(Re)Invention And Contextualization
In Contemporary Native American Fiction
Wendy J. Rohrbacher
Thesis presented to the
Faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences
University of Alaska Anchorage
In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements For the Degree of
Masters of Arts in English
Patricia Linton, Ph.D., Chair
Becky Patterson, Ph.D.
Daniel Kline, Ph.D.
William Jacobs, Ph.D.
Part 1: Gerald Vizenor's Trickster and Warrior Texts
Part 2: Thomas King: The Intertextual Coyote (Re)Envisions History
I gratefully acknowledge Dr. Patricia Linton for the enormous amount of support and guidance she has so generously given to me. I am a better and wiser person for having known her, and I will carry her lessons with me always. I thank Dr. Kline, Dr. Patterson, and Dr. Jacobs for their service on my committee and for their insightful discussion of this thesis. I have deep admiration for my fellow graduate students: Michelle, Shannon, Carla, Lori, Kyle, and John. I will miss their camaraderie, support, and brilliance. This thesis would have been more difficult to complete if it hadn’t been for my roommate Jennifer and my dear friend Eric. Finally, I thank my sister Krista for always thinking I could do this.
Contemporary Native American authors and critics are retelling, reorganizing, and re-evaluating traditional tribal stories in order to assert a communally ascribed identity that accurately portrays today's Indian. These new stories seek to break down the signs and artifacts of the white man's Indian and replace them with signs of a vibrant and thriving culture. New ways of interpreting, reading, and examining Native texts must be utilized. Native American critics and novelists, such as Louis Owens, Gerald Vizenor, and Thomas King are contributing to a body of work that combines certain Western literary devices with specific facets of Native American culture. The result is literature that liberates the spirit of today's Native Americans and frees them from cultural stereotypes that would limit them. This new body of literature is fascinating and important because it challenges readers to break down cultural stereotypes and participate in the re-invention of the Native American identity.
History is the burden that everyone -- black, white, or red -- in America carries as an integral part of the American experience; it unrelentingly opposes perpetrator and victim in a deadly dance of giving and receiving pain until both parties work out a path to redemption.
If anything, my desire here has been to demystify the curious notion that theory is the province of the Western tradition, something alien or removed from a so-called noncanonical tradition.
Henry Louis Gates
On the eve of the millennium, Native American authors and critics have emerged from centuries of abuse and neglect to create, examine, and celebrate their own culturally significant and socially poignant body of literature. From this literature comes a self-defined community that possesses the strength and courage to think outside of the stereotype that the Euro-American canon created. Contemporary Native American fiction breaks down the signs and artifacts of the white man’s Indian and replaces them with a communally ascribed invention. Traditional stories are being retold, reorganized, and re-evaluated in order to assert the identity of a community that has been oppressed and ridiculed. The novels being created by Native American authors often depict storytelling as a means to change history and circumstances, provide a voice to an oppressed group, and survive within a hostile and dominant culture. The novels and authors tackle this daunting task with humor and a worldview laced with laughter and wisdom. One of the most interesting characteristics of this new body of literature is its ability to appropriate and counter-appropriate meaning from its oppressors. Native American literary critics not only find new ways to discuss their literature, but they have also found places within canonical Western literary criticism to exist and thrive.
Complex questions of cultural identity arise when Western literary theories are applied to contemporary Native American texts. The process of universalizing literary theories is an insufficient method of analysis when examining ethnic texts. Euro-American theories are inadequate on their own for examination of Native texts because they often can not account for the specificity of Native American culture. However, certain theories, such as those of Mikhail Bakhtin and Linda Hutcheon, can be read fruitfully in conjunction with the ideas of Native American critics such as Louis Owens and Gerald Vizenor.
Owens’ Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel examines the works of ten Native American authors who wrote between 1854 and today. The authors Owens examines are mixedbloods—people who do not claim 100 percent Indian ancestry—whose works explore American Indian identity and its relation to Euro-American society. In his introduction, Owens introduces the idea that “[i]dentity for Native Americans is made more complex . . . by the fact that the American Indian in the world consciousness is a treasured invention” (4). He asserts that stereotypes of American Indians are part of the literary standard, and portrayals that do not conform are hard for Eurocentric readers to accept. It is difficult for the Native American author to divest him or herself of the accepted stereotypes and create a realistic version. Owens states that “fiction becomes a process of deconstructing the verbal artifacts of Indian—or mixedblood—identity” (5). Native American novelists like Gerald Vizenor and Thomas King use the novel form as a means to examine, challenge, test, and explore the meaning of Native American identity.
Owens argues that Native American fiction, and mixedblood fiction in particular, consists of a self-conscious search for identity and culture. The role of mixedbloods is especially complex because they are considered outsiders or at the very least “other” to both Native American and Euro-American societies. In order to write about their culture, mixedbloods must often divest themselves of one of their genetic ancestries. The mixedblood is forced to choose which culture he or she will belong to, and then create a niche within it. The culture that most Native American authors find themselves writing from is more than just racially defined; it is also defined by the changing roles of the American Indian.
In an attempt to preserve their culture, Native American authors must first define their culture. The act of invention and imagining becomes an integral part of their definitions.
For American Indians, the problem of identity comprehends centuries of colonial and postcolonial displacement, often brutally enforced peripherality, cultural denigration—including especially a harsh privileging of English over tribal languages—and systematic oppression by the monocentric ‘westering’ impulse in America. (Owens, Other 4)
Native Americans must address the “cultural denigration” that has created the “myth” of the Native American, and invent an identity that accurately portrays them. In other words, they strive to create an identity that doesn’t rely on Eurocentric images. Owens argues that for “writers who identify as Native American, the novel represents a process of reconstruction, of self-discovery and cultural recovery” (5). It is within the text of Native American novels that Native American identities are created and defined.
The concept of storytelling is an essential part of Native American identity. Traditionally, Native Americans told their stories orally. There was no sole author to a given story because the entire community was involved in shaping and contextualizing it. Owens asserts that “[f]or the traditional storyteller, each story originates with and serves to define the people as a whole, the community” (9). Each storyteller held the power to reinvent the story as he or she told it; the storyteller was able to improve the story by incorporating his or her own personality and surroundings. The entire community became textualized through the storyteller; the community’s reality would change as the story changed. A distinction between oral stories and written stories is that written stories are perceived to have more authority, or “truth” behind them. Owens argues that “[w]ith written literacy, language becomes descriptive/historic and begins to lose its unique power as creator of reality” (9). Once something has been written down it assumes a kind of authority and becomes resistant to change.
For Native American authors, the authority that canonical written texts possess is the authority that has marginalized their culture not only by imposing laws and institutions, but also by creating literary misrepresentations. The novel for them becomes a political assertion that attempts to rewrite the texts that have both excluded and invented them. The goal of this fiction is to create texts that represent actual Native Americans. Owens states that “[r]epeatedly in Indian fiction . . . we are shown the possibility of recovering a centered sense of personal identity and significance” (19). The Native American novel creates a space within texts where the Native American author can define him or her self.
Vizenor, like Owens, asserts that the Native American novel is a space of discovery and invention. For Vizenor, the creation of text requires the interaction of opposing ideas, and from this opposition new paradigms are created. More than any of the other Native American critics, Vizenor deftly manipulates both the oppressor’s language and his own. He often creates his own words, subtly altering the connotations that certain English words carry with them. An example of this is his use of the word “survivance” as opposed to “survival.” The connotations of “survival” suggest something that results when there is an immediate threat or danger. “Survivance” connotes an activity that is sustained because the threat or danger is always present. Also, implicit in “survivance” is the idea of manipulation and appropriation. Vizenor is essentially using the language that was forced on his culture, but with just enough difference to make it his own creation and to perhaps impede complete understanding. Vizenor’s use of language highlights the destruction of Native languages and the subsequent enforcement of English. Vizenor’s language is always at play and creating tension.
Central to Vizenor’s concept of Native American writing is the function of humor. He shatters the myth that Native Americans are a tragic people. He argues that they are comic figures whose inherent humor has provided a means for survivance. In the Introduction to Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures, Vizenor states that “Native American Indian literatures are unstudied landscapes, wild and comic rather than tragic and representational, storied with narrative wisps and tribal discourse” (5). The vehicle of humor in Native American texts is the trickster. For Vizenor, “the trickster is a communal sign in a comic narrative. . . . Comic worldviews are communal; chance is more significant than ‘moral ruin.’ Tragic modes are inventions and impositions that attend the ‘discoverers’ and translators of tribal narratives” (9).
Vizenor’s theories on language can be aligned with Bakhtin’s concept of polyphonic voices, and dialogism. For Bakhtin, every utterance is potentially in “play” with others. In “The Problem of Speech Genres,” he explains that attached to every utterance is a myriad of cultural connotations, and that each utterance can and will sustain many interpretations:
[u]tterances are not indifferent to one another, and are not self-sufficient; they are aware of and mutually reflect one another. . . . Each utterance is filled with echoes and reverberations of other utterances to which it is related by the communality of the sphere of speech communication. . . . Each utterance refutes, affirms, supplements, and relies on the others, presupposes them to be known, and somehow takes them into account. (91)
Native American authors infuse their writing with utterances that deliberately draw on two sets of ideologies: Euro-American and Native American. In effect, they write to two audiences with opposing viewpoints. The effect of this dialogic writing is an atmosphere of heteroglossia and carnival. In this atmosphere, the barriers between cultures are broken down and participants experience and foster equality.
Carnival is a concept useful in discussions about contemporary Native American Literature. Carnival as a ritualistic act is, in modern terms, a leveling of the playing field. The idea of the carnival creates the space in which practiced social norms are explored, inverted, and tested. Bakhtin asserts that “[t]he laws, prohibitions, and restrictions that determine the structure and order of ordinary, that is noncarnival, life are suspended during carnival” (Problems 123). The effect of the suspension of ordinary life is that individuals find new systems of communication and interaction. Carnival as a social process frees people from traditionally constructed value systems. The effect of this dismantling process is that “[t]he behavior, gesture, and discourse of a person are freed from the authority of all hierarchical positions (social estate, rank, age, property) defining them totally in noncarnival life, and thus from the vantage point of noncarnival life become eccentric and inappropriate” (123). The idea of conventional communication systems being “eccentric and inappropriate” is demonstrated often in contemporary Native American literature and will be closely examined in subsequent chapters.
One of the more interesting characteristics of carnival and perhaps the characteristic most widely adopted in contemporary Native American fiction is the concept of carnivalized laughter. Bakhtin asserts that in literature, laughter has “a specific aesthetic relationship to reality, but not one that can be translated into logical language” (Problems 164). Bakhtin is saying here that carnivalized laughter is much more than words on a page; carnivalized laughter is a feeling, a way of life, and a worldview. Literature that embodies carnivalized laughter sees life without norms. All things are possible. Carnivalized laughter is a tool for understanding both the beginning and the ending of all events. Bakhtin describes this laughter as one that can “grasp and comprehend a phenomenon in the process of change and transition” (164); in other words both the beginning and the ending exist at the same moment. The notion of chronological order is defeated.
Bakhtin calls the interdependency of space and time in a novel the chronotope. He defines it as “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature” (Dialogic 85). He argues that “[t]he chronotope in literature has an intrinsic generic significance . . . [and] it can even be said that it is precisely the chronotope that defines genre and generic distinctions” (85). For instance, if a novel’s narrative unravels in “adventure time,” then it is an adventure novel. He states that chronotopes are “the organizing centers for the fundamental narrative events in the novel . . . [and that] the chronotope makes narrative events concrete, makes them take on flesh, causes blood to flow in their veins” (250). In a Native American context, the concept of chronotope is especially interesting, because Native American perceptions of time and space are inherently different from Euro-centric constructs of time and space.
Even though Bakhtin’s theories and observations about literature were realized in a wholly European tradition and Native American literature was essentially foreign to him, there are fascinating similarities between Bakhtin’s concepts and ideas advanced by Native American theorists. Both Owens and Vizenor have used Bakhtin’s concepts in discussions of Native American literature. Owens calls Bakhtin’s description of carnival laughter “a remarkably accurate description of a raven examining and dissecting an object of interest” (226), and he states that Bakhtin’s description offers “a precise definition of the humor and method of the Native American trickster” (226). Vizenor also incorporates Bakhtin’s concepts of polyphony and dialogism in his discussions of the communal consciousness of Native American literature. Bakhtin’s concepts are often considered as falling within the postmodern discourse. As Velie explains, “Bakhtin’s ideas were well ahead of his time and . . . had a great effect on postmodern critics like Julia Kristeva and Tzvetan Todorov. . . . [I]t is appropriate to recognize him as a sort of proto-postmodernist” (122). In A Poetics of Postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon acknowledges the effect that Bakhtin’s work has had on postmodern discourse; she posits:
Perhaps the recent popularity of the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin owes much to the fact that they at once offer a framework in which to deal with those parodic, ironic, paradoxical forms of postmodernist practice and also make overt the connection between the aesthetic and the social, historical, and institutional. (54)
Bakhtin’s concepts seem well suited for discussions of contemporary Native American fiction because on its most fundamental level, this fiction is parodic, ironic, and paradoxical. Discourse about Native American fiction requires that connections be made between the aesthetic and the social, historical, and institutional. Native American texts are often examined using the discourse of postmodern criticism. Vizenor affirms that “[p]ostmodernism liberates imagination and widens the audiences for tribal literatures, [and that] this new criticism rouses a comic world view, narrative discourse and language games on the past” (Narrative 6).
