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“I conceive of myself today not as an ‘Indian,’ but as a mixedblood, a person of complex roots and histories.” Louis Owens’s striking remark lies at the heart of Mixedblood Messages, a book that carefully explores “questions of mixed heritage.” This distinction has far-reaching implications for the study of Native American literature, as well as for multiculturalism more generally. For Owens, “Indian” is too often linked to clichéd and stereotypical ideas of native peoples and an insistence on authenticity that leads to fakery, whereas “mixedblood” recognizes that because most native peoples today have a number of inheritances to reckon with, issues of identity, history, and culture are incredibly complicated (Owens himself is of Choctaw, Cherokee, Cajun French, Irish, and “perhaps Welsh, too” ancestry). To say anything worthwhile, then, the study of mixedblood texts and native peoples must take such complexity [End Page 1052] into account, and one of Owens’s purposes in writing this book is to revise the typical ways scholars and students read and analyze Native American literature.
Another purpose is to defend mixedblood peoples from misunderstandings and unwarranted criticism. Owens points out the many ways in which “[m]ixedbloods in America inhabit an often hostile and bitterly contested realm” uneasily suspended between “White America” and “Indian America.” He defends mixedblood writers from charges that what they create is not “real” Native American literature because it may employ an urban setting, or it may present a multicultural rather than a traditional tribal vision. Elsewhere, referring to his unsuccessful attempts to locate even one picture of, let alone a name for, his maternal great-grandmother, Owens also describes plaintively the terrible in-betweenness that may occur for mixedblood peoples: “For me, as for many of us, there are enormous gaps, voids that cannot be filled. These are the missing grandmothers, and grandfathers, too, and the results are mixed messages.” At the same time, Owens borrows a term from Anishinaabe writer Gerald Vizenor, “survivance,” to call attention to the will to rise above circumstances, to love and create families, to laugh at life’s absurdities and obstacles Owens witnessed growing up among mixedbloods.
Mixedblood Messages consists of sixteen essays, several of which have been published separately over the past few years but appear in revised form in the book. As the subtitle suggests, the book is divided into four parts, focusing first on literature and then film, moving on to several autobiographical essays, and finally turning to activist essays on the environment. Owens describes his book in the preface as “eclectic.” True—and yet given Owens’s determination to illuminate what it means to be mixedblood personally, theoretically, and intellectually, it seems fitting that the book should be “mixed” too. The book follows through on Owens’s observation in one essay that “to get at the concept of mixedblood, if one is of mixed bloods, requires negotiating personal as well as critical terrain.”
All of the essays are worthwhile, but for the purposes of this review, the chapters on literature and film are most relevant. The first section of the book, titled “Mixedbloods and Mixed Messages: Adventures in Native American Literature,” includes chapters exploring such issues as the value of literary theory when analyzing native texts, the [End Page 1053] offensive use of romanticized stereotypes of Indians to market literary texts to a mainstream audience, and the ways that inflexible assumptions about full-bloods and authentic Indianness continue to skew readings of Native American literature today. Owens is not afraid to leap with both feet into various controversies. He enthusiastically recommends Vizenor as the most important mixedblood author writing today and laments that he is not more widely read and written about. At the same time, Owens is wary of mixedblood writers like Sherman Alexie, Adrian Louis, Janet Campbell Hale, and Louise Erdrich, who, in Owens’s view, have enjoyed commercial success by giving white mainstream readers clichéd texts and images of Indians. Particularly troubled by the bleak portrayal of reservations, as well as the preponderance of dysfunctional and alcoholic characters in...