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  • "Primitive" Discourse:Aspects of Contemporary North American Indian Representations of the Irish and of Contemporary Irish Representations of North American Indians
  • Joy Porter (bio)

This article contrasts a number of contemporary incidences of Irish representation of and engagement with Native Americans and their history with two Native American novels and their depictions of Ireland and the Irish, LeAnne Howe's 2001 book Shellshaker and Leslie Marmon Silko's 1999 book Gardens in the Dunes. It argues that Ireland's relationship with Native Americans and Native America's relationship with Ireland, particularly at the level of imagery and representation, is more complex than contemporary creative and critical work has tended to suggest. While the voices from Native America or Ireland that represent or refer to each other are small in number, their articulation is often powerful. Furthermore, they unlock a series of representational issues that are important to how each national entity or in the American Indian context, group of sovereign national entities, views itself within the postcolonial world. I present evidence to show that both Irish cultures and American Indian cultures have tended routinely to see each other through a cracked mirror, one reflective of colonial stereotype rather than the historical record. For interesting reasons, voices from each side have chosen to perpetuate ossified myths rather than the changing historical realities that have developed within each set of communities across time. What is needed at this juncture is for a new critical and creative relationship to be forged between Ireland and Native America, one that moves beyond stereotype and misrepresentation and instead engages the rich histories and contemporary cultures of each group of peoples. Today, as Ireland's artists and critics examine [End Page 63] the full texture of postcolonial Ireland and set about placing its stories in rich transnational context, it is more appropriate than ever that they begin to comprehend more fully the American Indian nations whose territory, in the realm of imagination, they continue to invade. Correspondingly, as American Indian artists and critics continue to engage with Ireland, it is important that they also move beyond reiteration of the most pervasive stereotypes about it and instead adopt a more nuanced understanding of the colonizing processes that both sets of peoples have shared. True freedom from colonial ways of thinking requires not only that we dispense with the colonizers' stereotypes about ourselves, but also that we recognize stereotypes applied to others. It is only by moving beyond the partial and telescoped version of history such stereotypes represent that dialogue can begin, a dialogue whose potential to open up new avenues of postcolonial analysis in the twenty-first century could be profound. Failure to dispense with respective stereotype and misrepresentation on either the Irish or American Indian side will hinder understanding of the shared aspects of the Irish and American Indian history of colonialism and perpetuate colonial representational ideas that have always served interests other than those of indigenous communities.

Approaches to a Shared Colonial History

No two experiences of colonialism are the same, but the links between Irish and American Indian experiences of conquest are nonetheless slowly being unearthed. We have known since 1945 from D.B. Quinn for example, that English colonists in Ireland gleaned ideas about plantations and subjugation from the Spanish empire's successes in the Americas. Early figures such as Walter Ralegh, Francis Drake, Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Richard Grenville all benefited from their experience colonizing both the Americas and Ireland. Similarly, Cromwell's approach to Irish subjugation had clear links with Spanish practices and he sold many Irish people into West Indian slavery. Indeed, Ireland can, as Nicholas Canny argues, be seen as a sort of laboratory experiment for the colonizing of North America and as his work with Anthony Pagden reveals, settler communities across time have tended to share a common set of characteristics and to have faced common problems.

Certainly, the Irish and American Indians have shared mythologized identities generated by those who sought to culturally dominate them. Both were characterized as practicing cannibalism, bestiality, sexual excess, godlessness, and immorality, and as having common approaches to war, dress, and habitation. A shared American Indian/Irish heritage in this regard can be...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2153-6856
Print ISSN
0026-3079
Pages
pp. 63-85
Launched on MUSE
2010-09-17
Open Access
No
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