Germane to both postmodernism and contemporary Native American fiction is their approach to history. For both, the past is perceived as a text, and because it’s a text it is subject to revision. “History is . . . being rethought as a human construct” (Hutcheon 16). One of the results of this type of rethinking of history is that its authority, or power as a governing narrative, is challenged. Contemporary Native American texts rewrite Native American histories in order to (re)center and/or empower their culture. Hutcheon states that minority texts “have gone far to expose—very self-reflexively—the myth – or illusion-making tendencies of historiography. They have also linked racial and /or gender difference to questions of discourse and of authority and power that are at the heart of the postmodernist enterprise” (16). Finally, Hutcheon’s definition of postmodern parody can be applied to Native American fiction. Hutcheon states:
“parody” here . . . is not the ridiculing imitation of the standard theories and definitions that are rooted in eighteenth-century theories of wit. The collective weight of parodic practice suggests a redefinition of parody as repetition with critical distance that allows ironic signaling of difference at the very heart of similarity. (26)
As a close examination of fiction by Vizenor and King demonstrates, Native American texts seek to redefine the role of the Native American in contemporary culture. These texts accomplish this goal in several ways. Vizenor’s novel, The Heirs of Columbus, makes use of tricksters, counter-appropriation, humor, and mythic verism to subvert the expectations and stereotypes of the dominant Euro-American culture. King’s novel, Green Grass, Running Water, combines postmodern literary devices like historiographic metafiction and intertextuality in order to examine and explore the boundaries of Native American identity and myth.
Crossblood author and theorist Gerald Vizenor describes himself as a postmodernist, although most critics describe him as a trickster. His novels are complex works that are “always difficult, disturbing, disorienting, and disquieting” (Owens, Introduction 1). Vizenor’s texts create a new perception of Native Americans that incorporates not only the traditional aspects of Native American culture, but also the differences that modern culture has manifested. Vizenor presents an original voice for Native Americans that acknowledges their new roles in America as businesspeople, lawyers, doctors, city-dwellers, and academics, yet honors their past as members of a highly complex, communal, and evolved culture. Owens credits him with being the “inspiration and founding impulse behind the American Indian Literature Prize, The University of Nebraska’s North American Indian Prose Award, and the American Indian Literature and Critical Studies Series at the University of Oklahoma” (Owens, Introduction 1).
Vizenor was born in 1934 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He served in the U.S. Navy, attended both New York and Harvard Universities, was a successful journalist at the Minneapolis Tribune, and has been consistently active in Native American concerns. His father, half-Ojibwa (Chippewa, or anishinaabeg), was moved from the White Earth Reservation to Minneapolis as part of the Indian Relocation Program. When Vizenor was two years old his father was murdered; the murder is still unsolved. In Other Destinies, Louis Owens offers this anecdote about the murder of Vizenor’s father: “Years later while a professional journalist, Vizenor attempted to investigate his father’s murder but was told by a police official that nothing was known because no one paid much attention to the murder of an Indian in those days” (227). It is clear that Vizenor’s texts seek to draw more attention to Indians.
Vizenor rejects the characterization of Native Americans as a decimated race. His works challenge the Euro-American practice that addresses Native American culture in terms of “histories” and “discoveries.” He refers to that practice as “manifest manners” and asserts that they “are the simulations of dominance; the notions and misnomers that are read as authentic and sustained as representations of Native American Indians” (Manifest 6). His goal is to create new simulations that will “undermine and surmount, with imagination and performance of new stories, the manifest manners of scriptural simulations and ‘authentic’ representations of the tribes in the literature of dominance” (Manifest 17). His texts take up this challenge by irreverently dismantling the artifacts of “being Indian” through counter-appropriation, tricksterism, and humor.
The trickster figure as a literary icon is cross-cultural, but also distinctive to each culture by virtue of the values and characteristics it designates. In Native American culture, the trickster takes on variations depending upon which tribal tradition is telling the story. Generally, the trickster’s physical attributes are variously portrayed “in a number of regional cultural traditions: in the Far West as Coyote, in the Northwest and Arctic as Raven, in the East as Hare, in the North Woods as Canada Jay or Wolverine, on the Plains as Spider or Old Man” (Wiget 16). However, while the manifestation of the trickster varies from tribe to tribe, the importance of the trickster as a Native American cultural icon does not. Each of these trickster figures plays an integral role in the community’s narrative tradition; they teach, they heal, they invent, and they create.
Tricksters are enigmatic figures. Velie asserts in “The Trickster Novel” that the “tribal trickster is not a single figure; tricksters differ greatly from tribe to tribe” and that each trickster has “a familiar set of characteristics: he plays tricks and is the victim of tricks; he is amoral and has strong appetites, particularly for food and sex; he is footloose, irresponsible and callous, but somehow almost always sympathetic if not lovable” (122). Though Paul Radin’s book The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology has come under fire for holding too Western a lens over Native American tradition, his description of the Wakdjunkaga cycle trickster figure is useful here: “[a]nd so he became and remained everything to every man—god, animal, human being, hero, buffoon, he who was before good and evil, denier, affirmer, destroyer and creator” (169). Perhaps the most compelling feature of the trickster is an ultimate resistance to clinical definition. It would be an impossible task to lay out the definitive characteristics of the trickster. In “Subverting the Dominant Paradigm: Gerald Vizenor’s Trickster Discourse,” Kerstin Schmidt points out that “[i]f there is a pattern of trickster behavior to discover at all, this pattern is a shifting one, one that can never be grasped fully” (69). In keeping with the idea of the trickster as a shifting paradigm, Vizenor’s texts are especially complex because he employs the idea of the trickster in two very distinct ways.
The first and most obvious way Vizenor utilizes the trickster figure is by creating characters that embody trickster traits. In a discussion of Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart, Velie asserts the novel “has two trickster figures, each representing one aspect of the Anishinaabe trickster Manabozho (naanabozho). Proude Cedarfair, the hero of the novel represents the trickster as culture hero; Benito Saint Plumero, or Bigfoot, represents the trickster as buffoon and menace” (123). Similarly, both The Heirs of Columbus and Dead Voices portray characters within the text as trickster figures. Vizenor very clearly rejects the notion that tricksters are “real.” He acknowledges that they are characters in stories, and not real people. In this excerpt from an interview with Dallas Miller, his position on the role of trickster characters is evident:
Trickster stories are terrific. . . . I refer to these stories as a liberation of the mind. You can travel great distances with these fantastic and wonderful trickster stories. And transform yourself. They’re not “true.” What I mean is people don’t look upon them as “fact” and play that stupid game that modern critics play of, you know, is this true or not. I argue that Native American storytellers are very sophisticated literary artists in these terms. They clearly recognize in literature the difference between what is imagination and what is a tree. (Miller, 80-81)
Perhaps the most intriguing part of Vizenor’s attempt to reinvent and re-imagine an Indian identity is his notion of “liberation of the mind,” and the concept that trickster stories can help an individual to transform him or herself. Freedom of imagination is a significant part of Vizenor’s concept of identity.
In Dead Voices, the trickster figure of Bagese is clearly aligned with the traditional characteristics of the Native American trickster. Bagese, a physically unpleasant woman who “reek[s] of urine, and [whose] marbled sweat on her stout neck [has] a wicked stench” (6) is a bear. She plays pranks on the narrator, hiding from him in the park and sending mongrels to terrorize him. She lingers between physical realities; she is at times a bear, and at times a woman. She is a bear/woman who lives in both the physical world of Oakland, California, and the mythic world in mirrors. And finally, she is the agent for the narrator to achieve understanding. It is her stories and her “bearness” that infect the perceptions and beliefs of the narrator and lead him to self-awareness and a personal sense of cultural identity
The main character of Heirs, Stone Columbus, is a trickster figure who has been resurrected three times:
Stone Columbus heard the summer in the spring once more on the occasion of his third resurrection. That season the rush of aspen touched him as a child on his first return from a furnace in a government school; he came back a second time in the arms of the notorious ice woman, and then he drowned in his bingo caravel and heard the push of bears. None of these stories would be true if he had not inherited an unwonted surname and the signature of survivance from the Admiral of the Ocean Sea. (5)
In this novel Stone embodies the idea of the trickster as an indestructible creator. All three of his deaths were the result of non-Native American forces entering Stone’s life and imposing their “signatures.” Stone is resurrected three times because he must create a safe place for the heirs to exist. Stone creates Point Assinika “as a free state with no prisons, no passports, no public schools, no missionaries, no television, and no public taxation; genetic therapies, natural medicine, bingo cards, and entertainment were free to those who came to be healed and those who lived on the point” (124). Point Assinika becomes the locus for healing. The method of healing is through storytelling and listening. Stone’s function as a trickster is to destroy the iconoclastic Indian and recreate the identity of the “actual” Indian.
The second way in which Vizenor deals with tricksters is complex, and can be broken down into two categories: stories and crossbloods. Vizenor puts forth the idea that it is stories themselves that function as tricksters and ultimately create meaning. Owens asserts that like the trickster, Vizenor’s texts “[embody] contradictions, all possibilities, [and] ceaselessly dismantl[e] those imaginative constructions that limit human possibility and freedom, allowing signifier and signified to participate in a process of ‘continually breaking apart and re-attaching in new combinations’” (Other 235). Heirs does this by counter-appropriating the Columbus myth. The idea of Columbus as an icon of European society is dismantled, and a new construction results. The story itself functions as a trickster because it tests, questions, creates, and explores a new pattern of meaning. The result of Vizenor’s stories functioning as tricksters is that the boundaries of the story are opened up and encouraged to spill out of the fictional realm to be applied to everyday life. The stories are let loose in society and like the trickster they create, destroy, help, hinder, teach, and heal.
In the Article “Legal and Tribal Identity in Gerald Vizenor’s The Heirs of Columbus,” Stephen Osborne writes that Vizenor’s “literary mission . . . is to introduce Coyote to the new discursive terrain of postmodernism, on the assumption that the trickster will feel right at home in the ‘language games' which have all-too serious stakes” (119). Vizenor is fascinated by the “language game.” His texts continually challenge the authority given to canonical texts as truth. The “serious stakes” of canonical texts are that they stop the possibility of discourse: the conversation is one-sided. Vizenor’s texts open the conversation, they upset the established order and test the limits of authority. The overriding message in Dead Voices is that words and stories create identity, and must be heard from within in order to survive. Bagese tells us that the narrator has “heard nothing in the tabernacle mirror, not even his own stories” (36), and that she will “[pound] him on the head as much as [she can] to loosen his brain so he [can] hear the tricksters and the bears” (37). The narrator is blocked from hearing the stories because he has become immersed in a culture that demands scientific explanation and results. Bagese calls him a “wordy” who has “held [the bears’] name in isolation, even caged [them] on the page”(31). The “wordies” in Dead Voices are the enemy because they rely on standard definitions and textual evidence instead of tricksters and stories.
Because of the need for stories to be heard and remembered, Vizenor takes on the issue of oral vs. written texts. Bagese warns the narrator that he must never publish the stories that she tells him. She warns him that “tribal stories must be told not recorded, told to listeners but not readers, and she insist[s] that stories be heard through the ear not the eye” (6). For Bagese, the act of writing a story down traps it on the page and kills the voice. She fears the authority of the written word and is unable to see how the written story can function as a trickster. But the narrator knows that the only way to keep the stories alive is to write them down and let them interact with other texts. The interaction between texts is something that Edward Said addresses in Culture and Imperialism. Said states that “narrative is crucial . . . [because] stories are at the heart of what explorers and novelists say about strange regions of the world; they also become the method colonized people use to assert their own identity and the existence of their own history” (xii). The dead voices of written texts must be challenged with new texts and new voices.
In the end, the narrator publishes the stories and states that “the real trouble with published stories is where our troubles ought to be, because dead voices have no troubles” (144). The “real trouble with published stories” in this instance is the invented simulations of Native Americans. Vizenor’s narrator affirms the need for Native American texts to challenge the identity that Eurocentric texts have created. Vizenor’s idea here is that written Native American texts need to be incorporated in the canon so that they can challenge and adjust the misconceived notions of what it is to be Indian. When written down, the power of Bagese’s trickster stories will undermine the authority of “manifest simulations.” The trickster stories enter the system of texts and challenge the authority of those that sought to limit them with definition. Bagese’s texts, as penned by the narrator, enter, as Roland Barthes explains, “that social space which leaves no language safe, outside, nor any subject of the enunciation in position as judge, master, analyst, confessor, decoder” (164).
