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American Literary History 18.1 (2006) 152-174
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A Question of Relationship:
Internationalism and Assimilation in Recent American Indian Studies
In the preface to his first book on American Indian literature, The Invention of Native American Literature, Robert Dale Parker declares provocatively, "Native American literature has arrived—or has it?" (vii). The recent publication of the five books discussed here might answer Parker's question regarding the field of Native literary studies. All argue, to some extent, that Indian literature bears on the formation of US culture, and for this reason must not be ignored in mainstream scholarship. I would like to accept Parker's word of caution—not about whether the body of work by and about Indians is growing, for it resoundingly is—but that most scholars, despite an admirable, expanding interest in studying American Indian literature and culture, still approach Native literary texts primarily as a project to form an interpretive relationship to the literature of an extremely different culture. Whether one views this concern with relationship as a necessary scholarly pursuit or as a distraction from more pressing issues facing Indian people and their literature likely frames the answer to the above question. In the first chapter of Red Matters: Native American Studies, Arnold Krupat organizes the divergent models of this relationship for scholars in the field.
Throughout Red Matters, Krupat further develops his cross-cultural approach to minority cultures and literatures, which he has called Ethnocriticism (1992) in an earlier book, but which in this study he names "cosmopolitan comparativism." The change in terms matters, for here Krupat expands his discussion of the US relationship to American Indian literature from an engagement between cultures to include an interaction between nations. While in former writing Krupat has been critical of Indian claims to nationhood—and, by extension, national literatures, intellectual independence, and intellectual property—in Red Matters, he concedes the [End Page 152] importance of national positions on Native literature, and even the promotion of sovereignty: "Extending the scope of their paradoxical condition as 'dependent sovereigns'—extending sovereignty—is the foremost political task Native nations face today" (3). Krupat in part relies on a definition of American Indian nationhood determined not by Indian nations but by fiat in the 1831 US Supreme Court case Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. It should be noted that this decision actually reduced Native state sovereignty. The author does recognize that a growing number of Indian scholars wish to shape American Indian literature into a nation-based discourse with the reserved right to interact with the United States on an international basis. This model of literary critical exchange is a far cry from the cosmopolitanism offered Native people just a decade ago, in which scholars such as Krupat believed that the goal of intercultural criticism was to include Native literature in the US literary canon. Scholars perhaps never imagined that Indian intellectuals would be suspicious of such inclusiveness as an old story in the US colonization of Indian peoples, a Trojan horse to suppress indigenous nationhood and absorb their cultures. In Red Matters, Krupat does not consider the implications of an actual international relationship between scholars in the US and American Indian scholars of tribal national literatures. But merely to raise the issue of Native nationhood is likely to worry any scholar "outside" a given tribal nation's literature that nations will control their cultural and intellectual property at the expense of the "free" exchange of human ideas. As long as Indians view their nations as being controlled by the United States, this struggle for property is likely to...