- "Resting in Peace, Not in Pieces":The Concerns of the Living Dead in Anna Lee Walters's Ghost Singer
George walked around Donald's desk, his eyes on the coiled strings of human ears hanging on the nail above it. . . . "Are those ears? . . . Indian ears . . .? Where's the rest of those people? . . . Those people are still probably mad as hell."Anna Lee Walters, Ghost Singer
Yes, the Americas were full of furious, bitter spirits; five hundred years of slaughter had left the continents swarming with millions of spirits that never rested and would never stop until justice had been done.Leslie Marmon Silko, Almanac of the Dead
In 1988 the Pawnee/Otoe-Missouria writer Anna Lee Walters published her first novel, Ghost Singer. Set primarily amongst the Native American "artifacts" housed in an attic of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in the late 1960s, the novel is a horror story whose action spans more than a century. Consequently, the ghost story of the 1960s is itself constantly haunted by the events and politics of the past: of the genocide and inhumanity by which the Americas were settled, of the devastating impact of nineteenth-century Spanish and Mexican slave raids upon the Navajo, and of the assault upon tribal identity by imperial concepts of cultural assimilation. Walters's exploration of the continued significance of these events to Native peoples exhibits concerns for the future, illustrating the extensive scope of "horror" in the text which locates the "monstrous" within a specifically [End Page 85] Euro-American worldview. Thus the monstrous is situated within the power and agendas of academia; within the construction of "national" history through the silencing of minority voices, and the consequent power and authority assumed by "legitimate" or legitimating historians; within the methods and reasoning behind the collection of Indigenous "artifacts"; and within the dehumanization and commodification of Indigenous remains identified as "natural history" by archaeology and anthropology. Ghost Singer clearly displays the increasingly tangible links between museological "collections" of human remains and notions of ownership inherent within the concept of slavery; and the implicit and disturbing links between the collection of human remains and the "souvenirs" taken during actual acts of genocide against Native peoples in the United States. In this manner, Ghost Singer challenges notions of academic responsibility by posing pertinent ethical and moral questions: who has the right to own and display human remains? To whom are such displays directed? What is the effect upon those peoples whose ancestors and cultures are consumed?
Most significantly, Ghost Singer perceives, tracks, and so exposes the "absence" of a contemporary Native America in the national American imagination. Constantly looking to the future, the novel traces the perpetual presence of the past and of the indigenous dead—the un-settling narrative of the foundation of the nation state—through the spectral figure of the Ghost Singer. Desperately attempting to recover what has been stolen from him, the Ghost Singer becomes visibly more dangerous and destructive—and more emphatically present physically—as he illustrates the lack of respect shown to, and expresses the very real anger of, the Indigenous human remains and cultural artifacts housed in American museums. Haunting the Smithsonian, its Anglo curators, and those visitors unfortunate enough to be present, the Ghost Singer returns the ills of five hundred years of colonialism in the Americas. These ills include those perpetrated, and thus perpetuated, against the fragmented remains to whom the Ghost Singer claims a protectoral kinship. As a result, both curators and visitors alike endure varying degrees of despair, alienation, disease, physical harm, and, in several cases, actual death. [End Page 86]
Subverting the traditional genre of the ghost story, Ghost Singer juxtaposes the haunting absence of the Indigenous dead in the homogeneous American imagination with a macabre national fascination with, and celebration of, death. Consequently, the text contrasts the forgetfulness of the hegemonic national narrative with the crucial importance of memory to occluded and elided alter and Native histories. Through its focus upon hidden and absent museological collections of Native remains and body parts, Ghost Singer suggests that the Indigenous dead are not only dismembered, but dis-remembered. Walters's creative exploration of the...