Native American Literature and the Canon
Although the rich and various literatures of Native American peoples, apart from their inherent interest and excellence, by virtue of their antiquity and indigenousness, have a strong claim to inclusion in the canon of American literature, this claim, as I have noted, has not yet been granted with any fullness.
[Most of the account that follows was first published in Critical Inquiry's special issue on the canon of September 1983 (I thank CI for permission to reprint). That same year, Michael Castro published Interpreting the Indian: Twentieth-Century Poets and the Native American . Working independently of each other and from somewhat different perspectives (e.g., among other things, Castro notes his own position as a poet and one interested in the "spiritual aspects of . . . 'revolutionary' consciousness" [xiii], whereas my position is that of the cultural critic of materialist bent), it turns out that we covered a good deal of the same ground, even on occasion choosing the same quotations for illustration and display. I urge the reader interested in these matters to consult Castro's book. Why, then, reprint my version here? Largely because, although I admire the scope and detail of Castro's work, I find myself frequently unsatisfied with the explanations offered—unsatisfied because so few explanations are even attempted, unsatisfied because those explanations are too little tied to social factors (e.g., Castro's acceptance of Vine DeLoria's dismissal of the many questions about John Neihardt's editing of Black Elk: "The transcendent truth that Deloria speaks of is attested by the national and international popularity of Black Elk Speaks " . Now Black Elk Speaks is a lot less popular nationally and internationally than—say—Dallas, but in any case—lest the comparison seem too cheap a shot—I think it more likely that any popularity the book does have might be explained by a good many things other than its putative "transcendent truth"). So I reaffirm here my own view of these matters—in a spirit of dialogue once more pointing the reader to Castro.]
From the very first period of invasion and settlement until the close of the "frontier," Americans tended to define their peculiar national distinctiveness, as I have several times noted, in relation to a perceived opposition between the Europeans they no longer were and the Indians they did not wish to become. The development of autobiography as a major genre of American writing is instructive in this regard, as in so many others. Eastern autobiographers like Jonathan Edwards in the colonial period, Benjamin Franklin in the Revolutionary period, and Henry Thoreau in the period preceding the Civil War, all wrote and thought about Indians, although finally choosing the European polarity as decisive for self- and literary definition. In contrast, western autobiographers like Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, and William F. Cody ("Buffalo Bill"), all ultimately loyal to white "civilization," nonetheless fashioned themselves and their books on models deriving in varying degrees from Indian "savagery." But this particular tension never operated in the definition of an American literature generally for the simple reason that Indians, who did not write, were not regarded as actually possessing a "littera-ture" that might be studied and imitated.
"Littera-ture," of course, meant precisely the culture of letters (as agri-culture meant the culture of the fields), and the man of letters, European or Euramerican, was the man of culture; Native Americans—Indians—were "children of nature" precisely because they were not men of letters. And oral literature, at least until near the nineteenth century, was simply a contradiction in terms. American literature, seeking to define itself as a body of national writing and as a selection of
distinctively literary texts, considered only European models because no other models—no local or Native models, no "autochthonic" own—seemed to be present. Here is just that relation of avoidance justified by an imagined absence that I noted at the outset.
Yet even after Indian literature was "discovered," attempts to open the canon to it based themselves—mistakenly, to be sure, yet powerfully, nonetheless—on an appeal to the "naturalness" of this literature, as though it was not individuals and cultural practices but the very rocks and trees and rivers that had somehow produced the Native poem or story, and somehow spoke directly in them. This peculiar "naturalness" of Native American literature, currently linked, as I remarked in the Introduction, to a "biological" consciousness, continues to be its primary claim to attention. Thus I will not apologize for repeating yet again that for all the dramatic immediacy of Native American discourse; for all its rootedness in a consciousness very different from that of the West, it nonetheless remains the complex product of historical tradition and cultural convention as these are manipulated by individual performers who take technical problems—of pacing and pronunciation and pausing; the use of archaisms and neologisms; possibilities of condensation and expansion, and the like—altogether as seriously as the authors known to the Western tradition. In these regards, Native American literary expression is like literary expression everywhere. Nor does this contradict the point I insisted upon earlier, the cultural and technical difference of Native American literatures from the literatures of the West. To urge the inclusion of Indian literature in the canon of American literature, then, is not only to propose an addition but a reevaluation of what "American literature" means.
For all that sporadic attempts to read, teach, and use Native American literature as a model for written literature extend back well over a century, it is only in the past thirty years or so that the formal principles of many Indian languages have been established on anything like a sound scientific basis. Only in this time have dictionaries and grammars of some of these languages become available so that the scholar might come closer to an accurate understanding of what Indian performers actually said and meant. Ethnographic studies have also developed over these years to provide an enriched sense of the cultures that provide the matrix for specific performances. Still, as Dell Hymes has remarked, it would yet be premature to specify a canon of Native American literature area- or continent-wide. There remain too many old recordings to listen to and retranscribe; too many older texts to retranslate and compare to contemporary variants; too much sorting and typing, comparing and evaluating yet to do for anyone to propose the "masterworks" of the Indian tradition. And so it is too soon to say exactly which Native American texts ought properly enter the canon of American literature. For all this, efforts have been made to urge some Native texts upon the broader national literary awareness. Thus I now turn to some literary history.