Stone Columbus makes a compelling trickster figure because he acts as a culture hero, and yet is considered a “crossblood,” a somewhat tainted, if not “other,” part of culture: “he was a crossblood and his spiritual distance from the tribe seemed to be as natural as the reasons his namesake lost gold, gods, and glories, in the radiance of a hand talker” (Heirs 6). Vizenor, a crossblood himself, uses the unique position of crossbloods to further complicate his trickster characters. Like the trickster, a crossblood is on the threshold of competing societies. Owens explains that for Vizenor a crossblood character becomes “not a pained victim but a ‘holotropic’ and celebrated shape shifter, an incarnation of trickster who mediates between worlds” (8).
Crossbloods and crossblood literature are important components of meaning in Native American literature because their view is inherently contrapuntal. Said explains that the contrapuntal gaze creates “intertwined and overlapping histories” (Culture 18). Because crossbloods identify with both cultures, they are in a unique position of understanding. “At the center of American Indian fiction,” Owens states, is the “recover[y] or rearticulation of an identity”(5). For the crossblood, the matter of recovery is especially challenging because the two sides of his/her heritage, white and Native American, are historically opposed. The result of this inner opposition is that crossblood literature is polyphonic. Bakhtin defines polyphony as “a plurality of consciousnesses with equal rights and each with its own world” (Problems 6). For the crossblood author, writing becomes an act not only of invention, but also of liberation.
Over and over again in crossblood literature the question, “what is Indian?” is asked. Vizenor’s texts take on that question, and seek to provide, not a definitive answer, but at least a profile of sorts. He strongly rejects the Euro-American construct of Indians as a tragic race confined to reservations. Vizenor’s characters are generally crossbloods living outside of a traditional reservation setting. He challenges the idea that “Indianness” is quantified by a percentage in the blood. His Indians live in cities and look for tribal stories, not percentages, in their blood. In Heirs, Stone points out that Indians are “forever divided by the racist arithmetic measures of tribal blood” (162). He asserts that it is the stories that create the Indian. And, more specifically it is the stories told by Indians to other Indians that construct identity. The stories told by “the culture of death,” the Eurocentric population, are fabrications and should not be used for self-definition. Like the trickster, the crossblood must “[lay] bare the hypocrisies, false fears and pieties, and [clear] the ground ‘for an absolutely free investigation’ of worldly fact” (Other 226). In other words, the summations and generalizations of anthropologists and scholars must be reexamined and reconstructed. Vizenor states in Manifest Manners that “[t]ribal names and stories are real histories, not discoveries” (9) and as such must be afforded the fluidity of a living and viable entity.
Owens describes Vizenor’s texts as “a quest for liberation from the entropic forces that attempt to deny full realization of human possibilities” (Other 227). In order to succeed, Vizenor must disentangle his texts from the web of social convention that informs both Native American and Euro-American society. Vizenor explains that “[t]he sources of natural reason and tribal consciousness are doubt and wonder, not nostalgia or liberal melancholy from the lost wilderness; comic not tragic, because melancholy is cultural boredom, and the tragic is causal, the closure of natural reason” (Manifest 4). He demands that Native American culture not be perceived as tragic and decimated, but as strong, comic, and thriving. In order to meet this demand, a new way of interpretation must be employed. This new way of interpretation relies on the trickster to banish the constructed images of Native Americans. One of the ways he accomplishes this goal is to tell the stories of today’s Native Americans, Native Americans who live in cities and wear suits and participate in American society. He rejects nostalgic sentiment that places Native American life on reservations as an incomplete picture of the condition of being Indian. The sylvan ideal of the reservation doesn’t exist: the trickster can’t be found on the reservation because “[t]he trickster turned paradise into a city” (Dead Voices 118).
Part of the construction of the trickster is that he is first and foremost a rule breaker who considers nothing taboo. Vizenor’s trickster breaks the rules of history to reconstruct Native American identity. He does this by counter-appropriating Western ideas and inverting them within a Native American context. The idea of counter-appropriation implies a specific pattern of authority. If appropriation is the usurpation of cultural ideas by a stronger power, then counter-appropriation is retaliation by the dominated power. In Native American literature, counter-appropriation is a means for asserting cultural identity. When they counter-appropriate, Native American authors claim possession of icons, ideas, and symbols that are habitually conceived of as belonging to the Eurocentric culture and realign them within their own texts. This process inverts the established power structure in two ways: first, it subverts the authority of Eurocentric texts, and second it reconstructs the identity of the Native American culture. The result of counter-appropriation is a new type of discourse that empowers Native American texts to challenge and respond to canonical—oppressive—systems of belief.
Heirs is a novel that counter appropriates canonical Western myth. The novel counter-appropriates the myth of Christopher Columbus as a figure that represents European domination. In the novel, Stone Columbus is interviewed on Carp Radio and explains the new paradigm:
“Stone, listen, our listeners know you were born on a reservation, and we understand how proud you are to be an Indian, so how can you claim to be a direct descendant of a stone and Christopher Columbus?”
“Columbus was Mayan,” said Stone. . . . “The Maya brought civilization to the savages of the Old World and the rest is natural” said Stone. “Columbus escaped from the culture of death and carried our tribal genes back to the New World, back to the great river, he was an adventurer in our blood and he returned to his homeland.” (9)
The appropriation of Columbus as an ancestor changes the position of Native American identity within not only the Euro-American context, but the Native American as well. The Euro-American myth of discovery becomes moot by virtue of the discoverer’s genetic link to Native Americans. Instead of deriding Columbus as the harbinger of misfortune and cultural annihilation, the heirs seek to include him in their construct of cultural identity. They do this with tricksters, humor and a sense of the comic. It is essential to note here that Vizenor’s brand of counter-appropriation is pulled off with the sense of joy that freedom and liberation brings about. He is adamant that these culture wars are not about the death of one culture, but the birth of a new culture.
Counter-appropriating the Columbus myth not only challenges the perceptions the Euro-American culture has of Native Americans, but also reconstructs the Native American concept of self. Vizenor is writing to two distinct audiences. For the Eurocentric reader, counter-appropriation is threatening, or for the less evolved reader, ridiculous. The reader is either lifted from his/her position of dominance and comfort, forced to assume an outsider’s or peripheral position, or the reader dismisses the threat to his/her position, comfortable in the knowledge that it is only fiction. For the Native American reader, a new power structure is created that places him/her in the center. Native American readers are empowered to see a different paradigm of culture and interact with it. The literary reins of control switch hands and a new self is created.
The effect of counter-appropriating the Columbus myth is that the heirs gain control of their past; Columbus provides the “genetic signature that would heal the obvious blunders in the natural world” (Heirs 4): One of the blunders is that it is not the Europeans who discovered the New World; it is the New World who created them. This sets up a new relationship between Euro-American and Native American societies. Native American authority is inserted in the origin of Eurocentric culture: “[t]he New World presented the Old World with camels, bioshamans, zero, the touch of civilization, and calendar time, and created the first cultural debt that has never been paid on time” (26). The canonical idea that Native Americans are “savages” is inverted and in the new paradigm the savages are European.
The concept of counter-appropriation has much in common with Bakhtin’s concept of carnival. It is the goal of carnival to invert traditional systems of power. In carnival, people realize a spirit of equality and create new systems of communication. Bakhtin asserts that the inversion or lifting of the power structures creates a new way of seeing that renders conventional systems “eccentric and inappropriate.” In other words, the system created by the upsetting of power is natural, and it is hierarchies that are unnatural. This idea is apparent in Heirs. The heirs’ acceptance of Columbus as their ancestor is never questioned by them as eccentric. It is truth. And, because it is truth, the Eurocentric version of the Columbus story is made eccentric and inappropriate. Both Vizenor’s counter-appropriation and Bakhtin’s concept of carnival seek to remove “hierarchical structure and all forms of terror, reverence, piety, and etiquette connected with it—that is, everything resulting from socio-hierarchical inequality or any other form of inequality among people” (Bakhtin, Problems 123). However, Bakhtin’s carnival lacks the immediacy and “survivance” that Vizenor’s counter-appropriation creates. Because carnival is a temporary condition, meaning the hierarchies and structures will be re-established, that concept alone is not sufficient for describing counter-appropriation
The act of counter-appropriation, unlike carnival, aims for a permanent condition. Whereas Bakhtin treats carnival as only a suspension of the rules, Vizenor treats counter-appropriation as a fundamental change in the rules. Vizenor’s texts are warriors. In Manifest Manners, Vizenor asserts that:
The postindian warriors encounter their enemies with the same courage in literature as their ancestors once evinced on horses, and they create stories with a new sense of survivance. . . . The postindian ousts the inventions with humor, new stories, and the simulations of survivance. (5)
In Heirs, new stories are invented by the inversion of the Columbus myth and then the new stories are used to inform culture. By the end of the novel the heirs have created a community that regenerates itself under the new power structure by healing children. “Thousands and thousands of abandoned and abused children came to the new nation on their last dreams to be healed with the humor of their ancestors in the stone, the protean trickster, the visions of shamans, and the heirs of Christopher Columbus” (Vizenor, Heirs 147). The heirs’ system will continue through the children; the new generations will continue the paradigm.
Heirs also challenges the propriety of the United States legal system to decide ownership of Native objects and stories. During a hearing to decide the ownership of several medicine pouches, Chaine Riel Doumet points out to Judge Lord, that the pouches Doric Miched inherited were in fact stolen from the heirs, “and in [his] mind to receive stolen properties, as museums and collectors do, is an obvious crime” (77). Doric’s contention is that heirs had thrown the pouches away so they had forfeited ownership. Doric, who tells Felipa that the motto of the Conquistador brotherhood is to, "[e]xplore new worlds, discover with impunities, represent with manners, but never retreat from the ownership of land and language" (50), is unwilling to admit that any wrongdoing has been done. Unlike the heirs, he believes that cultural artifacts belong to museums and not the general public, especially not the tribal public. It is Felipa's mission to counter-appropriate tribal remains from museums and collectors "to atone for the moral corruption of missionaries, anthropologists, archaeo-necromancers, their heirs, and the robber barons of sacred tribal sites” (50). Felipa steals tribal artifacts and returns them to the heirs.
The Federal courtroom of Beatrice Lord is a “carnivalesque confrontation of tribal stories and the competing narratives of Anglo-American law” (Osborne 122). The heirs argue that the problem of the Federal court system is that it has not yet recognized “stories and natural objects as having standing to argue in court” (Vizenor 77). The heirs advance the idea that stories and natural objects belong to no one, and to appropriate them, as museums and collectors do, is a crime. The courtroom scene in Heirs is important because, as Osborne asserts, the “[l]aw continues to play a powerful role in legitimizing the oppression of tribal peoples” (122). Vizenor counter-appropriates the powerful role of law and reverses the oppression of Native people by the “culture of ownership” (Vizenor 77).
The end of the novel is another example of counter-appropriation. The heirs create a “nation dedicated to heal[ing] the wounded with genetic therapies” (Heirs 144). Point Assinika becomes a place where Native Americans go to heal their spiritual wounds. They are healed through stories, and genetic therapies. Vizenor is commenting on the brutal way in which Native American culture was affected by American expansion. It was the policy of the United States to make Native Americans more like its white population. To that end, Native languages and customs were outlawed, children were removed from their families and re-trained in government run boarding schools, and the Indian population was taught that “being Indian” was wrong. In Heirs, it is the reclamation of being Indian that is the key to survivance.
The genetic therapies with which the children at Point Assinika are treated are in fact stories:
“[T]he biochemical codes are bound by their own opposition, and here is where the shaman and the trickster touch that primal source of humor, imagination, and the stories that heal right in the anatomies of the genetic code.” (134)
The stories create new genealogies. Genealogies, according to Michel Foucault, are “the union of erudite knowledge and local memories which allows us to establish a historical knowledge of struggles and to make use of this knowledge” (83). Genealogies are the stories that are known and shared within a specific cultural group:
[A] genealogy should be seen as a kind of attempt to emancipate historical knowledges from subjection, to render them . . . capable of opposition and of struggle against the coercion of a theoretical, unitary, formal and scientific discourse. (Foucault 85)
Because a genealogy implies a specific cultural history, Vizenor’s genetic therapies imply that cultural histories can be weak and in need of replacement, or at the very least bolstering. The replacement of genes requires the replacement of stories. “Genes are metaphors for stories, and vice versa; the material evils Columbus wrought are overcome in their narrative reconstitution in the healing process of tribal storytelling and genetic therapy” (Osborne 125). The concept of narrative reconstitution is crucial for discussion of Vizenor’s texts. Vizenor reshapes the traditional way Native American stories are told. In Heirs, he reshapes the story of Columbus, which in turn reshapes the story of Native Americans. In Dead Voices he reshapes the way stories are told—written as opposed to oral—which in turn reshapes the power of Native American narratives.
