Native American Literature: Activism in Art



In thinking about the relationship between art and activism, I wondered just how many involved in the American Indian Movement were also actively writing. The question then became: is literature a profound part of activism, and if so, how does that work? For Native Americans, the written word is a relatively new concept in comparison to nonnative written works. Practicing oral traditions, much of Native literature was not even considered literature until someone put those most basic Native stories (i.e creation stories) into print. It took even longer for Native stories to be appreciated as something worthy of scholarly study. Today, much of Native literature is still considered to be in the realm of something children would read rather than the serious business we associate with other literary greats like Hawthorne or Faulkner. What might be important in our modern world is to view these works with a different lens—one that values them as being as great as any contained in the Norton. This paper outlines the importance of the written word as a form of activism, and also touches on the value that should be given to Native literature.

Jimmie Durham once said about Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds that “there is no way to see his work as ‘ethnic,’ as ‘Indian Art’; but there is no way to escape the Indian reality his work represents” ( Townsend-Gault). Perhaps what Durham spoke is true of many Native artists, be they visual, musical, or written artists. Although not all art created by Native people is inherently “ethnic” as Durham noted, the connection to Native culture in their art is inescapable, making the connection between Native art and activism easy to make. Life is often represented in art, and vice versa, giving way to social activism through art.

In fact, sometimes a work of art could be considered as one of the highest forms of activism: using a colonizer’s own culture in ways to foster understanding between cultures. As Mágara Averbach mentions in “Translation and Resistance in Native American Literature,” when Native Americans move away from the spoken word stories to writing, and more importantly, writing in English, they are using “inverse appropriation” as “a weapon in the fight for survival” (166). Not only a figurative fight for survival, this battle to survive colonization into which Indigenous People were forced, made “appropriation” a necessary part of their lives. Although using words as weapons seems cliché and ineffective, one must understand both Native culture and the power of words within their culture to fully realize the importance of Native writing and literature within the culture few white Americans comprehend.

According to Paula Allen writing in “Symbol and Structure in Native American Literature: Some Basic Considerations,” There is much more at play than simply story telling in the sense most white Americans relate to. Rather than writing for artistic pleasure or expression, Allen tells us Native writers generally write to convey a message—there is deep meaning and morals planted within the stories (267). We do not often equate the moralistic story with western literature as this facet of literature is more often connected with other cultures. Rather, according to Allen, most nonnatives tend to relate Native literature with that of “folklore”—something “primitive” or “heathen,” without much merit (267). This becomes problematic because by categorizing Native literature in this way we not only take away its relevance in our society, but also do not learn to appreciate or understand them as relevant to their own culture. As Allen says, “Literature is a facet of culture. Its significance can best be understood in terms of its culture, and its purpose is meaningful only when the cultural assumptions it is based on are understood and accepted” (267). Understanding Native culture, then, leads to understanding Native literature. Once we understand the deep meaning embedded within the literature and realize these are more than folklorists’ tales, we then might be able to glean the meanings we should absorb, which is paramount to understanding why Native literature is so important in Native activism. The literature can act as a liaison between cultures.

One culture struggling to understand another, or even worse, denying the other does or even should exist, has been a long standing problem in our national history. According to Kathryn Winona Shanley in “The Paradox of Native American Intellectualism and Literature,” the Native American figure has gone through different stages of representation during and following colonization, which she likens to narrowing the focus of a lens (276). “Images of Native Americans transformed from national ancestor to obstacle to residue…,” writes Shanley (276). She adds later that “When it comes to identity, American Indians are stuck between the rock of the law and the hard place of the lived reality of being something called American Indian, Native American…or whatever term seems the least contested and the most expressive of that reality” (289). What has become in mainstream society is something Shanley says is a declaration of “the absence of Indianness” and “declarations about how ‘Indian’ others are” (289).  Many, Shanley writes, are willing to “devour Things Indian,” although this is no more than cultural misappropriation of sacred traditions for the purpose of entertainment (289). It is easy, then, to understand the utter lack of nonnative comprehension of Native culture, and the frustration from the Native culture towards those nonnatives. The liaison of literature is indeed important.

