Mirrors, Mimics, Myths
- Dee Horne (Author)
Contemporary American Indian Writing: Unsettling Identity. Peter Lang Publishing Group (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Thomas Claviez (Editor) and Maria Moss (Editor)
Mirror Writing: (Re-)Constructions of Native American Identity. Galda & Wilch Verlag (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- David Leeming (Author) and Jake Page (Author)
The Mythology of Native North America. University of Oklahoma Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Alison Calder
Mirror Writing: (Re-)Constructions of Native American Identity is a genuinely interesting and valuable collection of essays. It originates in selected papers from a conference on "the de- and possible reconstruction of Native American identity" held at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies in Berlin in 1999,and is divided into three parts. Papers in the ethnology and cul- tural contact section range from a discus- sion of the changing nature of the Lakota Sun Dance to an analysis of intercultural racial passing. The second section, on Native American myth and storytelling, treats the challenges of translating oral culture into written form. Papers range from general cultural studies to a more specific treatment of M. Scott Momaday. The final section, on reading/seeing the Other, examines issues in literary and visual representations of Native cultures, and particular attention is paid to self-imaging by Native Americans, whether they work as critics or as artists.
This collection is intensely interdisciplinary, with essays covering anthropology, sociology, oral and written literature, and visual art. Despite this variety, the essays work extremely well together because they all take as their starting point the assumption that Native American culture, like all culture, is a process that changes and adapts as the world does. The essays are united in their rejection of the "declining culture" narrative, which sees contemporary Native American culture as a degraded form of what was once a pure existence. Peter Bolz’s opening essay on the Lakota Sun Dance stresses that even this foundational ceremony "is involved in a constant process of change, development, and transformation to accommodate new social realities." Christian Feest argues in "Mission Impossible? Native Americans and Christianity" that though "today the vast majority of Native Americans are members of a Christian church," anthropologists and historians continue to distinguish between Christianity and "traditional" religions, thus ignoring the complicated issues that Christianity raises for Native American theorists and politicians. Dominique Legros,
in "First Nations Postmodern Cultures," directly challenges the reader: "Why is it that with North American First Nations we never deem their present cultures fully authentic? Could it be that if an authentic Iroquois culture were acknowledged in the present, this would cost the settlers’ society an enormous amount in compensation for seized or lost land and rights?"
The essay-writers in this collection further challenge their own disciplines by questioning the efficacy of applying traditional research methods to Native American cultures methods. Academic research is conventionally divided along disciplinary lines, but the authors in this collection repeatedly stress the inadequacy of those boundaries in a Native American context. In her article on the Inupiat-Eskimo Messenger Feast, Karin Berning highlights the difficulty of translation when seeking background information. Though she attempts to document the "reality" of the Messenger Feast, the impossibility of divining one authoritative version of the Feast myth that underlies the Feast challenges her project. Julie Cruikshank’s essay on oral traditions stresses how storytellers shape and reshape their stories to incorporate new issues and address new audiences. She highlights the difficulty mainstream culture has with assigning a place to these traditional stories: "A definition that equates oral tradition with archival documents necessarily limits what is heard." Oral tradition cannot be thought of as only history or only literature. Hans-Ulrich Sanner’s article "Confessions of the Last Hopi Fieldworker" confronts anthropology’s conventions in a personal and challenging discussion of his time spent among the Hopi, concluding that knowledge and research are not the same thing, and that the Hopi are better treated as human beings than anthropological subjects.
These essays also work against the idea of an essentialized Native American identity by pointing out differences between Native American critics or artists. Arnold Krupat examines three approaches (nationalist, indigenist, and cosmopolitan) in literary criticism by Native American critics, while Mick Gidley discusses different self-conceptions as reflected by Native American photographers. Such understandings of diversity prevent glib generalizations. Overall, the essays in this collection are marked by a productive self-scrutiny that illuminates each author’s project even as it complicates that same study.
Contemporary American Indian Writing: UnsettlingLiterature examines a range of works by American Indian authors through a frame of mimicry. Home argues that these authors employ what she terms "trickster mimicry," in which they "partially represent the colonial relationship, while also asserting cultural differences, to re-present the language and rules of recognition of colonial discourse." The result, she argues, is "decolonization." Her study includes works by Thomas King, Jeannette Armstrong, Ruby Slipperjack, Beatrice Culleton, Tomson Highway, and Lee Maracle.
Home’s scholarship, while interesting at points, is marked by a too easy acceptance of the postcolonial theorists she cites and an over-reliance on a colonizer/colonized dichotomy. It is unfair of me to single out Home as a scapegoat, but it seems to be virtually impossible to escape Canadian literary criticism that reads American Indian authors as trickster figures. As Arnold Krupat’s essay in Mirror Writing makes clear, American Indian critics have bigger fish to fry than only considering who among them is tricky and who is not. It is also worth reflecting on what is lost by reviewing American Indian writing solely in this context. I couldn’t help wondering what Home would make of an author like Eden Robinson, whose incredibly powerful writings blast through worries about colonial mimicry while drawing on creative sources as diverse as traditional Haisla sto- ries and Edgar Allan Poe.
After reading the first few paragraphs of the introduction to The Mythology of Native North America, I flipped back to check the publication date. Had this book come out in 1970? No, it came out in 1998. And therein lies the problem. Leeming and Page attempt to link Native North American mythologies to other mythologies—Old Norse, Christian, Greek and Roman, to name a few—and the result is a mishmash of Joseph Campbell-inspired searches for universal archetypes: Aboriginal myths are read through a screen of Jesus, Orpheus, and Loki. The editors also read the myths anthropologically, taking for granted that North American Aboriginal peoples originated in Asia, crossed a land bridge over the Bering Strait, and spread throughout the New World. They reinterpret Aboriginal stories to support this "scientific" view, though the stories themselves insist on autochthonous origins: the emergence story of Southwestern peoples, where beings gradually move through a series of worlds before achieving their present state, is described as "almost certainly a reflection" of this process of migration. The myths themselves have the power to rise above this context, but there are many other better anthologies available.
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Books reviewed: Annihilated Time: Poetry and Other Politics by Jeff Derksen, The Enchanted Adder by Rona Murray, and Shadows on a Wall by Charles E. Israel
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MLA: Calder, Alison. Mirrors, Mimics, Myths. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #178 (Autumn 2003), Archives and History. (pg. 111 - 113)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.