In response to a survey Kenneth Lincoln mailed to her for his book Indi’n Humor: Bicultural Play in Native America, Paula Gunn Allen wrote: “[n]ot to make too much out of it, but humor is the best and sharpest weapon we’ve always had against the ravages of conquest and assimilation. And while it is a tiny projectile point, it’s often sharp, true and finely crafted” (Lincoln 7). Allen’s remark is a great place to start examining Native American humor. Although she premises her statement with the notion that she isn’t going to make too much out of it, her words prove how essential humor is to the survivance of Native Americans: humor in the Native American culture is as much a part of life as is air and water. This “tiny projectile point” has framed a culture. It serves as not only a weapon to fight conquest and assimilation, but also as a guide for framing a worldview.
Humor in the context that I am using it here is not the opposite of gloom. To say that the Native American worldview is laced with humor does not imply that tragedy does not exist. The terms are not mutually exclusive. Bakhtin best describes this kind of humor in the following discussion of carnival laughter:
Laughter is a specific aesthetic relationship to reality, but not one that can be translated into logical language; that is a specific means for artistically visualizing and comprehending reality and, consequently, a specific means for structuring an artistic image . . . Enormous creative . . . power was possessed by ambivalent carnivalistic laughter. This laughter could grasp and comprehend a phenomenon in the process of change and transition, it could fix in a phenomenon both poles of its evolution in their uninterrupted and creative renewing changeability . . . Carnival laughter does not permit [any] [aspect] of change to be absolutized or to congeal in one-sided seriousness. (164)
Carnivalized laughter embodies the whole of a situation. It provides a release from sorrow by accepting it as an integral part of joy. “One-sided seriousness” is tragedy. It is paralysis. It is a dead voice. Carnivalized laughter depends on the presence of sorrow in order to exist. In an effort to show how laughter is a release from sorrow, Lincoln asserts that “Indi’n humor is a way of recalling and going beyond tragedy, of working through the hurt of personal history, of healing old wounds and hearing the truth of what’s happening among Native Americans” (116). Vizenor’s texts function as a forum for healing and growth. Clearly he combines the tragic with the comic in Heirs. No matter how comic and liberating Heirs becomes, the deadly seriousness of Native American discourse is never forgotten. For instance, Felipa is murdered while trying to repatriate the remains of Pocahontas. Her body is left in the graveyard of an English chapel, bruised and robbed. Her killers are never found; in fact Scotland Yard dismisses her brutal murder and determines that her cause of death was “exposure or loneliness” (117).
Bakhtin’s concepts of carnival, and carnivalized laughter in particular, “belong to the whole people . . . everyone must participate” (Problems 128), because of carnivalized laughter’s communal aspect, it has some commonality with the Native American oral storytelling tradition. The whole process of carnival, like oral storytelling, depends on the involvement of the audience; the public must be involved with the action, the carnivalization. In “Trickster Discourse,” Vizenor explains that “the humor that heals” is similar to “the oral tradition and [is] bound to a specific culture” (206). Vizenor’s texts incorporate humor in an effort to bridge the space between oral and written stories. In order to achieve this goal, Vizenor produces texts that the audience must become involved with. The courtroom scene in Heirs is especially interesting because as the heirs testify to the importance of tribal stories, trickster stories in particular, the gallery (audience) participates with the testimony given on the stand in much the same way that the Native American reading audience would. The heirs in the gallery are a part of the stories that are told on the stand. In the following passage, Vizenor sets up the role of the Native audience in the courtroom and their participation in the telling of tribal stories:
“Would your laser shows be of value to visual anthropology?” asked the judge. Lord seemed unaware of the historical tensions between the tribes and social sciences. . . .
“Anthropology is neither visual or valuable,” said the laser shaman. The heirs frowned and turned in their seats at the mere mention of the value of social science in tribal identities. (84)
After this exchange, the judge continues to question Almost Browne about the role of the social sciences in tribal culture. Eventually, the audience, who has grown weary and angry from the conversation, responds to it:
The crows cawed to warn the spectators that there were demons and bad weather hidden in the federal court. Animosh arose from a trash basket with carrion in his beak; he landed on the clean bench and beat the meat with his black beak. The judge ordered a recess to remove the burger on the bench and the crows in the courtroom. (84)
Like the audience in the courtroom scene, the Native audience in tribal storytelling has a quite powerful presence.
Native American literature is inherently performative, and like carnivalization, requires an audience. The audience is an integral part of the narrative because they respond to it. The Native audience is expected to interact with specific signs and symbols that are meaningful within Native American culture. David Moore describes the role of the audience “as a tacit chorus for the communal values reflected in those texts, and as a beneficiary of the writers’ political performances related to those communal values” (8). Vizenor uses this audience’s presence to create stories that “perform” in similar ways that oral stories do. In a discussion of N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, Elaine Jahner states that Native American fiction can “[transpose] the performance possibilities of oral literature into a realized progression showing how myth and history can call forth . . . creative responses. Readers, too, become members of an audience” (158).
In both Heirs and Dead Voices, the importance of stories to the Native American culture is depicted. Stories are the matter from which Native American culture defines itself. In the following passage from the courtroom scene in Heirs, Judge Lord and Lappet Tulip Browne discuss the importance of tribal stories, comic stories in particular, to the heirs:
“Stories, then, are at the core of tribal realities, not original sin, for instance, or service missions,” said the judge.
. . .
“Stories and imagination, your honor, but a certain condition that precinds discoveries and translations,” said Lappet. “Comic situations rather than the tragic conclusions of an individual separated from culture, lost and lonesome in a wilderness.” (80)
Further on their conversation, Lappet explains to the judge that, “[t]he comic is communal nonetheless, and celebrates chance as a condition of experience, over linear prevision, but at the same time myths, rituals, and stories must summon a spiritual balance, an imaginative negotiation in a very dangerous world” (81). In this passage, Lappet is expressing the intrinsic value that the heirs place on the stories that Native Americans tell each other, and the importance of the comic modes that those stories depict.
Vizenor explains in an interview with Dallas Miller that there are two types of comedy. The first kind he describes is characteristic of every culture. In this kind of comedy, the shared experiences of a community and the alteration of facts are what make things funny. He explains that “a community that’s speaking the experiences of its own time knows what’s going on. . . . So, if you depart a little bit, or you embellish a little something, you take a scrap of gossip and turn it into something else. You know, it’s very humorous, very playful” (79). The second kind of comedy that Vizenor addresses are trickster stories, “stories that intend to be tricky and comical . . . [and] involve transformations of all kinds” (80).
The concept of transformation is part of both trickster stories, and carnival. It is the objective of both of those types to overturn what is considered normal and ordinary life and create something new. The epic myth of Columbus discovering America seems a bitter subject for Native Americans to laugh at, yet Heirs does just that. The destruction of the Columbus myth is accomplished because, as Bakhtin asserts, “[i]t is precisely laughter that destroys the epic, and in general destroys any hierarchical (distancing and valorized) distance. As a distanced image a subject cannot be comical; to be made comical, it must be brought close” (Dialogic 23). Vizenor brings Columbus to the apex of closeness with the heirs: He makes them family. “Columbus arises in tribal stories that heal with humor the world he wounded; he is loathed, but he is not a separation in tribal consciousness” (Heirs 185). The heirs must have Columbus close to them in order to assert their comic liberation. As Stone explains to Treves, “[w]e heal with opposition, we are held together with opposition, not separation, or silence, and the best humor in the world is pinched from opposition” (Heirs 176).
In this context then, separation is monologic, and opposition is dialogic. Dialogism, polyphony, and heteroglossia are appropriate and important terms to use in discussing the specific humor of Native American literature. Bakhtin asserts that:
All languages of heteroglossia, whatever the principle underlying them and making each unique, are specific points of view on the world, forms for conceptualizing the world in words, specific world views, each characterized by its own objects, meanings and values. As such they all may be juxtaposed to one another, mutually supplement one another, contradict one another and be interrelated dialogically. (115)
Without opposition, heteroglossia can not exist, and without heteroglossia, the possibility for comic misinterpretation can not exist. Heirs stages constant opposition. In the novel, the Euro-American worldview is repeatedly conflicting with the Native American worldview. The result of their opposition—heteroglossia—is humor.
A specific example of conflicting worldviews in Heirs is the following exchange between Felipa, the trickster poacher, and Doric, a member of the Brotherhood of American Explorers. Doric inherited several medicine pouches from his ancestors, who were missionaries. He intends to sell the pouches to the highest bidder. Felipa meets him in the Conquistador Club to negotiate the repatriation of the pouches.
“The shamans pitched their pouches into the lake,” said Doric. “My relatives were there to hear conversations and to explore salvations, and to gather a few pouches for the future.”
“Stolen is the right word,” whispered Felipa.
“Discover is more accurate,” said Doric. (50)
Neither Felipa nor Doric understands the position of the other. They are in fact negotiating, but neither one of them hears nor understands the motivations and desires of the other. There is both opposition and conflict in this episode. Because of the possibility for miscommunication and misunderstanding between Doric and Felipa, the chance for a comic resolution is born. The comic resolution in this episode is that Felipa steals the pouches right in front of Doric and his failsafe security measures. He is made a fool of, and the pouches are returned to the heirs.
Heirs is a trickster story steeped in what Vizenor calls mythic verism. In order to fully understand mythic verism in the context in which Vizenor uses it, it is necessary to examine the subtle differences between magical realism, mythic verism, and what Bakhtin calls fantastic realism. In the lexicon of literary criticism the term “magical realism” is often problematic. The term, described as both a literary mode and a literary device, offers different layers of meaning for different users. In Alejo Carpentier’s discussion of South American literature it is called a mode, a culturally inherent style of writing that celebrates the baroque possibilities of the people and landscape. In Wendy Faris’ analysis of postmodern fictions it is called a device, a way of manipulating stories—like metaphor or allegory. In both its South American and postmodern contexts, magical realism is seen as an event that upsets the perceived normal order or balance of things. But what happens when magic is the perceived normal order and balance? In Native American stories magic, especially trickster magic, is the essence of the community. Magic is the communally ascribed source of identity. Magic is mythic verism.
In the article “Magic Realism: Post-Expressionism,” Franz Roh, in a discussion of post-expressionist painting, hits upon a defining concept of the magically real: “The clash of true reality and apparent reality” (20). Roh asserts that the “feeling of space” in paintings has changed. The surreal and fantastic depictions that used to inhabit the canvas space are being replaced with real world images that “celebrate the mundane.” As he explains it, the trend to seek the sublime in the “fantastic dreamscape” has turned itself inward so “that our real world re-emerges before our eyes, bathed in the clarity of a new day” (17). In a voice that foreshadows the postmodern use of magical realism as a literary device, Roh explains that “that devilish detour [of transcendentalism], that flight from the world ha[s] died and now an insatiable love for terrestrial things and a delight in their fragmented and limited nature has reawakened” (17). Like Roh, Carpentier is credited with the proto-definition of magical realism. These two critics are dissimilar in their views about how magical realism is achieved, but both essentially agree that the magic part of magic realism is not created or invented, it lurks in the shadows of the natural world. The magical is not created, but is observed.
In an article titled “Baroque and the Marvelous Real,” Carpentier asserts that there is a relationship between what is baroque and what is marvelous real. He describes the baroque as “a constant of the human spirit that is characterized by a horror of the vacuum, the naked surface, [and] the harmony of linear geometry” (93). He argues that the genetic richness in Latin America makes it the “chosen territory of the baroque” (100), and that “[w]ith such variety, each contributing its version of the baroque, we intersect what [he has] called the marvelous real” (101).
In The Dialogic Imagination, Bakhtin refers to a literary style he calls “fantastic realism.” In a discussion about the differing chronotopes in Rabelais’ works, Bakhtin states that “[t]he essence of this method [fantastic realism] consists, first of all, in the destruction of all ordinary ties, of all the habitual matrices of things and ideas, and the creation of unexpected matrices, unexpected connections, including the most surprising logical links and linguistic connections” (169). He insists that fantastic realism can not exist without the examination of the “associations established and reinforced by tradition and sanctioned by religious and official ideology” (169). In conjunction with the re-examination of tradition, fantastic realism also relies on the close association of “grotesque fantasy . . . combined with the precision of anatomical and physiological analysis” (172).