As important as the connection literature might make for nonnatives is, it is imperative to remember as Robin Riley Fast reminds us in “Outside Looking In: Nonnatives and American Indian Literature,” that “Native lit isn’t just about consciousness raising for white kids” (63). To be sure, Native lit can serve that purpose, and often times does, however, we must be careful not to make this into “our thing”. It is not about us or our questions, as stated by Fast (63). Rather, the study of Native literature must remain the study of cultures fighting against all odds to remain intact. If we do indeed garner understanding from the literature, that is wonderful—there is no misstep in pedagogy there. However, in learning, we must leave the culture whole. We cannot make it something we twist and create for ourselves. Doing so would defeat the purpose of learning about the culture, and thus break down the connection between cultures. Although it is impossible to read a piece of work without having some personal feelings concerning that work, we have to remember if we are not Native, we have not lived the Native experience, and therefore can only let the work inform us rather than writing more into the work than is there. This becomes important in all activism, whether through literature or some other form. One may not speak with the voice of the oppressed, but only reiterate what they have been told. To let the story tell itself is vital as preservation of cultural identity is part of Native activism.

With the written word, part of this cultural identity fades with necessity as it moves away from the spoken word. Arnold Krupat writes in “Postcoloniality and Native American Literature” that hearing the spoken word is a different form of interactive exchange between author (orator) and listener (168). He tells us that during spoken storytelling, visual acts and different intonations engage with the listener/watcher, bringing, perhaps, more meaning to the story being told than what ink provides on a page (168). Translating from oral traditions to written is difficult enough, but adding the translation from languages largely not understood in the United States to English further skews our understanding of Native literatures (168). It is this misunderstanding of the Native experience and culture that leads us to categorize Native literature as something “postcolonial,” a misstep according to Krupat.

Krupat states about Native literature “…it is not, and cannot now be considered a postcolonial literature for the simple reason that there is not yet a “post” to its colonial status (169). What Natives are still experiencing, according to Krupat, is “ongoing domestic imperialism” (169). Because of this ongoing cultural robbery occurring, we might then begin to understand the importance of activism within the Native community, for if we could attach the prefix “post” to the “colonial,” there would be no need for activism. Having already been colonized, there would be some aspect, perhaps understanding of, having already assimilated. We do not see that within Native literature. Even if the oral traditions have sometimes become westernized by print; even if the languages of the tribes are translated to English, the voice of struggle continues to punctuate each line. Native works also, as noted by Krupat, are not homogenous compared to other American literatures and histories (169). Krupat also makes the point that, while calling Native lit is to incorrectly categorize as it really is not “post”, they do showcase the “tension with imperial power,” therefore making it “postcolonial” by way of working definition (170). What Krupat adds to his argument is “that any tensions and differences from the ‘imperial center’ in these texts may usefully be theorized as acts of anti-imperial translation” (170). He goes on to add that “it seems useful to reappropriate the concept of translation for not merely postcolonial, but, as I want to insist, anticolonial purposes, and thus to speak of contemporary Native American literature as engaged in the specific practice of anti-imperial translation” (170). Returning to Jimmie Durham, we can look to his poetry as an example of “anti-imperial translation”.

In his poem “Justiniana Lamé has been killed,” Durham delves deeply into the archives of Native American history, connecting not only what Indigenous people of the United States have experienced, but also those in South America. Within this poem, Durham uses both English and Spanish, making a connection between cultures. He relates the death of many Native Americans from the United States to those in South America, which is important to foster an understanding that being “Native American” is not an experience limited to those indigenous people living in the United States. Also of importance, we must note that before the tragedy of the genocides against people in the United States, genocidal acts were already in active in South and Central America by way of Christopher Columbus et al.

