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  • Indigenous Wests: Literary and Visual Aesthetics
  • Susan Bernardin (bio)

In her introduction to the Spring–Summer 2013 issue of Western American Literature, a double issue highlighting the work of younger scholars in western American literary studies, Krista Comer forecasts future directions for the field. In considering such keywords as critical regionalism, Comer notes that “the most stark and enduring challenge to a field historically (if imperfectly) committed to an ethics of place has to do with indigenous studies and peoples and their demands for recognition of sovereignty claims as well as for indigenous spaces as ‘closed’ or ‘bounded’” (11). At the end of her introduction she returns by way of analogy to the “challenge” Indigenous studies might present to western American literary studies. Recounting her plenary session on critical regionalism at the 2010 Western American Literature conference, Comer recalls posing the question: “[H]ow critical is a critical regionalism that is not actively feminist?” (14). She then quotes fellow panelist Chad Allen’s rejoinder: “How critical is a critical regionalism that does not center on indigeneity?” (14).

This special issue on Indigenous Wests takes up Comer’s and Allen’s call, while also suggesting productive spaces of dialogue between Native studies and gender studies, western American studies, ecocriticism, and film studies. When former wal editor Melody Graulich approached me about guest editing a special issue on Indigenous literary and visual aesthetics, she was responding to the proliferation of contemporary Native writers and artists practicing what Dean Rader calls “indigenous interdisciplinarity” (2). The four essays and one interview in this issue sample some of that “indigenous interdisciplinarity” in experimental and short film, futuristic [End Page 1] fiction, and poetry by undernoted or lesser-known Native filmmakers and writers. The work of Sy Hoawah, Stephen Graham Jones, Dustinn Craig, and Ramona Emerson suggests the diversity of contemporary Native aesthetics even as all four strategically reclaim the narrative terrain and visual archive of the American West. Even as younger generations’ familiarity with classic Western cinematic scenes and figures recedes—such that my students no longer get jokes about “John Wayne’s teeth” in Smoke Signals—Nativewriters and artists continue to find purpose in western tropes, repurposing them from the vantage points of home, family, community, and nation.1 As our title suggests, this issue recognizes both the fraught contiguity of Native American and western American literary studies and the multiplicity of histories—and ironies—invoked by pairing the terms Indigenous and West. Given seismic shifts in critical approaches in both fields, what are the possibilities of engaging the richly storied terrain of twenty-first-century Indigenous Wests? This special issue of wal asks how we reframe western American literary and film studies when we center contemporary Native aesthetics, perspectives, and methodologies.

In her preface to Transit of Empire Jodi Byrd identifies key precepts “emerging as foundational to the disciplining of American Indian and indigenous studies. First, that colonization matters. For indigenous peoples, place, land, sovereignty, and memory matter” (xiii). Place, land, sovereignty, memory matter to the writers and filmmakers considered in this issue, who proceed from a recognition of the United States as a settler colonial nation. The field of settler colonial studies asserts that there is neither a past nor a “post” to the ongoing work of colonialism. In the words of the field’s most prominent scholar, Patrick Wolfe: “Settler colonies were (are) premised on the elimination of native societies. . . . The colonizers come to stay—invasion is a structure, not an event” (2).2 Crucial to settler colonial discourse is its wishful fixation on foreclosed Indigenous pasts. Or, in the terms of the classic Western: how the West was won, and won, and won again. The literary and cinematic works under consideration in these essays all confront the iconic images and shorthands of this tenacious narrative of vanished and vanquished Indians: the End of the Trail, Turner’s frontier thesis, Geronimo. Moreover, the two filmmakers—Dustinn Craig (White [End Page 2] Mountain Apache/Navajo) and Ramona Emerson (Navajo)—and the two writers—Sy Hoawah (Comanche) and Stephen Graham Jones (Blackfeet)—featured in this issue are citizens of some of the Native nations most overburdened (and overdetermined) by the western cinematic and...


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