Bakhtin’s reading of Rabelais seems to focus on many of the same characteristics as postmodernism and Faris’ description of magical realism. For example, according to Bakhtin:
It is necessary to destroy and rebuild the entire false picture of the world, to sunder the false hierarchical links between objects and ideas, to abolish the divisive ideational strata. It is necessary to liberate all these objects and permit them to enter into the free unions that are organic to them, no matter how monstrous these unions might seem from the point of view of ordinary, traditional associations. (168)
In this passage, Bakhtin is asserting that in order for dialogic discourse to happen, the traditional lens must be lifted off, and a new manner of seeing must occur. Fantastic realism is a device by which the lens can be removed and the natural associations of ideas can occur.
For Faris, magically real texts, like postmodern texts, “question received ideas about time, space, and identity” (173). In “Scheherazade’s Children: Magical Realism and Postmodern Fiction” Faris describes a concept of magical realism. Part of the concept states that “eternal mythic truths and historical events are both essential components of our collective memory. Thus these histories can include magic and folk wisdom” (170). Faris states that “in magical realist fictions, we witness an idiosyncratic recreation of historical events, but events grounded firmly in historical realities—often alternate versions of officially sanctioned accounts” (169). This implies that the texts are counter-appropriating officially sanctioned stories: therefore, one must allow for various collectives of memory or at very least a fragmented collective. Magical realism is a political tool that can at the same instant reinvent, reclaim or re-encounter what has been lost or forfeited, as well as strip, subvert, and annihilate what has been gained or won.
In the article “Trickster Discourse” Vizenor defines mythic verism as “a discourse, a critical concordance of narrative voices, and a narrative realism that is more than mimesis or a measure of what is believed to be natural in the world” (190). Native American narrative realism includes supernatural events and beings. Because mythic verism relies on the concordance of narrative voices, the notion of what is considered natural in the world is an important issue. Vizenor describes mythic verism as a discourse. This implies that there is a certain measure of interaction that occurs between the text and the reader, and between the text and other texts. It is hard for readers outside of the discourse to fully understand it. In other words, a reader who is unfamiliar with the role of the trickster in Native American stories would most likely misinterpret the trickster’s actions.
For Vizenor, mythic verism is part of trickster hermeneutics, which in turn is access to trickster stories. Unlike the postmodern examples discussed earlier, trickster stories do not set ideas free so much as they collect the wayward ideas that are already free. Trickster stories set out to find a centered or unfragmented sense of self. The fractured style of magical and fantastic realism is inappropriate here. The trickster discourse sets out to correct the mistakes of other discourses. For the Native American audience, mythic verism takes on much more importance than magical realism or fantastic realism: Mythic verism is crucial for survival. In Manifest Manners, Vizenor states that “[t]ricksters are the translation of creation; the trickster creates the tribe in stories, and pronounces the moment of remembrance as the traces liberation” (15). If the mythic verism that enables the trickster is eliminated then so is the trickster’s ability to create the tribe.
Another important distinction between mythic verism and the other terms discussed here is the presupposition a community has about magic. For Faris and Bakhtin the magical events occur as a rupture within everyday life. Everyday life must be suspended in order for the magic to be perceived. However, in Native American cultures magic is a part of everyday life. It is expected and it is natural. The Native American realism includes magic and the term magical realism becomes redundant. Bakhtin’s fantastic realism is especially troubling in this context because of the underlying idea that the free union of ideas will seem “monstrous . . . from the point of view of ordinary traditional associations” (168). The idea of the monstrous would not occur to a Native American audience. Magic, good or bad, just is; value judgments about the nature or positioning of it are superfluous.
The quintessential example of mythic verism in Heirs is the courtroom scene. In this scene the truths which are held by Native Americans come in direct conflict with the truths of white culture and government. In the space of this juxtaposition the mythic truths of the Anishinaabe are clearly defined. Beatrice Lord, a federal court judge, listens to testimony from the tribe in an effort to decide if a crime has been committed. The “crime” in this instance is the repossession of tribal property and remains. The second witness called is Memphis de Panther. Memphis is a panther, as evidenced by her description on the stand: “She laid both black paws on the rail, purred in the witness chair, and waited for the judge to see that she was a panther” (70). The judge is incapable of seeing the cat sitting next to her, or as the narrator explains, “[t]he judge heard a woman in the witness chair; the heirs saw a panther” (70). Memphis testifies that “trickster mongrel[s disguised] the outside of creatures with skin and hair, beaks and ears,” (70) but in fact the original animal holds on to the inside, the thoughts, visions, and feelings; “we are animals disguised as humans” (70) she tells the judge. The heirs see the panther but, as the narrator explains “the judge and lawyers and most of the spectators demanded too much from science, cold reason, and human disguises to see the eyeshine of animals in stories” (72).
In this scene, the judge, lawyers, and spectators are unable to see the true essence of Memphis or themselves. The animals are real, and they exist inside everyone. The heirs see the inner animals because they expect them to be there. When Memphis purrs “to inspire and animate the memories of the judge,” and “some of the spectators [are] at last surprised to see a panther as a witness in federal court” (72), the judge, seeing the panther, becomes “worried and strained” (72). When the judge finally sees the true Memphis she is uncomfortable: If what Memphis said about herself is true, then what she said about all animals wearing human disguises is true as well. The reader can sense the judge is nervous about accepting her own inner animal. The courtroom scene serves to clearly show the friction between what the heirs know as true and what others perceive as true. The truth of the heirs is intertwined with the mythic history of their culture. This history subverts the power of the human and gives it over to the animal, but “those who are cowed by their disguises as humans liv[e] in mortal fear of wild animals” (71). Again we see the upset in power structures that is inherent in mythic verism.
Perhaps the most important function that mythic verism serves in Heirs is that it negates the idea of the Native American as genetically different from the white Eurocentric culture. The genetic othering of Native Americans in this novel is moot. Both cultures share a gene pool, or at the very least the symbol of one (Columbus). It is this shared history that makes terms like magical and fantastic realism irrelevant. If stories are labeled as magical or fantastic, their existence as fact is denied. In Heirs, the spiritual healers and the stories in the blood are not fantasy or magic, they are there; they have always been there, and they will always be there.
Thomas King’s novel Green Grass, Running Water “infiltrates the dominant discourse by appearing to conform with it, but all the while critiquing it” (Horne 225). King masterfully weaves together canonical history, culture, and literature with Native American realities. The result is a multi-voiced novel that subverts Eurocentric ways of thinking. Like Vizenor’s, King’s texts deal with Native Americans who are part of a modern society: They work off the reservation, teach at universities, capitalize on the tourist industry, and confront the exploitation of their culture and heritage. King’s characters examine the constructs of being Indian as they participate in the creation of new stories and new histories.
King’s racial heritage is diverse: Cherokee, German, and Greek. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Utah, and has taught at universities in both the United States and Canada. He has won several awards for his fiction, including the Governor General’s award and the PEN/Josephine Miles award. Green Grass, Running Water braids together the stories of contemporary Blackfoot Indians living on and off a reservation in Alberta, Canada; four mythic Indian women who transcend and transform time and gender; Coyote the trickster; and “I”, an omniscient narrator.
Green Grass examines the roles of Native Americans in today’s culture. Robin Ridington asserts that “[t]he novel is, among other things, King’s reading of North American literature, literary theory, Native American history, and popular culture through the images and genre conventions of American Indian oral tradition” (343), and that the novel is “so multivocal that no single reader can expect to know every reference” (350). One of the effects of a novel where no reader can know every reference is that readers, especially those from the dominant discourse, are unable to master the text: They are de-centered. King achieves carnivalization and heteroglossia in Green Grass by deftly manipulating literary devices such as historiographic metafiction, and intertextuality. He combines those postmodern modes with themes that are central to the Native American worldview: identity and myth.
The first narrative strand, which takes place in “real time,” centers on Lionel Red Dog’s struggle with middle age, career advancement, and his competition with his cousin, Charlie Looking Bear, for Alberta Frank’s affections. Alberta, a professor at the University of Toronto, wants a child much more than she wants either Lionel or Charlie. Charlie, a slick lawyer who defends the conglomerate that built the Grand Baleen Dam on the Blackfoot reserve, struggles with his perceptions of what kind of Indian he is. Lionel’s uncle, Eli Stands Alone, a former English professor, refuses to leave his small cabin in the spillway of the dam and consequently blocks the operation of the dam as well as the use of the lakefront property the dam created. Each of these characters’ stories draws them to the annual Sun Dance on the Blackfoot reservation.
The second narrative strand, which takes place in “mythic time,” revolves around four old Indians who have escaped from a Florida mental institution, Coyote, and a first person narrator. These six mythic characters frame the action of the realistic narrative strand with origin and transformation stories. The four old Indians each take a turn telling the story of their own transformations from archetypal Native American female figures (First woman, Changing Woman, Thought Woman, and Old Woman) to canonical Western literary characters (Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and Hawkeye). The four old Indians assume that history is fixable, that it isn’t a linear form, but a renewing and fluid curve that can be reshaped by stories. The way the four old Indians go about fixing history is by entering and changing historical, literary, and cultural texts.
First Woman, who leaves the Garden of Eden because she thinks that GOD (a contrary Coyote dream) is a “stingy person” and that there is “no point in having a grouchy GOD for a neighbor” (74), becomes the Lone Ranger when she encounters Rangers on the Western plains, and averts death by “tak[ing] some black cloth out of her purse . . . cut[ting] some holes in [it] . . . [and] put[ting] that black cloth around her head” (75). Changing Woman falls out of the sky world and lands on Noah’s canoe. Noah, a lustful little man eventually leaves her on an Island because she refuses to follow his Christian rules. Changing woman is “rescued” from the island by the captain and crew of the Pequod, who are in search of a great white whale. When soldiers arrest Changing Woman she tells them: “Call me Ishmael” (248). Thought Woman floats off the edge of the world and into the Pearly Gates, which are depicted as an immigration checkpoint. When A.A. Gabriel gives Thought Woman a “[v]irgin verification form,” Thought Woman floats away, first to Robinson Crusoe’s island where he renames her Friday, and then to Florida, where she is apprehended by soldiers. She tells the soldiers: “I’m Robinson Crusoe. . . . I’m in charge” (361). Old Woman first meets a “young man walking on water” as she is floating, but he refuses to accept her help, so she floats away. She meets “Nasty” Bumppo; when Nasty is shot and the soldiers come and arrest Old Woman, they refuse to recognize her name. Finally, after trying various names Old Woman tells them her name is Hawkeye and is taken to Fort Marion.
Linda Hutcheon defines historiographic metafiction as a postmodernist device that subverts the authority of history and historical texts. It is the goal of historiographic metafictions to challenge the difference between texts produced as “history” and texts produced as “fiction.” Hutcheon explains that “[h]istoriographic metafiction . . . is overtly and resolutely historical . . . in an ironic and problematic way that acknowledges that history is not the transparent record of any sure “truth” (129). The authenticity of history is at best questionable when read against Native American texts. In an article about Sherman Alexie’s fiction, James Cox asserts that Native American authors “and their characters are involved in a narrative construction or reconstruction of a Native American-identified self that counters a racist historical context and the conquest narratives that are often sustained by the ubiquitous white man’s Indian” (52). In other words, Native American authors and their characters use fiction to breakdown the authenticity of specific histories and the gross misrepresentations of Native Americans that those histories created.
Used as a literary device in Green Grass, historiographic metafiction calls into question the political invention of “Indians,” and their placement within Eurocentric culture. History is often afforded a certain measure of authority because it is based in “facts,” whereas fiction is “made up.” However, as Hutcheon points out, facts do not translate into truths per se. Culturally determined systems of meaning construct facts from the descriptions of events. Because the descriptions of events can differ greatly depending on cultural placement, there must be a “distinction between ‘events’ and ‘facts’” (122). Facts can not be relied on as truths because they are in effect narratives. King astutely points out, “[t]here are no truths . . . [o]nly stories” (432). In essence then, the culturally constructed system of meaning that relates the events (tells the story) is creating the facts (truth). Historiographic metafictions recognize the importance of who is retelling the events and the possibility of multiple truths.
In the past, critics have endeavored to separate history and fiction; however, in the postmodern era their likenesses are being examined:
They have both been seen to derive their force more from verisimilitude than from any objective truth; they are both identified as linguistic constructs, highly conventionalized in their narrative forms, and not at all transparent either in terms of language or structure; and they appear to be equally intertextual, deploying the texts of the past within their own complex textuality. (Hutcheon 105)
If history and fiction are produced in the same manner, as the passage suggests, then some fiction may convey as much truth as history. The division between history and certain kinds of fiction becomes negligible. Multiple histories studded with multiple facts are possible. Novels that are produced as historiographic metafiction force readers to take note of interrelations between fiction and history, and contextualize representations of history in fiction.