Durham speak of Lamé’s dictum “Viva la unidad de todos los explotados,” meaning long live the unity of all the exploited (133). A powerful statement, to be sure, but simultaneously unifying within the cultural group and resistant to colonizers. What Durham effectively does here is to use language to show that Native people will band together to fight further imperialistic efforts and genocide. By changing the language from English to Spanish then back to English again, Durham showcases the “anti-imperialistism” of which Krupat speaks, because Durham is able to show that no matter what language might be forced upon them through imperialism, Native people will fight for their freedoms and indigenous rights.

Of course, it is only fair to say that being nonnative, all this explication is that of an outsider. It is impossible to know the Native experience without having ever lived that experience. The tool of this writer is only a looking glass through which to see the message written by Durham and other Native writers. It would be inherently wrong to appropriate the meanings of the writings as a personal experience with which it is impossible for me to have lived. Rather, the purpose here is to show how through Native Americans’ use of the English language, resistance and activism flows from their pages more so than if I were trying to translate from their language.

What Jimmie Durham and countless other Native Americans have done is take a tool from their colonizer, and use it smartly to combat cultural genocide. It is, perhaps, the greatest form of activism when one can use from within the enemy’s own toolbox in order to protect themselves and ensure their own culture lives on. Some might argue that language and words are hardly the most deadly of weapons. However, we must remember and recognize how far reaching a word can be. After all, it was first words that helped foster support for colonization—the Manifest Destiny mentality, if you will, was fueled through words such as “savage” or “heathen”. It was words such as those that caused many to believe Native Americans to be subalterns and less than human. So, for Native Americans to turn those words in the direction of the colonizer—not words that lose meaning in translation, but words well understood by those reading them, is to turn around an ideal, a mentality, and end the war that has never ended against Native peoples worldwide.

Looking again to Durham, he writes “La mejor manera de recorder los compañeros caïdos/En la lucha, es fortalciendo nuestra organización,/Para enfrentar la repression, conquistar nuestras tierras/ Y todos nuestras derechos./ The best way to honor our comrades who have fallen/ In the struggle is to strengthen our organization,/To confront the repression, regain our land and all/ Our rights” (133). Durham, in fact, does work to strengthen the organization to fight for the rights of Native peoples through his writing. A side benefit of his work is that people who do not understand Native culture can begin to investigate the lives and strife of those who have struggled as Durham speaks “during the long season of Indians being killed” (132).

The gift we receive from Native writers’ ability to take the English language and make it something beneficial rather than only a part of the cultural genocide thrust upon them is the lesson of the sorrowful effects of imperialism on Indigenous people worldwide. We nonnatives will never understand fully what it means to be “Native”. However, we can get closer to understanding the importance of preservation of cultures once in danger of extinction without forceful efforts of preservation. We can learn what it means to appreciate through the written word a culture that would remain foreign to us without the wonderful writers, authors, poets, and storytellers working as liaisons between cultures, inviting us to their world so we can all live peacefully.

Works Cited

Allen, Paula. “Symbol and Structure in Native American Literature.” College Composition

and Communication.24:3. 267-270. 1973. PDF.

Averbach, Margara. “Translation and Resistance in Native North American Literature.”

Durham. Jimmie. “Justiniano Lamé Has Been Killed.” Harper’s Anthology of 20th Century

            Native American Poetry. Ed. Duane Niatum. Harper and Row San Francisco. 1988. Print.

Krubac. Arnold. “Postcolonality and Native American Literature” The Yale Journal of

            Criticism. 7.1 171-180. 1994. Print.

Riley Fast, Robin. “Nonnatives and American Indian Literature.” American Quarterly.

46:1. 62-76.1994.PDF.

Townsend-Gault, Charlotte. “Ritualizing Ritual’s Rituals.” Art Journal. 51:3.51-58. 1992. PDF.

Winoa Shanley, Kathryn. “The Paradox of Native American Intellectualism and Literature.”

Melus. 29:3/4.273-292. 2004. American Indian Quarterly. 24:2. 165-181. 2000. PDF.

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