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  • Gothic SilenceS. Alice Callahan's Wynema, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and the Indigenous Unspeakable
  • Amy Gore (bio)

As far back as I can remember, I belonged to a secret society of Indian women, meeting around a kitchen table in a conspiracy to bring the past into the present. I listened, their stories settling forever in my blood, and I knew the stories were told and told not for carrying but for keeping. They heard, and they taught me to hear, the truth in things not said. They listened, and they taught me to listen, in the space between words.

Betty Louise Bell (Cherokee), Faces in the Moon

In a recent special issue on Indigenous autobiography, Michelle Raheja addresses silence as a crucial category of Indigenous writing. She identifies "intentional rhetorical silences" as a key strategy in narrations of the self and of tribal knowledges, as well as a strategy of engagement with "white-controlled literary and publishing practices" during the nineteenth century (88). Rhetorical silences act in complex ways: while textual moments of silence may indicate a variety of meanings and do not unequivocally equal passivity or victimhood, silence paradoxically works to "reveal speech" (Glenn 3) and operates through such rhetorical choices as "unexpected words, awkward grammatical constructions, rhetorical or thematic dissonances that mark the pressure of untold stories" (Wald 1). Rather than an "absence," then, Indigenous rhetorical silences exist as veiled or underexamined literary elements that fissure and press against the story line. These narrative silences become especially attractive to Indigenous women writers who operate under the double bind of race and gender and who witnessed the spreading devastations of colonization during the nineteenth century. For them, strategic silence often became a way to gesture toward the unspeakable, a term often used within [End Page 24] gothic literary criticism to describe historical trauma and its various means of cultural, linguistic, and generational breaks.

The unspeakable inhabits a specific type of silence. While rhetorical silences may work to reveal speech, the prefix "un" tells us that the unspeakable, in contrast, continually negates the act of speech and arises from a complex psychological tension of expression and repression.1 Adrienne Rich beautifully explains the difference by contrasting the "unspoken" with the unspeakable: "Whatever is unnamed, undepicted in images, whatever is omitted from biography, censored in collections of letters, whatever is misnamed as something else, made difficult to come by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language—this will become, not merely unspoken, but unspeakable" (199). Teresa Goddu reinforces Rich's definition by claiming for the American gothic in general, "Although the gothic is not the only form that articulates abjection, it serves as a primary means of speaking the unspeakable in American literature" (10). What the unspeakable points to varies within each text and each literary canon, but for Indigenous texts it often reveals a cultural and political perspective of colonization that is different from its counterparts in the same literary period and historical context.

Looking to the unspeakable to define Indigenous gothic literature yields much earlier manifestations than previously acknowledged. Instead of turning to contemporary Indigenous literature for the beginnings of its interjections into the gothic, as when Michelle Burnham asserts, "Indian Killer marks the arrival of an Indigenous Gothic" (21), or even reaching for the gothic elements that may already exist in Indigenous storytelling before European contact, as Burnham suggests in "Is There an Indigenous Gothic?" (226), I propose that an attention to the Indigenous unspeakable creates a bridge between precontact and contemporary readings of the Indigenous gothic genre by opening up the corpus of Indigenous writing during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries that worked within the throes of colonialism. The Indigenous unspeakable thus productively redirects scholarly inquiries from a search within a text's manifest content for an Indigenous "monster" figure, such as a trickster or windigo, to a text's latent content of historical trauma, instigated by the experiences of genocide and colonization. Within this purview, a gothic tradition populates Indigenous [End Page 25] fiction as early as the first known novel authored by a Native woman, S. Alice Callahan's Wynema: A...


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