- North America as Contact ZoneNative American Literary Nationalism and the Cross-Cultural Dilemma
In Native American literary studies today there is a gap between the variety of criticism being produced and the metacritical debate about what Native literary criticism should look like. A review of recent issues of Studies in American Indian Literatures, for example, will discover a wide of variety of approaches, some relating literary works to tribally specific contexts, others demonstrating the utility of pan-Indian or pan-Indigenous approaches, and others suggesting a variety of ways in which Native literatures might be simultaneously related to both Native and non-Native contexts—or, indeed, suggesting that these contexts are themselves deeply connected. All of these approaches are, of course, joined by still other modes of criticism that make no overt claim about the relationship between a text and the cultures that produced it. At the same time, however, the metacritical debate about what Native literary study should look like has become polarized between theorists favoring an inward-facing nationalism and those insisting on an outward-facing cosmopolitanism. My aim in this article is to survey this polarization of the theoretical debate and, in so doing, to suggest a route toward a middle ground. Finding a theoretical justification for such a middle ground will help to provide a firmer grounding for criticism that sees modern Native and non-Native cultures as both distinguishable and historically entangled and that therefore rejects the unnecessary polarity of much of the metacritical debate in recent years. As I suggest through a reading of Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues (1995), a critical approach that sees North America as a field of overlapping sovereignties represents [End Page 26] the best method of connecting Native American literary texts to the cultural contexts from which they emerge.
In some respects, the state of Native American literary theory today can be traced back to the identity politics of the early 1990s. In his 1992 presidential address to the Mid-America American Studies Association (later published in American Studies), Daniel Littlefield Jr. offered a tentative but largely positive evaluation of what he saw as a variety of movements seeking to restrict outside access to Native American cultural artifacts and to promote the training of Indigenous scholars (Littlefield 99). For Littlefield, this burgeoning nationalism posed obstacles for those studying Native cultures, but it also signaled a growth in the vitality of scholarship on and by Native peoples. In the following year’s volume of American Studies, Arnold Krupat responded to Littlefield, denouncing most restrictions on free inquiry and arguing that a scholar’s race and ethnicity have no bearing on the quality of her work. In prose that is at times quite heated, Krupat insists that Littlefield’s division of those studying Native literature into Native and non-Native groups represents an unnecessary and potentially harmful distraction from the ultimate goal of producing insightful work.
Much of Littlefield and Krupat’s exchange focuses on the use of the pronouns we, us, and them, and to this extent the debate seems somewhat dated, marked by the identity politics of its time. This is not to suggest that the issues of race, identity, and culture they raise have been solved. However, in the years since this exchange was published, the terms of the debate have shifted from identity to methodology. The metacritical debate in Native American literary studies today does not focus so much on who is doing the studying as on the methods and skills that person brings to the study. Thus, for example, a Native American literary nationalist like Craig Womack is unlikely to declare that only Creek people should be allowed to study Creek culture; he is likely, however, to argue that a person studying Creek culture should take the time to learn the Creek language, and this requirement may impose a de facto barrier to non- Creek participation in Creek literature. Nonetheless, the emphasis in the debate has shifted away from identity and toward methods. [End Page 27]
These methodological disputes are apparent in several recent attempts to map the field of Native American literary criticism. In Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism...