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  • Transnational Displacement:"Native American Material" in Paul Muldoon's New Weather
  • Andrew Fox

In a 2004 interview with the Paris Review, Paul Muldoon explains his use in certain of his works of "Native American material" by citing a perceived Irish and Native American political and cultural comparability rooted in a similarity of historical relationship with an occupying power. "The fact of the matter," Muldoon says, "is there's been a certain amount of experience in 'dealing with the natives' that had been gained in the Irish situation, that stood the English in rather good stead when it came to dealing with the natives over here."1 Beginning in his first full-length collection, New Weather (1973) and continuing throughout his career in such poems as "The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants" (1983) and "Meeting the British" (1987), as well as in the verse narrative Madoc: A Mystery (1992) and the libretto Shining Brow (1993), Muldoon has found enduringly fruitful, though never stable, imaginative and intellectual ground in the points of contact between Ireland and Native America. The poet's numerous encounters with, and deployments of, "Native material" have been well documented by a number of scholars and critics. Jacqueline McCurry, for one, sees in them a "refusal to recognize the validity of perceptions which underlie Northern Ireland's sectarianism," while Cathleen McCraken identifies an attempt "to give a presence, and a voice, to Native America."2 Scholarship by Native intellectuals, however, has seldom been called on to consider the potentially troubling politics of Muldoon's recourse to Native cultures.3 [End Page 55]

For many Native intellectuals—most notably Vine Deloria Jr. and Craig S. Womack—even well-intentioned representations of Native cultures by non-Natives cannot help but be embroiled in a deeply problematic history of appropriation and manipulation. Such representations risk serving to make of Native experience not an original site out of which Natives themselves might speak, but a discursive device freely adaptable to Euro-American poetic projects.4 On the other hand, many critics have argued that the rigidities prescribed by primordialist, essentialist, or protectionist approaches to national or ethnic identities might themselves be argued to circumscribe efforts toward artistic individuation or cultural transformation.5

One of the more problematic dimensions, in this discussion, is a practice that Philip J. Deloria has called "playing Indian," which may be defined as the performance by non-Natives of a notional, stereotyped Native American identity, often for the sake of the carnivalesque or to suit political purposes. In literature, Indian "playing" typically encompasses the adoption by non-Natives of Native points of view, or the employment of forms of writing or of literary techniques that stress certain features conceived of as being of Native provenance, such as modes of oral address or nonlinear constructions of time. In the United States, as Deloria explains, these performances historically have

clustered around two paradigmatic moments—the Revolution, which rested on the creation of a national identity, and modernity, which has used Indian play to encounter the authentic amidst the anxiety of urban industrial and postindustrial life. . . . Whether aimed at British officials or colonial landlords, misrule traditions, often performed in Indian dress, remained a vital mode of American political protest for more than a century.6

Probably the most well-known example is that of the protestors of the Boston Tea Party, many of whom attired themselves in wool blankets and darkened their [End Page 56] faces with soot, not only to disguise their treasonous acts but also to perform an identity conceived of as being in the image of the New World and resolutely in contradistinction to that of Britain—a negotiation of historical, physical, and ontological location echoed two decades later in Philip Freneau's "The Indian Burying Ground" (1787).7 In terms of modernity, Indian play is perhaps most readily apparent in such Romantic primitavist poetry as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha" (1855), and in the as-told-to autobiographies of the early twentieth century such as John G. Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks (1932), both of which stress to varying degrees the fundamental alterity and the inevitable disappearance of Native experience and...


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