Friday, June 26, 2009

Towards a Contemporary Native Lit Manifesto

(I am making only suggestions, here, feeling my way through what will probably be an ongoing series of bullet point considerations. This is intended to be purified, adjusted, and put into action by better and better-positioned folks than me, if they are interested.)


We need to retire the word “tribe” and replace it with “nation” or “culture” as appropriate to the individual instance. The word implies a smallness and simplicity, and was probably specifically chosen over “nation” or “kingdom” during the European invasion of this hemisphere specifically for those reasons.

Faux or pan-Native cultural items and activities should be retired. If we can’t do our own research, keep our own cultures in order, why should anyone else? If you’re doing it because it increases sales or lends you legitimacy to throw in some traditional weaves and bone whistles without, there’s the door, don’t let it… you know the routine.

There should be a temporary moratorium on writing in a historical setting, as this often implies to the uninitiated, mainstream, reader that Native peoples only exist (or exist authentically) in the past.

There should be a temporary moratorium on first contact stories. I’m sure there are Indians living in the United States of America who have just this minute met a non-Native person for the very first time, but they’re probably children. Or, lying. And if they aren’t, and the scene was a narrative, would it be giving us anything fresh to the conversation and field?

Write for your neighbors. It’s harder to sell out your neighbors’ stories than it is the people back home or from somewhere you just claim to be from (or researched). And if you don’t want to write for your neighbors, what, are you ashamed of them? Too good for them? Or, just telling things they don’t need to hear or learn?

A philosophy or concept is not more important or useful because it is traditional. They are useful and valid today, or they’re probably best left to the wayside. If you harbor some delusion that the world was perfect and paradisiacal in some murkily-defined past… door’s over there, we’re busy here.

Native people have been dumped on too much, and we cannot afford, in life or entertainment, to be isolationist. We cannot afford to be sexist, homophobic, racist, or otherwise bigoted in regards to the existence of any person on the basis of elements they cannot help (noting, that people can help being, say, racist, and that it is not a built in gene any more than misandry is inbuilt). If you want to do this on your own time, we’ll deal with you when the time comes, but when you put out works of entertainment or information, you are – whether you like it or not – representing all and every single other Native person.

Let us not reinforce the stereotype that Native people live outside, beside, or behind any other contemporary culture or subculture. Or that our culture(s) do not adjust, absorb, or appropriate other cultures, even if ours may be unfairly or unequally taken in. The Simpsons became part of Native culture the moment a bunch of Indians started watching the show and quoting from it.

There are good looking Indians. It’s usually a non-Native person being kind and helpful to us, who tells us that “Hollywood Indians” are not Native (enough), usually because they are fit, or sexy, or have nice cheekbones accentuated by professional makeup people. Those sentiments are bigoted and absurd. And defeatist. There are plenty of good looking Native people. Some of these sexy folks are thin, some are tall, some are the bronzed barrel-chested sweaty dude with good teeth that grace the frequent romance novel’s cover. Except, they’d have – one hopes – the good taste not to dress like that. Native people, like all people, come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and shades… as they always have.

If you write a self-help book, claiming the routines are ancient and Yaqui will not make them work better. A basic prayer workbook does not need Indianicity to work and in fact, if it doesn’t work, that layer of proposed Indianicity is not going to make it work. Also, the ghost of Carlos Castaneda may appear in a burst of light and sue you into the ground. After Barbara Myerhoff’s ghost finished suing his.

As someone who has lived, at times, without running water or proper heating, modern plumbing and conveniences are as important and ambient a part of contemporary Native living. Let’s remember that. Let’s also bear in mind, commod cell phones.

Not everybody has a casino, a CIB, or is a drunk because they’ve had a drink of alcohol.

In fact, maybe we should have a moratorium on drunk Indian stories for awhile. Everybody knows what to expect from there, and you know what? I know a lot of Native people who enjoy alcohol to varying degrees without being an alcoholic or getting smashed. And the mythology built up around liquor, the illusion of some innate spiritual horribleness and malice needs to be retired because it’s an embarrassment to us all.

As much, as nonwhite/nonblack people we may be inclined to complain that too much of the broader entertainment world treats life and story as a Black and White issue, let’s remember that it is also not a Native American and White world.

Native literature, as with much of the rest of Native art, shows an intense tendency towards pattern being more significant than causality. Our stories, poems, and plays often require the entire work, in context, to be understood. Native entertainment has always embraced and utilized abstaction, metaphor, call and response, pointillism, perspective shifts, and deliberate animism. Regardless of what canonicity may be offered to works more closely adhering to White or non-Native styles and cultural tendencies, let’s not play that demeaning game. Embrace the stylistic and cultural elements and not be concerned so much that these may appear etic to the perspective of non-Native audiences. We play catch up with them, every time we engage a story, film, or music video from outside our culture, so the same can be expected of them. No one of these systems or tendencies, these methods of communication and entertainment, is inherently the default.

The shade of your skin does not give you cultural or community-based authenticity. It does not lend these things to anyone else, either. Some Native people have darker skin than others, some lighter, and this has been true longer than there have been White people in this hemisphere.

No matter who looks to you to be the representative of all peoples and things Native American, you don’t need to act that way. You should not take that role on your shoulders, of your own accord, no matter how strong you may feel the call to do so. Somewhere out there, there is a Native person who disagrees with you on some point or who has a cultural or life experience different from yours, and they are no less Native than you are.

Let’s not be ethnographic tour guides in our prose and poetry, okeh? There is no default non-Native (or not Native enough) audience out there you need to communicate Native-ness and experience/being too.

Just because your character lives on a tiny rez town, does not mean they don’t drive into a bigger urban area to a major chain store.

Just because a certain person thinks they have no culture, or are not close to their culture, does not mean this is true. They may simply be mistaken as to what their culture is, and chasing after something that is not culture, but heritage. Alternately, some people feel that their culture is modern, but a Native American culture (whichever, depending on the example) is rooted and (in truth) suspended at some time between one and five hundred years ago. Eastern Hemisphere cultures have all, including European, been affected by involvement in the Western Hemisphere, just as the Western Hemisphere cultures and habits have been affected by them. If this were not true, pizza and donuts would be very different.

Is your character wearing something in public that, in your experience, would get them laughed at on their own rez or homeland? Are they speaking of things that would make their friends or grandparents shake their head in disbelief? Are you dealing with these things in that light, or have they got some feathers in their earrings and a choker full of turquoise over their fringe-tastic buckskins because you want to make sure the audience understands these are Indians?

Let's try to keep any non-English used in an English-language piece useful and purposeful. Words from a foreign language should not be used purely to affect an authenticity, or in situations where they would not be in general conversations. Entertainment is a trade operation, and the only time a lack of communication is useful in trade is for obfuscation and astonishig the rubes.

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