Indian Life & Literature/John Smelcer
We Are Still Here:
How American Indian Literature
Re–visions the American Indian Experience
in American History
by John Smelcer
* * *
On my office door is a poster of Lakota medicine man Leonard Crow Dog. The caption below his image reads, “We Are Still Here.” While American Indian literature of the past several decades has been about many things, it singularly hails with triumphant resolve that we are still here. Across Native America – and there are hundreds of federally recognized tribes – we struggle to maintain our own unique cultures. But it’s not easy. The clash of two cultures over hundreds of years has taken its toll. The old and the new are frequently inseparable, the lines blurred.
Early novels of the Native American Renaissance (I use the term simply to signal the wider availability of Native writing in mainstream literature), such as N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1969), James Welch’s Winter in the Blood (1974) and his haunting The Death of James Loney (1979), and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977), were about returning home, not merely to a geographic place, though that is paramount, but also to a cultural center of gravity – an Indian center where the American model of the rugged individual standing alone is supplanted by the indigenous sense of the self as part of a community. Everything we see or hear in media tells us that we must want something else and to be something else and somewhere else. We are pulled between two worlds, yet we are sometimes unable to fully embrace either. The literature was and is often about not belonging and the immense pressure of marginalization. Where do I belong? Where is my home? How do I fit in? Characters struggle with trying to become whole (and sometimes they fail). Among all the loss suffered by Native America – loss of customs, ritual, myth, religion, and especially of language – perhaps the most important loss has been the loss of self, as Leslie Marmon Silko writes in Ceremony:
But the world had become tangled with Europeans names: the names of rivers, the hills, the names of animals and plants – all of creation suddenly had two names: an Indian name and a white name. Christianity separated the people from themselves; it tried to crush the single clan name, encouraging each person to stand alone, because Jesus Christ would save only the individual soul. (68)
In the decades since those first mainstream writers, many Indian (for that is what we call ourselves) writers go so far as to re–imagine history. Abraham Lincoln once wrote that “history is not history unless it is the truth.” In attempting to tell the Indian side of American history, many Indian writers try to re–vision the history of America, not revisionism but a re–visioning – a re–seeing – of history, a history of America that includes Indians and the Indian perspective.
And history is due for an overhaul.
I recently picked up a new children’s picture book about the westward expansion of pioneers as they rolled across the plains states hauling everything they owned in their wagons. Although the book illustrated their hardships (e.g. repairing busted wood–rimmed wheels, being stuck in blizzards, fending off starvation in sometimes gruesome ways, and so forth), it never once mentioned the American Indians they encountered (and eventually displaced) along the way. One gets the discomforting sense that America is trying to rewrite the painful parts of history for new generations by writing the American Indian experience out of the picture.
Consider, too, these iconic images of nationalism. The trope of Custer valiantly fending off thousands of Indians, his long golden hair blowing in the wind, demands a clearer image. In cowardice, Custer wore his hair short during cavalry patrols of the Black Hills for fear of being scalped should he fall in battle. He also wore buckskins, concealing his rank insignia, so as to avoid being targeted as an officer. So, too, the trope of George Washington as a boy always telling the truth on his way to paragoned manhood might be replaced with a new, more “historical” image. Washington rose rapidly through the ranks to general almost entirely on his success during the Indian Wars. He helped open and tame the northeastern frontiers of the New World for Europeans by killing the indigenous people who already lived there – men, women, elderly, and children alike. Does such a history blacken America’s patriotic eye? Most likely, but not irreparably. But if we are to realize fully and completely the history of America, the real history as Lincoln suggested, we must acknowledge the whole picture, the true picture, not just the tidy parts we choose to honor in our filtered history books.
Contemporary American Indian literature attempts to dispel stereotypes and romantic notions that forever “fix” Indians in the past – adorned in buckskins and feathers and red bandanas – as something that was, replacing them with the reality of American Indians living in America in the 21st century, both on and off the reservation. The project of many contemporary Indian writers is to portray honestly and bluntly the context of those issues, triumphs, and crises that define who we are. Oftentimes, the literature is sardonic, searing, and witty as is the best satirical writing of Jonathan Swift. The following poems are from my full–length poetry manuscript Indian Giver, which includes an introduction by my late friend and mentor James Welch.
THE INCOMPLETE & UNAUTHORIZED
DEFINITION OF AMERICAN INDIAN LITERATURE
“Indian” is not a derogatory word.