The first invader-settlers of America responded to the verbal productions of Native orality as a satanic or bestial gibberish that, unmarked in letters nor bound in books, could never be thought to constitute a littera-ture. John Eliot translated the Bible into an Algonquian language in the seventeenth century, but the Puritans did not inscribe the wicked or animal noise of Native song or story. The scientist-revolutionaries of the eighteenth century were more interested in Indian cultural activity
than were their Puritan forebears and made efforts to describe, catalogue, and subdue its various manifestations—just as they did with other natural phenomena like lightning or steam pressure. Although the child of nature, in this period, was as frequently deemed the noble as the murderous savage—a change prompted less by Rousseau than by the colonists' need to establish trade and military alliances with the powerful interior tribes—it was still difficult to conceive that without writing he could have a littera-ture. Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson, according to Roy Harvey Pearce, "encouraged the collection of Indian wordlists as part of an international project in comparative linguistics," and Jefferson quoted a well-known (perhaps apocryphal) speech of Chief Logan as an example of Native oratorical ability (1967, 80). But this was still far from recognizing an Indian capacity for literary production. Nonetheless, what may be the first translation of an Indian "poem" dates from the pre-Revolutionary period. This appears in the Memoirs of Henry Timberlake, a young Virginian, who, after serving under Washington, embarked upon a mission to the Cherokee. Timberlake apparently did not know Cherokee and so had to work from the rendition of an interpreter. In his "Translation of the War-Song. Caw waw noo dee, &c.," we encounter Indian poetry in the form of heroic couplets. Here are the first few lines:
Where'er the earth's enlighten'd by the sun,
Moon shines by night, grass grows, or waters run,
Be't known that we are going, like men, afar,
In hostile fields to wage destructive war;
Like men we go, to meet our country's foes,
Who, woman-like, shall fly our dreaded blows. (81)
Timberlake made no effort to transcribe the original Cherokee; only scholarly reconstruction might provide an approximation of what this song was like.
In the Romantic nineteenth century, littera-ture came to mean not simply the written culture generally but a selection from it of imaginative and expressive utterance—in writing, to be sure, but also in the speech and song of common men and the "folk" who might themselves be unable to write. "Nature" became the "keyword" of culture, and "oral literature," something other than a contradiction in terms. Once these ideas crossed the ocean to the American east, it was but a short step to hear Native expression as "naturally" poetic and as constituting a literature in need of no more than textualization and formal—"civilized"—supplementation.
English Romanticism had reached the east by the 1830s (Timberlake had reached England earlier: Robert Southey used the Memoirs for his 1805 epic, Madoc ), but in those years the social and cultural dominance of the east was challenged by the Jackson presidency and the "rise of the west." So far as Indians were concerned, the 1830s were the years of President Jackson's Indian Removal policy, which made the forcible relocation of the eastern tribes to the west of the Mississippi a national priority. During that decade, easterners interested in Indians were primarily concerned to preserve Indian lives and lands before trying to preserve Indian literature. History writing rather than poetry writing appeared the more urgent task. For, as B. B. Thatcher put it in the preface to his Indian Biography, published in Boston in 1832, "We owe, and our Fathers owed, too much to the Indians . . . to deny them the poor restitution of historical justice at least" (n.p.).
In the 1840s and 1850s, it was American "civilization" that
began to proclaim itself "Nature's nation," in Perry Miller's phrase (1956, 209), proclaiming all the louder as aggressive expansion threatened to destroy the forests, the grasslands, and, as always, their aboriginal inhabitants, nature's children, the Indians. In this period, the work of Henry Rowe School-craft came to wide attention. Schoolcraft, an Indian agent interested in la pensée sauvage —"savage mentality," as he called it—had been publishing since 1839, but it was what Roy Harvey Pearce calls his "masterwork," a study undertaken, appropriately, at the instigation of the secretary of war—the Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States (1851–1857, and reissued under various titles)—that marks the increasingly important contribution of what we would call anthropological scholarship to our understanding of Indian literature. Indeed, according to A. Grove Day, "the beginning of wide interest in native poetry in translation properly dates from the year 1851, when a history of the Indians was published by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft which included samples of Chippewa poetry" (27).
One example from Schoolcraft, quoted by Day, has repeatedly been anthologized; it has also occasioned some trenchant commentary by John Greenway and, particularly, by Dell Hymes. Schoolcraft's procedure—a transcription of the original, a literal translation, and a "literary" translation—continues often to be followed today. His Chippewa "Chant to the Fire-Fly" is literally translated:
Flitting-white-fire-insect! waving-white-fire-bug! give me light before I go to bed! give me light before I go to sleep. Come, little dancing white-fire-bug! Come, little flitting white-fire-beast! Light me with your bright white-flame-instrument—your little candle. (Day, 28)
The first few lines of his "literary" translation read:
Fire-fly, fire-fly! bright little thing,
Light me to bed, and my song I will sing.
Give me your light, as you fly over my head,
That I may merrily go to my bed. (Day, 28)
This translation is as typical of its period's deliquescent Romanticism as Timberlake's couplets are of the high Drydenesque. Obviously, the translation of Indian poetry (like
poetic translation generally) reveals as much about the translator's culture and literary predilections as it does about the Indian's. Schoolcraft also published, without literary elaboration, some brief Chippewa Midé—medicine society—songs such as the two following:
All around the circle of the sky I hear the Spirit's voice.
I walk upon half the sky. (Day, 146)
His contemporaries, however, did not seem interested in these—which, today, probably appear both more attractive and more "Indian." In any case, although Schoolcraft's translations spurred interest in Native American poetry, they seem to have had no influence on American poetry in their time. Not Indian poetry but, rather, poetry with an Indian subject did enter the American canon in the 1850s, however.
Composed by a Harvard professor of European literature, the first to teach Faust in an American college, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha (1855) sold out its first printing of four thousand copies on the day of its publication and completed its first year in print with sales of thirty-eight thousand. Longfellow derived his Indian materials from Schoolcraft's earlier work, the Algic Researches (1839); he derived his attitudes toward Indians from eastern progressiveist thought (Alas, the Noble but Vanishing Savage); and he derived his meter from the Finnish epic, Kalevala . Long-fellow's Hiawatha comfortably counsels the people to abandon the old ways and adapt themselves to the coming of "civilization," and he does so in a meter that only "civilization" can provide. It is necessary, of course, to mention Longfellow in any consideration of possible Indian influence
on American literature, but The Song of Hiawatha, in fact, shows no such influence at all. Longfellow did not make use of Schoolcraft's Chippewa translations (themselves mostly "civilized" in their formal conventions), nor did he have any sense of his own about what Native American literary composition might actually be like or whether it might somehow stand without Finnish support and supplementation. The admission of Hiawatha into the American canon had nothing to do with the possibility of expanding the canon; Hiawatha merely assimilates the Indian to the persisting Eurocentrism of the east.
