- Red Land, Red Power: Grounding Knowledge in the American Novel
Proponents of trickster discourse, led by Gerald Vizenor and Louis Owens, have dominated American Indian cultural and literary studies in recent years. In Mixedblood Messages (1998), Owens describes the "zone of the trickster" as a "shimmering, always changing zone of multifaceted contact within which every utterance is challenged and interrogated, all referents put into question" (27). The theoretical "zone of the trickster" allows Native critics engaged in the political project of decolonizing Native lands and lives to deconstruct harmful stereotypes of Indians. While such deconstruction certainly has its uses, Sean Kicummah Teuton argues in his new book that trickster discourse ultimately fails because it only deconstructs: it can never help Native Americans build politically viable identities.
Building such identities, Teuton writes, requires "a reasonable means of evaluating different kinds of tribal and self-knowledge" (7). This entails seeing tribal knowledge as socially constructed and stable. Teuton argues that scholars need a new theoretical framework to define and evaluate it. Trickster theory is not adequate because it relies on postmodernist theories of knowledge that see production of understanding one's self as subjective [End Page 84] and therefore unstable. Essentialism, the idea that Native identity is based on a core of self-evident, static, and "authentic" characteristics, is also inadequate as a theoretical framework because essentialism precludes the possibility of analysis. One either has the essential qualities of Native identity or one does not. Teuton's alternative to trickster discourse and essentialism is what he calls "tribal realist theory," describing it as an "empirical process of decolonization, in which the interaction between the concepts of identity and experience drives a dynamic of political awakening and cultural recovery" (8). Knowledge thus produced is both objective and stable because it is mediated through the tribe's oral tradition.
Teuton illustrates his tribal realist theory by showing how three characters from classic Native American novels heal estrangements from their cultural identities by reinterpreting their own experiences through "a culturally regulated center of knowledge" (26). Abel, in N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn (1968), struggles to re-envision his identity by reconnecting with his homeland. The unnamed narrator in James Welch's Winter in the Blood (1986) gains a more fully realized identity by discovering who his grandfather is. And in Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony (1977), when the Euro-American world dismisses Tayo and his metaphysical experiences as crazy, Tayo's community helps him interpret those experiences as beneficial for him and his people. In addition to analysis of fictitious characters, Teuton then shows readers that American Indians in today's US prison system are working to decolonize their minds by evaluating their experiences through the lens of tribal cultures and oral traditions.
Teuton's purpose is clearly political, and his main audience is other indigenous intellectuals. He calls on Native scholars to begin using tribal realist theory to encourage tribal members to evaluate their experiences and revise their identities in ways that are politically empowering. Scholars who are interested in trickster theory and epistemological studies will benefit from Teuton's analysis as well. [End Page 85]