A Let's Talk About It series developed by Pat Onion, Colby College
In these works, American Indian writers blend western writing techniques with oral tradition to mediate between two cultures. Libraries can select 5 titles.
- Fools Crow by James Welch
- Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
- Tracks by Louise Erdrich
- The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie, and the film Smoke Signals
- The Sharpest Sight by Louis Owens
- Song of Rita Joe: Autobiography of a Mi’Kmaq Poet by Rita Joe and Lynn Henry
All of us have the experience of mediating between worlds: between the soccer field and the classroom, the office and the mountain trail, the neighborhood and the internet. In making these daily crossings, we often take what we learn from one world and carry that knowledge with us as we move into another. In this way we participate in a process which shadows the much more complex and demanding process of mediating between cultures. Every time an American Indian writer picks up a pen, or opens a computer, he or she is performing an act of cultural mediation. Every time an American Indian writer writes in English, she or he is mediating cultures. Modern and contemporary American Indian literature has deep roots in an oral tradition designed to teach and to entertain, and from those roots come literary works of enduring instruction and delight.
Blackfeet novelist and poet James Welch is one of the most distinguished of the first generation of writers to emerge from the Native American Renaissance. Most people would consider Fools Crow to be the novel in which Welch most powerfully creates conterminous spiritual and physical realities. This feeling of the novel is conveyed in a language nobody has before or since used with such mastery: Welch writes in an English that sounds like it is translated from the Blackfeet. Combined words or “calques,” like ears-far-apart for “owl,” work to suggest the different way of seeing in the Blackfeet vision. My favorite phrase is “green-grass-returning” to describe something for which there is no English word, the color of early spring grass. A world carefully observed and respectfully described surfaces through this invented language, and invokes, as each language must, a worldview as well. This worldview of human beings intricately involved with a coherent, complicated universe of connections is one that is very much at stake in Fools Crow.
Fools Crow is set between the 1855 Treaty in which the Blackfeet conceded the use of their land to the Euroamericans in return for ten years worth of goods and provisions, and the 1872-4 slaughter of the buffalo by hide hunters collecting hides for eastern tanneries. The end of the novel is not quite the end of the Blackfeet way of life, but all the signs of that end have been made clear, and readers know what is coming. The main character, White Man’s Dog (later namedFools Crow) is a member of the Lone Eater Band (20-30 families) of the Pikuni Tribe (24 bands) of the Blackfeet nation. As Darin Saul has written, “characters improvise and appropriate from both Blackfeet and white cultures in the process of creating their identities” (American Indian Quarterly, Fall 95, p. 519). So it is that the novel opens with White Man’s Dog seeing in the skies a world alive with spiritual meaning, and at the same time dreaming of owning horses and guns, both of which have been imported by Euroamericans. White Man’s Dog’s innocent yearnings are already mediated by the invading culture, for he incorporates Euroamerican imports into his imagined idea of who he is.
While White Man’s Dog at the novel’s opening is still living in an intact traditional world, one in which his tribe successfully absorbs the Euroamerican cultural invasion, not all tribes Welch presents to us are so successfully balanced. From the beginning, Welch contrasts examples of successful and catastrophic mediation.
In the enemy camp of Crow Chief Bull Shield, for example (p. 25), horses and guns and iron pots brought by whites are easily incorporated into a thriving traditional culture. The view of the camp, seen through Blackfeet scout Eagle Ribs’ eyes, reveals a community of mutuality and reciprocity, with each person, young and old, carrying out his or her appointed task. In contrast is Welch’s description of the Black Patched Moccasins people (p. 94), who have no community left. Neglected children, waste of resources, and the chaos created by young men seeking individual rather than community good, have devastated the tribe.
The contrast between the two camps, skillfully revealed in brief paragraphs, is mirrored in the contrast between White Mans Dog and his childhood friend Fast Horse. White Man’s Dog grows up in a traditional way to become Fools Crow, a medicine man and a powerful member of the Pikuni. Fast Horse, because of an act of individualistic pride and its complex psychological consequences, takes the opposite path and ends up alienated from the community. It is interesting to think about the complicated stance of each man at the end of the novel, and to ask if either man’s path has any effect on the historical forces that will almost destroy the Blackfeet nation. Perhaps, as some of my students point out, the answer to this question doesn’t matter. What matters is that the novel shows us how valuable and meaningful Fools Crow‘s life is, as he makes the choice, not once but again and again, to follow the way of his people rather than the individualistic path of the white invaders.
