- X-Marks: Native Signatures of Assent
In X-Marks: Native Signatures of Assent, Scott Richard Lyons offers a timely corrective to the excesses of traditionalist scholarship within Native American studies. For Lyons, the field’s central concepts—identity, culture, and nation—are too often deployed in ways that promote an ahistorical and essentialist understanding of indigeneity. This fetishistic adherence to tradition demonizes the adoption of modern practices; for traditionalists, modernization is synonymous with assimilation. Lyons contests this reductive equivalency by arguing that change is fundamental to Native traditions. As such, indigenous peoples should embrace modernization as a potentially powerful instrument of positive change. This indigenous appeal to modernity traces its history to the nineteenth-century treaty council. While sensitive to the contentious nature of treaty-making, Lyons argues that the decision to modernize was reasoned and willful. When indigenous leaders made their “x-marks”—that is, signed treaties—they accepted change with the earnest belief that it would benefit their communities. As a first foray into the unfinished project of modernization, the x-mark is paradigmatic of later engagements with modern practices. Lyons thus ascribes the term to moments of indigenous consent “that, while not necessarily traditional in origin, can sometimes turn out all right and occasionally even good” (3). When they make their x-mark, Native peoples “assent to the new” and thereby attest to the perseverance and growth of their communities in the contemporary world (33). [End Page 315]
Lyons’s chapters are guided by a question posed in his introduction: “is it possible today to envision the survival of indigenous identity, culture, and nationalization in a nonessentialistic manner?” (34). In response, Lyons forwards a deeply historicist analysis that traces the migration of these three concepts through time, space, and discourse. The study challenges traditionalist perspectives by attending to Ojibwe history, culture, and language; literary scholars may find the author’s detailed linguistic analyses of Ojibwemowin particularly noteworthy. In his first chapter, Lyons questions traditionalist definitions of Native identity that rely on prescriptive criteria like “blood, breeding, or biology” (56). Showing how Ojibwemowin distinguishes between identities, Lyons concludes that indigenous peoples used “culture, ethnicity, language, and allegiance” to determine the extent of one’s Indianness (56). Thus Indian identities are historically produced and socially constructed; they are “something people do, not what they are” (40). Lyons’s second chapter expands upon this distinction between “being” and “doing.” He critiques traditionalist notions of culture that constrain indigenous expression by privileging a purportedly authentic group of “specific beliefs and practices” (77). Returning to an analysis of Ojibwemowin, he contends that the language’s preponderance of verbs reveals an indigenous desire to “do cultural things” (88). For Lyons, then, culture is not a static entity—a possessable object—but is instead an expansive set of actions guided by a “general system of values” (77). Whereas traditionalist approaches to culture are defined by what they proscribe, this inclusive approach offers Native peoples the means to “survive, thrive, and thereby produce more life” in modern times (87).
Scholars of Native literatures may find Lyons’s third chapter especially germane. He argues that the birth of the Indian nation coincided with the advent of treaty-making. Thus “the scene of writing was where indigenous ethnic groups began transforming themselves into actual nations” (123). Writers espoused what Lyons deems a “realist nationalism,” one that recognizes and promotes the dynamic diversity inherent in indigenous communities (140). Lyons supports a realist nationalism in opposition to one predicated on “conceptual separatism”: the assertion that radical Native difference renders impotent any consideration of cross-cultural commensurability (136). If traditionalists are serious about claiming Native nationhood, first they must acknowledge that the nation is an eminently modern concept. The chapter concludes with an astute historicization and evaluation of literary nationalism, a ubiquitous methodology in Native literary scholarship.
Lyons argues that, despite its potential for parochialism, this critical movement exemplifies a realist nationalism that embraces change in the service of cultural survival and political power. Lastly, in his fourth chapter, Lyons decries traditionalist forms of citizenship...