It’s what we call ourselves. We claim it.
Not all Indians wear long black hair
or faded red bandanas.
I’ve never seen a Red Man.
Percentage of people who say they are part Cherokee: 50%
Percentage who claim to have an anonymous
great–grandmother who was a Cherokee princess: 100%
Percentage of actual Cherokee princesses in history: 0%
Percentage of the Cherokee Nation compared to the
number of all other recognized tribes in America 0.2%
Percentage of Americans who are enrolled Indians
according to the U. S. Bureau of Indian Affairs: 0.67%
Fiction by Indians outsells poetry by Indians,
yet poetry is the language of sorrow and heartbreak.
All Indians speak poetry.
No Indian has won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
This is the mathematical formula for deciphering
meaning in Native American poetry:
Where a represents anger and s represents sorrow,
let P represent poetry and t represent the duration
(time) of marginalization.
Thus, P = t(a + s)2
Indian writers shouldn’t drive sports cars.
I traded my yellow Porsche for a pick–up truck
with a quarter million miles
and a rifle rack in the rear window.
Not all Indians come from Horse Cultures.
Not all Indians ride horses.
I’ve only been on a horse once and it threw me.
Writing by Indians should contain dogs.
Many Indian writers have had at least
one of their dogs run over by a pick–up truck
with a rifle hanging in the rear window.
History is written by the victors.
Indians didn’t always lose the battles.
Don’t believe everything you’ve ever read
or watched on television.
John Wayne’s real name was Marion, but directors figured
Marion the Cowboy couldn’t defeat Indians.
Columbus didn’t really discover America
the way you think he did.
The Navajo Nation is as big as Nebraska.
Bingo is Indian Social Security.
Federal enrollment is how the government
counts Indians to predict when we will be extinct.
Not all Indians are enrolled. I am enrolled.
Enrollment doesn’t mean anything.
There are 500 tribes in America. No individual speaks
for all of them, barely even for a single clan or tribe.
Some bigshot Indian writers think they speak for everyone.
Does an illiterate white shoe salesman in Idaho speak for you?
American universities teach American Indian literature
but hire almost no Indian writers at all.
White professors who have never seen a reservation
teach American Indian literature
even when there’s an Indian writer on faculty
because it’s trendy.
Some Indians go to tribal colleges
Where they are taught by white teachers
who want to be Indian. New Age white women
have sex with Indian men so they can become Indian.
You can’t become Indian by proximity.
America loves the Indian–sounding names of places,
but they don’t want Indians to live there.
It gives them a sense of connection to a land
upon which they have little history of their own.
Sometimes a sweat lodge is just a sweat lodge.
Some American sports teams are named for Indians.
There should be an Indian baseball team called
the Cherokee Crucified Christs complete with
a bleeding team mascot nailed to a wooden cross.
Would that hurt your sensibilities?
All Indians aren’t proud and defiant.
When I do something right, my Indian uncle
tells me I’ve earned an eagle feather.
Only Indians can own eagle feathers.
Nearly all published Indian writing is in English.
Almost no Indian writer speaks their Indian language.
Fewer yet can write in it.
Sii cetsiin koht’aene kenaege’, tsin’aen.
Indian children love to dance Indian–style
but they don’t understand a word the elders sing.
Indian boys love to beat Indian drums
while Indian girls sway in moving circles.
The hearts of Indian boys are tight–stretched drums.
The hearts of Indian girls are beautiful sad songs.
The government decimated bison
so that Indians would become vegetarians.
The government killed wild horses
so that Indian spirits would break.
The government sent Indian children to boarding schools
so they would forget being Indian. Missionaries built
The Church of Infinite Confusion so Indians would
forget being Indian.
I forget what I was trying to say.
British writers don’t have to write about Shakespeare.
French writers don’t have to write about Baudelaire.
Blacks don’t always have to write about slavery.
Indian writers don’t have to write about being Indian
or about dogs killed by trucks with gun racks
on reservations while fancy dancing,
wearing eagle feathers, and beating drums
while mouthing words to songs they do not know.
Audiences at readings by Indians are almost always white.
Many urban Indians write about life on the reservation
even when they’ve never lived on one because it sells better
than writing about going to Starbucks after shopping at the Gap.