Euramericans continued to move westward, appropriating Native American lands by force and by fraud. Once the west had been "won," as the "frontier" approached its "close" in 1890, American thought about Indians situated itself within a broader debate between Americanism and cultural pluralism. The "Indian problem" was related to the "immigrant problem"; the various "solutions" proposed rested upon particular visions of the social order. The "Americanizers" gained the ascendant in 1887 with the passage of the General Allotment Act, known as the Dawes Severalty Act. The Dawes Act was an attack on Indian culture ("for the Indians' own good") by way of an attack on the Indians' collectively held land base—a "mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass," as Theodore Roosevelt called the act in presciently cyclotronic imagery (Washburn, 1975, 242). The Dawes Act was also—and intended to be—an attack on all "communistic" systems. Opposed (for the most part) to Dawes and the Americanizers were the anthropologists of the newly founded Bureau of Ethnology (1879; after 1894, the Bureau of American Ethnology), whose studies of the rich, Native tribal heritage committed them to its preservation rather than destruction. An im-
portant exception, however, was Alice Fletcher. One of the first, in the 1880s, to study the forms of Native American music, Fletcher, nonetheless, was "one of the most vigorous opponents of tribalism and played an influential role in the agitation . . . to force the allotment of land in severalty upon the Indians without tribal consent," as Wilcomb Washburn has commented (1975, 245).
Fletcher was more interested in the music of Indian songs than in their texts; her influence on the study of Native American poetry comes through Frances Densmore and, more particularly, Natalie Curtis Burlin, whose work she inspired. Densmore, trained in piano, organ, and harmony at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and at Harvard, began in 1901 a lifetime of work with Indian music by transcribing a Sioux woman's song that she heard near her home in Red Wing, Minnesota. Densmore continued to publish on Indian music until her death in 1957. Of the vast body of material she transcribed and translated, it may be the Midé songs of the Chippewa—these attracted her as they had Schoolcraft—which she published for the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1910, that have most often appeared in the anthologies (although not in the earliest ones).
It was Burlin, the third of these early collectors of Native song, who had the greatest impact on the anthologies. In 1907, Burlin published The Indians' Book, a wide-ranging collection that presented not only the music of Native American songs (in special notation) but also poems and short narratives from the tribes. Burlin's particular appreciation of Native artistic production is entirely that of the antiquarian looking back upon what President Theodore Roosevelt called, in a prefatory letter to her book, "the simple beauty and strange charm—the charm of a vanished elder world—of Indian po-
etry" (Burlin, n.p.). Like Fletcher, Burlin had no doubt that the "child races" of Indians must give way to the "adult races" of Anglo-Saxon peoples. She recommended the charming and simple songs of the Indians to her white audience for the wisdom they might—somehow, vaguely—teach, and, as well, as an act of—sentimental—justice to this soon-to-be-vanished race. Indeed, Burlin's Indians are so childlike and simple as to be entirely creatures of nature; their art, she says, is "spontaneous," the talent to produce it "inborn" in every member of the race (Burlin, xxviii–xxix). In these beliefs, Burlin completely ignores the major developments of scientific anthropology in her time, which insisted upon the cultural, not racial, explanation of cultural things. Some of her translations—they are, curiously, the ones chosen by Louis Untermeyer for his 1931 anthology of American poetry, which I note below—are full of exclamation points and archaic diction, but others, like this Winnebago "Holy Song," are somewhat less elaborated and point more nearly forward:
Let it fly—the arrow,
Let it fly—the arrow,
Pierce with a spell the man, oh!
Let it fly—the arrow.
Let it fly—the arrow,
Let it fly—the arrow,
Pierce with a spell the woman!
Let it fly—the arrow.
Burlin's work, for all its mistaken inspiration and its partly dubious execution, remains the locus of much that is available nowhere else.
The Dawes Act was a disaster for the Indians; yet it was not officially abandoned until the 1930s. By that time, American anthropology was no longer based in the government bureau, nor in the great urban museum, but, instead, in the university. Franz Boas, who had come to Columbia University just before the turn of the century to train a new generation of anthropologists, was the dominant force in ethnographic science. I will not attempt a full discussion of Boas's contribution to the preservation of Native American culture but, rather, quote Hymes at some length; his description of what happened on the northwest coast of America is largely true for the literatures of most Indian peoples.
Often non-Indians did not wish to preserve the culture of the Indians. Conviction or guilt persuaded them that it was already gone, or best gone. It is a shameful fact that most of what can be known today about the cultures of the Indians of my state, Oregon, is due to the efforts of men who came across the continent. Franz Boas, a German Jew unable to aspire to scholarly advancement in his native country but versed in the German intellectual tradition that valued individual cultures and their works, recorded Shoalwater and Kathlamet Chinook. His student Sapir recorded Wishram and Takelma; another student, L. J. Frachtenberg, recorded Alsea, Siuslaw, Coos, and Kalapuya. Frachtenberg was followed by a later student with a better ear, Melville Jacobs, who provided superior texts from Coos and Kalapuya, all that has been published so far in Sahaptin, and all that is known, save for one scrap, of Clackamas. To repeat, most of what we can know of the first literature of Oregon is due to representatives of German and Jewish intellectual tradition, who crossed the continent to record it. With regard to that first literature, they are the pioneers. The pioneers of Western song and story and their descendants did little or nothing. (1981, 6)
These German and Jewish intellectuals were entirely skeptical of the Americanizers' claims to WASP cultural superiority
and asserted their sense of the importance to American culture not only of Continental philosophy and philology but of the aboriginal American culture of the Indians as well. Whereas early attempts at "ethnographic salvage" were made in the name of history, and the Americanizers' attempts at ethnographic destruction were made, generally, in the name of religion, what Boas and his students preserved was in the name of science. The work of Fletcher, Densmore, and Curtis began specifically from an interest in Indian music and coincided with imagism and a movement in poetry to privilege the genre of the brief lyric. But Boas and his students sought knowledge. Although they recorded songs, which would early be anthologized, they also recorded lengthy narratives that were performed but not sung. Hardly inimical to poetry, their commitment to science led them to prefer the most literal prose translations—which usually obscured completely the dynamics of Indian performances and made it very difficult for anyone to discover a genuine poetry among Native peoples. The full value of what Boas and his students recorded would only begin to be revealed in the 1950s and after, when developments in anthropological linguistics would permit their translations to be modified for accuracy and to yield new translations of more apparent poetic value.
