August 11, 2007

Treuer stands for tradition

Lyons:  Battle of the bookwormsTreuer's "Native American Fiction" makes the provocative suggestion that what we call Native literature--always published in English by non-Indian presses and mostly read by non-Natives--doesn't represent Native culture so much as a "longing" for a culture found in the realms of heritage language and ceremony. "With Native American cultures and Native languages imperiled," reading books as culture dangerously misses the existence of--and threats to--traditional cultures today. Books by Indian writers are "literature" in a universal sense, and often as good as anyone else's literature, but not the same thing as the culture of speakers and elders who (unlike novelists) usually keep their cultures secret in large part to protect them from commodification. Treuer thinks the sexy notion of Native culture helps to sell books, including presumably his own, but ironically prevents readers from seeing the aesthetic values of Native lit. It creates an ethnic literary ghetto where an "Ojibwe writer" is seen as more Ojibwe than writer; meanwhile Ojibwe language fluency is on the skids and traditional knowledge fades into oblivion.

Matthew L.M. Fletcher ("'Native American Fiction' Too Hard on Indian Culture," Vol. 27, Iss. 9) thinks "Treuer goes way too far" and compares his argument to "non-Indian policy-makers" who think Indians shouldn't have slot machines because they're not traditional either. But of course it hasn't only been non-Indians who have disavowed gaming by that logic; and I'm quite certain that Fletcher knows elders at Grand Traverse who repeat the mantra, "You can't think like an Ojibwe without Ojibwemowin," an idea that undergirds Treuer's argument. Treuer's denial of cultural authenticity to literature in English, no matter what the identity of the writer, is logically in sync with cranky elders who refuse to validate English-language Indian names or ceremonies conducted for cash. In other words, this is about cultural authority, and Treuer is on the side of traditionalists who draw hard and fast lines between authenticity and, well, assimilation.

1 comment:

writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
Well, Treuer DOES look a tiny bit Native. But his overcompensation in his writings only means that he himself fairly well is unsure of his own Native identity. And then of course his reaction becomes over the top. Too bad, in that his writings could have a constructive direction rather than simply finding modern adaptations of Native existence as pejoratives. He is about two hundred years late to decry Native accommodations to assimilation as unworthy. writerfella and his brother, David, were subjected to that very kind of 'logic' at the University of Oklahoma in the 1970s when AIM members came to campus to espouse their philosophies. Their main thrust? That any acceptance of EuroMan's American culture was a betrayal of historical Native culture. But David Bates took them on and dismayed them all at a beer party they held. "Okay," he said, "you are condemning the rest of us Natives because we speak English and go to the white man's schools and even seek employment in the white man's world. But I don't see you rejecting any of that, and going off to live in tipis on the Plains, and wearing buckskins, and re-learning your own tribal languages, and following the buffalo and the old tribal ways. That's all over because the white man made sure it ended. So, what you're telling us tonight is that you want a way of life that has become extinct, and it can't be yours, and it can't be ours, and it is OVER THERE, OUT OF REACH, DECEASED."
The AIM guys looked at writerfella's brother like they wanted to knife him, but they instead packed their things and got out of town.
writerfella misses his brother David, who passed away in 2005. He had the handles on it all, but he never wrote it down...
All Best
Russ Bates