Most of the outstanding Maori artists of today are people who were educated in the Western tradition. Many of them went to Western-type art schools in New Zealand, which taught them much about Western art but little about their traditional art forms. So here were Maori artists more at home with European art forms and techniques than with their own culture. They were educated to become uncomfortable and guilty about their lack of knowledge about themselves. One can see in their innovative work evidence of a struggle to come to terms with their Maori identity.Sidney Moko Mead, "Dimensions of Meaning in Maori Art" (1981)
Let us begin with the premise that, like other contemporary indigenous arts, indigenous literatures written in English—or primarily in English—are products of complicated genealogies, genealogies that include diverse and multiply intersecting lines: political, social, personal, textual, linguistic, aesthetic. The influences that bear upon any particular indigenous text written, say, after World War II are not only manifold but also highly imbricated. Mead's description of some of the forces that drive the innovative works of contemporary Maori artists is certainly apt as a description of the forces that drive the work of many indigenous writers; but, of course, it cannot capture the actual diversity of twentieth-and twenty-first-century indigenous experience and artistic or literary practice. No single description can. Therefore, in addition to our premise of the genealogical [End Page 1] complexity of contemporary indigenous texts, let us concede at the outset that the project of contemporary indigenous literary studies is both difficult and complicated (in the most positive sense of these words) and that the work of literary studies will not produce simple formulas for understanding indigenous literatures.
What kinds of methodologies, then, might enable us to better understand and to better appreciate how contemporary indigenous literary texts produce not only culturally inflected, historically situated meanings for their several audiences but also various kinds of aesthetic interest and pleasure? And what kinds of methodologies might help us to focus specifically on what is indigenous in contemporary indigenous texts?
Much attention has been devoted to critical methodologies that focus on single works or on groups of works by a single indigenous author; attention also has been devoted to methodologies that arrange works or authors into categories according to some criterion, such as genre, historical period of production, regional or tribal affiliations, gender or sexual orientation, major themes, and so on. Some of these methodologies emphasize the idea of authorial intent through biographical studies or through interviews with living authors or their associates. Other methodologies emphasize various types of literary contextualization that focus on relevant aspects of indigenous and nonindigenous cultures (including literary cultures), history, politics, social movements, or activism. Less attention has been devoted to methodologies that emphasize the possible influences of indigenous languages or indigenous arts traditions other than oral traditions on the production and reception of contemporary texts written in English. And only slight attention has been devoted, thus far, to the specific issue of the physical production and distribution of contemporary indigenous literatures (how texts come to be published or not published and circulated either narrowly or widely) or to the specific issue of their reception (how particular audiences produce meaning through their encounters with specific texts or how these audiences assign to specific texts literary, cultural, or personal value). Not surprisingly, perhaps, relatively little attention has been devoted to methodologies that emphasize the comparison of [End Page 2] specific texts across contemporary indigenous literature traditions, especially across what have become standard indigenous groupings (e.g., New Zealand Maori, North American Indians, or Indigenous Australians).
This essay began as a contribution to the symposium Comparative Approaches to Indigenous Literary Studies held at Auckland University in Aotearoa/New Zealand in August 2006. In the spirit of that international symposium, which brought together scholars and writers...