Thursday, October 6, 2011

October 6, 2011: Native Voices

I learned a lot in the process of researching and writing my dissertation/first book—which is about as logical and unnecessary a clause as I could write, I suppose, but nonetheless profoundly true—but nothing took me more by surprise, nor on some level bothered me more deeply, than part of what I learned while researching my chapter on the “Indian question,” on Gilded Age national narratives and historical literary texts about Native Americans and the many complex issues and identities to which that community connects. (I say “part” because I also and much more happily during that chapter’s work learned, for example, of powerful and significant texts by William Justin Harsha and Sarah Winnemucca.) As I read through as much of the relevant scholarship—on my specific authors and texts, on the time period and historical contexts, and on Native American literature and identity more generally—as I could find, I discovered that many of the scholars distinguished, explicitly and consistently, between “Native scholars” and “non-Native scholars”; when engaging with the work of their peers and colleagues, that is, these scholars (and I didn’t keep count but I would say it was at least a sizeable minority and perhaps the majority of those I read) made the effort not only to find out the ethnic/racial identities of their peers, but then foregrounded those identities in their own responses to other scholars.

There are, I know (or have a sense of), hugely significant issues and stakes to the question of who is and is not a Native American, or more exactly who is and is not accepted as part of a particular nation and tribe. There are also broader and somewhat more cross-cultural but certainly just as fundamental and meaningful conversations about authenticity and cultural sovereignty to which that question likewise connects. Yet at the risk of becoming a parody of a self-centered academic, I would quote my own response to some of those questions at the end of that chapter’s introductory section, since I still believe this very fully (if anything, even more strongly than I did then): “While I no more wish to subsume Native readers in my own (Amer-European [a phrase from an earlier scholar from whose ideas I was pivoting here]) perspective than I want to replace Native writers with non-Native ones, it seems to me that a central job of American literary criticism—and all American literature, for that matter—is to include multiple writers and multiple readers in its purview, to allow seemingly disparate groups to illuminate and enrich each other. That so much criticism and literature has failed to do so, has canonized non-Native authors who ignored or stereotyped Natives, only highlights the need for breadth and inclusion as the work of recovery and rereading moves forward.” I would now add AmericanStudies as a central focus in that quote, and in fact would argue that those ideas are even more relevant to conversations about American identity and community than they are for literary history and criticism.
I’m thinking about that earlier discovery and response of mine today in the context of this week’s blog focus on the upcoming New England American Studies Association conference. One of my most central goals in planning the conference—second only to my desire to get as many people to attend and be part of it as possible, to which I say, one more time (well, maybe not one more, but another time), join us!—has been to include, in a central and highlighted way, as many Native American voices and perspectives as possible. That’s particularly true of the two late afternoon/early evening events: the Friday evening reading by four prominent regional Native American authors; and the Saturday evening tour with Native Plymouth Tours. But it’s perhaps even more true, in terms of the ideals of my book quote and perspective, of Friday’s plenary panel: the panel focuses on images and narratives of Plimoth, and two of the five featured speakers are a Wampanoag historian and author (Joan Avant Tavares) and an Aquinnah historian and author (Linda Coombs); both women have worked directly with Plimoth Plantation on various projects, but both are also just powerful and inspiring authors and voices in any conversation. Yet I will admit that I’m most excited not just at the thought of their presence and presentations, but also at hearing how their ideas converse with the three others on the panel (Joe Conforti, a scholar of New England and American Studies; Cathy Stanton, a scholar of cultural and heritage tourism and sties; and Kevin McBride, a cultural and archaeological anthropologist) and how the collected audience responds and engages with them as well.

As with most anything about which I’ve written here, this isn’t ultimately an either/or dichotomy—we can and should find ways to hear Native American voices on their own terms, as I hope the conference will exemplify; but we can, I firmly and fully believe, also strive to create conversations in which no individual ethnic or cultural voices quite stand out, but rather many of them blend and interconnect and influence each other and form a cross-cultural dialogue that is, quite simply, American. More tomorrow,

PS. Three links to start with:

1)      A late 20th century philosophical take on the question of authenticity and identity:

2)      An interesting take on ethnicity, authenticity, and autobiographical life writing:

3)      OPEN: What do you think?

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