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Studies in American Indian Literatures 16.1 (2004) 78-80



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Margaret Dubin, ed. The Dirt is Red Here: Art and Poetry from Native California. Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2002. 82 pp.

Readers of this rich collection of poetry, photography, painting, mixed media, and performance art are likely to appreciate the editor's presentation of California Indians as persisting, diverse peoples who are defining themselves. Tribes of this region share certain characteristics that distinguish them from many other indigenous groups, lending credence to the category of "California Indians" that the book is organized around: early interactions with Spanish peoples, which are evident in the rancherias that in many cases take the place of reservations; tribes like the Chukchansis that exist outside the radar of most Americans' image of "Indians"; and the urban relocation to places like San Francisco that was so crucial to some of the aim actions of the 1960s and 70s.

However, given the historically contested state and national borders of California—think for example of the Kumeyaay Indians, who preserve their connections to Indians of Baja, Mexico—it seems somewhat odd to maintain such loyalty to this geographic and political concept. Indeed, certain pieces suggest that this collection is more about the Pacific Northwest than California per se: consider the words "from Puget Sound / to the Willamette Valley" in Janice Gould's "Snow" and "Cannery, Hood River," the title of one of her other poems (2). More commentary about how various pieces challenge or re-envision California would provide a self-reflexive, complex commentary on these issues.

The most effective aspect of Dubin's collection is not an overarching engagement with the category "native California" but its miniature juxtapositions of certain works of art. Linda Noel's poem "Rain Belief" appears next to Bradley Marshall's Abalone Necklace in an arrangement that emphasizes the crossover between the shiny bone-like shells and Noel's lines of descriptive words, which fit together like pieces of the necklace:

swollen
sky
sing us some rain sway [End Page 78]
oak arms shed
your blue clothing let
free your moist flesh flung
against bone windows. . . .
(21)

The Dirt is Red Here is also characterized by poems like Deborah Miranda's "Deer," which create the kind of imagery that stays with the reader long after the piece is finished:

. . . But what I will remember are men's hands—
fingers stained with oil and blood—
the rough way they turn back the hide, jerk down hard
to tear it off her body. A dull hunting
knife cracks and disjoints the carcass.
(34)

The language and structure of several poems convey the complexity of contemporary American Indian—and American—identity. Linda Noel's "Independence Day," for example, is composed of short, understated lines and an alliteration that makes the jarring imagery ("as they crush / our clamshell history") strangely harmonic (20). Sylvia Ross's "Tribal Identity Grade Three," an account of schoolgirls naming their native ancestries, ends poignantly with the defiant child's voice: "Chik Chancy is a tribe" (46).

These brief engagements with issues of California Indianness make me wish for more sustained discussion of them in the book's introduction. Instead, I am left with a series of questions: what happens, for example, when we take performance art out of its original context and place a single photo representation of it next to a sculpture or a poem by another artist? What do we lose, or gain, in this new arrangement? Were any of these pieces presented outside of California, and if so, do they resist the California label that the book is organized around? What makes a form of art Californian, or, in turn, California Indian?

The design of The Dirt is Red Here, with its brief introduction and limited commentary, resembles that of a coffee table book. Given that the coffee table book has often served as a marker of its owner's cultural sophistication and disposable income, the collection implicitly raises a question about its own function and audience. To whom is it directed, and for...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9590
Print ISSN
0730-3238
Pages
pp. 78-80
Launched on MUSE
2004-05-04
Open Access
No
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