Similarly, contemporary Native American texts often challenge historic texts as a means to gain a place in the dominant culture’s history. Cox asserts that for Native American authors “imagining alternatives to the dominant culture’s narratives of conquest . . . is a powerful weapon.” And while “imagining alternative histories might not change the present, . . . conceiving of other possibilities, revisioning a history in which Native Americans write Native Americans back into the landscape, will influence the future” (58). Indeed, historical references in Green Grass are meant to undermine the Eurocentric constructions of history. Throughout the novel King uses names of historical figures to subvert their historical connotations. The names become double coded—intended to mean one thing to white readers and another to Native American readers. In King’s novel, historiographic metafiction often manipulates representations of history in order to reverse the exclusion and debasement of Native American culture. King positions the brutality endured by Native Americans in the forefront, and from that position the likelihood of its being forgotten or hidden diminishes. In “To Know the Difference: Mimicry, Satire, and Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water,” Dee Horne states that “King retells and re-presents the settler history of Fort Marion and the imprisonment of the plains tribe, [as] a way of ensuring that this history of oppression not be forgotten" (261). Alberta Frank lectures about the 1874 destruction, containment, and imprisonment of Plains Indians at Fort Marion. Moreover, Alberta’s students are historically linked by name to policies and texts that sought to exclude and silence Native Americans:
Henry Dawes was sound asleep at the back of the room, his head wrapped up in his arms. Mary Rowlandson and Elaine Goodale were bent over, their heads locked together. Hannah Duston and John Collier had moved their desks together again, and were virtually in each other’s laps. (King 16)
These names are charged with emotional and racial connotations. Mary Rowlandson, a Puritan poet, wrote a captivity narrative after being captured during King Philip’s war. Henry Dawes, chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs, sponsored an Act passed by the U.S. Congress to provide for the granting of individual landholdings to Native Americans who would renounce their tribal holdings. Elaine Goodale married Native author Charles Eastman and published her memoirs of her life with the Sioux. John Collier was an American sociologist and public official who as commissioner of Indian Affairs worked to preserve Native American territories and cultures. Hannah Duston was captured by the Abnakis during King William’s War; after her infant child was killed, she killed and scalped ten of her captors before escaping.
Clearly, the reader who has some knowledge of what these names represent would immediately recognize the political tensions their inclusion creates. In “Coyote, Contingency, and Community: Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water and Postmodern Trickster,” Carlton Smith asserts that “King’s reference to these famous ‘students’ of Indian cultures alludes to the inevitable and disastrous result of objectifying Native American society” (522). This episode in Green Grass seeks to (de)objectify Native American society by repositioning Native American and white histories. King’s use of names invokes historical images that are at odds with their position within the text. In another example of King’s infusing the text with historical reference, vacationing fishermen, Louie (poet), Ray (priest), and Al (politician), evoke the name of Louis Riel, mixedblood leader of the Northwest Rebellion.
Reclamation and re-textualization of history is an important theme in Native American texts. In “Metalanguages” Elaine Jahner explains that the “act of listening to the past” is an essential part of cultural-definition. She claims that since the responses to history are “rooted in one’s own psychological history,” it is especially necessary for Native Americans to learn how to listen to the various voices of the past, especially since their “history has been kidnapped by conquerors” (162). Jahner is stating that since Native Americans have been inaccurately represented—if represented at all—in history, it is especially important for them to examine the way in which history is produced as well as who is producing it. Through examination of the production of history, Native Americans may be able to construct a new history that accurately portrays them. By challenging and changing historical texts, Native American authors can reclaim cultural significance. At the heart of King’s novel is the notion of cultural survival and the idea that the means by which culture will survive is the retelling of history. Stories—histories—must be told again and again until they are gotten right, and while “[e]verybody makes mistakes,” it is “[b]est not to make them with stories” (King 11). King’s inclusion of historical events “suggests that to re-write or re-present the past in fiction and in history is, in both cases, to open it up to the present, to prevent it from being conclusive and teleological” (Hutcheon 110). In fact, the way King presents the past often “opens it up” to humorous and seemingly good-natured interpretations. For instance, Columbus’ voyage to the “New World,” a bitter piece of the past for Native Americans, is rendered ridiculous when in the novel a Nissan, a Pinto, and a Karmann-Ghia (the Nina, the Pinto, and the Santa Maria) sail across Parliament lake and into the Grand Baleen dam.
Hutcheon asserts that “historiographic metafictions appear to privilege two modes of narration . . . multiple points of view . . . or an overtly controlling narrator” (117). The narrator “I” in Green Grass acts as an overtly controlling guide to Coyote who, though seemingly confident of his ability to know history, is often woefully ignorant of Native American concerns. “I” helps Coyote navigate the presentation of white and Native American history and culture within the text. In the following passage, Coyote interrupts during Thought Woman’s account of Ahab:
“She means Moby-dick,” says Coyote. “I read the book. It’s Moby-Dick, the great white whale who destroys the Pequod.”
“You haven’t been reading your history,” I tell Coyote.
“It’s the English colonists who destroy the Pequots” (220)
In this example, “I” shows Coyote that having “read the book” is not the same as knowing his history. This episode in the novel clearly questions and undermines the perception that any single book can accurately portray an individual’s history—“your history.” In another example of “I” negotiating Coyote’s understanding of history, Coyote, thinking that he is singing a hymn, sings: “Hosanna da, in-in the highest, hosanna da forever . . .” to which “I” points out: “You got the wrong song. . . . This song goes ‘Hosanna da, our home on Natives’ land’” (299). In this rewording of the Canadian National Anthem (Oh Canada, our home and native land . . .), “I” attacks the cultural perception that the European settlers were “native” to Canada. It is “I” who (re)shapes Coyote’s perceptions of history and ostensibly, the reader’s as well. This juxtaposition of competing histories “problematizes the very possibility of historical knowledge, because there is no reconciliation . . . just unresolved contradiction” (Hutcheon 106). “Unresolved contradiction” is an important facet of historiographic metafiction because it leaves the ultimate meaning of these fictions open-ended. The act of privileging certain texts for their cultural importance or significance is diminished: The truth can no longer be represented by a single text.
In an interview with Margaret Waller, Julia Kristeva states that while translating Bakhtin, she recognized that his work “was moving toward a dynamic understanding of the literary text that considered every utterance as the result of the intersection within it of a number of voices” (280). Elaborating on Bakhtin’s theories of polyphony, heteroglossia, and dialogism, Kristeva developed a concept of intertextuality that examines “not simply the intersection of two voices in direct or indirect discourse,” as Bakhtin’s dialogism does, but also “the result of the intersection of a number of voices, [and] of a number of textual interventions” (qtd. in Waller 281). This pattern of intertextuality is especially meaningful in a contemporary setting “because it assumes an interplay of contents and not forms alone”(282). The shift in focus to the content and not solely the form of intertextuality denotes a shift in focus to the political implications over the aesthetic. This shift in focus is significant because the perceptions of literature as a purely aesthetic form are challenged. Intertextual works are inherently politically charged. Thais Morgan credits Kristeva with the perception that “an intertextual citation is never innocent or direct, but always transformed, distorted, displaced, condensed, or edited in some way in order to suit the speaking subject’s value system” (260). The very act of selecting which texts to include and/or omit implies that a “value judgment” has been made and applied.
Hutcheon’s concept of postmodern parody is inherently intertextual because it combines both past and present versions of a story. “Parody seems to offer a perspective on the present and the past which allows an artist to speak to a discourse from within it, but without being totally recuperated by it” (Hutcheon 35). Hutcheon’s model of parody seeks to change the texts of the past not by destroying them, but by reinventing them. In Green Grass, King mixes satire and parody in the four old Indians’ retelling of biblical stories. In these retellings, the absurdity of “Christian rules” is explored in comparison to Native creation and emergence myths. For instance, in the creation story told by First Woman, King satirizes the manner in which Christian stories assume possession of nature and assert that possession by naming and labeling. As Matchie and Larson explain: “Ahdamn’s naming things betrays a dominance different from the respectful relationship to creation on all levels found in Native myths” (159).
You are a microwave oven, Ahdamn tells the Elk.
Nope, says that Elk. Try again.
You are a garage sale, Ahdamn tells the Bear.
We got to get you some glasses, says the Bear.
You are a telephone book, Ahdamn tells that Cedar Tree.
You’re getting closer, says the Cedar Tree. (41)
Another difference between Christian doctrine and Native myth is that Christian myths are linear, from creation out of nothing to redemption from sin by a savior. Christian myths also rely on a hierarchical scheme that places human beings—men—in a dominant position. Matchie and Larson contend that “[I]n Native thinking things usually start with water and earth, there is no radical difference between levels of being, and creation is an on-going act . . . in which the purpose is to establish harmony among all natural forces” (158).
King essentially retells Christian myths from a Native American perspective. This vantage point demonstrates how the Christian characters in the novel display traits that are contrary to Native value systems. Specifically, the Christian characters are often found “acting as though [they] have no relations” (King 390). In a Native American context, ignoring one’s relations implies a rejection of the community, which is often met with catastrophic results. As Allen explains, “[r]ight relationship, or right kinship, is fundamental to Native aesthetics” (Spider 8). In King’s novel the stories the four old Indians tell about their adventures as archetypal Native American female figures (First Woman, Changing Woman, Thought Woman, and Old Woman) clearly “[embody] the principle of kinship [and render] the beautiful in terms of [the] connectedness of elements in harmonious, balanced, respectful proportion of each and any to all-in-All” (Allen, Spider 9). First Woman, Changing Woman, Thought Woman, and Old Woman's connection to the environment around them is depicted by their floating. They float calmly from place to place interacting naturally and respectfully with all that they encounter excluding the white canonical literary characters. When the four women encounter these men, the floating imagery is interrupted, and the harmonious and tranquil images are replaced with images of the women being chased and insulted: “Time for procreating” (King 163). The importance of respect and harmony with nature in Native spirituality is depicted over and over again in King’s novel. In the novel, the principle of kinship that Allen described is expanded to include more of the world than just its human element: “[T]he supernaturals, spirit people, animal people of all varieties, the thunders, snows, rains, rivers, lakes, hills, mountains, fire, rock, and plants are perceived to be members of one’s community” (Spider 9). The difference between Native perceptions of community and Christian perceptions of community are clearly recognized in the following passage from the novel:
Are you all right? Changing Woman asks Old Coyote.
Psssst, says Old Coyote.
Why are you talking to animals? Says the little man. This is a Christian ship. Animals
don’t talk. We got rules. (160)
The concepts of intertextuality and postmodern parody are important in King’s novel, because as Hutcheon claims, the “intertextual parody of canonical American and European classics is one mode of appropriating and reformulating—with significant change—the dominant white, male, middle-class, heterosexual, Eurocentric culture” (130). King deploys this parodic type of intertextuality over and over again in Green Grass in order to subvert dominant paradigms. For instance, an African American cleaning woman at the institution from which the four old Indians escape, who is infinitely wiser then her employer and the head of the institution, Joseph Hovaugh, is aptly named Babo, and is interrogated by an obtuse detective named Cereno. In Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno, Babo is a slave who mutinies against the captain of a Spanish slave ship, Benito Cereno, and when threatened with discovery, pretends to be Cereno’s slave even though he has already bested Cereno and enslaved him. The following passage between Dr. Hovaugh and Babo echoes Melville’s text:
“Your ancestors were slaves, were they not?” said Dr. Hovaugh.
“Nope,” said Babo. “But some of my folks were enslaved.”
“Ah,” said Dr. Hovaugh.
“There’s a difference,” said Babo.
“Of course,’ said Dr. Hovaugh.
. . .
“Did you know that my great-great-grandfather was a barber?”
“Cut hair. Shaved faces with the best of them. He worked on ships.”
“Something like that,” said Babo. (349)
Ridington posits that “King’s Babo recalls the role played by Melville’s Babo, but with a Coyote twist. Melville’s Babo was a black slave who overthrew his master; King’s Babo is a Black woman who knows more than her master, the godlike Dr. J. Hovaugh” (351). It is clear that Babo has bested Dr. Hovaugh in understanding the four old Indians; after all, she is the only person in the novel to recognize that the four old Indians are women.
Smith contends “that the numerous playful references to words and names that refract their traditional placements within ‘white’ narratives” serves to break down “the ‘poisoning’ power of words and stories” (525). Smith’s wording here, “the poisoning power of words,” is insightful. Like poison, Western texts have weakened and corrupted Native American culture. When the four old Indians adopt the names of well known Western literary characters—Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and Hawkeye—they subvert the “traditional placements [of Indians] within ‘white’ narratives” (525). Each of these characters in canonical literature is associated with an Indian counterpart (sidekick): the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Ishmael and Queequeg, Robinson Crusoe and Friday, Hawkeye and Chingachgook. The adoption of the non-native names by Native characters breaks the traditional stereotype that casts Native American characters as sidekicks and subalterns. As Smith explains, “King’s unhinging and recasting of these names . . . forces a ‘confrontation between discourses,’ which inevitably pushes us toward a recognition of how certain stories attain purchase within cultures” (525).