Welch incorporates historical events into his narrative to foreshadow how the winds of almost unconceivable change are bearing down on the Blackfeet people. The final section of the novel dramatizes the Massacre on the Marias in 1870, when US cavalry ambushed the sleeping campsite of Piegan Heavy Runner, killing two hundred women and children. The end of the buffalo, the ravages of the 1870 smallpox epidemic, the increasing dominance of the Euroamerican invaders, are all related from the Blackfeet point of view. The novel, then, incorporates grim historical events in the history of Blackfeet-Euroamerican relations, but at the same time brings to life the Blackfeet culture that is under siege. Readers need to think about the novel’s final images, which seem affirmative in spite of catastrophic events.
In addition to stories of “history,” the text is interspersed with stories from the Blackfeet oral tradition, which reflect back on the main narrative in interesting ways. For example, the origin of the Beaver Medicine story features one treacherous brother and one good brother, echoing the situation between Fast Horse andFools Crow. In many ways, then, in language, in the use of both history and traditional stories, in character development, and in point of view, Fools Crowachieves a complex act of mediation between the Euroamerican and Blackfeet cultures. Indeed, the unique point of view from which Fools Crow is written balances our imagining of our shared past. On March 29, 1999, the Laurel school board in Billings, Montana, banned Fools Crow from their high school curriculum. Board member Laurel Moore said the book is “objectionable and inappropriate for my son to read” because it is “disgusting” and “repulsive” and makes her “see red.” If Welch has really made her see “red” as well as “white,” then his mediation has been successful.
Although Tracks is the third novel of Louise Erdrich’s quartet to be published, it is chronologically the first, spanning the period from 1912 to 1924. 1912 is an important date, occurring twenty-five years after the Allotment Act of 1887, which allotted parcels of communal reservation land to heads of families for private ownership in an effort to “Americanize” the Anishinabe. As Tracks opens, the twenty-five year deadline is up and taxes are due. Tracks chronicles the next twelve years, during which the central character, Fleur Pillager, fails to pay the taxes, loses the Pillager land, and tries to drown herself.
At the novel’s center, Fleur exerts a magical power over those around her. For Eli she is the object of desire; for Nanapush, the “daughter” whom he saves from consumption, and whose child, Lulu, he later claims as granddaughter. For Pauline, Fleur is the focus of intense jealousy, fascination, and yearning. In her uncompromising and fierce devotion to the land, Fleur is a non-mediating character. While her story seems largely tragic, she survives, and resurfaces as a travelling herbal-healer in The Beet Queen.
In the acknowledgements to Tracks, Erdrich salutes members of her family and “the four branches of the Ojibwa Nation, those of strength, who endure.” Indeed, the enduring characters of Tracks are all deft mediators. Nanapush, who, like his trickster namesake, can change with the times, learns how to wield a pen, and becomes part of the tribal government. While Tracks chronicles loss of land and widespread death by disease and despair, the final scene affirms the people’s ability to survive by mediating, manipulating, and mastering the dominant culture.
Song of Rita Joe
Readers of this autobiography will find a complicated text. With her first paycheck from her first paid job in a Halifax infirmary, Rita Joe bought herself a pair of red shoes, and this spirit of passionate self-expression bubbles beneath her repeated assertions of calm acceptance. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how she could have survived as a battered wife and single mother of ten, without this feisty spiritual core. Her story reveals courage and skill in communicating with, and then reconciling with, those who hurt or thwart her.
“One day,” she writes (Song 97), “it just dawned on me that something had to be done. ‘We have to tell our lot,’ I said. ‘We have to be the ones to record our words.'” Propelled by this passionate resolve, Rita Joe’s narration becomes not only a vehicle for self-analysis, but also a resource for women under duress, and a vigorous and inspiring voice for us all.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
An enrolled Spokane/Coeur D’Alene, Sherman Alexie is one of the most successful of the new generation of American Indian writers. The film Smoke Signals (fall, 1998), based on Alexie’s collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, is the first feature film written, directed, acted, and co-produced by Indians to ever receive a major distribution deal. Smoke Signals dramatizes a son’s quest for a father that becomes a quest for the self. Victor’s long-absent father has died in Phoenix, and Victor goes there, with his friend Thomas Builds-the-Fire, to close the estate and return his father’s ashes to the Spokane reservation. Director Chris Eyre explains, “This is a haunting film for me–here’s a guy who always wanted to go home and ask forgiveness from his son, but instead he dies alone a thousand miles away.”
