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Lincoln: Red Stick lit crit

The following is a review of ''Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism,'' by Craig S. Womack, University of Minnesota, 1999.

In the last year of the millennium, Craig Womack stumped for a Muskogee nationalist essentialism in ''Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism.'' According to his red-like-me doctrine, only local-color Creeks can truly understand what Womack calls ''Creekness.'' So ''Red on Red'' assumes the privileged witness on Alexander Posey, Louis Oliver, Joy Harjo and Lynn Riggs - himself not Creek, but a Cherokee working on Hollywood musicals and writing ''Oklahoma!''

''Red on Red'' trumpets a regressive model for ''Muskogee-centric'' ethno-literacy borrowed from the 1813 - 1814 Red Stick War, as Womack postulated, ''against both internal traitors and outside oppression.'' Historically in the Southeast, U.S. agents exacerbated land claims and blood quantum disputes to set off a civil war between traditional ''white'' and progressive ''red'' villages. Creek purists with red-painted war clubs murdered hundreds of their own suspected tribal collaborators and all the whites they could lay hands on.

After a decade of bloodshed and the violent intervention of President Andrew Jackson's federal troops, the internecine war guttered in a disputed 1825 Treaty of Indian Springs, the assassination of Chief William Macintosh by his own people and pyrrhic tribal meltdown. Tragically, the Creeks lost everything in a fratricidal cleansing pogrom, along with thousands of Trail of Tears clansmen on forced removal to Oklahoma, and they were forced to sign away their territorial rights to 23 million acres of ancestral homelands.

Womack concluded of this civil war and the current culture wars in academia: ''Integration, acceptance and assimilation to literary norms will no longer be our highest goal. Native critics will turn toward more disruptive tactics.''

Reader beware. Could Puritans burn the wrong witches or, as fictionalized in Leslie Silko's ''Ceremony,'' ethnocentric ''skinwalkers'' terrorize locals? ''Don't trust all Indians,'' the mixed-blood medicine man Betonie warned against essentialism, or ''write off all white people.''

Sovereign nations do not stand on isolation, to challenge Womack's asserted separatism by way of Vine Deloria Jr. and Clifford Lytle's ''The Nations Within: The Past and Future of American Indian Sovereignty,'' but on mutual independence and interpersonal (indeed, intercultural) recognition. Sovereignty serves as a cross-national way for people to acknowledge and to respect each other across differences.

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In an academic civil war, the tribe's own people get trapped behind the ''buckskin curtain'' or outside its essentialist tarp, since many (including Womack by his own admission) are not Muskogee-literate speakers, let alone readers, and, in light of relocation, are not indigenous to southeast Oklahoma. According to recent tribal elections, more Creeks live in southern California than in Oklahoma. Eighty-two percent of all Native Americans live off reservation today, by 2004 Census figures, and few are bi-literate professors.

Disrespecting others, Muskogee colleague, Harjo, poisons her own red-white bloodlines of Creek, Cherokee, French and Irish tributaries. ''I've gone through the stage where I hated everybody who wasn't Indian, which meant part of myself,'' she told Joe Bruchac in ''Survival This Way.'' ''We're not separate. We're all in this together.''

Regardless of motive, xenophobia defeats Native and American cultural discourse. Talking stink, as they say on the streets, fouls the common air people share exploring mutually sovereign literacy. Beyond Indian country, can only a Mississippi sharecropper understand race relations in William Faulkner, an Ohio black singly get local dialect in Toni Morrison or a New Jersey shopkeeper exclusively scan the variable foot of William Carlos Williams? Using cultural monopoly for private witness rules out any other tribal classics than one's own, including the Bible and the Great White Roots of Peace, Homer and the Code of Handsome Lake, Dante and the Popol Vuh, and Shakespeare and the Blessingway Ceremony. Do Native writers want to be appreciated by audiences inside and outside their own kin, or misunderstood behind the screen of separatist privilege?

Red Stick purges, all too often personal vendettas, profit the self-appointed prophets. ''Reconciliation,'' according to Elizabeth Cook-Lynn's ''Anti-Indianism in Modern America,'' remains ''Dishonest in its Inception, Now a Failed Idea.'' Whether promoted by Irish Republican Army sellouts in Belfast, Cook-Lynn snaps at soft-hearted liberals, or in South Africa by Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu, South Dakota reconciliation is bicultural trash to be dumped on the ''scrap heap of dumb ideas.'' For ongoing polemics of the drummed-up culture wars debates over real and virtual Natives, rez and academic Indians, oral and literary texts, self-determination and multiculturalism - see Robert Warrior, Jace Weaver and Crag S. Womack's recent ''American Indian Literary Nationalism'' (New Mexico, 2005), essentially an attack on ''outsider'' Elvira Pulitano's ''Toward a Native American Critical Theory'' (Nebraska, 2003). Harold Littlebird, Laguna/Santa Domingo Pueblo, offers a word of reflection in the Bruchac interviews: ''But in all the things that I remember, I hear it said all the time that it's for all people. They say that all the time: all people. The way you would say it in Laguna, 'Opa,' that's what it means, 'all people.' It's not just here in North America that you're praying for, but it's all people. You don't make any distinctions of color, or race, of anything.''

The major Native American texts in print, published in English by coast-to-coast literary and university houses, are open to the public. If Russell Means crows separatism on the shoulders of a non-Indian ghost writer in ''Where White Men Fear to Tread,'' why does he keep appearing in kitschy movies like ''Pocahontas'' and ''The Last of the Mohicans,'' 15 Hollywood films in just as many years? Aren't these attitudes so many self-defensive gripes or academic rumbles or career aggrandizements, rather than rez issues of land, language, sovereignty, spirit and cultural survival? A witness ponders what will be left after Womack's Red Stick purges run their course, or Cook-Lynn rubs out all hope of reconciliation, or Means and Sherman Alexie milk the last of liberal guilt, and the cross-cultural remnants have to live together, especially the 82 percent off-reservation survivors.

Beyond the rez, more than 3.5 million intercultural mixers, mestizos and translators must be counted among the few thousand purist bloods, ethnic nationalists or academic essentialists drumming up a Red Stick purge. Who speaks pan-tribally for any or all Indians? Louis Owens argues in Krupat and Swann's ''Here First'': ''The descendant of mixed blood sharecroppers and the dispossessed of two continents, I believe I am the rightful heir of Choctaw and Cherokee storytellers and of Shakespeare and Yeats and Cervantes. Finally, everything converges and the center holds in the margins. This, if we are to go on.''

Kenneth Lincoln, University of California - Los Angeles professor of Native American studies, was raised among Oglala Lakotas south of Wounded Knee and has taught for 38 years at UCLA. In fall 2007, the University of New Mexico Press will publish his ''Speak Like Singing: Classics of Native American Literature.''