In Search of Indigenous America

  • James H. Cox (Editor) and Daniel Heath Justice (Editor)
    The Oxford Handbook of Indigenous American Literature. Oxford University Press (purchase at

Without a doubt Indigenous literary studies is one of the fastest growing fields in the academy. Testament to this growth is the new The Oxford Handbook to Indigenous American Literature consisting of forty-three entries. In short it is a big book full of weighty essays. Aside from the text’s hefty size, what immediately stands out is the title, which the editors presumably adopted to convey the vast range of material covered, and the subject matter, “American,” a term used both geographically and politically, which, fittingly, pushes against national borders.

Cox and Justice state the catalyst for the text in the first lines of their introduction: “The Oxford Handbook to Indigenous American Literature is a product of the transformation of Native American and Indigenous literary studies during the past twenty years. This transformation was precipitated by the introduction of two new modes of inquiry: tribal nation specificity and American Indian nationalism.” After providing a short overview as to why these “movements” have been significant, noting that contributions have come from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars, they add the third element of “transnationalism” to the mix: “The handbook also recognizes the significant development of an inter- and trans-Indigenous orientation in Native and Indigenous literary studies.” As one of the three main threads the editors pull together in their conception of the handbook, it provides the reasoning for the international orientation of the text.

So what does this big book offer? Together the forty-three essays literally cover a lot of ground—Geographic breadth is one of the defining features of the Handbook”—in describing and/or analyzing important movements, as the editors indicate, “in the last twenty years” from a variety of angles; as such the compilation is divided into four general sections, “Histories,” “Genres,” “Methods,” Geographies, ” flexible enough to accommodate an eclectic and diverse range of contributions. That the essays are heavily weighted towards continental USA comes as no surprise given the relative size of its Indigenous literary population, the recognition awarded its writers, and the current scholarship in the field, but it is nonetheless troubling. As Sam McKegney’s insightful essay alludes to, what this does is unintentionally create a kind of Indigenous literary centre, where other national literatures appear auxiliary to what is going on, or has gone on, in the USA, the result apparently of little, if any, reciprocal movement.

Still the text covers a wide, often-idiosyncratic range of topics, and it would be impossible to summarize each contribution, but certain observations stand out. For the most part the essays are excellent. Consider the two essays that frame the text: Keavy Martin on Inuit literature not only provides valuable insight into this often overlooked literature, but goes so far as to challenge the orthodoxy of classifying Inuit literature in western terms. While acknowledging the term “literature” can be strategically useful, she astutely flips the language paradigm, noting that “rather than saying wistfully that ‘there is no word for poetry / literature in Inuktitut,’ it might be preferable to say that English . . . struggles to adequately convey” Inuktitut. Likewise the afterword by Hawaii based Kanaka Maoli scholar and poet ku’ualoha ho‘omanawanui effectively illustrates through Hawaiian cultural specificity, literary nationalism, and a sense of speaking outward to an international Indigenous community, the true strengths of the text. It is here in introducing readers to literatures they may know little or nothing about that I find the handbook most engaging.

As a whole the collection is impressive, and one would be hard pressed not to find a major topic covered; language, orality, orature, rhetoric, writing, representation, colonization, identity, gender, sexuality, sovereignty, nationalism, trans-nationalism, tribalism, land, history, development, pedagogy, aesthetics, genre—it is all there—and produced by scholars who, according to their contributor biographies, are all experts in the field. And yet, it must be said that individually some essays are stronger than others, and range from those that provide a complex analysis of a given literature, as noted above, and which will undoubtedly mark the field, to others that are simply lacking—here I’m thinking about the lack of emphasis on the centrality of drama in the development and reception of Indigenous literature in Canada—to essays that are more or less incidental. This point makes me wonder about the purpose and parameters of the handbook, as well as the intended audience. As it stands, the editors have cast a wide net, but if the focus is on “Indigenous America” and includes an essay on Mayan literature from Mexico, then why not criticism from Peru and Brazil, among other territories, which have huge Indigenous populations?

It is safe to say that no anthology can be totally inclusive, and yet one can say in confidence that The Oxford Handbook of Indigenous American Literature offers something for everybody with an interest in Indigenous literature. What readers will not find though with a few exceptions are standard handbook type essays covering major work by major authors. Nowhere will one find a complete essay on the work and influence of N. Scott Momaday or Tomson Highway, for example, which makes me wonder if calling this text a “handbook” is a misnomer. In their acknowledgements the editors mention that assembling the compilation took five years, and we can understand why. Whatever we call this text, it is a massive undertaking that provides a panoply of voices from a new generation of scholars, who are opening up Indigenous literature across borders and providing critical insight into all its beauty, diversity, and controversy.


This review “In Search of Indigenous America” originally appeared in Radio, Film, and Fiction. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 225 (Summer 2015): 124-125.

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