- The Significance of the Frontier in Comanche Poetry
If we could think of Frederick Jackson Turner as the patron saint of American West studies, then his frontier thesis would have been its founding dogma. With the rise of the New Western History we then could think of Turner as its whipping boy and the frontier thesis as its anathema. So it may seem ironic that my contribution to this volume attempts to reclaim, after a fashion, Turner’s thesis, but for the “other” side, in order to discuss the work of Comanche poet Sy Hoahwah and his collection of interrelated poems, Velroy and the Madischie Mafia. Just as Turner’s most famous essay (whose title I have hijacked for my own purposes) expresses anxiety about the absence of the frontier that had been so useful in building an American national identity, Hoahwah’s poems evince an anxiety about a Comanche national identity in the absence of defining conflicts along several frontiers. The voices in his 2010 poetry collection demonstrate a commitment to Comanche nationalism and the legitimacy of Comanche identity in the twenty-first-century United States; but at the same time they express hybrid identities and an ambivalence about some Comanche cultural traditions, including the limitations of an identity (both national and masculine) that is reliant upon violent conflict.
My reading of Hoahwah’s collection as a relatively unified narrative makes use of a notion discussed by Dean Rader in his essay titled “The Epic Lyric: Genre and Contemporary American Indian Poetry.” Rader discusses ways American Indian writers have combined qualities of lyric poetry, which explores emotions (subjective, private, and nonlinear), with qualities of epic poetry, which narrates deeds and events (objective, public, and linear) (129). Rader [End Page 9] quotes Michael Bernstein in emphasizing an important distinction between the lyric and the epic: the latter’s representation of an appeal to a group of people, sometimes an entire nation. The epic depicts its audience’s “cultural, historical, or mythic heritage, providing models of exemplary conduct (both good and bad)” (Bernstein 14). Hoahwah’s poems do this. Although Rader’s essay suggests that individual poems by American Indian writers combine elements of the epic into the lyric, I am suggesting a kind of reversal of that dynamic; the poems in Velroy and the Madischie Mafia may be “epic lyrics,” according to Rader’s definition, but collectively they form a “lyric epic.” In imagining the thoughts, emotions, and often violent adventures of an Oklahoma Indian gang led by the magical and dangerous Velroy, Hoahwah tells a story (but not the story) of the Comanche nation, evoking its time as the dominant nation of the Southern Plains.
Frontiers, Transculturation, and Comanche Gangsters
The frontier thesis that Turner lays out in “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” is encapsulated in the first paragraph of his 1893 essay:
Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development.(31)
We can understand “development” to mean not only the growth of the nation but the evolution of an American character. Turner believed that the process of conquering the continent erased the differences that European immigrants possessed and created a new, exceptional, national character. As Allan G. Bogue writes in his history of Turner’s thesis and its challengers, the frontier thesis was “the proposition that western challenges contributed to a unique American democracy” (205). In this way Turner’s thesis echoes an older one, from J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, who more than a hundred years earlier had written: “Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race . . .” (70). [End Page 10]
The frontier has been an important concept for contemporary American Indian literature, too, since Turner’s American identity was not the only one created in that contact zone. Contemporary American Indian literary production has long represented hybrid American Indian identities, which have been produced at the physical and cultural borders between Native nations and the United States, and Hoahwah’s poems...