It was just after World War I that the first concerted effort to present Native American poetry as a part of American literature occurred. This effort was associated with the Amer-
ican radicals' call for cultural pluralism, with the imagist challenge to a canon still dominated by Emerson, Longfellow, and James Russell Lowell, and, in particular, with the work of Mary Austin. If Schoolcraft's Chippewa translations may be said to have opened the way to interest in North American poetry, then it was George Cronyn's anthology of Indian poetry, The Path on the Rainbow (1918), that began to broaden that way. Cronyn's volume was hardly, as Austin called it in her introduction, "the first authoritative volume of aboriginal American verse," for Cronyn was often uncritical and/or misinformed (Austin, 1918: xv). (It might be said that no "authoritative" collection appeared before Margot Astrov's in 1946; it might also be said that no "authoritative" collection has yet appeared.) Yet Cronyn had the acumen to take translations from the superb student of Navajo, Washington Matthews, from John Swanton, and from Boas himself. Whatever its quality, finally, Cronyn's volume—which attracted a good deal of attention—at least made it possible to imagine, as Austin predicted in her introduction, that a relationship was "about to develop between Indian verse and the ultimate literary destiny of America" (Austin, 1918: xv–xvi).
In Austin's view, to know the Native American heritage was not, as Curtis believed, for the "adult" American to honor some indigenous childlike past; rather, it was for the contemporary American poet to "put himself in touch with the resident genius of his own land" in the living present (1918, xxxii). There is an "extraordinary likeness," Austin remarked, "between much of this native product and the recent work of the Imagists, vers librists, and other literary fashionables." Thus, "the first free movement of poetic original-
ity in America finds us just about where the last Medicine Man left off" (1918, xvi).
A year later, in 1919, Austin wrote in the Dial that "vers libre and Imagism are in truth primitive forms, and both of them generically [sic ] American forms, forms instinctively selected by people living in America and freed from outside influence" (1919, 569). Austin ascribed these "forms" to nature, most particularly to what D. H. Lawrence was soon to call "the spirit of place." In Indian poetry, Austin wrote, "the shape of the lines is influenced by the contours of the country" (1919, 570). So determining was this geographical influence that "before 1900" she "could listen to aboriginal verses on the phonograph in unidentified Amerindian languages, and securely refer them by their dominant rhythms to the plains, the deserts and woodlands," as she explained in 1923, in the introduction to her own collection of versions of Indian poems, The American Rhythm (19). Austin wittily admitted that she took the anthropologists of her day more seriously than they took her; but if she did take them seriously, she understood them badly, for her sort of simplistic environmental determinism was unacceptable to them as an explanation of cultural variation.
Nonetheless, Austin's often-repeated conviction "that American poetry must inevitably take, at some period of its history, the mold of Amerind verse, which is the mold of the American experience shaped by the American environment" (1930, 42) took a clear stand on the future of American poetry. This stand was not only in opposition to the Longfellow-Emerson-
Lowell eastern past but in opposition, as well, to the futures envisioned by Austin's contemporaries, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, who looked not to the West but to the East and Far East, and to a past very different from that of "the last Medicine Man." Yet Austin shared with Eliot and Pound what F. H. Matthews has called the "revolt against Americanism."
"In the 1920's," in Matthews' cogent summary,
the revulsion from Americanism and the search for a viable cultural community intensified into a major quest. Intellectuals in a position to assert their identity with some minority now fanned the embers of recently-declining traditions, or raised folk arts to self-conscious status. . . . Writers who lacked a vital region or ethnic minority with which to identify turned instead, like Sherwood Anderson and William Carlos William[s], to quarrying the national past in search of lost virtue. (14)
This "revulsion from Americanism" serves to link Austin, Williams, Eliot, and Pound, although the solutions each proposed to the common problem they shared were incompatible with one another. The modernist internationalism of the "paleface" and the nativism of the "redskin" were united in the young Yvor Winters. As poet-critic, first, and, subsequently, as scholar-teacher, Winters urged the claims of Indian literatures as part of a broader challenge to the established canon.
In 1922, that annus mirabilis of Ulysses and The Waste Land, Winters published The Magpie's Shadow; the "Indians especially were an influence on The Magpie's Shadow, " Winters would later write (1978, 13). The linked poems of The Magpie's Shadow are introduced by an epigraph from Rimbaud, and Japanese poetry is also an influence, although it is impossible to tell what Winters may have taken from the Native American and what from the Japanese (the two non-Western traditions have often appeared as parallel influences on those poets looking beyond the European tradition—and William Stafford has published a "Sioux Haiku"). The brief, titled stanzas of the poem's three sections seem familiar enough from imagist practice. Thus, from part 2, "In Spring":
Oh, evening in my hair!
Or, from part 3, "In Summer and Autumn":
In dream my feet are still.
