- Trauma, History, the Indigenous Novel, and the Now
Introducing Nancy Van Styvendale's "The Trans/histor i city of Trauma in Jeanette Armstrong's Slash and Sherman Alexie's Indian Killer," first published in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 40, No. 1-2 (special number: "Postcolonial Trauma Novels"), spring & summer 2008, pp. 203-23.
Nancy Van Styvendale's sensitive analysis of "trans/historical" trauma in Sherman Alexie's Indian Killer (1996) and Jeanette Armstrong's Slash (1985) has been referenced in work on the legacy of early American captivity narratives, on college student-prisoner reading groups in the United States, on Australian aboriginal memoir, on survivor narratives from the Canadian Indian Residential School Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and on Alexie's and Armstrong's work in particular (Ben-Zvi; Wiltse; Seran; Angel; Carpenter; Coulombe; Laminack; Suhr-Sytsma). Such wide-ranging scholarship vindicates Van Styvendale's call to consider Native/Indigenous experiences of trauma as intergenerational, collective, and enduring, historically grounded but not able to be isolated to a single traumatic event. Equally conversant in Indigenous studies and trauma theory, Van Styvendale's essay details the "trauma of dislocation and rootlessness" in Indian Killer and Slash to challenge both event-focused and poststructuralist understandings of trauma. For Van Styvendale, Indigenous trans/historical trauma is both dislocated from a singular time and space and characterized by ongoing material effects: "the trauma of colonization is present not only in its psychic return but also in its continuation in everyday, material conditions" (220).
In Indian Killer and Slash, this trauma manifests as repetitive, violent rage, a rage that surfaces in a number of other Indigenous novels. For instance, although Lisamarie, the Haisla protagonist of Eden Robinson's Monkey Beach (2000), does not undergo the same tortures of residential school that her [End Page 145] beloved Uncle Mick suffered, she cannot suppress her rage when her teacher forces her class to read aloud "a book that said that the Indians on the northwest coast of British Columbia had killed and eaten people as religious sacrifices." When Lisamarie's turn to read arrives, she sits "there shaking, absolutely furious," and begins singing "Fuck the Oppressors," a song Uncle Mick—who participated in the AIM activities also chronicled in Armstrong's Slash—taught her (68-69). The scene anticipates the traumatic events Lisamarie experiences both personally and communally later in the novel, unsettling linear, cause-and-effect notions of pain and its manifestations in circumstances of ongoing colonial violence.
Van Styvendale conscientiously observes that applying the language of "trauma" to Native experience (rather than more commonly used terms such as "oppression" and "colonization") risks political revictimization of Native people, but it also forces important recognition and legitimation of Native pain. One glaring example of recurring trauma in current Indigenous communities is the "epidemic" of sexual violence on Indian reservations (Gilpin, par. 2). Indigenous women are almost three times more likely than other women to experience sexual violence, and non-Indian men who commit such crimes on reservations are immune to prosecution by tribal courts and often go unpunished (Jensen; Erdrich, "Rape"). In Anishinaabe author Louise Erdrich's National Book Award–winning novel The Round House (2012), the brutal rape and attempted murder of the protagonist's mother, Geraldine Couts, "stop[s] time" for her husband and son one Sunday afternoon as they wait for her to return to "start [them] ticking away on the evening" (3). The attack also stops time as an event of trans/historical trauma that traps everyone involved in legal decisions of the past, such as Johnson v. McIntosh (1823), which "vested absolute title to the land in the government and gave Indians nothing more than the right of occupancy, a right that could be taken away at any time," and Oliphant v. Suquamish (1978), which disallowed Indian tribal courts the right to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes on tribal lands (Erdrich, The Round House 228-29). The rapist Linden Lark is set free, leading Geraldine's son Joe to try to interpret and return to traditional forms of justice in ways that only generate more trauma and suffering. Cumulative juridical violence structures Indigenous experience and easily obstructs closure and...