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Colorado State University D A V ID B. E S P E Y Endings in Contemporary American Indian Fiction “There must be a link between the forms of literature and other ways in which . . . we try to give some order and design to the past, present, and future,” says Frank Kermode in his book, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction.1 These “other ways” are primarily the linear concepts of time which derive from a classical and Christian view of man in the universe. One result of a linear view of time is an anxiety about The End — more specifically, a preoccupation with and fear of death. Christian emphasis on death has profoundly influ­ enced western perception of historical time. Our views of time, Kermode argues, are products of the human imagination, and literature is shaped by assumptions about time which are prevalent in the culture from which the literature arises. Unlike Christian culture, traditional American Indian culture is characterized by a cyclical rather than a linear view of time. As the Sioux medicine man Black Elk states: “You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round.”2 In his study of religion and American Indians, God is Red, Vine Deloria (like Frank 1Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (New York, Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 93. (Subsequent page references given in parenthesis are from the editions noted.) 2John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks (New York, Pocket Books, 1972), p. 164. (Reprint of 1932 edition.) 134 Western American Literature Kermode) points out the connections between linear time and Christian anxiety about death. And like Kermode, Deloria considers inadequate the traditional Christian explanation of origins and ends. But whereas Kermode argues only for a greater awareness of how our Active powers affect our sense of time, Deloria preaches the wisdom of traditional Indian beliefs and advocates an adaptation of them. What recommends Indian religions, says Deloria, is their perception of a necessary harmony between man and nature, their acceptance of death as a part of a natural and cyclical order. “The singular aspect of Indian tribal religions was that almost universally they produced people unafraid of death . . . Immortality is secondary to integrity of tribal existence in the present, and we find not a cringing fear of death but a religious community so strong as to virtually shrug off death as an enemy.”3 Traditional Indian religions stress a spatial rather than a temporal relation between man and the universe. The nature of man’s relationship to the land he lives on is the focus of Indian religions rather than some ending and judgment towards which time is propelling him. Contemporary Indian writers, however, are particularly concerned with the subject of death, given the fact that many Indian cultures have died, and that American Indian history since the coming of the white man has been marked by destruction and death. The defeat of Indians by whites often resulted in the death of Indian gods, the destruc­ tion of their mythologies, the abandonment of their religions. In The Way to Rainy Mountain, N. Scott Momaday describes how his grand­ mother witnessed deicide when the U.S. Cavalry disrupted a Kiowa sun dance and destroyed sacred images. (The massacre of Wounded Knee, so often cited as the culminating death of American Indian nations, was a result of the Ghost Dance, a curious religious phenomenon in which the Indians adapted Christian notions of the Apocalypse for their own purposes. The Christian sense of linear End was transformed by Indians into a belief in the cyclical return of Indian prosperity.) One of the problems of contemporary Indian writers has been to work traditional Indian mythology into a modem context and to treat in fiction the loss of cultural heritage and traditional belief and the need for a return to it. Three recent pieces of American Indian fiction significantly end in death and funeral rituals: Leslie Silko’s “The Man to Send Rain Clouds,” the title story of an anthology of fiction by...


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pp. 133-139
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