- Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak
One of the titles in Nebraska's "American Indian Lives" series, this is a book of interviews with eleven writers currently shaping American Indian literature and culture: Paula Gunn Allen, Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan, N. Scott Momaday, Simon Ortiz, Wendy Rose, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gerald Vizenor, and James Welch. The interviews took place in 1985, and despite delay in publication and some unevenness in quality, they are interesting and informative, the spontaneous format allowing access to many Native American concerns.
Unlike interviews with "mainstream" American writers, these require "an adequate cultural perspective," and at their best they tell us about the lived conditions from which the writing emerges, linking historical and cultural environments to artistic processes. Despite their many differences, the writers share a traumatic history and a marginalized social status often supported by "scientific" reductionisms (Vizenor is not alone when he says, "I like kicking around anthropologists"). But what is most obvious here is a tough-minded attitude of optimism, an emphasis on the importance of what persists: on language itself as a source [End Page 498] of metaphysical freedom, on the oral tradition as a depository of traditional values and a context essential to identity and knowledge—a view eloquently articulated here by Ortiz and (once again) Momaday.
Coltelli works with two sets of questions, one related specifically to the work of individual writers, the other more collective, including queries into Native American reactions to "white shamanism," the significance of mixed blood identity, the efficacy of Pan-Indianism, and the persistence of Indian humor. As the questions often call for political responses, the American Indian Movement (AIM) occasionally emerges, as do attitudes to political activism, with Wendy Rose, for example, in extreme contrast to Leslie Marmon Silko. Of much importance are questions regarding potential conflict between feminism and traditional tribal values, with especially interesting responses from Paula Gunn Allen, Linda Hogan, and Joy Harjo. Among the women interviewed there appears to be a belief, as Harjo puts it, "that there is a new language coming . . . from the women." On an individual basis, the interviews offer insights into—for example—Vizenor's trickster postmodernism, Welch's "surreal" humor, Wendy Rose's conception of the creative process as a nearly physical event, and Erdrich and Dorris's intense literary (and apparently domestic) collaboration.
Readers will concur with Welch and Vizenor when they praise Coltelli's questions, though sometimes her efforts to remain "unobtrusive" make for missed opportunities: readers may want to know more, for example, about Joy Harjo's "film with a truly tribal vision" and the basis for Welch's view that Ray Young Bear is "one of the best poets in America." One might complain that the interview with Paula Gunn Allen would benefit from editing, that with Erdrich and Dorris from expansion. The book is a useful companion to Swann and Krupat's I Tell You Now (also from Nebraska), autobiographical essays by a wider representation of American Indian writers. The particular strengths of Coltelli's book are in its intimacy and in Coltelli's skill in eliciting personal and pointed responses which illuminate essential issues.