- "Story Speaks for Us":Centering the Voice of Simon Ortiz
Too many years ago to mention, I gave my first professional conference paper at the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association. The topic of the paper was Simon Ortiz's short story "Kaiser and the War." I was drawn to the story because Ortiz is a Pueblo Indian, like myself, and the story is about a place and people I know. However, I took a very structural approach, as I had been academically trained to do. Mercifully, the text of the paper has disappeared along with the obsolete 51/4-inch floppy disk where it was stored. Had I known more about Ortiz and his writings at the time, had I followed his example of Pueblo resistance and trusted my own tribal voice to be also an academic voice, the paper would have been much different.
To summarize briefly, the argument was that Kaiser is marked as a victim because his appearance and behavior disrupt the community. Utilizing the methodology of René Girard from Violence and the Sacred, I argued that Kaiser represents a sacred victim whose sacrifice restores order to the community. One reason he threatens the community is because he functions as a trickster. As a "safety valve" his behaviors represent disorder to the authorities who try to make him submit. Rather than tolerate him as a traditional community would, the police and draft board throw Kaiser in jail. His punishment creates a sense of communitas.
The flaw of this analysis (as I remember it) is the general flaw of structuralism; the analysis becomes an end in and of itself. However, at the time I was starting graduate school, that was an approach I was [End Page 61] taught, and it worked with the story. It was the kind of analysis that was accepted as a refereed submission and contained sufficient jargon to suggest that I knew what I was positing.
I realize that this summary sounds like a mea culpa for a youthful presentation. However, I think it raises another interesting dilemma in American Indian studies, the matters of where and how one learns the discipline of the field when many mentors are well intentioned but ill informed and when institutions, conferences, journals, and publishers reward traditional and colonial literary approaches. I was fortunate enough to come under the tutelage and influence of indigenous academics who pioneered a place for native studies. Ortiz's writings and interviews became part of my education even though I did not meet him personally until 1996.
Despite the inroads of indigenous theorists, the recognition of Simon Ortiz and his writings at the Modern Language Association, the publication of definitive works by Robert Allen Warrior (Osage), Craig Womack (Muskogee Creek), and LeAnne Howe (Choctaw), just to name a few, colonial criticism still rules. Oddly enough, even early critics of Ortiz recognized that his writing and Native American literature requires a critical approach apart from traditional methodologies. In Simon Ortiz (1986) Andrew Wiget suggests that considering Ortiz's writings as part of the "West" as "a concept rooted in the peculiar history and mythos of Judeo-Christian Europe [. . .] is fundamentally alien and antagonistic to the many distinctive culture and mythic perspectives unique to Native America" (5). Additionally, Dean Rader observes the challenges of discussing American Indian literatures: "Perhaps Anglos find Native American literature elusive or inaccessible primarily because it reveals metaphors of expression of revelation or participation regarding memory and history, while the dominant Anglo cultural narrative employs metaphors of occlusion, deception and deferral" (76). Rader goes on to note the challenges of finding critical literature about Native American poetry, but he does encounter an abundance of interviews. He reiterates: "[M]odern critical discourse does not know how to engage Native American poetry the same way it addresses and critiques modern and postmodern Anglo poetry" (77). Rader's essay offers ways of talking [End Page 62] about Ortiz and Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso with symbol and allegory. Nevertheless, the academy rules with various articles about Ortiz that use traditional, mainstream critical theories.
Ortiz himself has noted the limitations of critical approaches to his writings. In an interview with Laura Coltelli...