The interconnected stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto… address the problem of “home” for Victor Joseph and his friends Thomas Builds-the-Fire and Junior Polatkin, whom Alexie calls “the unholy trinity of me”. The stories are arranged in a circle of time, so that the final story takes place when Victor’s father is alive, although he has died in a story in the middle of the collection. The recurring images of poverty and alcoholism are so severe that, as his mother pointed out in an interview, “he [Alexie] is ignored by his [Spokane] people [because] he points out so many problems, he brings back things that are too painful to hear” (The Seattle Times, 3/12/95).
The overall impression is not one of tragedy, however, partly because of the collection’s humor, and partly because of an ambivalent movement away from despair. The final story ends with Victor’s family all together, sitting around a table eating frybread and chili in a Ceremony of survival. Indeed, throughout the collection Alexie follows his own formula: “Survival = Anger x Imagination”(150).
The collection’s title story is about the anger. In his notes to the screenplay of Smoke Signals Alexie writes, “I am always aware of how my whole life is shaped by Tonto.” Tonto is the stoic, devoted, near-dumb sidekick of The Lone Ranger, often described as the character whites created to assuage their guilt and deny history. In Alexie’s story “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” the Indian narrator explores the complexity of Indian/white relationships, examining his stormy relationship with his white girlfriend, the race-game he plays with a white clerk in a 7-11 store, and the racist profiling which makes a policeman stop him as he drives through a white neighborhood at night. None of these problems is easily resolved, or resolved at all, which may be why this collection is so disturbing.
Leslie Marmon Silko, who is of mixed Laguna-Mexican-white ancestry, was raised in Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico, where she locates her roots. It is clear at first glance that Ceremony is structured to mediate Indian and white cultures; the prose narrative of Tayo’s quest for cultural identity is interlarded with the poetically rendered traditional legend of Hummingbird’s quest to propitiate Earth Woman. Another mediation in the novel is between Laguna and Navajo cultures, for it is the unconventional mixed breed healer Betonie who finally sets Tayo on the right path, by performing the Navajo hoop and sandpainting ceremonies. In fact, only after Tayo meets Betonie and begins his psychological and ceremonial reintegration process, does the initially fragmented novel assume a straight-line narrative structure. That narrative tells how World War II veteran Tayo returns to Laguna in a state of severe post-traumatic stress. Tayo must come to understand how his life fits into the cycle of rain and drought, into the life and death of his people, and into the land in which the people take their lives and are responsible for the good continuance of the life in which they participate. And he must learn how to mediate this story against the powerful, negative stories of the dominant culture: cultural disintegration and ecological holocaust.
A series of parallel characters dramatize the stories of destruction. In opposition to Tayo is Emo, a veteran who flaunts his bag of trophy teeth, clearly aligned with the deathly and disconnecting forces of witchery. Rocky, Tayo’s half brother who has died on the Bataan Death March, is a midway character, a successful football star whose dream of total assimilation becomes another kind of failed mediation. The mountain woman Ts’eh, associated by her identification with natural herbs and food with Earth Woman, is opposed by Helen Jean, who lives in the deadened world of barhopping, alcoholism, prostitution, and the plastic nature represented on calendars.In the final scene, set in an abandoned uranium mine shaft between White Sands, where the atom bomb was first exploded, and Los Alamos, where the bomb was created, Tayo sees a pollen-like dusting of uranium signifying a balance between good (pollen) and evil (bomb-dedicated uranium mining). In the Navajo tradition, the balance between good and evil requires constant maintenance, so Tayo returns to Laguna to tell his story and continue breeding the tough, mixedbreed spotted cattle. Successful mediation in Ceremony has to do with this balance between avoiding cultural obliteration and being locked in the past. Tayo is now ready to move forward, the ceremonial event of his journey of healing being framed between sunrise prayers.