It is clear that King’s intertextual mixing of Christian texts with Native American origin myths is meant to question the domination of Judeo-Christian convictions and the “purchase” that Judeo-Christian texts have achieved in Eurocentric canons. The first three sentences of the novel echo the beginning of the Old Testament, yet change it significantly to reflect traditional Native American origin myths:
In the beginning, there was nothing.
Just the water. (1)
In “Coyote Fixes the World: The Power of Myth in Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water,” Matchie and Larson assert that “the trickster Coyote has challenged the top-down Judeo-Christian myth found in Genesis, where God preceded and controls everything, with the Native cyclic myth, which begins (and ends) in water” (155). Next Coyote creates GOD from a Coyote dream: “So, that Coyote is dreaming and pretty soon, one of those dreams gets loose and runs around. Makes a lot of noise” (1). Perhaps the most imposing act of “displacing” Christian doctrine is the assertion that the Native American world existed before the Christian one:
“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep—"
“Wait a minute,” said Robinson Crusoe.
“That’s the wrong story,” said Ishmael. “That story comes later.” (King 11)
King uses the texts of movies to create spaces of intertextual counter-appropriation. As Cox explains, “Hollywood visions of Native America almost exclusively perpetuate the dominant culture’s version of history that keeps Native America on a predetermined, externally-defined historical trajectory that ends with a ‘vanished race’” (57). One of the Hollywood images of Native America that King invokes in order to alter it is the classic musical Rosemarie (1936). In this film starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddie, an opera singer, Rosemarie, falls in love in the Canadian wilderness with a Royal Canadian Mounted Police sergeant, Bruce. Bruce explains to Rosemarie that he has lived among the “savages,” (Indians) and she is duly impressed and titillated. At one point in the film, Bruce and Rosemarie attend an “Indian” totem pole ceremony. What makes this scene especially memorable, is the manner in which the “Indians” are dressed. Bruce and Rosemarie’s Indians are wearing an assortment of robes, feathers, beads, and headdresses that bear no resemblance to the clothing that actual Natives in western Canada wear. The costumes appear to be compilations of Native American clothing styles from an assortment of tribal traditions. The movie soundly eroticizes Native Americans by portraying them in outlandish costumes and casting them in spectacle-like ceremonies. Rosemarie's inclusion in King’s text calls attention to the practice of portraying stereotypes of Native Americans and perpetuating false depictions. Like their silver-screen counterparts, the Rosemarie and Bruce in King’s novel think of Native Americans as a source of adventure and entertainment. They choose to eat at the Dead Dog Café because it is exciting and exotic to them. However, they get a no more authentic “taste” of Indian culture at the Dead Dog Café than they did at the totem pole ceremony in the movie. In Green Grass, Rosemarie and Bruce do not croon the most famous song from the movie to each other romantically. Instead, Nelson imitates how his boyhood Black Lab, Tecumseh, used to sing: “When I’m calling you, oo-oo-oo, oo-oo-oo!” (145). Ironically, “The Indian Love Song” is never sung by an Indian in either Rosemarie or Green Grass. The closest it ever comes to “representing” Indian love is translated through the howling of a Black Lab named after an Indian chief famous for his efforts to unite all tribes in the late 1700’s.
One of the most significant scenes of intertextual counter-appropriation in King’s novel occurs when the four old Indians change the ending of a “classic” John Wayne movie. In the final scene of this movie the Indians have the cowboys trapped, and just when it looks as if the cowboys are doomed, the Cavalry can be seen on a far hillside galloping in to save the (cowboy’s) day. As the Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and Hawkeye—watching a video of the film in Bill Bursum’s store—begin to sing, the “hundreds of soldiers in bright blue uniforms with gold buttons and sashes and stripes, blue-eyed and rosy-cheeked,” vanish (King 357). The Indians advance, “and soldiers beg[in] falling over” (358). Eventually, John Wayne ends up “shaking his head in amazement and disbelief as two bullets [rip] through his chest and out the back of his jacket”(358). As the movie credits roll, and the old Indians keep singing, Bursum, a white man, exclaims “[w]ell, something sure as hell got screwed up” (359), yet the reader has the distinct feeling that, true to the four old Indians’ promise, part of the world just got “fixed up.”
If, as Bakhtin asserts, “[t]he ideological becoming of a human being is the process of selectively assimilating the words of others” (Dialogic 341), then “[i]dentity for Native Americans is made more complex . . . by the fact that the American Indian in the world consciousness is a treasured invention” (Owens, Other 4). Constructing a realistic and accurate identity for Native Americans from the texts and images that have been created within the Eurocentric and dominant culture is a futile enterprise. The process of assimilating the words of others in order to construct an identity is particularly perilous for Native Americans because as Bakhtin suggests “[a]nother’s discourse . . . strives to determine the very basis of our behavior . . . and performs . . . as authoritative discourse” (Dialogic 341-42). The problem of having another discourse dictate an identity is that the actual identity of the non-dominant discourse is never fully developed or explored. Or, as Cox explains it, accepting the dominant culture’s definition of Native American heritage and identity “is to ignore the power of the imagination to revise old narratives or plot new ones and eliminate the possibility of self-definition and self-representation” (57). Green Grass clearly seeks to revise the old narratives and to plot new ones as a means of expressing the changing and complex identity of Native Americans.
Contemporary Native American fiction seeks to explore and develop a Native American identity that originates not in the white “authoritative discourse,” but organically from within Native American culture. Contemporary Native American authors investigate how Native Americans are portrayed and deconstruct those images with new inventions that originate from within their own culture. In an interview with Constance Rooke, King expresses his feelings about the suitability of the dominant discourse to write about Native Americans:
[T]he majority of the stories [that non-Natives write] are just sort of eighth-grade playground jokes that have been extended into short stories with Indians affixed to them. . . . I find that poor writing. I also find some of the images offensive. . . . [I]t bothers me when non-Native writers write poorly about Indians, or use Indians for purposes that don’t really have anything to do with Indian people or Indian culture. . . . I’ll reserve my right to be offended, and I’ll reserve my right to say something about it. (83)
The most effective way that King has found to change the way Native Americans are represented is to counter the poorly written and offensive images with new texts that accurately portray Indian culture. King’s views on cross-cultural representation are intriguing. In the interview with Rooke he makes it clear that he does not oppose, in principle, non-Natives writing about Natives: It is the practice of non-Natives writing poorly about Natives that he opposes. He stresses that writers writing about cultures other than their own should strive to treat their subject matter with respect and fairness. Matchie and Larson posit that King’s novel does not “champion one culture over another” (154), but strikes a balance between Native American and Euro-American cultures that shows the admirable and the disagreeable sides of both.
Owens asserts that the stereotypes of American Indians are part of the literary standard, and portrayals that do not conform are hard for Eurocentric readers to accept. In other words, the Eurocentric reader relies on established criteria that inform his or her perceptions of what it is to be “Indian.” In the following passage, Paula Gunn Allen expresses the Native American perception of self. This passage clearly demonstrates how both Euro-Americans and Native Americans are informed by cultural texts:
No Indian can grow to any age without being informed that her people were “savages” who interfered with the march of progress pursued by respectable, loving, civilized white people. We are the villains of the scenario when we are mentioned at all. We are absent from much of white history except where we are calmly, rationally, succinctly, and systematically dehumanized. On the few occasions we are noticed in any way other than as howling, bloodthirsty beings, we are acclaimed for our noble quaintness. In this definition, we are exotic curios. (49)
This passage underscores the idea that it is history books, movies, novels, media, and songs that create certain stereotypes of how Indians should look, speak, behave, and think. The grim reality of this is that it is not just the Eurocentric culture that becomes misinformed: Native Americans are bombarded with the made-up images of Indians that the white culture created. The conflict between white expectations of what it means to be “Indian” and the reality of being “Indian” appears over and over again in Green Grass.
In the following passage, Latisha and her son Christian are watching late-night TV:
“Mom, is this the one where the cavalry comes over the hill and kills the Indians?”
“How come the Indians always get killed?” (219)
Towards the end of the movie Christian asks his mother:
“Is it over, Mom?”
Latisha watched as the Cavalry charged into the river bottom. John Wayne took off his jacket and hung it on a branch. All around him, the other men were starting to cheer as the soldiers bore down on the Indians.
“Yes,” she said, “it is.” And she touched the remote control. And the screen went blank. (242)
This scene from the novel illuminates the idea of self that Allen describes. It is a disturbing scene because the conflict is so poignantly depicted. King is very interested in showing the destructive power that false images in everyday discourse have. How can Native Americans reconcile the images they receive from the Eurocentric culture, with the images they receive from their own culture? Christian, like the other characters in King’s novel, is bombarded with images of Indians that conflict with his sense of self. He must sort through these images and contextualize them in order to create his own self-perception.
King comments on stereotypes and the portrayal of the American Indian in the story of Charlie Looking Bear and his father, Portland, and their Hollywood careers. Before Charlie was born, Portland was a “B” movie actor who became a movie star when he enhanced his features to look “more Indian.” This episode in the novel depicts the power of Hollywood to shape cultural perceptions. In a discussion of Ward Churchill’s book, Fantasies of the Master Race: Categories of Stereotyping of American Indians in Film, Cox posits that “Hollywood decontextualizes Native American history and participates in the ‘symbolic demolition’ of Native American cultural identity” (53). In the following passage, King sets up the idea that Indians have to look a certain way, that there are certain physical characteristics that are expected:
Portland’s nose wasn’t the right shape. As long as he had been in the background, a part of the faceless mob of Indians falling off their ponies in the middle of rivers or hiding in box canyons or dying outside the walls of forts, things had been okay. But now that he was center stage, playing chiefs and the occasional renegade, the nose became a problem. (168)
Portland is given a rubber nose by the studio, which in their opinion makes him look more “authentic.” He refuses to wear it and soon finds that no one will hire him. When he relents and agrees to wear the nose, “parts began to open up again” (170). Years later, when Charlie is a teenager, Portland packs up the house on the Reserve and returns to Hollywood with his son. C.B. Cologne, a white friend of Portland’s from his acting years, tells Charlie “[n]obody played an Indian like Portland. I mean, he is Indian, but that’s different. Just because you are an Indian doesn’t mean that you can act like an Indian for the movies” (208).
Portland and Charlie attempt and fail to work in the movies, and eventually find work at Remmington's—“a steak house . . . done up to look like an Old West Boardinghouse . . . [where] the waiters all wore cowboy hats and cowboy shirts and chaps and cowboy boots” (234). Charlie, unaware of how his Indianess is about to be exploited, thinks to himself “[the] cowboy outfits weren’t bad. [And] hoped he’d get one with a blue shirt and a red bandana” (235). However, Charlie doesn’t get to be a cowboy; “[I]t’s the Indians who park the cars” (235).
[H]e felt foolish standing around in front of Remmington’s in
tights, a beaded vest, and a headband with a brightly colored
feather. The worst part was the fluorescent loincloth that hung
down from his waist. (235)
His father tells him to “[r]emember to grunt” because the “idiots love it, and you get better tips” (235). Father and son both experience very different reactions to the perception of “Indian” that Remmington’s puts forth. Charlie actually thinks that he can be a cowboy, whereas Portland, already wise from his rubber nose experience, plays the white perception of Indian to the hilt by grunting for tips in a fluorescent loincloth.
In another instance of white expectations confronting Native American realities, Grand Baleen dam employee Clifford Sifton tells Eli Stands Alone “you guys aren’t real Indians anyway. I mean, you drive cars, watch television, go to hockey games. Look at you. You’re a university professor.” To which Eli responds, “[t]hat’s my profession. Being Indian isn’t a profession” (155). Sifton very clearly verbalizes the stereotypical expectations his culture has of Indians. The question that begs to be asked in this exchange is, what is a real Indian? King negotiates a fine distinction between professional Indians, and actual Indians. After all, Portland’s profession clearly is “being Indian,” and Eli’s niece Latisha also makes her living by being “Indian.”
Latisha’s Dead Dog Café exploits the white myth of the Indian. Counter-appropriating the stereotype of the Native American diet, the menu at the café is comprised of dishes with names like “Old Agency Puppy Stew," Deep-Fried Puppy Whatnots,” and “Houndburgers.” Latisha transforms her small café into a thriving tourist trap when her aunt tells her to “[t]ell them it’s dog meat. . . . Tourists like that kind of stuff” (117). Latisha, taking her aunts advice, tells her customers that they serve dog: “Black Labrador. . . . You get more meat off black Labs” (143). The café’s ambiance is carefully calculated, so that the tourists’ expectations of eating “Indian style” are met. Latisha even sells the menus and postcards of “Indians on their buffalo runners chasing down a herd of Great Danes” (117). Latisha, and her employees, market the white idea of “Indian” for profit. In the following passage, Latisha and one of her employees discuss what “kind” of Indians they will “be” for the tourists:
[G]et dressed. We may need help out front.
