- Mediation in Contemporary Native American Fiction
In this book, the fifteenth volume of the University of Oklahoma Press’s fine series in American Indian Literature and Critical Studies, James Ruppert announces a formalist approach to an issue that continues to preoccupy scholars in this field: how to think about cultural identity. Working from Iser’s concept of the “implied reader” and Bakhtin’s concept of “ideological translation,” Ruppert argues that contemporary Native American novelists, “participants in two rich cultural traditions,” use Western and Native American epistemologies to illuminate each other. Novels discussed include House Made of Dawn, Winter in the Blood, Ceremony, Bearheart, Wind from an Enemy Sky, and Love Medicine.
Ruppert argues that the novelists “assign roles for Native and non-Native readers” based on assumed “epistemological competence” and develop their narratives so as to “re-educate those readers so that they can understand two codes, two traditions of discourse.” Such a project “supports Bakhtin’s understanding of the novel’s task: a ‘coming to know one’s own belief system in someone else’s system.”‘ The two epistemologies are schematized in terms of four possible narratives of identity: Native “mythological” and “communal” narratives and non-Native “psychological” and “social” narratives. Each narrative is invoked, [End Page 856] to varying degrees, and mediated such that “when the implied readers complete the text, they have unified the two world views and various narratives.”
Generally Ruppert posits only two categories of implied reader, identifying “Native” with the particular people among whom the story is set. Sometimes he adds a third, dividing the audience among “local,” “pan-tribal,” and “non-Native contemporary American.” The pan-tribal readership is most important for the chapter on Wind from an Enemy Sky. In this novel, McNickle, closer to practical politics throughout his career than any of the other authors discussed, deliberately tries “to create a pan-tribal cognitive system . . . rather than to promote Cree, Salish, or any other specifically tribal outlook.” The question here then concerns what happens to mythic narratives of identity, which always derive from specific tribal traditions. Ruppert points out that McNickle backgrounds the mythic narrative for political reasons. To foreground it would “reinforce the romantic stereotypes reinvigorated in the counterculture of the 1960s. McNickle did not want his non-Native readers to conclude that Indian mysticism was the path to cross-cultural understanding.” Yet with the minimization of the tribally specific mythic level, the possibility of full “ideological translation” between Native and non-Native implied readers’ epistemologies seems diminished, partly because the nature of the “Native” epistemology becomes more difficult to discern.
In the current theoretical climate, Ruppert’s return to Iser seems puzzling. Happily, however, this study often transgresses the limits of Iser’s formalism. The reading of Love Medicine is a case in point. Ruppert demonstrates, for example, that Henry Lamartine’s identity is narrated in terms of two epistemologies: contemporary non-Native psychological and sociological discourses concerning returning Vietnam veterans and Chippewa discourses concerning war, death, and honor. Similarly, Gordie suffers from alcoholic hallucinations and/or actually sees June’s ghost. This attribution of multiple meanings to a given event brings those meanings, and the epistemologies on which they depend, into dialogue. Yet unless the non-Native implied reader has some prior knowledge of the Chippewa traditions Erdrich is invoking, that reader will probably miss a great deal; the mediation may be incomplete. For example, the mythic significance of the card game in the last chapter, or even of Gerry Nanapush’s last name, may not be [End Page 857] fully clear, unless information is imported from beyond the text. Erdrich has Lipsha refer to “tricky Nanabozho” (not quite accurately as a “Chippewa God”) at one point—and that mere mention is a cue for a reader to look elsewhere, if not to anthropologists then perhaps to Gerald Vizenor, whose retelling of the story of Nanabozho and the evil gambler would illuminate the card game between Lipsha and King. Knowledge of traditional stories is not the only issue here; for example, readers who know something about AIM...