A deer walks that mountain. (1978, 32, 33)
A year earlier, Winters had published in Poetry magazine a poem with an Indian subject, "Lament, beside an Acéquia, for the Wife of Awa-Tsireh." He later identified Awa-Tsireh as a painter from the pueblo of San Ildefonso. That was in 1928, in "The Indian in English," a review for Transition of
two important Native American poetry anthologies, Cronyn's Path on the Rainbow and Nellie Barnes's American Indian Love Lyrics and Other Verse . Winters quoted from the translators he admired and also offered, "finally," what he called an example of "nonreligious and purely dramatic material" in a "more modern group of Chinook songs" translated by Boas (1975, 39). I should also note Winters's 1926 "Open Letter to the Editors of This Quarter, " in which he protested the exploitation of Indian materials. This "notion of interpreting the Indian," Winters wrote, "is too much for me. They are in no need of assistance whatsoever, as anyone is aware who has ever read the really great translations of Frances Densmore, Washington Matthews, Frank Russell, and Jeremiah Curtin—translations that can take their place with no embar[r]assment beside the best Greek or Chinese versions of H. D. or Ezra Pound and which some day will do so" (1975, 33).
Winters's own poetic development would not follow Native American models; yet Winters continued to press the canon to open itself not only to Frederick Tuckerman, Thomas Sturge Moore, and Elizabeth Daryush but to Native American poetry as well. Winters directed A. Grove Day's doctoral dissertation, which became one of the important anthologies of Indian verse; another of his doctoral students was the Kiowa N. Scott Momaday, whose work I will discuss.
In Winters's Transition article, he approved of Cronyn's collection as, of the two reviewed, "by all odds the better and larger selection, despite its being saddled with a selection of 'interpretations' " (1975, 35). In his approval of Cronyn, he placed himself at odds with Untermeyer, another great canon maker of the time. In 1919, Untermeyer had also reviewed Cronyn's volume, for the Dial, rather sniffily concluding that this Indian anthology was "as an ethnic document . . . of
indubitable value; as a contribution to creative Americana [?] it may grow to have importance. But as a collection for the mere man of letters it is a rather forbidding pile—a crude and top-heavy monument with a few lovely and even lively decorations" (1919, 241). Austin quickly responded in a piece from which I have already quoted. Characterizing Untermeyer as "one whose mind has so evidently never visited west of Broadway," Austin made the telling point that "if Mr. Untermeyer could get his mind off the Indian Anthology as a thing of type and paper, he might have got something more out of it" (1919, 569).
By the 1930s, however, Untermeyer had apparently come nearer to Austin's estimate of Native American poetry. His American Poetry: From the Beginning to Whitman (1931)—according to H. Bruce Franklin the "most widely used anthology of poetry" in the schools (100)—included a section on American Indian poetry along with sections on Negro spirituals and blues, cowboy songs, and city gutturals. Untermeyer quoted from Austin's introduction to The Path on the Rainbow and recommended Curtis's Indians' Book, Barnes's American Indian Love Lyrics, and Austin's American Rhythm . This last, he said, included "a penetrating essay in interpretation" (1931, 693). Austin's essay, however, offers no more than the geographical determinism I have already remarked; Untermeyer tended to prefer "adaptations" rather than more literal translations, just the sort of "interpretations" Winters, quite wisely, warned against.
Translation versions of Native American poetry had earlier
appeared in another anthology widely used in the schools. In 1928, Mark Van Doren, also an admirer of Curtis, had published his Anthology of World Poetry, consisting of poetic translations from literatures around the world. A section on "American" poetry comes last; this contains twenty poems from translators ranging from Schoolcraft to Austin and Curtis; there is nothing from Boas and his students.
These influential anthologies, for all their confusions about Indians and Indian literature—not to say their thoroughgoing ignorance of what anthropological scholarship of their time had made it possible to understand about Native Americans and their literature—nonetheless were clear gestures toward that pluralism intended to open the canon. In this regard, they were cultural equivalents of the political change from Herbert Hoover to FDR, from the Dawes Act's policy of cultural destruction and Indian assimilation to the Indian New Deal of Roosevelt's commissioner of Indian affairs, John Collier, who sought to preserve and protect traditional Native cultures.
World War II brought Claude Lévi-Strauss to the New School for Social Research in New York, where, as legend has it, he learned structural linguistics from his colleague Roman Jakobson, another displaced European. Lévi-Strauss's essay "The Structural Study of Myth" appeared in the Journal of American Folklore in 1955. Whatever its influence on method in America, this text was an important encouragement to the study of Indian "myth," if not—and the two were distinct for Lévi-Strauss—Indian "poetry." It was just after the war, in 1946, that Astrov's anthology of Native prose and poetry, The Winged Serpent, was published—still, in 1965, as Hymes judged, one of the "two major contemporary anthologies in English" (1965, 317) and, according to William Bevis in 1974,
"the best general anthology in paperback" (323). Astrov's introduction and notes pay special attention to the scientific, anthropological contexts of Indian literatures, and the translations she chooses, as well as the commentary she provides, reflect the considerable advances ethnography had made in the Boasian period.
The second of the "two major contemporary anthologies" is Day's The Sky Clears, published in 1951. Unlike Astrov, Day pointed, as Austin had, specifically to the possibility of Indian influence on modern American poetry—although only, as Hymes has noted, in relation to existing translations. Day was, as I have said, Winters's doctoral student, and he dedicated the anthology, an outgrowth of his dissertation, to "Yvor Winters, Singer of Power."
