restricted access Plural Sovereignties and Contemporary Indigenous Literature by Stuart Christie (review)
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Stuart Christie. Plural Sovereignties and Contemporary Indigenous Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-230-61342-3. 280 pp.

Throughout recent years the pages of sail and related scholarly venues have routinely brought forth dramatizations of the field of American Indian literary studies emphasizing an enduring intellectual quarrel between variously termed yet conceptually consistent positions. Stuart Christie, who studied under Louis Owens, opens his book with his own cogent framing of this ongoing debate in which "constructivist" critics (labeled elsewhere as cosmopolitan, dialogic, cross-culturalist, or hybridist critics) spar with "materialist" critics (labeled elsewhere as nationalist, sovereigntist, tribally centered, indigenist, or separatist critics). While Christie is likewise not alone in aspiring toward what he terms "a third road running between these two opposing fires" (5), his characterization of this alternative as "sovereign pluralism" is innovative and illuminating, even if obscure.

Making frequent gestures toward the discourses of political economy and law both in the United States and Canada, Christie emphasizes literary narrations of the "plurality of sovereignty," which he defines as "the coexistence of imposed Anglo-European nationality and a freestanding indigenous sovereignty held distinct and apart" (xi). The specific wording here is revealing of the book's conceptual foundations. The parallel positioning of settler "nationality" and Indigenous "sovereignty" reflects the somewhat vague notions of nationhood and sovereignty deployed within the book. While its sophisticated commitments to the fundamental multiplicity of these concepts, their distinct differentiation from one another, and their potent material utility are noteworthy, the indeterminacy in this regard will frustrate some readers (especially those accustomed to the posture of conceptual rigor associated with political and legal studies). Christie, for example, frequently uses the noun forms [End Page 122] "sovereign" to refer to an Indigenous person and "nonsovereign" to refer to mixed-blood and non-Native persons. This implicit yet consistent ambivalence regarding mixed-blood identities and disavowal of settler sovereignty is, perhaps in the case of the latter, compelling on the level of legitimacy. Yet it remains confounding at the level of material consequence. Moreover, Christie's arbitration of sovereign and nonsovereign statuses (as a self-identified nonsovereign, no less) contradicts his foundational concept of plural sovereignties. Especially within a politicolegal order constituted by layered regimes of non-analogous ascendencies, settlers are manifestly invested with (and invested in) a potent sovereignty. Figuring settlers as "nonsovereigns" perilously ignores this power and undermines the sovereign plurality that such power, in relation to others, ostensibly constitutes.

Nevertheless, the book's five chapters offer generally affirmative yet incisively critical readings that impressively illuminate novels by Sherman Alexie (Indian Killer), A. A. Carr (Eye Killers), James Welch (The Heartsong of Charging Elk), Leslie Marmon Silko (Gardens in the Dunes), Jeannette Armstrong (Slash), Gerald Vizenor (The Heirs of Columbus), Louise Erdrich (The Bingo Palace), Louis Owens (Dark River), and Thomas King (Medicine River and Truth & Bright Water). Within his deeply contextualized readings, Christie explicates (and in some instances convincingly creates) the rich layers of cultural, historical, and aesthetic allusion often at the center of these novels. Suggesting that "many of the most cogent and interesting theorizations of sovereign pluralism, whether constructivist or materialist, have occurred in the pages of contemporary indigenous fiction" (9), Christie sets out to underscore the numerous moments in which American Indian literature "points ahead to newer, imagined forms of community on behalf of indigenous citizens seeking to honor past traditions as well as to sustain present political enfranchisements" (2).

In his opening chapter Christie underscores Indian Killer's "laudable attempt to critique a sugar-coated 'American Indian Renaissance'" (42). Yet he also doesn't hesitate to note that "Alexie's novel solidifies racial purity as the guarantor of authentic indigenous experience" (43). Indian Killer, then, represents yet fails to do justice to Christie's paragon of sovereign plurality. In the same chapter's discussion of Carr's Eye Killers, Christie emphasizes the centrality of the "found alliance between indigenous and Anglo-European sovereignties" (40) that enables the [End Page 123] novel's resolution. The subsequent chapter, in which Christie coins and develops that category of the "indigenous captivity narrative" (73), addresses Welch's The Heartsong of Charging Elk and Silko's Gardens...