- American Indian Thought: Philosophical Essays ed. by Anne Waters
American Indian Thought is a contemporary collection of twenty-two essays written by Indigenous persons with Western philosophical training, all attempting to formulate, and/or contribute to a sub-discipline of, a Native American Philosophy.1 The contributors come from diverse tribal, educational, philosophical, methodological, etc., backgrounds, and there is some tension among aspects of the collection, but what is more striking is the harmony and the singularity of the collection's intent. Part of this singularity may derive from the solidarity among its authors. In addition to the fact that all belong to Indigenous tribes, there is also a striking sensitivity to the interconnection between distinct Western disciplines—particularly between philosophy and poetry. I take the latter to be a thread which can be strategically woven into the center of the anthology's weave.
In this book discussion, I aim to draw out the poetic aspects of five of the anthology's essays, which deal with philosophy, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and aesthetics, respectively. In this way, I hope to illuminate a poetic quality at the heart of the collection, and thus also of the burgeoning field of Native American or Indigenous philosophy in general. In the process, I will also consider ways in which Indigenous philosophy resonates with the Western philosophical traditions of phenomenology and American pragmatism. With the latter tradition in particular this connection has become more fully appreciated, especially through the work of Bruce Wilshire and Scott Pratt.2
Before I begin my discussion of selected chapters from the anthology, I will first introduce it using the third chapter, V. F. Cordova's "Approaches to Native American Philosophy." An excellent preface to the subject of poetry and philosophy in Indigenous thought can be [End Page 280] found in her essay's closing metaphor. It is modification of Ludwig Wittgenstein's metaphor for philosophy as therapy, namely philosophy as a means to "help the fly to escape from the bottle." Reacting to Wittgenstein's quote, Cordova notes that an Indigenous person who lives in the contemporary U.S., insofar as they are functionally a member of two distinct worlds, is a fly trapped in not one, but two, bottles. Thus, their challenge becomes—not how to escape from one bottle—but how to travel successfully between two.3 The Indigenous person, writes Cordova, "has become expert, in order to survive, at flying in and out of two bottles" (30). While in Wittgenstein's original metaphor, the bottle is a system of philosophy, in Cordova's revision it is a philosophically-structured world. The exact relationship between the two bottles is unclear; perhaps they are united at their open ends, or perhaps the Indigenous bottle is currently nested inside the Western bottle. In any event, the Indigenous philosopher-fly is what María Lugones calls a "world-traveler" among worlds.
Compared to Indigenous persons in general, Indigenous philosophers are, as a result of their extensive Western education, particularly problematic beings, as they cannot sustain themselves in any static and permanent way due to the cognitive dissonance created by the two incommensurable worldviews. While this is true for everyone to some degree, for Indigenous philosophers it is true to a much greater degree, because the philosophical systems of their formal education are those of the same colonizers who marginalized and almost eradicated them, along with their Indigenous philosophies. This in turn necessitates the constant shifting/relocating motion poetically rendered as the fly flying in and out of two bottles. In other words, the impossibility of the Native American philosopher (and thereby of Native American philosophy) necessitates a constant spatial and poetic redistribution.
Overall, Cordova's essay can be understood as a preface to Indigenous philosophy which demonstrates (or creates) the impossibility of Indigenous philosophy, and thus suggests that only a process of prefacing of philosophy is possible, at least for anyone in the position of the Indigenous philosopher. Put differently, Indigenous philosophy can be described as prefacing, the poetic motion of always "approaching" but never fulling arriving at Western philosophy, and...