Boas had died in 1942; but by that time his students occupied major positions of influence in American anthropology. It was one of Boas's later students, Melville Jacobs, who, in 1958, published the first of an important series of narratives from the Northwest. These appeared as numbers of the International Journal of American Linguistics, issued by the Indiana University Research Center in Anthropology, Folklore, and Linguistics. It was also in 1958 at Indiana that Thomas Sebeok convened the interdisciplinary conference on style that provided the occasion for Jakobson's well-known concluding paper, "Linguistics and Poetics." (Sebeok's earlier symposium on myth had provided a forum for Lévi-Strauss's "Structural Study of Myth.") Through the work of Hymes, a participant in that conference, the insights and method of Lévi-Strauss and Jakobson would be brought together to advance the study of Native American literatures as they might be encountered and/or restructured in their original languages.
As early as 1953, while working at Indiana University,
Hymes began to conceive the possibility of what he has called a "living relation, through fresh translation and study of the [Native American] originals, to modern poetry" (1965, 318). But in the 1950s—to take a single suggestive instance—it was Sputnik and the challenge to further conquest of nature, rather than nature itself, that most engaged Americans. The federal government renewed its efforts to Americanize the Indian under the policy known as "termination." Washburn has described it as "the forced dissolution of tribal organizations and the break-up of existing tribal assets" (268). This was not a time in which the social order encouraged a cultural opening to Native American influences—although some would turn to it for alternatives.
But by 1960, neither presidential candidate supported the termination policy; and by 1970, Richard Nixon, as president, declared government policy toward the Indians to be self-determination without termination. One of Nixon's first official acts was to return the sacred Blue Lake of the Taos Pueblo people. The rights not only of Native peoples but of all those who had traditionally been excluded from full social and literary representation were asserted in the 1970s, arousing a broad increase of interest in traditional Native American culture and literature.
As early as 1951, Gary Snyder, then a senior at Reed College, had written his B.A. thesis on a Haida myth and, in 1960, Snyder's Myths and Texts, work done between 1952 and 1956, appeared; I shall return to this shortly. In 1961, Kenneth Rexroth's important essays "The Poet as Translator" and "American Indian Songs" were published, while, a year later, Jerome Rothenberg inaugurated what would be a major and ongoing poetic program with his performance- and event-oriented From a Shaman's Notebook: Poems from the Floating World . This
was an early attempt, as Rothenberg wrote in 1969, "to get as far away as I could from writing " (in Chapman, 303). By that time, Rothenberg had also published Technicians ofthe Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, and Oceania (1968), Rothenberg's presumptuously global reach has been properly and abundantly criticized; yet this volume performed a service for non-Western poetries generally, and for Native American poetry in particular. Rothenberg was not only perspicacious in his selection from the older translators—he included Densmore, Washington Matthews, and Pliny Earle Goddard, while excluding Austin, for example—but also collected newer translations by William Carlos Williams, W. S. Merwin, and Rochelle Owens. Perhaps most important, Rothenberg went to great lengths to demonstrate the way in which some modern and contemporary poetry follows "primitive" (" 'primitive' means complex") directions (1968, xx).
In the section of his "Pre-Face" to Technicians of the Sacred called "Primitive and Modern: Intersections and Analogies," Rothenberg tried to show "some of the ways in which primitive poetry and thought are close to an impulse toward unity in our own time, of which the poets are forerunners" (1968, xxii). Rothenberg lists six "important intersections" in some detail, which I shall abbreviate. These are: (1) "the poem carried by the voice," (2) "a highly developed process of image-thinking," (3) "a 'minimal' art of maximal involvement," (4) "an 'intermedia' situation" in which "the poet's techniques aren't limited to verbal maneuvers but operate also through song, non-verbal sound, visual signs, and the varied activities of the
ritual event," (5) "the animal-body-rootedness of 'primitive' poetry," and (6) "the poet as shaman" (1968, xxii–xxiii). Some of the "important intersections (analogies)" Rothenberg lists are: jazz and rock poetry, "Blake's multi-images," surrealism, random poetry, concrete poetry, happenings, dada, "lautgedichte (sound poems)," projective verse, "Rimbaud's voyant, Rilke's angel, Lorca's duende," beat poetry and psychedelic "poetry" (1968, xxii, xxiii).
Rothenberg then illustrated contemporary intersections with the "primitive" by quoting a number of contemporary poems in his extended commentaries. He drew from his own work, as well as from Owens, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, and Diane Wakoski, among others, and included a translation from Pablo Neruda done by Robert Bly. Rothenberg also quoted a poem from Snyder's Myths and Texts . This volume of poems, published, as I have noted, in 1960, takes its title, as Snyder later wrote, "from the happy collections Sapir, Boas, Swanton, and others made of American Indian folktales early in this century" (vii). It is no surprise, then, to find, as the poet and anthropologist Nathaniel Tarn puts it, "Indians everywhere" (xv).
In the 1960s, a considerable number of American poets turned from European models and sources to acquaint themselves with Native American models and sources—as they also turned to the cultural productions of Afro-Americans and women. To turn to Indians was to valorize the natural,
the communal and the collective; it was to seek the dramatically immediate, and to reject the New Critical conception of the poem as object. Many poets in the 1960s wrote, in Louis Simpson's phrase, "Indian poems"; so many, that it seemed, in Simpson's 1972 recollection, that
the Indian was being taken up again as a symbol. It was nostalgia, and something more: in their search for a way of life to identify with, poets were turning to an idea of the dark, suppressed American. . . . Poems about Indians were a fantasy of sophisticated twentieth-century people who were trying to find ways out of the materialism that was everywhere around them (241–242).
