- The Red Land to the South: American Indian Writers and Indigenous Mexico by James H. Cox
Full disclosure up front: I was involved in the publication of James Cox’s The Red Land to the South. It was the last project I brought in as coeditor of the Indigenous Americas series at the University of Minnesota Press. It was not, however, published until I was no longer associated with the series. Rereading it again recently reminded me of the qualities I saw in it as a manuscript, though.
Cox examines the representations of Mexico, most specifically Indigenous Mexico, by American Indian writers of the first half of the twentieth century. It is not a literary history of Indigenous Mexico. It is a study of a particular set of representations that were filtered through the (often) romantic desires of the authors. Most of these representations are from fiction and drama, though real-world events, such as Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas’s land reform in the 1930s (most famously depicted in Marjorie Becker’s Setting the Virgin on Fire: Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacán Peasants and the Redemption of the Mexican Revolution), factor in.
Cox discusses Cherokee writers John Milton Oskison and Will Rogers, both of whom visited Mexico and wrote about their experiences, and “post-Renaissance” authors Leslie Marmon Silko and Gerald Vizenor, who wrote about the relationship of American Indians to Indigenous Mexico in Almanac of the Dead and The Heirs of Columbus, respectively. The core of the book, however, deals with three Native American [End Page 88] authors, all of whom wrote prior to the initiation of the so-called Native American Renaissance. Two of these are well known and have been the subject of a fair amount of scholarship: Cherokee poet and playwright Lynn Riggs and anthropologist and novelist D’Arcy McNickle (Métis/Flathead). Much less known is Todd Downing, a Choctaw who wrote genre fiction set in Mexico during the golden age of mystery writing during the 1920s and 1930s. The literary engagement of these three authors with Indigenous Mexico is not equal in each case.
McNickle’s young adult novel, Runner in the Sun, is set in the pre-Columbian American Southwest and, as Cox observes, “recovers the region from the U.S. Southwest to central Mesoamerica as a Greater Indigenous Mexico” (157). His history, They Came Here First, deals with North America north of Mexico, though he does stress the trade routes that connected that area to Mexico. As Cox writes, “Rather than a touchstone author, . . . the McNickle of The Red Land to the South is one in a chorus of many American Indian literary voices from the interwar and early contemporary era. He follows other American Indian authors to Mexico and with them finds an Indian country in Mexico with strong historical, cultural, and political ties to the north” (151–52).
Riggs set two plays, A World Elsewhere and The Year of Pilár, in Mexico. The first is a cutting satire “of a failed counterrevolution by hacendados longing to recover” lands seized by President Cárdenas for return to Mexican Indians (65). The Year of Pilár is a kind of companion piece, dealing with an indigenous revolution.
The writer with the most sustained literary involvement with Indigenous Mexico is Downing. He wrote nine mystery novels, most of them set in Mexico, including The Last Trumpet and The Cat Screams. Of the three authors, he also wrote the only full-length nonfiction work dealing with the subject, The Mexican Earth.
This book is an important study, organized around the “political affinity for and historical interest in indigenous Mexico shared by some American Indian writers” in the first half of the twentieth century (2). Cox examines the way those writers envisioned (often naively) Mexico and Mexican indigeneity.
Cox’s chapter on Lynn Riggs is an important addition to the growing body of scholarship on the playwright since I began his recovery for Native literature almost twenty years...