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Robert Dale Parker. The Invention of Native American Literature. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003. xi + 244 pp.

In The Invention of Native American Literature, Robert Dale Parker turns his attention to the breadth of Native American literature as we now see it researched and taught in Native American studies and American literary studies. His book discusses the theoretical context of Native American literary studies, early-twentieth-century writers such as D'Arcy McNickle and John Joseph Matthews, the study of Native American oral materials as pioneered by Dell Hymes and Dennis Tedlock, as well as the contemporary writings of Ray Young Bear, Leslie Silko, and Thomas King. Starting with the assumption that Native American literature is "an invention rather than a natural category" (183), Parker explores four intertwining area of interest to show that Native American literature is not merely a representation of culture but a response to historic factors, intellectual agency, and the reinscription of tradition and ethnicity. The foci for his discussions are "young men's threatened masculinity, the oral, the poetic and Indian culture's aloof renegotiations of what the dominant culture understands as authority" (3).

Chapters on Matthews and McNickle center on the presentation of the restless young Indian man with nothing to do. "Their uncertain, passive masculinity offers a troubled medium for Indian modernity and gender relations" (5). Parker brings in essential historical and sociological data concerning employment and income to create a fuller context for understanding the two writers. Their senses of masculinity and cultural identity are forged in Depression America, [End Page 760] and Parker is interested in the sense of agency and authenticity the authors allow their characters. Along the way, he makes some insightful comparisons to African-American literary studies.

In his chapter on the transcription and translation of Native American oral material, Parker interrogates the identification of native oral material and poetry. Responsive to the assumed link between the Indian and the oral, Parker sees Tedlock's and Hymes's work as part of a dominant culture's appropriation of nativeness for the academic intellectual paradigm. "The argument for transcribing oral narrative as poetry, therefore, comes not from any discovery that it is poetry so much as from the polemical and canonizing effect of reading it as if it were poetry" (94). Parker suggests that such a position makes problematic the work of live native poets.

Subsequently in his chapter on Ray Young Bear, Parker sees the Meskwaki poet as challenging dominant power notions of authenticity and knowledge to create a resistance literature that functions as an alternative to the dominant ideology. For Young Bear, "Identity, as a social narrative shaped by traditions in disequilibrium, is always evolving, versus the cultural myth that Native Americans shape Native identity only by looking to the past" (108). Parker uses this starting point to explore gender and class questions that such a subject-position entails.

Parker returns to the center of his axis of analysis with his discussion of Silko's Ceremony and King's Medicine River. Both novels reintroduce restless young Indian men, but Parker enriches his reader's experience with an enhanced understanding of the questions of poetic form, oral discourse, and cultural identity that were explored in previous chapters.

Parker's last chapter addresses the questions of what we teach, how we teach and why, as it retheorizes representation and canonicity in what he calls a "post-canon" context (7). Much of this chapter asks us to explore how we choose texts and what it is we seek to represent when we teach them. In all, The Invention of Native American Literature makes an important contribution to the growing sophistication of the discourse on Native American literature. Parker's command of the literature and research in the field is impressively displayed as he opens new areas of discussion and enlivens older one.

James Ruppert
University of Alaska Fairbanks


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pp. 760-761
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