Native American Literature, Introduction by Gerald Vizenor

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I write to create a memory, and to convert the cockeyed views of the Anishinaabe, or Chippewa, and Native American Indians. Cultural simulations of natives abound in museums, monuments, commerce, art, and literature. These detractions are the derisive signifiers of manifest manners. Yet, that sense of native presence and continental liberty is, as it always has been, elusive in native stories and literature.

I create imagic scenes, means, and trickster characters, and tease memories by my stories. My own surname is a tease, a conversion by federal agents on the White Earth Reservation. Family histories last in active stories, and, inscrutably, sometimes rise in the memories and critical turns of serious readers. Native names create a sense of presence, a tease that undermines the simulations of absence and cultural dominance.

The tricky flight of ravens, the rush of a kingfisher, moccasin flowers in a storm, geese on an ice float, moths at the window, are instances of presence and sentiments of natural reason in the native world. Consider the images in these two original haiku poems in my book, Cranes Arise: Haiku Scenes:

redwing blackbird
rides the cattails at the slough
curtain calls

mounds of foam
downriver from the waterfall
float silently

I write to survivance not victimry, a signature of natural reason. I write to creation not closure, to trickster stories over dominance, monotheism, and linear causality. I write to the imagic scenes of nature not simulations, and to the eternal tease of totemic consciousness, gender, mortality, and other natural contradictions in the world.

These literary practices are a native aesthetic, the natural reason of native stories. There are many cultural distinctions, ambiguities, exceptions and inconsistencies, but the pleasures and worries of imagination are more than mere commerce and the simulations of romance and nostalgia.

I write to create a distinctive literary aesthetic of natural reason in the sentiments of native stories. Ancestral natives created an aesthetic sense of natural presence by sound, motion, the traces of seasons, a summer in the spring; by imagic, totemic associations with birds and animals, by transmutations, and evasive, unrehearsed trickster stories. These sentiments of natural reason, aural transmotion, and tricky conversions, are the traces of a native aesthetic.

My presence is a native trace.
My names are forever in the book.
My tease is natural reason.
My memory endures in stories.
My vision is survivance.

Ancestral storiers hunted their words by sound, shadow, ecstatic conversions, and by the uncertainties of creation. The native literary artist creates the metaphors of sound in silence, the imagic scenes of totemic transmutation and natural reason. These aesthetic practices alight in contemporary native literature. Many native novelists are hunters by shamanic conversions and figurative roves in time and place.

I wrote in Manifest Manners: Narratives of Postindian Survivance that shadows, or the traces of native names and stories, are the ventures of a continent, a habitat and landscape, even in the distance of translation. Native imagination, experience, and remembrance, are the real landscapes of liberty in the literature of this continent; discoveries and dominance are silence, absence, want, and nostalgia.

Wallace Stegner wistfully situates the western landscape in the literature of dominance, a postwestern literary salvation. "No place is a place until things that have happened in it are remembered in history, ballads, yarns, legends, or monuments," he declared in Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs. "No place, not even a wild place, is a place until it has had that human attention that in its highest reach we call poetry." His apparent reluctance to honor native names and stories of continental liberty is the regrettable cause of manifest manners. Stegner was lost without the christened names of colonial discovery.

Native American Indian literature is not a newcomer in the course of literary resistance to dominance. Natives have resisted discovery and dominance for centuries, from the first stories of touch and breach of trust. The stories were wise and tricky. Keeshkemun, for instance, the nineteenth century Anishinaabe aural artist and diplomat teased a British military officer with stories of natural reason and survivance. Keeshkemun, in that memorable encounter, created an avian presence. "I am a bird who rises from the earth, and flies far up, into the skies, out of human sight; but though not visible to the eye, my voice is heard from afar, and resounds over the earth."

Tragically, many readers consider native literature as an absence not a presence, a romantic levy of heroic separatism and disappearance, and others review native stories as cryptic representations of cultural promises obscured by victimry.

Michael Dorris, the late novelist, argued against the aesthetic distinctions of native literature. Other authors and interpreters of literature have resisted the idea of a singular native literary aesthetic. Duane Niatum, for instance, proclaimed that there is no distinctive native aesthetic. Yet, in his preface to Harper's Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry he wrote, "Native American poets carry with them the spirit of a common cultural heritage, expressed in divergent and often stunning ways, in their individual poetry. That spirit has not died. On the contrary, it has grown and is growing." The simulation of a "common cultural heritage" suggests a literary nuance but apparently not a discrete native aesthetic.

I practice the sentiments, figuration, patterns of motion, and syntax of a native literary aesthetic in my stories. I strongly disagree, in other words, with the simulated view that there is no singular native aesthetic. Consider, for instance, the ancestral storiers who created animal characters with a tricky sense of consciousness, the natural reason of a native aesthetic. Many contemporary native novelists present the imagic consciousness of animals in dialogue and descriptive narratives, and overturn the monotheistic separation of humans and animals. N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Silko, Gordon Henry, Louis Owens, and other native authors have created memorable animals and a native aesthetic in their stories and novels. Momaday created lusty bears, Silko native witchery, Henry and Owens spirited mongrels, as distinctive characters in their novels. These practices and sentiments are a native literary aesthetic.

"Stories with animals are older than history and better than philosophy," wrote Paul Shepard in The Others. "History tries to describe the world as if it began with writing and only humans mattered."

Native novelists are figurative hunters. Commonly, natives have been represented and associated with nature and totemic animals. That attribution, however, is more nostalgia for animism in a commercial world than an imagic sense of nature as a presence, and animals as a narrative voice in literature. Many culturists fashion natives and nature as an absence, as a tragic closure, and bound by victimry.

