Disability is pervasive in literature written by indigenous people.1 We encounter war veterans with physical and psychic wounds in canonized novels like House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa) and Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna), as well as in newer works by writers who are themselves veterans, including Philip Red Eagle (Dakota), and Jim Northrup (Ojibwe). We meet blind characters in Louise Erdrich’s (Ojibwe) highly acclaimed Love Medicine and Martin Cruz Smith’s (Isleta Pueblo) Stallion Gate. Mental illness is explored in novels including Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson (Haisla/Haida) and memoirs including Rock Ghost Willow Deer by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke (Cherokee/Huron/Creek/European). Indigenous literature also represents a wide range of bodily impairments: the protagonist of Patricia Grace’s (Māori) Potiki uses a wheelchair, and Linda Hogan (Chickasaw) has written about the physical effects of her horse-riding accident, among other disabilities. And alcoholism—a disability that stereotypically has come to signify indigeneity—has been a concern for authors from the nineteenth-century minister William Apess (Pequot) to contemporary writers Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d’Alene), Keri Hulme (Māori), and Alexis Wright (Waanyi Aboriginal).
For all this, critical work on indigenous literature has been slow to acknowledge disability as a useful category of analysis. Scholars have tended to subordinate questions of disability to other questions—about race, culture, sovereignty, or land—even when disability figures prominently in the text at hand. There have been a few notable exceptions, such as Michelle Jarman’s study of Silko; Linda Helstern’s work on disability in the fiction of Gerald Vizenor (Ojibwe); and Lawrence Gross’s (Anishinaabeg) discussion of PTSD in literature by Native American war veterans. But these have been isolated essays; to date, we know of no indigenous studies conferences that regularly [End Page 123] devote panels or sessions to disability studies; and no book-length studies of indigenous representations of disability, nor sustained studies of literature by indigenous people with disabilities.
Meanwhile, cultural disability studies has tended to overlook the literary and artistic productions of indigenous people.2 In his landmark Vulnerable Subjects, Tom Couser has written about The Broken Cord, Modoc author Michael Dorris’s memoir of his adopted son who had fetal alcohol syndrome; otherwise, there have been few crossovers from disability studies to indigenous literature. This elision is not unique. In his introduction to Blackness and Disability, Christopher Bell addresses the continuing need to “deconstruct the systems that would keep [racialized and disabled] bodies in separate spheres.” As Bell puts it, “too much critical work in African American Studies posits the American body politic in an ableist (read non-disabled) fashion. Similarly […] too much critical work in Disability Studies is concerned with white bodies” (3).
The same can be said of the relations between indigenous and disability studies. Three years ago, when Siobhan Senier and Penelope Kelsey drafted the initial call for submissions to this special issue, we fully expected to be inundated. We were excited by the innovative work beginning to conjoin these two fields: Clare Barker, who later took over for Kelsey as co-editor, has been writing for years about disability in the works of Māori novelists Patricia Grace and Keri Hulme; Qwo-Li Driskill’s (Cherokee) work on decolonization and healing is well known within Native American Studies circles. This good work remains scattered, however, and generally visible within one field or the other, but not both. What we have not seen, through our multiple calls for submissions and earnest beating of bushes, shows that we need more space for sustained dialogue. We were surprised, for instance, not to find anyone writing about disability in the works of Sherman Alexie or MariJo Moore (Cherokee), where it takes almost an act of will to avoid the subject. We were surprised not to see a single submission about an indigenous artist with a disability, such as Linda Hogan, or deaf actor/writer Tristan Thunderbolt (Ojibwe), or blind singer Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu (Yolngu Aboriginal). [End Page 124]
It is worth exploring some of the reasons that, as Bell might say, indigenous studies is still too ableist...