Few Indians have Indian–sounding names. Non–Indians pretending
to be Indians adopt name like “Runs–Beside–Spotted–Ponies,”
‘Walks–With–Wolves,” or “Elk Cloud.”
A publisher once asked me to change my name
to a hyphenated one with a preposition and a spirit animal.
I asked, “How about ‘Johnny Fakes–His–Name–on–a–Weasel’?”
All Indian writers aren’t spiritually attuned to Nature.
Most are fearful of getting lost in the woods.
Some Indians write out of anger and despair.
All Indian writers are not angry and depressed.
Native America is drowning in a sea of alcohol.
Indians commit suicide ten times more often than whites.
Day after day, our hearts are turned into cemeteries.
The impoverished state of our lives is not self–inflicted.
Most Indian writers are mixed–blood
who hate the term “Half–Breed.”
I am the son of a half–breed father.
I am an outcast. Even my shadow
tries to hide its face in shame.
In 1492, two Indians stumble upon a billboard
in the middle of a clearing with the words:
Coming soon. America!
“What does it say?” asks the first Indian.
“I don’t know,” says the second, scratching his head.
“But I’m sure it doesn’t have anything to do with us.”
THE ALTERNATE HISTORY OF
THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Lester Has–Some–Books builds a time machine
in his uncle’s garage and sets it to the day
Columbus discovers America.
Quickly, with the masts of three ships
lurching on the horizon, he sets up a big sign
on the beach:
WELCOME TO SPAIN!
Columbus spies the sign from the bay,
scratches his head, and orders all three ships
to turn around and head back out to sea.
DUKE SKYTHUNDER TRIES
A JEDI MIND TRICK ON
This is not the land you were looking for.
HOW TO MAKE BLUE RIBBON
INDIAN FRY BREAD
“Indians could spend their whole lives
looking for the perfect piece of fry bread.”
– Sherman Alexie, Reservation Blues
In a large bowl, mix the following ingredients:
Three cups of flour made from the ashes of failed Indian dreams
One cup of water made from the tears of Indian mothers
A pinch of salt, first thrown into open wounds of Indian fathers
Drop the rolled and molded dough into a pan of oil
hot enough to incinerate every Indian future
Remove fry bread when both sides turn brown and blistered
Thomas Two Fists
whittled a guitar from a tree
that had fallen during a storm
and killed a shaman. He carved
the tuning pegs from the bones
of a white buffalo.
he used the long gray hair of
old Indian mothers who had lost
their children and grandchildren
to alcohol and drunk driving.
Two Fists travelled from
reservation to reservation
and powwow to powwow
singing the blues.
Wherever he went,
Indians wrapped themselves in old blankets,
dreamed of forgotten homes and wept
dreamed of forgotten homes and wept.
INDIAN TIME MACHINE
invents a time machine in his sweat lodge.
So, he sets it back to Little Bighorn
with a video camera and tapes everything.
Then he invites the whole damn reservation
to watch the movie. Everyone’s eating popcorn and laughing.
It’s really something. You should see it.
Everything’s in color and there are these close–ups.
Here’s the part where Custer sends in the cavalry
catching the Indians off guard.
Oh, and here’s where three thousand Indians
chase them up a hill and whups their ass.
Duke Sky Thunder sits on his Indian motorcycle at a stoplight in Albuquerque
wearing a red bandana and a T–shirt
that screams Indian Pride,
Crazy Horse painted on the gas tank
and a license plate that reads INJIN.
A pickup truck with two Rednecks pulls alongside.
The closer dude leans out the window and hollers,
“I hate you sonabitches!”
The second dude with really bad teeth yells,
“Why don’t you go back wherever you came from?”
When the light turns green, Sky Thunder grins and shouts,
“Right back at ya!” and peels away –
his long black hair whipping in the wind like a stallion’s mane,
the smoke signal from his tailpipe rising like a finger.
About the author:
John Smelcer is a tribally and federally enrolled member of the Ahtna Tribe of Alaska and a member of Tazlina Village Traditional Council. In the mid–to–late 1990s, he was the executive director of the Ahtna Heritage Foundation, where he produced a dictionary of his language for which Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker provided forewords. He is the author of 45 books, most in Native American Studies. With Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), John co–edited Native American Classics (2013), a graphic anthology of 19th and early 20th century American Indian literature. He is a contributing editor to Ragazine.CC. Learn more at www.johnsmelcer.com