- “It Needs Not the Display of Language”Aesthetics and Politics in Early Native American Writing
In his introduction to Indian Treaties Printed by Benjamin Franklin, 1736–1762 (1938), Carl Van Doren writes of the thirteen printed treaties between Northeastern Indian nations and British colonies: “Here for once life seems to have made itself almost unaided into literature” (xviii). Without hesitation, Van Doren associates these political documents with works of art: they “are alive with poetry no less than truth, with humor and drama, and with the strong wisdom of simple experience” (xviii). Today’s early Americanists might read such a claim with suspicion, dismissing it as a fanciful elision of political exigency in favor of dubious aesthetics. Recent scholarship on early native writing implicitly resists aesthetic evaluations, demonstrating instead that Native Americans engaged in various forms [End Page 499] of practical communication in their struggles for sovereignty, forms often rooted in traditional practices that unsettle definitions of “literacy,” “writing,” and “print.” Yet Van Doren’s comments raise an important question: Might native writings unsettle conventional definitions of poetry as well as print? Of literariness as well as literacy and writing? Of the aesthetic as well as the political?
Despite Craig Womack’s caveat that “[f]ederal Indian policies, court decisions, land claims, tribal governments, and politics are not the only factors important to an analysis of native literature, since artistic imagination is more than a legal case study” (78), for better or for worse politics has become the dominant organizational and analytical framework for early native writing. Overemphasis on aesthetics might create a “largely romantic vision of the field” (Womack 78), but recent work in native studies and American literary studies more broadly indicates that attention to aesthetics will enhance rather than diminish our awareness of the political work of native writing and our understanding of the discerning communities that shaped native authorship. Early Native American authors not only produced bodies of writing; they also valued beauty, determined the quality of language, and thought literarily. Acknowledging their aesthetic contributions is a political matter.
Taken together, two recent anthologies invite us to rethink aesthetics and politics in early native writing: Robert Dale Parker’s Changing Is Not Vanishing: … American Indian Poetry to 1930 and David Martinez’s The American Indian Intellectual Tradition, … 1772 to 1792. Published in 2011, the anthologies both emphasize the political significance of American Indian writing, although one includes only poetry and one includes only prose. Both incorporate early Indian writers as part of a larger generic or intellectual tradition that extends into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; they therefore have much to offer early Americanists. They also present a timely opportunity to consider the stakes of our interest in early native writing. I illuminate the relationship between the two anthologies with attention to another recent book, American Literature’s Aesthetic Dimensions, edited by Cindy Weinstein and Christopher Looby. This collection of critical essays on aesthetics and politics in American literature may seem an unorthodox choice, for it includes no essays on Native American writing. But that is exactly the point: early native texts are rarely incorporated into discussions of beauty, art, and aesthetics. By bringing these [End Page 500] critical trends together, I hope to encourage a conversation about what we mean when we talk about Native American literature, and whether politics need consistently take precedence over aesthetics.
Dwelling briefly on Van Doren’s remarks about treaties will help to clarify these concerns. Although his above comments may seem overly romanticized, their origins lie in Indian territory: symbols and metaphors of Haudenosaunee (Iroquoian) polity, used to clarify political relationships in the eighteenth-century Northeast, pervade the treaty documents printed by Franklin. Common symbols in the documents are derived from the significance of material and social...