April 06, 2008

English stories aren't Indian stories?

If They're Lost, Who Are We?Curiously, it is in the field of "story" that the most ringing claims are made for the continued health and vibrancy of American Indian cultures and lives. But it's not clear why so many Indian critics and novelists suggest that stories, even great ones, in English by writers whose only language is English are somehow "Indian stories" that store the kernels of culture--not unlike those fabulous caves in the Southwest where explorers found seeds thousands of years old that grew when planted. One Indian critic recently rather self-servingly suggested that "English is an Indian language." He's wrong. English is not a Native American language; for most of us, it is our only language--through no fault of our own, owing to a federal policy aimed at wiping out Native American languages. Cultural eradication is a process, and it was precisely through the attempt to stamp out Native American languages that the U.S. government tried to stamp out Native American cultures. To claim that English is a Native language is to continue that process.

More often than not, English was forced on us, not chosen by us. Naturally, one can (and millions do) construct a cultural identity out of whatever is at hand, and no Indian should feel bad (though many of us do) about speaking English. But I don't kid myself that my writing reflects my culture--or can save it. My novels are exercises in art, not cultural revitalization or anthropology. And if novels published by large publishing conglomerates, marketed to a general readership that doesn't know the first thing about our lives, written in English by university-educated writers who by and large live far away from their tribal communities, don't speak their tribal languages and probably earn two or three times as much as the rest of their people are our best defense against the threat of cultural death, we are in worse shape than I thought.

Perhaps we protect and even beatify stories because we have no real presence in film or popular music, because we have no stand-up comics with their own TV shows, because not one of us is a host on "The View," because there is no Indian Oprah and no Indian Denzel and no Indian on "Lost." Stories are all we've got. So when an Indian holds a copy of N. Scott Momaday's groundbreaking novel "House Made of Dawn," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969, or Louise Erdrich's widely popular "Love Medicine," they hold it gingerly, as though carrying the ashes of a recently deceased grandparent.

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