- Engaged Resistance: American Indian Art, Literature, and Film from Alcatraz to the NMAI
Dean Rader begins his book Engaged Resistance: American Indian Art, Literature, and Film from Alcatraz to the NMAI with a brief history of the Ghost Dance, a nineteenth-century religious movement whose promise of restoring the earth to Native Americans through ceremonial dance represents the earliest pan-Indian act of colonial defiance. This performative mode of resistance serves as a leitmotif throughout Rader’s book, which elucidates anticolonialist strategies in contemporary Native American poetry, fiction, film, and visual arts.
Through a series of case studies, Rader demonstrates that “resistance in the symbolic field can be as powerful as resistance on the battlefield” (109). His insightful readings of Native texts and symbols are sensitive and accomplished, and he convincingly argues for a distinctly American Indian form of aesthetic activism that he terms “engaged resistance.” Rooted in indigenous ideologies and archetypes, the discourse of engaged resistance cleverly subverts the mainstream language of dominance—both verbal and visual—by dismantling its traditional frames of knowledge through blended genre, circular time, trickster tropes, and communal storytelling. In so doing, American Indian artists, writers, and filmmakers at once enhance and defend Native dignity and cultural autonomy.
Taking a cue from the indigenous works he studies, Rader positions his book as an activist intervention in the popular discourse about American Indian peoples and culture. The gusto with which Rader undertakes this task is palpable. He strenuously condemns the US historical record of Native genocide and its continuing legacy of cultural hegemony, and he champions contemporary American Indian tenacity and aesthetic ingenuity in countering mainstream tendencies of assimilation and erasure. Yet Rader’s ebullience also does a disservice to his project. By arguing for the exceptionalism of Native American aesthetic activism, Rader crafts his own “trap of receptive determinacy” that posits a singular, “correct” way to understand American Indian cultural production (93).
First, Rader refers to the United States and to popular culture in general as the enemy of Native American culture. This binary construct implies that the reader must ultimately agree with the author, thereby joining an enlightened minority, or accept guilt by association. Indeed, [End Page 326] Rader repeatedly disparages scholars and critics who, in his opinion, fail to situate Native works within an indigenous context or who acknowledge but are not adequately sympathetic to American Indians’ anticolonialist project.
Second, Rader proclaims the aesthetic excellence of Native American art by invoking Georgia O’Keeffe, Spike Lee, and other non-Native cultural leaders, but he refuses any extended comparative analysis, explaining that American Indian artworks reflect indigenous ontologies and thus “operate outside Anglo [and other ethnic] conceptions” (139). Rader’s narrow focus attempts to situate Native American literature and film beyond Western scrutiny, to evaluate these works on their own terms. However, the author finds himself in an interpretive catch-22, as his primary thesis rests on the idea that contemporary indigenous art expresses a hybridized aesthetic derived from American and Native aesthetic traditions. Rader even identifies historical sources and modern affinities with non-Native works as part of his analyses, thus rendering his decision to neglect comparison all the more perplexing and, at times, damaging to his argument. For example, Rader correctly observes the visual similarities between the map paintings of Jasper Johns and Flathead-Cree-Shoshone artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, but whereas Smith “indigenizes the lower forty-eight,” Johns merely “empties out his states” to create “innocuous” maps from an “unaltered perspective” (53). Certainly, Johns’s paintings do not explicitly evoke colonial transgressions as Smith’s paintings do, but Rader ignores postmodernist readings of Johns’s paintings, whose parallel project of challenging the authority of place names and blurring the distinction between maps/objectivity and paintings/subjectivity not only predated but also likely served as a model for Smith’s paintings. While this scholarly oversight might be attributed to Rader’s lack of art historical training, his assumption of Native essentialism nevertheless denies a larger understanding of recent American...