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  • Writing Deeper Maps:Mapmaking, Local Indigenous Knowledges, and Literary Nationalism in Native Women’s Writing
  • Kelli Lyon Johnson (bio)

In The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, Louise Erdrich's great storyteller Nanapush contrasts two mapping traditions: "White people usually name places for men—presidents and generals and entrepreneurs," he tells Father Damien. "Ojibwe[s] name places for what grows there or what is found" (359). For Erdrich only those who know "what grows there and what is found"—that is, the people, the Anishinaabeg—can correctly map the place because of their relationship to and knowledge of the land. They are "the keepers of the names of the earth" (360). Erdrich insists that mapping requires local, Indigenous knowledge. 1 This turn to the local is reflected in much contemporary Native writing and literary scholarship. I argue that this turn marks a movement away from Western theories that have often been used to determine the social, psychological, or cultural meanings of Native literature from outside Native nations. Poet and critic Kimberly Blaeser raises the possibility that Western literary theories may be as "destructive to the essence of Native Literature as were many boarding school teachings to a Native lifestyle," suggesting that "we must admit [these current theories] are at certain times and in important ways inhospitable. A full understanding of Native literary traditions cannot flourish when the interpretive theories, the tools of literary analysis, all stem from another/an other cultural and literary aesthetic" ("Like 'Reeds'" 265–66).

I see this remarkable turn to Indigenous knowledges in Native writing, and the concomitant rapid and exciting development of literary nationalism, as a response both to more than twenty years of [End Page 103] the dominance of European literary and cultural theory and, at least in part, to the rise of globalization. Like Blaeser, a great many Native writers and critics recognize the dominant and "inhospitable" theoretical tools of literary analysis in the academy in general, and they seek theories that emerge from their own knowledge systems. These writers also recognize the assimilative and extirpative powers of globalization from the experiences of Native nations in the Americas that have contended with five hundred years of similar, and violent, programs of assimilation, destruction, and genocide. In the face of globalization and the often universalizing discourse of literary theories that seek to "transcend" cultural difference, many Native writers and critics have responded in three important ways: by rejecting the imposition of European (and Euroamerican) knowledge as a paradigm for reading Native texts; by presenting their own Indigenous cultures as sources of knowledge; and by explaining and using those Indigenous knowledges as a means of asserting sovereignty for Native nations in the United States. As the example from Erdrich's The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse demonstrates, Indigenous maps function in just these ways in contemporary Native women's writing.

European maps have long been taken as transparent, scientific, objective, and universal—as if they were merely precise representations of actual space in the world. 2 Predicated on European maps and map use, geography is—to use Gillian Rose's analysis—a masculinist discipline dominated by white men who have traditionally, as Rose writes, decided "what counts as legitimate geographical knowledge and who can produce such knowledge" (2). Geographical knowledge has been founded on "a particular form of masculinist rationality" (6) that "assumes a knower who believes he can separate himself from body, emotions, past and so on, so that he and his thought are autonomous, context free and objective" (7)—in a word, universal . Universality, in turn, "assumes that it is comprehensive, and thus the only knowledge possible" (7). European maps have come to represent the epitome of scientific accuracy, as the explosion of European mapping that is sometimes called the "cartographic revolution" coincided with colonial competition and the rise of science [End Page 104] in the seventeenth century. In Masons, Tricksters and Cartographers , David Turnbull suggests that European maps have become inextricable from both science and the modern state (92), arguing that

in order the achieve the kind of "universal" and "accurate" knowledge that constitutes modern science and cartography, local knowledge, personnel, and instrumentation have to...


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