Momaday, Silko, Henry, and Owens use simile as motion, and comparisons, to be sure, but not as mere description or attributions of animal and human characteristics. Janet Martin Soskice noted in Metaphor and Religious Language that simile is more than "like" or "as" or mere "same saying" in literature. Metaphor, on the other hand, is a "figure of speech whereby we speak about one thing in terms which are seen to be suggestive of another." She argues that there is only a slight difference between metaphor and simile. That difference, however, is more significant in native stories. Animals and humans are either compared, a mundane similitude, or, as in a native aesthetic, animals are literary figures with voice and consciousness; in other words, animals are characters.

John Searle argued in his essay "Metaphors," the "knowledge that enables people to use and understand metaphorical utterances goes beyond their knowledge of the literal meaning of words and sentences. He wrote that a "literal simile" is a "literal statement of similarity" and that a "literal simile requires no extralinguistic knowledge for its comprehension." The "literal simile" is the most limited trope or figuration.

Louise Erdrich used a style of trope in her novel Tracks that is closer to the literal or prosaic simile than the metaphors of a native animal presence. For instance, "she shivered all over like a dog," and "hiding from you like a dog," and "head shaggy and low as a bison bull." Dogs are the most common authored animals in Tracks, and yet the literal similes are mere comparisons of generic animals and humans, not a wise or tricky perception of native transmutation or aesthetic figuration. The generic authored animal in literature is a generic and literal simile. Momaday, Silko, Henry, and Owens seldom create generic animals or used literal similes.

Grey, the main character in The Ancient Child by Momaday, "dreamed of sleeping with a bear. The bear drew her into his massive arms and licked her body and her hair. It hunched over her, curving its spine like a cat, until its huge body seemed to have absorbed her own. Its breath which bore a deep, guttural rhythm like language, touched her skin with low, persistent heat."

Momaday told Charles Woodward in Ancestral Voices that he was "serious about the bear" and "identified with the bear" because he is "intimately connected with that story. And so I have this bear power. I turn into a bear every so often. I feel myself becoming a bear, and that's a struggle I have to face now and then." Momaday became a bear in his own stories.

Leslie Silko encircles the reader with mythic witches, an ironic metaphor of creation stories in Ceremony. The hardhearted witches invented white people in a competition, a distinctive figuration that overcame the mere comparison of natives with the racial extremes of dominance.

Betonie, the old man, "shook his head. 'That is the trickery of the witchcraft,' he said. 'They want us to believe all evil resides with white people. Then we will look no further to see what is really happening. They want us to separate ourselves from white people, to be ignorant and helpless as we watch our own destruction. But white people are only tools that the witchery manipulates; and I tell you, we can deal with white people, with their machines and their beliefs. We can because we invented white people; it was Indian witchery that made white people in the first place.'"

Louis Owens pointed out in Other Destinies that "Betonie's words and the story of witchery underscore an element central to Native American oral tradition and worldview: responsibility." This sentiment of personal responsibility is survivance, a native aesthetic, and a metaphor that denies closure. "To shirk responsibility and blame whites, or any external phenomenon, is to buy into the role of helpless victim."

Gordon Henry created a wild, tricky scene of two dogs stuck together in a natural, sexual, totemic dance, a white dog, a brown dog, and in the end, one dead dog, in his novel The Light People. Boozhoo tried to separate the figurative white and brown dogs, and then he turned to his own magic, "my sideline vocation, my years of training. First I tried mental magic: I attempted to project the image of a piece of meat into the mind of the dancing white dog. For a minute I thought it worked, since I heard the white dog give off a low growl and I thought I saw his mouth water. But the dogs remained stuck together."

Custer, the authored mongrel in Bone Game by Louis Owens, is a memorable character in the tensive metaphor of his name. The names of some animals are ironic, and other authored animals have a sense of presence and character without a name. In one scene a character in the novel recommends a guard dog: "I mean it. You should get a dog. . . . A big, mean one. And remember, dogs don't like ghosts or witches. We keep them around the hogans at home just for that."

Ravens and crows are native tricksters, a union of pushy, avian mongrels, trust breakers, thieves, and healers. Consider the ravens who stole my lunch in Hibiya Park near the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. "The palace ravens search the restaurant trash at first light, and then, in smart teams, they raid the parks. By dusk they return to their roosts in the imperial sanctuary. My bento sushi became one of their stories of the day," I wrote in Hiroshima Bugi: Atomu 57. "Tokyo was firebombed at the end of the war and the ravens quickly moved to the secure trees of the Imperial Palace. The more guttural ravens of the industrial areas, nearby docks, and remote sections of the city, resent the imperial strain, their haughty relatives, the palace ravens who survived the war as aesthetic victims." The imperial ravens "descend at great speed from nearby buildings, a trace of silent black motion, a perfect flight, and snatch a cracker from a child, a rice cake from a schoolgirl, a sandwich from a tourist." The crown ravens are my relatives, "a tribute to a criminal empire, the great, tricky warriors of Hibiya Park."

I wrote in Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence that "monotheistic creation is a separation of animals, birds, and humans in nature and literature; the common unions since then have been both domestic and aesthetic." My idea of a native literary aesthetic is a tricky, totemic union of animals, birds, humans and others. "The more obscure tropes in literature must be closer to nature and animal consciousness than a literal simile." That authors are animals, that readers are animals, that animals are humans, is a native literary aesthetic, and the figurative hunters are the animals of their own narratives.

Native literary aesthetic transmutes by imagination the obvious simulations of dominance and closure, and that mighty turn must be shamanic, godly, and pretentious. Words forever change by sound, silence, and scripture. The actual moment of conversion stories is figurative, an imagic tease of literary mortality.

Copyright © 2006 Gerald Vizenor

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