Skip to main content

Lyons: Battle of the bookworms

With so many troubling things happening in our world - and here I mean both the Fourth World and that larger one called Planet Earth - it may seem odd that literary critics of all people have been generating heated controversies in the Native press. Two bookworms in particular - Craig Womack, Creek, and David Treuer, Ojibwe - have come under public fire because of their lit-crit studies, respectively, ''Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism'' (1999) and ''Native American Fiction: A User's Manual'' (2006). These two books are lightning rods because they invoke our anxieties regarding the proper place of tribal nations and cultures in a rapidly globalizing world.

As its subtitle suggested, Womack's ''Red on Red'' was an argument for ''separatism'' at a time when Native literatures were broadly conceived as ''minority'' or ''ethnic'' literatures. Womack's important intervention in Native American critical discourse was to argue that the political status of tribal nations made this ''multicultural'' paradigm inappropriate for the study of Native texts. Native literature shouldn't be included in the American literary canon; on the contrary, Womack saw them as ''two separate canons.'' Nor should Native lit be organized pan-tribally. He wanted ''tribally specific aesthetics'' that would interpret Creek texts in the specific contexts of Creek history, politics and culture. Creek voices should be privileged, too, since it was Creeks who were addressed in the literature.

The basic goal of Womack's shift would be a political reorientation for readers, students and teachers of Native literature, away from discussions of Indians as ''ethnic minorities'' and toward a discourse on ''national literatures.'' If multiculturalism was a shift from the melting pot to the salad bowl (such metaphors being ubiquitous in the '90s), Womack argued for a different salad bar, maybe even a new restaurant. At the very least, he wanted to talk about whose cultural food was grown where, how it was cooked, and who gets to eat it. It was an important contribution at a time when multiculturalism sought to incorporate everyone's cultures under that great umbrella called Diversity while ignoring the politics of indigenous nationhood.

Womack sure got Kenneth Lincoln riled up, as seen in his review of ''Red on Red'' (''Red Stick Lit Crit,'' Vol. 26, Iss. 44), which condemned Womack for committing such sins as ''essentialism,'' ''xenophobia'' and ''talking stink.'' Lincoln sort of made it sound like ''Red on Red'' had been written by Idi Amin. I counted at least a million exaggerations in his review - including three suggestions that Womack calls for ''purges'' - and wondered if Lincoln had interpreted Womack's Red Stick metaphors literally. Lincoln's conclusion was this: ''We're not separate. We're all in this together.'' That is exactly the salad bowl mentality that Womack was disputing. While it sounds great in theory, in real life it tends to affirm the position that disavows Indian nationhood outside of a settler state paradigm.

If you really think we're all in this together - even while a state is trying to tax your tribal business out of existence - then Lincoln's your man. But if you believe in Native political autonomy - long discussed in the history of Indian literature and presently contested to the hilt - then Womack's separatism provides you with a different interpretive paradigm. It comes down to politics, and that doesn't even require that our cultures be so different.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Or does it? Treuer's ''Native American Fiction'' makes the provocative suggestion that what we call Native literature - always published in English by non-Indian presses and mostly read by non-Natives - doesn't represent Native culture so much as a ''longing'' for a culture found in the realms of heritage language and ceremony. ''With Native American cultures and Native languages imperiled,'' reading books as culture dangerously misses the existence of - and threats to - traditional cultures today. Books by Indian writers are ''literature'' in a universal sense, and often as good as anyone else's literature, but not the same thing as the culture of speakers and elders who (unlike novelists) usually keep their cultures secret in large part to protect them from commodification. Treuer thinks the sexy notion of Native culture helps to sell books, including presumably his own, but ironically prevents readers from seeing the aesthetic values of Native lit. It creates an ethnic literary ghetto where an ''Ojibwe writer'' is seen as more Ojibwe than writer; meanwhile Ojibwe language fluency is on the skids and traditional knowledge fades into oblivion.

Matthew L.M. Fletcher ('''Native American Fiction' Too Hard on Indian Culture,'' Vol. 27, Iss. 9) thinks ''Treuer goes way too far'' and compares his argument to ''non-Indian policy-makers'' who think Indians shouldn't have slot machines because they're not traditional either. But of course it hasn't only been non-Indians who have disavowed gaming by that logic; and I'm quite certain that Fletcher knows elders at Grand Traverse who repeat the mantra, ''You can't think like an Ojibwe without Ojibwemowin,'' an idea that undergirds Treuer's argument. Treuer's denial of cultural authenticity to literature in English, no matter what the identity of the writer, is logically in sync with cranky elders who refuse to validate English-language Indian names or ceremonies conducted for cash. In other words, this is about cultural authority, and Treuer is on the side of traditionalists who draw hard and fast lines between authenticity and, well, assimilation.

Does assimilation mean anything anymore? Or has it been rationalized by the idea that, quoting Fletcher, ''Indian culture must evolve and change or it will die''? The difference between assimilation and evolution is significant, and Treuer does suggest that an Indian nation's systematic loss of language and culture and adoption of their colonizer's tongue and beliefs is already a kind of death. But frankly so would a lot of speakers and elders - and even Sitting Bull, who didn't think it necessary that eagles become crows. So critic, beware. To the extent that intellectuals claim English as an ''Indian'' language (the usual word is ''appropriated''), they risk disabling the arguments of activists trying hard to keep languages alive. To the extent folks read novels as signs of culture just as authentic as the traditional, they suggest traditionalism no longer matters. It's like saying we're all in this together when in fact it seems that we're not. Difference matters!

In their own ways, Womack and Treuer are both drawing lines at a time when globalism doesn't want lines, and granting authority to Indians resisting incorporation into that new world order. In so doing, they conflict with those who think we're all in this together or necessarily evolving into McWorld. This is a crucial historical moment and it produces great anxiety, hence this battle of the bookworms. While my own hopes are pinned on the line-drawers, I think we should all value this important and contentious debate.

Scott Richard Lyons, Leech Lake Ojibwe/Mdewakanton Dakota, is a bookworm who teaches Native American literature at Syracuse University and is a columnist for Indian Country Today.