wondering to what extent we need to distinguish between Canadian and American contexts here, because as I said in the reviews, these universities don't look like the ones I know.

And do you know anything about Paul's newest book? It was supposed to be out in the fall, but it's only just been rescheduled for October 2008....
Jennifer said…
Paul's book is finally released; I reviewed the first one for Arc. The second is called "Little Hunger."

As far as statements about mixed or full blood: isn't making such distinctions adding fuel to the fire of racist categories? And if a writer of any kind of blood publishes a book, it is already out there and can't be taken back anyway. And, some mixed people are raised very close to their cultures, while some "full" blood people are not. How do you decide who is closer to, or knows more about, a native culture?

With reticence, special, revealing books can be taught and respect can be given, and perhaps the spirit will move within the classroom, at least for some students and teachers.
richard said…
I actually don't think that talking about possible distinctions between mixed- and full-blood First Nations individuals will add "fuel to the fire of racist categories." That fire burns with its own fuel.

Partly, though, that's because I don't think that the amount of blood is really the important element for any of these writers I'm talking about. What's important is the accuracy of discourse, the intimacy of relation, the depth of respect for the culturally specific lifeways. But I agree that there is a problem in the awkwardness in the overlap between talk about "blood" and talk about respect, a problem that might be the product of how American Indian groups and individuals have responded to American governmental discourse about tribal membership.

The history is deeper than I can yet fathom. I'm working on it, but for now, and for the foreseeable future, I'm measuring my understanding against that of people I think I'm likely to respect in the long term....

(And thanks for setting up a profile just to chat here - I'm honoured to be the first person to view your profile!)

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