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American Literature 75.4 (2003) 899-901

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Language Shift among the Navajos: Identity Politics and Cultural Continuity. By Deborah House. Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press. 2002. xxvii, 122 pp. $35.00.
A Forest of Time: American Indian Ways of History. By Peter Nabokov. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press. 2002. x, 246 pp. Cloth, $55.00; paper, $20.00.

While House's and Nabokov's books raise issues of importance to Native American scholarship, one does so problematically, the other brilliantly. House's work is replete with difficulties, mostly of interpretation. She explores a paradox: the decline of everyday use of the Navajo language in a time when Navajo is increasingly touted as the marker of authenticity. The questions House poses are often off-target. Moreover, House frequently veers away to fit her arguments into trendy but ill-suited theories. She wonders, for example, why so many Navajos consider practices that actually come from Western society as part of their own tradition, such as the "traditional" foods of mutton and wheat, wool weaving, silver smithing, and even the "traditional" dress of velveteen blouses. Other practices, House charges, are given a "distinctly Navajo cast," in spite of their Western origins, such as "the public teaching of traditional knowledge in Western-style workshops, seminars, in-service training sessions, and college classes." Worse, apparently, is the fact that "in addition to disseminating traditional knowledge, these activities are also sources of cash income for the sponsoring institutions and the presenters" (24–25). This latter transgression apparently challenges the "Indians as anti-capitalist" stereotype. House heightens her condemnation in discussing "activities that openly use ‘traditional' productions as commodities," such as "fund-raisers . . . staged in support of Dine College student clubs . . . families with medical emergencies or . . . financial needs, public-school field trips. . . . raffles with Navajo-made . . . crafts and objects. . . ." For House, all these activities add up to Navajos' "hegemonic incorporation" into the capitalist world. "Why ‘choose' to be like one's oppressors and conquerors?" House asks. Michael Taussig's notion of "mimesis" provides the answer: Navajos mimic white ways to "exert agency" (26).

This analytical pattern continues. Navajos do something "western." Then House "explains." That all societies, including indigenous ones before Europeans arrived in the Americas, change over time and through contact with other peoples seems not to have occurred to House. Would she find Irish villagers less Irish if they ate imported food—potatoes—or practiced a religion—Catholicism—brought to Ireland by foreigners? With Navajos, however, House cannot seem to escape pervasive stereotypes that shunt Navajos into one of two categories: denizens of a static, timeless authentic world or modernized Indians, "just like us" and therefore "inauthentic." The result of all these problems—misconceived questions, misapplied theories, preoccupations with identity politics, an ahistorical perspective—are disappointing, as [End Page 899] is her conclusion: despite the essentialist trap, Navajos should employ Native practices to promote the "Navajo way."

Despite these flaws, however, the book is rich in interviews with Dine people such as Martha Jackson, who describes her experiences in the infamous "outing" program that sent children already incarcerated in boarding schools out to work as domestics or farm laborers in white families (for wages paid directly to the schools, ostensibly for the children's food, room, and clothing). Jackson's story is only one of several that will be of interest to future scholars.

Peter Nabokov's Forest of Time, on the other hand, is wonderful. Without offering any narrow prescriptions for understanding Native America's "historicity," Nabokov deftly covers an impressively broad ground without sinking into stereotypes. Unlike House, Nabokov also avoids a confining ethnocentrism. He gracefully shares his unique perspective, that of a non-Indian scholar and activist who has spent decades teaching and researching as well as working with and for Native communities. Nabokov also adds politics and history to his study, thus avoiding romanticized images of timeless, nature-loving primitives.

Elegantly written, Nabokov's study of American Indians' practice of history is a feast for those interested in the nature...


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pp. 899-901
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Archived 2005
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