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Treuer defends purpose of 'manual'

I was very pleased to see Matthew Fletcher's article on my book of essays, ''Native American Fiction: A User's Manual.'' It is vital - for us, our cultures, and our literatures - to take cultural criticism out of the classroom and into our lives. But some things were lost in Fletcher's piece, things important for all of us who care about Indian life and art to think about if we want our culture and work to remain strong.

Fletcher wrote that I promote ''a new way of looking at the culture of Indian people ...'' and that I conclude ''that there can be no such thing as 'Native American fiction,' in part, because Indian people never wrote fiction in the form of novels.'' My book is not about, and doesn't discuss, what constitutes Indian cultures or the identities of specific Indian writers. My book is called ''Native American Fiction: A User's Manual,'' not a ''writer's manual.'' I was not concerned with how writers should or shouldn't write novel. Rather, I was concerned with how we read them. We are taught and tempted to read Indian novels as cultural repositories, providing Indian lore and ''worldview'' and replicating, in writing, oral culture. The point of my essays is that novels don't tell us about culture as much as they map our dreams about culture.

My main point in the ''User's Manual'' was simply this: Novels are imbedded in the culture(s) of literature more so than the cultures (evolving, changing, shared, contested) that we live. Nowhere in my essay book do I diagram and dissect the moving parts of Indian culture. I do investigate the moving parts of novels. I do claim this: to see novels as cultural vessels (rather than as artistic creations) does damage to lived cultures and to literature because it suggests that language doesn't matter and community doesn't matter; it reinforces the status quo, which is and has always been cultural dissolution. One of the greatest threats to sovereignty is the loss of tribal languages.

It is dangerous to suggest, as Fletcher does, that ''even imperfect use of Anishinaabemowin, as Treuer should well know, contributes to the culture and even to the language.'' That's a bit like saying even a poorly mounted defense contributes to the freedom of someone facing death row. Our tribal languages are on death row and we owe it to them and to the people who have carried them forward, to use them as best we can with as much care and attention and passion as possible. What we say and how we say it matters (in any language) as much as the use of that language.

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It is ironic that we've worked so hard to repatriate our sacred items and even the bones of our ancestors, only to shove our languages into the spaces left behind in the museum. I refuse to do so. And I suggest we do a better job of reading the delicious dreams created for us by great writers.

- David Treuer

Leech Lake, Minn.