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  • Strategies for Ethical EngagementAn Open Letter Concerning Non-Native Scholars of Native Literatures
  • Sam McKegney (bio)

Reacting to violence perpetrated against Indigenous texts by decades of literary criticism dominated by non-Native academics wielding analytical strategies developed outside Native communities, much recent criticism of Indigenous literatures has been intensely self-reflexive about the position of the critic, whether non-Native or otherwise. Declaration of ties to particular Indigenous communities or, perhaps more crucially, confession of lack of community ties and non-Native status have become near obligatory elements of contemporary Indigenous literary criticism, and rightly so given the general desire of such criticism to intervene in and destabilize unequal power relations and the basic truth that non-Native members of the academy tend to enjoy positions of privilege, authority, and power. The current critical climate thus encourages a healthy skepticism about claims made by non-Native critics while suggesting (at times implicitly, at others explicitly) the intellectual and political value of attending to Indigenous voices within the critical arena.1 Helen Hoy, herself non-Native, worries adroitly about "unfortunate occasions either for absolute, irreducible distance or for presumptuous familiarity" (11), which emerge for the outsider critic by virtue of cultural naivety. Lack of cultural immersion leaves many non-Native critics unaware of the symbolic archives, historical and cultural backdrops, generic categories, and even languages relied upon by specific Native authors, all of which conspire to render interpretations by such critics suspect, if not dangerous. Hoy elaborates that "too-easy identification by [End Page 56] the non-Native reader, ignorance of historical or cultural allusion, obliviousness to the presence or properties of Native genres, and the application of irrelevant aesthetic standards are all means of domesticating difference, assimilating Native narratives into the mainstream" (9).

Although I agree with insistence on self-reflexivity and acknowledgment of limited cultural understandings, I would argue that lack of cultural initiation and knowledge is actually a secondary reason for privileging the work of Native critics (as well as a bit of a generalization). Knowledge can be attained. Neither unproblematically, of course, nor completely, and certainly not with the depth of a lifetime of experiential learning through simple academic study, but those non-Native critics willing to put in the time and effort in terms of research, dialogue, social interaction, and community involvement can approach valid cultural understandings. (In fact, to my mind, it is our responsibility to do so if we desire our work to be relevant.) Furthermore, given colonial intervention, not all Native individuals have inherited full understandings of their tribal cultures and histories, let alone those of other Native nations. In the aftermath of attempted genocide, requisite cultural knowledge can be taken as a given by neither Natives nor non-Natives.2 The primary reason for privileging the work of Indigenous scholars is rather what Craig Womack calls the "intrinsic and extrinsic relationship" between Native communities and Native writing (11) and what Jace Weaver calls the "dialogic" nature of Native texts, which "both reflect and shape Native identity and community" (41). Native literature grows out of Native communities and in turn affects Native communities. In analyzing, contextualizing, grappling with, and elucidating Native texts, literary criticism seeks to intervene in this reciprocal process (most often to serve as catalyst). To borrow from Julie Cruikshank, criticism of Native literature generally seeks to participate in the social lives of stories. Stories influence the extratextual world, not straightforwardly and not transparently, but stories and critical discourses about stories do influence people's lives. And in the field of Native studies, the stories under analysis, quite frankly, affect certain lives far more [End Page 57] profoundly than others. As much as intellectual empathy and ethical commitment can pervade the work of a scholar with neither biological nor immediate social connection to Indigenous communities, the consequences of that individual's work cannot be experienced personally with the same intensity as one whose day-to-day lived experience is being Indigenous. Although I endeavor to be as sensitive and respectful as I am able, as a non-Native critic I simply do not stand to inherit the adverse social impact my critical work might engender, and this, it seems to...


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pp. 56-67
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