Plaines, Southwest, or combination?
What’d you do yesterday?
Do Southwest. (King 116)
Latisha, like Portland, must adopt the expectations, manners, and appearance of the white myth in order to operate the café successfully. She and Portland manipulate cultural stereotypes in order to make a living; the result is that marketing the white idea of Indian is a profession, not an identity for them. Both of them adjust their identity to what they assume the “idiots” or “tourists” want to see. There is a difference between Latisha and Portland however. Portland never successfully counter-appropriates his Indian identity, whereas Latisha effectively negotiates the white stereotypes and profits from them.
Velie argues that “tribal tales” have very distinct characteristics of chronotope that differ greatly from the chronotope often found in Western novels. As an example, he describes the time in which tribal tales evolve as “an age before ours,” and that “[s]pacially, . . . the settings are abstract”(124). He contends that in Native American fiction, certain novels possess a type of chronotope that categorizes them as “trickster novels.” Velie cautions that not all novels with tricksters can be called trickster novels. He explains that although Abel, the protagonist from Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, has trickster characteristics, “footloose, amoral and fond of sex and wine,” it is not a trickster novel. Trickster novels take on specific types of time and space that are generally similar to the characteristics of the trickster himself. Velie posits that novels like Erdrich’s Love Medicine and Vizenor’s Bearheart are trickster novels because of their chronotopes.
In Green Grass the issue of chronotope is especially challenging because there are two distinct narrative strands that exist within their own constructs of time and space, and as such create competing boundaries of time and space. The text demonstrates the blurred boundaries of the two narrative strands. In the following example, Coyote is at Bursum’s store with the four old Indians when “I” summons him back to his narrative about Thought Woman:
“Coyote, Coyote,” I says. “Get back here. Things are happening.”
. . .
“Looks like I’ve got to go,” Coyote says to the old Indians. “But I’ll be back.”
“About time,” I says. “Thought Woman can’t float around forever, you know.
“I have to get back,” says Coyote. “How about I call you from the store to see what’s happening? How about I call you Friday? Hee-hee, Hee-hee.”
“Better call sooner than that,” I says. “By Friday this story will be done.” (327)
King’s treatment of time and space in the realistic narrative strand are much the same as time and space in the world outside of the novel: As Velie explains, this “time is represented in terms of quotidian reality, which most of us experience in our daily lives” (123). The characters in this strand are immediately recognizable as average people doing average things, they eat, read, work, love, etc. The second narrative strand, the one that exists in “mythic time” is far more complex: Mythic beings not only participate in a conversation amongst themselves, but also intervene in the lives of the characters in the realistic narrative. One could assert from a Bakhtinian reading that Green Grass has two different chronotopes however, reading Green Grass strictly as a novel that revolves around two distinct chronotopes is insufficient.
In the Native American context, the story that evolves in “realistic time,” and the story that evolves in “mythic time” exist at the same moment. In “‘And Here’s How it Happened’: Trickster Discourse in Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water,” Patricia Linton posits that “describing the story space as divided into two intersecting planes or fields is in some respects a mistake. Although the two sets of characters have different ontological [status], the perception that they share the same world is an important element of Native ideology” (218). Within the Native American culture, the concept of mythic beings existing and interacting with mortals is accepted. In a discussion of Native American storytelling, Allen states:
[I]n all stories from the oral tradition, some of the details are from the world we know while other details refer to the supernatural or nonphysical universe. Many times the stories weave back and forth between the everyday and the supernatural without explanation. (Grandmothers 5)
Clearly, the two narrative strands in Green Grass weave back and forth between the realistic world and the mythic one as Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and Hawkeye intervene in Lionel’s life.
Allen explains that, “[S]upernaturals live within the same environs that humans occupy, and interchanges with them are necessarily part of the fabric of human experience” (Grandmothers 7). The “interchanges” in Green Grass are elaborate and challenging. The four old Indians move seamlessly between the two narrative strands, erasing the boundaries between real and mythic. In the mythic strand, they interact with “I” and Coyote, each taking turns telling an origin and transformation story. In this strand they are clearly outside of the realm of the realistic world: they are able to appear and disappear, they are hundreds of years old, and they can manipulate and change, “fix up,” the texts of the realistic world. They also negotiate and participate in the action of the realistic strand. However, the four old Indians are also able to interact within both narrative strands at the same time as is evidenced at Lionel’s birthday party at Bursum’s store. In this instance they interact with the human characters in the realistic space and time while also interacting with Coyote in a mythic space and time. Coyote joins the four old Indians in their forays into the realistic world, but he is unable to communicate directly with the human characters: “When Coyote speaks directly to an ordinary human, the response is typically mediated by one of the elders” (Linton 220). However, Coyote is sometimes seen by the human characters: “Lionel thought he could see a yellow dog dancing in the rain” (King 309). And, in one instance, Coyote scratches on Bursum’s door:
No, thought Bursum, not a knock exactly. More like scratching.
“Not open yet,” Bursum sang out. . . .
Scratch, scratch. . . .
He opened the door a crack and looked out. Nothing. He held the door open, stepped over the threshold, and looked up and down the alley.
Following this line is white space indicating a text break, and then Coyote says to “I”:
“Hey . . . that was fun.” (294)
In another instance of Coyote’s mythic/trickster crossing of boundaries, he (immaculately) impregnates Alberta. “‘But I was helpful, too,’ says Coyote. ‘That woman who wanted a baby. Now that was helpful’”(King 456).
Linton states that “[t]he different ontological status of the characters is reflected in the narrative by different structures of tense” (220). She points to the fact that the narrative changes tense depending on which characters are interacting: “Coyote and ‘I’ always speak in present tense. The narrator’s accounts of the human characters are reported in past tense. The activities of the four elders are sometimes in past tense and sometimes in present tense, depending on the context” (220). When the four old Indians interact with the human characters the narrator reports the events in past tense, “like human activity.” In the following passage, the verb tenses shift when the Lone Ranger speaks to Lionel, and when Coyote speaks to the Lone Ranger:
“We would have gotten here sooner,” said the Lone Ranger, “but Coyote knew a shortcut.”
“Who?” said Lionel.
“It wasn’t my fault,” says Coyote. (421)
Allen asserts that the different ontological status in Native novels is largely due to the fact that “Native novels . . . operate in accordance with aesthetic assumptions and employ narrative structures that differ from Western ones” (Spider 5). To that end, King blends the presence of the mythical and realistic worlds with dialogue. The conversation between Lionel and the Lone Ranger does not exist in a chronotope separate from the conversation between the Lone Ranger and Coyote; they exist in the same time and space. As Allen explains, “[n]ovels are long stories that weave a number of elements into a coherent whole and, in their combinings, make significance of human and (for Native Americans, at least) nonhuman life” (Spider 4). Again we see the assumption in the Native American context that “nonhuman” life exists within the same space/time as human life.
The structure of time and space in Native American novels incorporates both realistic and mythical worlds. In the Native American context, there is no dividing line between these two worlds. Both are intrinsically whole and valid, while existing within each other. The Eurocentric division of time and space negates the mythical aspects of Native American stories and reduces the importance and presence of the mythic realities of the Native American worldview. While Bakhtin’s concept of chronotope may help non-Native readers to recognize the structures of the two narrative strands in Green Grass, they (readers) must expand the idea to include the specific mythology of Native American culture. Readers and critics who, like Dr. Hovaugh, try to contain or control the four old Indians meet with frustration and eventual chaos.
Contemporary Native American literature has evolved out of a tradition of oral storytelling and a communally inscribed culture. This fiction is enormously complex and interesting because it has withstood the tests of exclusion, denigration, and assimilation. The dominant Eurocentric culture has often tried to interpret Native American narratives using only the tools of its own critical lexicon. This is an unsatisfactory critical practice. While Eurocentric critical theories can be useful in discussions of Native American fiction, they are often imperfect. It is important to enhance literary criticism that developed in a Eurocentric context with sensitivity to Native American cultural practices. As this thesis has shown, the act of representing Native Americans requires that the political and spiritual issues of what it means to be Native American be addressed. This task is especially challenging as we have seen, because Native American cultural identity has been contrived by texts that have inaccurately portrayed it. As Bakhtin asserts in The Dialogic Imagination: “[a] particular language in a novel is always a particular way of viewing the world, one that strives for a social significance” (333). Gerald Vizenor and Thomas King have demonstrated that the particular language in their texts is zealously striving for a social significance that accurately represents their culture and identity. Contemporary Native American fiction deconstructs the signs and artifacts that created the white man’s Indian and reconstructs an Indian identity that portrays their thriving culture.
Owens has argued that Native American fiction is a complex and self-reflexive search for identity and culture. Native American authors participate in constructing an identity through the act of invention. Because the concept of cultural identity is complex, Native American authors must often be versed in two ways of knowing: Native American and Eurocentric. In order to divest themselves of the trappings of stereotypical Indians, they must know how to combine, navigate, and manipulate the texts that have sought to silence and exclude them. The result of this kind of manipulation is a communally invented and self-defined community that acknowledges its position within the dominant culture as it strives to (re)define itself. In essence, Native American texts are similar to what Hutcheon calls the postmodern paradox. Hutcheon calls postmodernism a “contradictory phenomenon” because it “uses and abuses, installs and then subverts, the very concepts it challenges” (3). Native American authors break down the false portrayals of Native Americans in Eurocentric texts by challenging those texts intertextually. The polyphonic texts Native American authors produce invent new depictions of Native Americans that honor and respect their culture while testing and questioning Eurocentric paradigms.
The manner in which texts are produced and received must be altered to recognize the validity of ethnic cultures. Readers must also engage in a good deal of cultural deconstruction when approaching them. Said contends that readers should “read the great canonical texts, and perhaps also the entire archive of modern and pre-modern European and American culture, with an effort to draw out, extend, give emphasis and voice to what is silent or marginally present or ideologically represented” (66). It is important for readers to be aware of and ready to disassemble the cultural stereotypes that are so often a part of the dominant culture’s literature.
Certain literary modes, devices, and concepts have aided Native American novelists in subverting cultural stereotypes and creating new depictions of what it means to be an Indian. Authors like Vizenor and King are acutely aware of the multiple layers of discourse their texts present. They are able to reject the “objectification” of Native Americans through the employment of tools such as intertextuality, historiographic metafiction, and counter-appropriation. They bring close and then “lay bare” the false images and destructive messages that infect Eurocentric texts. Certainly one of the implications of Native American authors deftly subverting the dominant discourse by manipulating the tools of the dominant discourse is that the power dynamic between ex-centric and centered is altered. A new way of reading and responding to literature is established.
For centuries literature and history have been important tools for cultural definition. Part of the process of breaking down the Euro-American construct of “Indian,” is to examine the literature and history that created it. Only when this literature has been fully examined, can the stereotype be challenged and subverted. Both The Heirs of Columbus and Green Grass, Running Water seek to accomplish this goal. They provide a new way of looking at how tribal cultures tell stories and interact with the Eurocentric culture. Both novels subvert the stereotypes that the Eurocentric canon has depicted by retelling Eurocentric stories parodically and satirically. Both novels utilize the ability of the Native American trickster to slip between discourses in order to help break down and then remake an accurate identity. The concepts of intertextuality and plurality are important in Native American fiction. Kristeva asserts that “any text is the absorption and transformation of another” (Word 37). The Native American oral tradition is based on the idea of intertextuality and the inherent plurality of stories. Contemporary Native American authors have expanded the plurality of oral texts to include written ones. Perhaps most interesting about intertextuality and Native literature is the weaving together of dialogues from both within and outside the Native culture. As is evidenced in King’s novel, there seem to be two levels of intertextuality in Native literature: One level incorporates the inherent plurality of Native stories, and the other level incorporates the texts of the dominant culture. This literary mixing of cultural constructs creates hybrid novels meant to challenge and test the constructs of culture.
The Native American community is a thriving and growing locus of literature. More and more we see the trickster blurring the boundaries between cultures and texts in order to create a space where dominant and dominated can meet and interact. The trickster, much like Bakhtin’s concept of carnival, breaks down the hierarchical structure of culture and creates new relationships and new ways of interacting. Native American literature is changing the way in which Native Americans interact within not only the Eurocentric community, but also within their own community. The images of tragic Indians are replaced with comic liberators. In this grave undertaking of representation, both Vizenor and King have proven how important it is to laugh. They have incorporated the fundamental humor of the Native American worldview in their texts of liberation and the result is magnificent. Subaltern, diseased, violent, reservation-bound images have been destroyed and replaced with images that reflect the actual situation of today’s Indians: vibrant, comic, spiritual, and thriving.
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Copyright 1999 by Wendy J. Rohrbacher
Wendy J. Rohrbacher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org