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  • Born Out of the Creek Landscape: Reconstructing Community and Continuance in Craig Womack’s Drowning in Fire
  • John Gamber (bio)

What identifies a Creek work, in my mind, in addition to its authorship by a Creek person, is the depiction of geographically specific landscape and the language and stories that are born out of that landscape.

—Craig Womack, Red on Red (20)

In his 1999 monograph, Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism, Craig S. Womack (Creek) explains the importance of understanding Native texts within their specific tribal frameworks and traditions. He offers this approach as an alternative to reading American Indian texts within or in relation to pan-Indian or European/American canons. For Womack, this reading strategy must further engage the specific geographies of the tribal lands in question. This tribally-specific approach is generally labeled “tribal nationalism,” though Womack opts for “separatism” as the subtitle to his text.1 However, Womack is not solely a literary critic but also a novelist, and he offers Drowning in Fire (2001) as an example of the goals he lays out for tribal, and specifically Creek, authors.2 This article analyzes Drowning in Fire, focusing on the reconstruction of Creek/Muskogee identity in the specific landscapes of Oklahoma.3 By “reconstruction,” I do not mean to imply artificiality or to foster an image of a lost culture attempting to define itself despite historical discontinuity. Rather, using Womack’s own critical lens as offered in Red on Red, this essay examines his novel in terms of the way Creek identity, like all identities, is constantly produced and reproduced by its own cultural agents; at the same time, it is also constantly producing and reproducing its own cultural subjects. These reconstructions are always in-process, resilient, and adaptable practices that oppose images of vanishing or extinct Native communities.

I also wish to recognize Womack’s remarkably fluid reconstruction of culture and how it is affected by human connections to place. Because Oklahoma is the site of Creek relocation (from Georgia and Alabama, in particular) following the 1830 Indian Removal Act (a history I address [End Page 103] in more detail later), one might expect it to serve as the site of exile, the temporary locus of an ongoing diaspora. However, for the characters in Drowning in Fire, as for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Oklahoma becomes a sovereign home. Muskogee connections to place and other species are integral parts of these open-ended reconstructions, core traditional values that are reinforced through family stories that serve as lessons about how to dwell in place and in motion. These elements bear particular relevance to recent ecocritical moves to understand and articulate human and other-than-human migrations and diasporas. Reflecting the fact that the Creek Nation has historically been a confederated one—that is, it has included and welcomed individuals, families, and even whole communities from other tribal, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds in a broad-reaching alliance—the Creek community presented in Drowning in Fire is racially inclusive. It is also notable that Womack imagines this community to have been historically welcoming and accepting of what would today be termed queer relationships. Womack’s work, then, further informs ecocritical studies of naturalized concepts of gender and sexuality.

Throughout Drowning in Fire, contemporary Creek identities are understood through “traditional” Creek stories, especially those describing human relationships to land and water and to plant and animal species. In Red on Red, Womack explains:

[T]his study will employ the term “traditional Creek life” rather than precontact and postcontact culture. I acknowledge that the very term “traditionalism” is problematic, especially in the way it is sometimes perceived as dealing only with the past. I wish to posit an alternative definition of traditionalism as anything that is useful to Indian people in retaining their values and worldviews, no matter how much it deviates from what people did one or two hundred years ago.


Womack contrasts this alternative definition of the “traditional” to the “nostalgic anthropological view” (42). Similarly, folklorist Henry Glassie notes that the idea of tradition has been misunderstood as a pure and static construction forged in the past. By contrast, he asserts, “tradition is the creation...


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pp. 103-123
Launched on MUSE
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