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From the first pages of Reading Native American Literature, Joseph L. Coulombe makes it clear that although the subject of his book is contemporary Native American literature, his text is primarily directed toward those who occupy the space “outside the tepee” (1). Indeed, much of Coulombe’s study is concerned with offering non-Native readers new pathways toward an ethical engagement with Native texts and the tribal cultures from which they stem. To this end, Coulombe crafts thoughtful discussions of indigenous literature and how non-Native readers view it, and in so doing, he situates non-Native habits of reading indigenous texts within the broader historical context of Native and white relations in the United States. His belief that reading can provide a platform for productive intercultural relations is one supported by the texts he discusses: N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1968), Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977), Gerald Vizenor’s Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles (1990), James Welch’s Fools Crow (1986) and The Heartsong of Charging Elk (2000), Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), and Linda Hogan’s Power (1998). These texts, Coulombe argues, develop special narrative strategies that “consciously foster intersections [End Page 877] of thought to educate a predominantly white audience regarding American Indian opinions and experiences” (10). By “engaging readers and establishing connections,” Coulombe suggests, these widely taught Native texts “unite readers behind unique solutions to enduring social problems.”
Coulombe’s ambitious study begins with an introduction-cumethnography in which he declares his status as a non-Native reader who, although intrigued by and invested in Native American literature, will always necessarily “remain outside tribal cultures” because he cannot claim Native heritage himself (6). Acknowledging that no amount of knowledge can alter his status as an outsider, Coulombe instead positions himself “as a student in relation to published texts by Native authors.” As students of Native American literature, he claims, non-Native readers must be careful to avoid repeating the “cultural misappropriation and dispossession that has taken place over the past five centuries” (4) by presuming intimate knowledge of tribal traditions and belief systems. The appropriate response to Native texts, Coulombe argues, is to “focus on what Native authors have chosen to share with readers textually” and to understand that information within the broader context of Native American literary history (6). Thus, it logically follows that his first chapter offers a well-researched, concise social and literary history that begins with the event of first contact in 1492. Learning this history, Coulombe insists, leads readers “to a more complete understanding of Native history, ideas, and rights” (19). Taken by itself, the first chapter of Reading Native American Literature could easily be used as required reading for an introductory course in Native American literature.
In chapter 2, Coulombe moves into the first of a series of concentrated close readings of works that dominate the Native American literary canon. This chapter, dedicated to the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel House Made of Dawn examines how Momaday removes readers from the novel’s tribal contexts to “show how individuals of different backgrounds can confront the destabilizing forces within contemporary society, connect to a unifying principle without personal or cultural boundaries, and heal their fractured selves” (37). In this way, Coulombe argues, House Made of Dawn “constructs a small but sturdy bridge between a Native author and non-Native readers” while at the same time refusing its non-Native audience full entrée into Momaday’s tribal cultural beliefs and traditions (56). Building on the spiritual and philosophical foundation established by House Made of Dawn is Ceremony, which forms the subject of chapter 3. Where Ceremony departs from its literary predecessor, Coulombe suggests, is in its desire to “create a constructive relationship with its audience, enlisting readers as active participants in a group effort to [End Page 878] restore balance in the world” (57). As Coulombe argues, by sharing her tribal stories with a broader non-Native audience—an act that earned her much opprobrium from critics such as Paula Gunn Allen and Jana...