In 1975, in response to an interviewer's question, Simpson elaborated:
We were trying to use the Indian as a means of expressing our feeling about the repressed side of America that should be released. However, if I or anyone were to continue to try to write Indian poems, we should know more about Indians than we did, than I did. (L. Smith, 1975, 105)
This is surely correct; and it may serve to point up the obvious fact that poems with Indian subjects do not necessarily have much to do with Indians or, even less, with Indian models. Poets like Rothenberg and Snyder have an informed awareness of Native cultures and their literary productions;
others like Stafford and Richard Hugo have a deep feeling for the places so important to traditional Native cultures. Then there are poets like James Tate, whose "One Dream of Indians" proclaims:
When I thought of Indians
before, I thought of slender
muscular men with feather
heads wailing hallelujah,
of blood spears on white flesh, their
two-toned ponies insane. (54)
But, the speaker tells us, ". . . There was one dream / of Indians I didn't / dream, however. That was you." Here is that determined reduction to the merely personal that marked a good deal of writing-school verse in the 1950s, that carried into the 1960s, and that persists today. The appearance of Indians in such poems is purely incidental and indicative of no particular relation whatever to Native Americans and their literature.
It was in the 1960s as well that a number of powerful Native American writers began to appear in print, among them Duane Niatum, Simon J. Ortiz, Roberta Hill, and James Welch. By the end of the decade, in 1969, the Pulitzer Prize for literature went to the Kiowa professor of English literature N. Scott Momaday for his novel House Made of Dawn . That same year, Momaday published his widely noticed, cross-cultural experiment in autobiography, The Way to Rainy Mountain . Momaday, as I have noted, was a student of Winters and for his doctoral dissertation prepared an edition of the poems of Frederick Tuckerman, Winters's candidate for ma-
jor American poet of the nineteenth century. Momaday, like Welch, writes both poetry and fiction; his verse, however, seems closer to the formal manner of later Winters than to anything discoverable in traditional Native literature. Here are the opening stanzas of Momaday's "Angle of Geese," which appeared in a volume of the same name:
How shall we adorn
Recognition with our speech?
Now the dead firstborn
Will lag in the wake of words.
We are civil, something more:
More than language means,
The mute presence mulls and marks.
(in Sanders and Peek, 461)
And here is Welch's "Snow Country Weavers":
A time to tell you things are well.
Birds flew south a year ago.
One returned, a blue-wing teal
wild with news of his mother's love.
Mention me to friends. Say
wolves are dying at my door,
the winter drives them from their meat.
Say this: say in my mind
I saw your spiders weaving threads
to bandage up the day. And more,
those webs were filled with words
that tumbled meaning into wind.
(in Sanders and Peek, 470)
In Welch's poem, regular reference to animals is made, but formally the regular stanzas and irregular rhymes (in particular, the final "mind"/"wind" and the brooding-earnest tone) derive from the Euramerican rather than the Native American literary tradition. This is often the case as well with the work of Hill and Niatum, who, with Welch and Momaday, probably appear most frequently in general anthologies of American poetry. Their technical conservatism seems a recognition of the inevitable presence, in written verse in English, of the European poetic tradition.
I am far from implying, with these observations, a negative judgment upon the work of these writers; obviously, Native American poets are entitled to the same freedom accorded their non-Native counterparts in their choice of subject matter and formal manner. And, in any case, there are decided occasions on which these poets adopt a more open, more voice-oriented style. The relation of other contemporary Indian poets—I think of Ortiz, Ray A. Young Bear, and Joy Harjo—to European poetics is more tentative, more marginal. I will quote in full Ortiz's "This Preparation" as an example:
these sticks i am holding
i cut down at the creek.
i have just come from there.
i listened to the creek
speaking to the world,
i did my praying,
and then i took my knife
and cut the sticks.
there is some sorrow in leaving
fresh wounds in growing things,
but my praying has relieved
some of my sorrow, prayers
make things possible, my uncle said.
before i left i listened again
for words the creek was telling,
and i smelled its smell which
are words also. and then
i tied my sticks into a bundle
and came home, each step a prayer
for this morning and a safe return.
my son is sleeping still
in this quietness, my wife
is stirring at her cooking,
and i am making this preparation.
i wish to make my praying
into these sticks like gods have taught.
(in Sanders and Peek, 467)
On one hand, the reverential stance toward "ordinary" life, the sense of human responsibility to nature, the commitment to a relationship of "participant maintenance" (in Robert Redfield's phrase) toward the universe: these are all attitudes familiar to the Native tradition. The poem is presented as spoken-performed, with gestures implied, as an aspect of some larger (ritual) event. On the other hand, "This Preparation" is not radically different from poems by certain non-Native poets; it is by and large assimilable to the Euramerican tradition. It will take further work on traditional Native American literatures—new translations and new studies and greater general familiarity—to indicate to what degree its methods as well as its outlook can figure in written verse in English.
In any case, it should be obvious that just as the mere existence of poems with Indian subjects by non-Native poets does not in itself constitute evidence of a genuine opening to Native American influences, so, too, the mere existence of
poems in print by Native American poets does not indicate any effective influence of traditional Native American literature on the canon. It does not seem possible or fruitful to attempt strictly to distinguish Native American from European influences in the work of Indian writers and non-Indians interested in Indian traditions, although the nature of the technical mix may well be worth attention. The errors to avoid, I believe, are to urge (as Leslie Marmon Silko has done) that Anglos simply stick to their own traditions, on the one hand, and, on the other, to insist (as Thomas Sanders and Walter Peek have done) that some "remembered Indianness" or inherited and unconsciously sublimated urge to employ the polysynthetic structure of Native American languages" must somehow come through the English of poetry written by Native Americans (449).
