- Conceptualizing American Indian Literary Theory Today
A few years ago at the MLA annual convention, I was discussing with a colleague the writers and works I had written about in my dissertation. I mentioned several of the writers and works, and this colleague seemed very approving of my choice of subjects. But when I mentioned the last writer I was analyzing in my study and began to discuss this writer's work, my colleague suddenly interjected, "That hack?" Momentarily dismayed and confused by my colleague's characterization of this writer, I recognized that I was being baited to defend my subject matter and to defend it on aesthetic grounds. That short exchange crystallized for me something I have long known, which is that we in Native literary studies do not have any guidelines for describing what is a "literary" work within the context of our field, nor have we clearly articulated what is aesthetically meaningful within the context of Native literature and how those aesthetics may differ from mainstream notions of Western aesthetics.
My colleague's comments were particularly disturbing because the writer he called a hack not only was somebody I knew but also was from my home community. By calling this writer a "hack," my colleague dismissed this writer's work as uninventive, sloppy, and written only for profit. But the comment did more than this. I knew that people from my home community read and enjoyed this writer, and so by denigrating this writer's work, my colleague also denigrated the literary aesthetics of those from my home community.
While the story I recount is just an isolated incident, I believe it reflects a real-world example of a growing debate in our field regarding [End Page 175] what is aesthetically meaningful and what is "literary" and worthy of study. In reflecting on the aesthetic impasse between my colleague and me, I realized that the definition of aesthetics within which I work assumes a necessary relationship between writings and the communities they serve. So, putting aside whether I liked this writer's work, the fact that the writer's work was read in my home community made it aesthetically meaningful. The task for me, the critic, was to offer my interpretation of why and how it was meaningful.
I am not alone in making the claim that Native writing exists within a nexus of relationships that include the various communities they serve and the ones to which they are directed in particular. In fact the most influential works of Native American literary studies in the past ten years or so have as their common denominator their expressed goal of clarifying not just the connections but the responsibilities that Native writers, Native writings, Native communities, and critics of Native literature all share. Terms such as Robert Warrior's "intellectual sovereignty," and, recently, "intellectual trade routes"; Jace Weaver's "communitism"; Elizabeth Cook-Lynn's "Anti-Indianism"; Craig Womack's "Red Stick" approach; all these terms, which are the markers of literary theoretical concepts, are unintelligible outside of the context of Native community history, politics, and needs (Cook-Lynn x; Warrior, People and the Word 182 and Tribal Secrets 97–98; Weaver xiii; Womack 11–12). They are critical terms used in theorizing the relationships between indigenous people and colonial powers, and as such they may be applicable to the struggles of indigenous communities around the world.
The most pressing critical debates in American Indian literary studies concern how we are theorizing the relationships between literature, culture, and politics, but these questions cannot be dealt with accurately until we have a working definition of what is "theory" in our field. An example of a mainstream definition of theory is as follows:
1. Theory is interdisciplinary—discourse with effects outside an original discipline.
2. Theory is analytical and speculative—an attempt to work out [End Page 176] what is involved in what we call sex or language or writing or meaning or the subject.
3. Theory is a critique of common sense, of concepts taken as natural.
4. Theory is reflexive, thinking about thinking, enquiry into the categories we use in making sense of things, in literature...