The Sharpest Sight
Louis Owens was born in Lompoc, California, of Mississippi Choctaw, Oklahoma Cherokee, and Irish American descent. In Mixedblood Messages he writes:
“In a second novel, called The Sharpest Sight, a work moving between Mississippi and California and drawing heavily upon my own family, I wrote of a young Choctaw-Cherokee-Irish mixedblood who must learn who he is and how to balance a world that has led his brother to madness and destroyed him, a world of stories in deadly conflict. I used my father’s name, Hoey, and my grandfather’s name, Luther, in that novel, and I created a powerful old Choctaw lady named Onatima whom I modeled upon what I remembered and imagined of my grandma. Onatima, too, ran away with a gambler on the great river. I also based a major character in that novel on my brother Gene, who had come back from three tours in Vietnam with such pain that he became one of the psychological casualties who disappeared into the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. For me it had been as if he never came back from the war, and that is how and perhaps why I wrote the novel. Later, after emerging from long familial isolation, he would jokingly say to our sister, “Gee, first he put me in a mental hospital and then he killed me. What’s he going to do to me next?” Because I wanted to explore mixed and relational identity— the liminal landscape of the mixedblood—more fully, I also included in The Sharpest Sight a young mestizo named Mundo Morales who discovers in his own blood an inextricable web of inherited identities.” (pp. 181- 182)
Owens’ novel achieves complex mediation on many levels: the epigram from which the title The Sharpest Sight is taken is a quote from Jonathan Edwards, an early American theologian most famous for saying we are all “sinners in the hands of an angry god.” The search for the lost brother, Attis McCurtain, carries the protagonist through the thriller-mystery territory of law enforcement officer Mundo Morales, as he searches for a killer. It also carries us deep into the traditional Choctaw territory of Cole’s great uncle, Luther, who lives in a labyrinthian Mississippi swamp located on the other side of the Styx-like Black Water River. The swamp is haunted by the Choctaw devil-figure Nalusachito, the soul eater, a great black being—in this case, a panther, who terrifies and tries to harm people.
The story centers on Cole’s search for his brother Attis, a Vietnam vet who has escaped from the mental institution and been murdered. According to Choctaw tradition, Attis’ soul cannot be released to its journey to the next world until his bones are returned to the homeland for burial. All the characters are mediating in various ways: Mundo Morales is part Native American and part Mexican American, part Catholic and part believer in his shamanistic visions, part deputy sheriff and part best friend of the living and dead he is ordered to find. The old Choctaw mystics, Onatima and Luther, discuss the themes of Moby Dick, Mark Twain, Hamlet, and Andrew Jackson’s removal policy in terms of Choctaw beliefs and experience. Cole McCurtain’s quest is not only to find his brother but himself, and to learn how to mediate the worlds of his mixed- blood identity.
In an essay, Owens tells how his own brother, who had disappeared in Vietnam, read The Sharpest Sight and finally called home. The book and the real life story both end tenderly and with redemption.
Films available for final discussion
Smoke Signals (1998) The first full-length feature film written, produced, acted, and directed entirely by American Indians. Author Sherman Alexie worked with director Chris Eyre on this film expanded from Alexie’s story “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” in his collection the Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. In some ways a classic buddy film, Smoke Signals depicts Spokane Indians Victor and Arnold traveling from Wellpinit, Washington to Phoenix, Arizona, to pick up Victor’s dead father’s ashes. Victor’s contempt for Arnold’s traditional stories creates the comic texture of the film, but his contempt mellows to acceptance as he closes in on his own past.
The Business of Fancydancing (2002) From a screenplay by Sherman Alexie, who says of the film: “Being a good artist and being a good member of the tribe are often mutually exclusive. I think that’s the primary conflict in my life” (Brian Miller, Seattle Weekly, 1/10-16, 2002). The film explores this conflict through the story of poet Seymour’s return to his Spokane reservation home to attend the funeral of his friend Mouse. Spliced with dance and music, spiced with irony and poetry and actor improvisation, the film is a kaleidoscopic study of art, the artist, and the Indian.
Skins (2002) From the novel by Adrian Louis, directed by Smoke Signals director Chris Eyre, set in the present on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. This film, developed from Louis’s very controversial 1995 novel Skins, explores the relationship between two brothers, one an investigator with the Pine Ridge police department, the other an expansive, funny /tragic alcoholic. Graham Greene was nominated for best actor (Independent Spirit Awards, 3/22/02) for his performance as Mogie, the alcoholic brother.