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Studies in American Indian Literatures 19.4 (2007) 27-53

Narrating Nationhood
Indian Time and Ideologies of Progress
Joseph Bauerkemper


Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony (4)

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Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony (262)

During a recent visit to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in New Haven, Connecticut, I spent considerable time sifting through the facility's substantial collection of Laguna Pueblo author Leslie Marmon Silko's personal papers. Amid the bounty of telling news clippings, drafts, and ephemera, I came across a pale blue scrap of paper with two notes scribbled on it. One is a reminder about the ferry schedule from Ketchikan, Alaska, and the other reads "last word of the novel—sunrise." It seems that as she was planning the mundane details of transportation, Silko was struck with the revelation that she must have the narrative structure of her novel Ceremony come full circle to end just as it begins, with the word "sunrise." The appearance of this simple-yet-evocative note returned my attention to considering the significance of Ceremony's pervasive penchant for nonlinearity. While I am certainly neither the first reader to notice this tendency nor the first scholar to write about it, the emphasis on nonlinearity in Ceremony—as well as in other native-authored texts—deserves further consideration. [End Page 27]

This essay, then, emerges out of a very basic question: what is the significance of the nonlinear histories and chronologies that frequently underlie American Indian literary texts? Many scholars have observed these nonlinear patterns, yet beyond underscoring their presence as markers of cultural-groundedness, the exploration of the social and political significance of nonlinear histories and chronologies in American Indian literatures remains neglected.1 My primary assertion is that nonlinear understandings of history are key elements of the narrations of indigenous nationhood found in American Indian literary texts.

In accord with the many critics who in recent years have given particular attention to the ways in which native fiction narrates indigenous nationhood, this essay proceeds as an exploration of the narrative structures and detailed representations of history and time in Ceremony and in Creek/Cherokee writer Craig Womack's novel Drowning in Fire. I argue that the nonlinear characteristics of these novels are crucial to their narrations of indigenous nationhood. Through readings of Silko's Ceremony and Womack's Drowning in Fire, this essay illuminates how American Indian literatures articulate concepts of indigenous nationhood that fundamentally depart from modern state-nationalism and the underpinning ideologies of progressive, linear history. Through their narrations of nonsequential histories and chronologies, these novels narrate the nonlinear and place-based character of indigenous nationhood.2 As this essay begins to explore, it is this nonlinear disposition that distinguishes literary indigenous nationhood from many of the coercive, destructive, exclusionist, and violent tendencies mandated by the terminal investments in linearity made by modern nation-states.

American Indian Literary Criticisms

In order to explicate the relationship between nonlinearity and indigenous nationhood, this essay employs a theoretical perspective informed by notable scholars of native writing whose works are often associated with either "nationalist" or "dialogic" inclinations—two designations familiar to most serious students and scholars of [End Page 28] native writing. This essay asserts that careful and humble readings of literary and critical works can surmount the oft-perceived distance between tribal nationalists and dialogic critics. Such readings enable the dramatic illumination of indigenous nationhood as narrated in native writing.

Since the late 1980s the dialogic school of criticism that seeks to subvert the colonial impulse through the foregrounding of hybrid, multivalent resistive difference has been prevalent. Represented most effectively by the late Choctaw/Cherokee/Irish scholar Louis Owens and Anishinaabe writer Gerald Vizenor, this dialogic criticism proceeds as an intervention into the colonial discourse of that Eurocentrist invention, "The Indian." The universal "Indian" serves as the iconographic foil against which the universal "Euroamerican" defines itself. This process, of course, simultaneously and paradoxically depends on the presence and disappearance of "The Indian"—a crucial complex that I will return...


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