Some other developments of the late 1960s also bear importantly on our subject. For it was in 1968—the year Dover reissued Burlin's Indians' Book, while fighting was reported in Vietnam and the streets of Chicago—that rebellion took place among the professoriate at the MLA convention in New York City: a concerted effort to naturalize the canon and to revise its traditional hierarchies of race and gender. Earlier that same year, students in France had rebelled against their professors and the government that employed them, calling for the burning of the libraries and a return to nature: "Sous les paviers, la plage!" ("Under the pavement, the beach!"). Earlier still, in 1966, French structuralism—hors de Lévi-Strauss —had arrived
in force upon American shores to deliver the fourth blow, as it were, to Western humanistic narcissism (following the first three blows that Freud specified, those delivered by Galileo, Darwin, and Freud himself), with the symposium called "The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man," held at the Johns Hopkins University. Michael Foucault was not present, but Barthes, Jacques Lacan, and the youthful Jacques Derrida were in attendance. At Johns Hopkins, Barthes announced that "to write" might be an intransitive verb; and Lacan dissolved the individual subject as "a fading thing that runs under the chain of signifiers. For the definition of a signifier is that it represents a subject not for another subject but for another signifier" (194). Derrida, already displaying his characteristic total assurance, told his audience that "one can say in total assurance that there is nothing fortuitous about the fact that the critique of ethnocentrism—the very condition of ethnology—should be systematically and historically contemporaneous with the destruction of the history of metaphysics. Both belong to a single and same era" (in Macksey and Donato, 251–252). This denial of the privileged place of man—and modern anthropology's contribution to the conditions of possibility for such a denial (an early subject, as well, of Foucault's discourse)—projects exactly the sort of revision of the Western consciousness that would bring it nearer to appreciating the world view of Native American peoples and thus contribute to a more ready understanding of traditional Native American literatures and their claims upon the canon.
Throughout the 1970s and to the present moment, the developments I have been tracing have continued. In 1973, an excellent formal textbook, Literature of the American Indian, appeared; by 1975 there were at least five available anthologies of American Indian poets, many of whom had originally pub-
lished in prestigious quarterlies. In 1981, Joseph Bruchac, himself part Abnaki and a poet, collected the work of more than thirty Indian poets in American Indian Writings, a special issue of the Greenfield Review . Duane Niatum's Harper's Anthology of Twentieth-Century Native American Poetry has just come out (1988). The 1970s also saw the publication of John Bierhorst's valuable anthologies of Native American materials; Rothenberg's erratic but powerful volume of translation-versions, Shaking the Pumpkin; and Merwin's working of some of Robert Lowie's Crow Texts . Merwin's work appeared in Alcheringa, a journal of ethnopoetics, edited by Rothenberg and by the anthropologist Dennis Tedlock. Alcheringa not only published non-Western texts but occasionally included recordings with some of its issues. In 1979, Snyder's B.A. thesis was published as He Who Hunted Birds in His Father's Village: The Dimensions of a Haida Myth, with a preface by Tarn. Myths and Texts, which had been in and out of print since its original appearance in 1960, was finally reissued by Snyder's principal publisher, New Directions, in 1978.
Two important books of poetic translations from the 1970s deserve particular mention—one by Tedlock and one by Howard Norman. On the basis of recent work, I think it's reasonable to require that translations of Native American literature, if they are to be considered approximately accurate, meet two specific conditions. First, they must derive from an actual, taped, or re-creative audition of the Native performance. Second, they must be produced in accord with what Hymes has
called "philological recognition of the original, not bilingual control," at least a rough working knowledge of the language in question (1965, 336). To produce his translations from the Zuni, Finding the Center (1972), Tedlock himself tape-recorded the narratives he would translate. Highly competent in Zuni, Tedlock sought to indicate the structural principles of Zuni narrative performance by attention to its metalinguistic features, its changes of pace and volume, the gestures of the narrator, and the audience responses; these he attempted to present by means of typographical variations. Although a shift from large to small type does not strictly represent a shift in volume from loud to soft, it does insist that something has changed; spaces on the page are not silences—but we are sufficiently accustomed to the analogy to respond to it.
Tedlock's translations are of Zuni narrative; yet they are arranged on the page in a manner that corresponds more closely to Euramerican poetry than to the more usual Euramerican medium for narrative, prose. Tedlock has argued long and well, however, that prose has "no existence outside the written page" (1977, 513). In one way or another, he has been supported in this conclusion by the practices of Barre Toelken and Hymes, who have both advanced the artful science of what Toelken calls the "poetic retranslation" of Indian narrative that formerly had been transcribed in blocks of "prose."
Similarly, Norman's collection, The Wishing Bone Cycle: Narrative Poems of the Swampy Cree (1976), translates Indian stories into what appear, on the page, as poetry. Norman, a non-Native, grew up in proximity to Cree people and learned their language. A poet himself, he gathered these stories and presented them so effectively as to make a strong case for the power of Native American literary production—as well as to point out that traditional examples of that production are still discoverable. (Tedlock's collection performs the same service.)
The Wishing Bone Cycle, according to Norman, is a trickster cycle, but "the inventor and initiator of these particular poems was Jacob Nibenegenesabe, who lived for ninety-four years northeast of Lake Winnipeg, Canada" (3). Nibenegenesabe says, "I go backward, look forward, as the porcupine does," and Norman explains: "The idea is that each time these stories about the past are told they will be learned for the future" (1976, 4). These are, again, stories; they are narrated rather than sung or otherwise accompanied by music or dance; and they are both traditional and original, more or less in the same ways that traditional "authors" in Native cultures were always both originators and augmenters—as, indeed, the etymology of our word "author," from the Latin augere, indicates. An example:
One time I wished myself in love.
I was the little squirrel
with dark stripes.
I climbed shaky limbs for fruit for her.
I even swam with the moon on the water
to reach her.
That was a time little troubled me.
I worked all day to gather food
and watched her sleep all night.
It is not the same way now
but my heart still sings
when I hear
her over the leaves. (1976, 8)
Among other interesting texts in Norman's volume are a group of "short poems," which "may be spoken by anyone in a Cree community. Once told, even poems derived from the most personal experiences become community property" (1976, 93). Here is one from John Rains:
I am the poorest one.
I cook bark.
I have bad luck in hunting.
A duck caught my arrow
and used it
for her nest.
I am the poorest one.
I sit in mud and weep.
I have bad luck in hunting.
A goose caught my arrow
and broke it
I am old, old.
Don't bring me pity,
I shall return to materials of this kind in the concluding chapter.