- Revising Strategies:The Intersection of Literature and Activism in Contemporary Native Women's Writing
Literature can and does successfully contribute to the politics of possession and dispossession.Elizabeth Cook-Lynn
How are we to read contemporary Native women's written work? If writing can be considered a form of activism, as I believe, what is the role of the reader of such works? What do the writers expect of us as readers of and potential actors in the causes they promote? In exposing the reader to the violence of Euroamerican expansion and domination during the last three centuries, Native authors overtly seek to educate the non-Native reader uninformed of such history while also confirming experiences known to Native readers. Through examples of contemporary Native life that include violence, poverty, and broken family units, along with the lost traditional lifeways of language, spirituality, and artistry, Native authors expose the reader to ongoing problems that continue to erode Native nations' ability to survive in modern America. The reader, often ignorant of such facts, comes away with an enhanced understanding of the various ways Western colonialism has destroyed, and continues to destroy, Native cultures.
Concomitantly, what is our response to the examples of effective grassroots resistance seen in these works: Winona LaDuke's novel Last Standing Woman, her essay collection All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life, the tentative affirmation of Elizabeth [End Page 62] Cook-Lynn's Aurelia: A Crow Creek Trilogy, and the spiritual commitment of Linda Hogan's novels Mean Spirit, Solar Storms, and Power? All of these texts assert that the beauty of the linked natural and spiritual worlds is all around us, that Native nations, despite the obstacles posed by Western cultures, will survive and indeed flourish. Are such examples representations of genuine conditions among select Native communities, or are they models of what can be obtained? If Native American literature has its roots in "truth-telling," in "setting the record straight," as many scholars have argued (see, e.g., Brumble), then we must ask how much of those initial motivations continue to drive contemporary Native writers and their readers today. What do contemporary Native writers demand of their readers who are both Native and non-Native? In their work, LaDuke, Cook-Lynn, and Hogan profess to tell truths and expose lies to the reader. The authors' demands on the reader are reformative; their works model a superior Native reality, with the hope of producing an educated reader/activist who, upon finishing the text, will work to improve the lives of contemporary Native Americans.
A chief aim shared by LaDuke, Cook-Lynn, and Hogan, along with many other Native women writers and theorists, is the decolonization of North America. Several Native writers characterize this movement as "Indigenism" and describe it as a liberation movement and worldview that offers an ideology that integrates life with nature. This philosophy identifies an indigenous "Fourth" or "Host" world on the planet that is composed of Native peoples globally; the industrialized and industrializing states comprise the First, Second, and Third worlds, and are seen as sitting atop the Host world, subjugating and feeding off it simultaneously (Guerrero, "Academic Apartheid" 59–61). The concept of Indigenism presupposes several assumptions: that indigenous people worldwide share a common experience of colonization and subsumption into a capitalist and hegemonic nation state, a shared investment in the attainment of sovereign nationhood, and a fundamentally nondisruptive, integrative relationship with the natural habitat (Guerrero, "Academic Apartheid" 61). All three writers produce texts that reflect their political and artistic ideologies. I wish to consider how their ideologies [End Page 63] shape their written work and also to discuss whether their work fulfills the agendas they articulate and to what result.
Indigenist movements operate within both the grassroots settings that LaDuke and Hogan describe and the academic milieu that Cook-Lynn has shaped, addressing reform at all levels. Regardless of where they devise an Indigenist program, whether within the university academy or within reservation or urban communities, Native women deploy an ideology based in ecoculturalism, an identity located in the linkage between a sense of being with a sense of place (Guerrero, "Exemplars of Indigenism...