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  • Tribal Theory in Native American Literature: Dakota and Haudenosaunee Writing and Indigenous Worldviews
  • Lucy Maddox (bio)
Penelope Myrtle Kelsey. Tribal Theory in Native American Literature: Dakota and Haudenosaunee Writing and Indigenous Worldviews. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-8032-2771-2. 175 pp.

In the last few years, some important but difficult challenges have been issued to readers and critics of American Indian literature, most notably by Robert Allen Warrior, Jace Weaver, and Craig Womack. Warrior has written of the need for critics to recognize and honor autonomous Native intellectual traditions; Weaver has called for a criticism that finds its basis and its objectives in the needs of Native communities; and Womack has argued for an Indigenous criticism that brings tribal ways of knowing to the reading of texts by Native authors. All of their work has attracted serious attention, but it has taken a while—understandably, given that the challenges are difficult—for critics to begin to produce book-length studies that respond to these calls by grounding their analyses in the kinds of theoretical, historical, and social knowledge that Warrior, Weaver, and Womack find essential to a responsible Native criticism and thus to the securing of Native intellectual sovereignty.

Penelope Myrtle Kelsey’s Tribal Theory in Native American Literature takes up the challenges proffered by these critics directly, arguing for a reading of Native texts that begins by recognizing their specific tribal referents, traditions, and methodologies. While unquestionably able to stand on its own intellectual merits, Kelsey’s study owes [End Page 81] a strong debt to the earlier scholarship and its articulation of the need for, and the shape of, an Indigenous criticism. Kelsey defines her purposes in this book as demonstrating how “Native American epistemologies and worldviews” (8) constitute a legitimate theoretical grounding for reading Native texts in culturally appropriate ways; establishing a “substantive connection between community perspectives and knowledges and critical practice” (9); and consequently contributing to the freeing of Native texts from their colonization by non-Native readers and critics.

Most of the writers Kelsey examines are Dakotas: Marie McLaughlin, Luther Standing Bear, Charles Eastman, Zitkala-Ša, and Ella Deloria. Her attention to McLaughlin as a Dakota writer and not just the wife of a more famous (white) husband, the agent James McLaughlin, is especially interesting and welcome. In each case, Kelsey focuses on the writer’s use of a textual or thematic element derived from tribal intellectual or social traditions, such as pictographs; definitions of gender roles and the traditional stories that support these definitions; the significance of the camp historian; and the conventions governing such genres as naming narratives, education narratives, and honorific speech. Underlying all of these uses, Kelsey argues, is the fundamental concern of the Dakota writer for the stability and cultural continuity of the Dakota tiośpaye, as each writer understands it. Kelsey then concludes her study by looking at two contemporary Dakota writers, Philip Red Eagle and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, and the contemporary Haudenosaunee poet, Maurice Kenny, to explore the ways in which their writing continues to rely as heavily on tribal coordinates as did the work of the earlier writers. In examining their work, Kelsey demonstrates how various elements of the texts, including the motives and behaviors of fictional characters, are responsive to deeply embedded tribal ways of knowing and understanding.

Kelsey’s analyses are insightful and intelligent, and her familiarity with Dakota language and culture provides a significant and very helpful grounding for her readings of the texts. Taken together, her chapters make a forceful case for the importance, especially to the critic of Native literature, of locating Native texts within their [End Page 82] specific tribal contexts. Readings like hers can also be invaluable to teachers of Native literatures, who will certainly welcome her thoughtful and informed introductions to Dakota epistemologies and aesthetics. One hopes that others will provide similar studies of other tribal or regional literatures and extend the range of Indigenous readings that value tribal knowledge, in the way that Kelsey does, as a source of theoretical strategy, and that they will do so as conscientiously and knowledgeably as Kelsey has done.

The book does raise some issues...


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pp. 81-84
Launched on MUSE
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