Ghost Dance Literature: On Recent Debates in Native American Literary Criticism

Von Ulla Haselstein

Eine längere Version dieses Aufsatzes wird erscheinen in Ulla Haselstein, Andrew Gross, MaryAnn Snyder-Körber (Hgs.), The Pathos of Authenticity, Heidelberg: Winter, 2010.

In the field of Native American Studies, current scholarly interest in hybridity, transnationalism, and diaspora has produced mixed feelings, to borrow James Clifford’s term. Conceiving of the Native American literary tradition as a practice of representation that engages cultural difference by performing a strategy of resistance, Arnold Krupat was among the first critics to account for it as constructed on the same premises as those Homi Bhabha observed in post-colonial writing, namely as contestations of imperial efforts to achieve hegemony and of essentialist definitions of Native identity by elaborating a third space of cultural translation, hybridity and interstitiality. The ethnocritic should, therefore, seek “to replace oppositional with dialogical model,” Krupat argued (Ethnocriticism 26), and join the writers’ efforts to challenge Western constructions of history and disrupt the rhetorics of self-evidence of Western thought. In a much quoted essay, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn expressed her dissent with such a perspective, and complained:

[T]he American Indian writers who have achieved successful readership in mainstream America seem to avoid that struggle [with the myths of their own nation status against a history of enforced denationalization, U.H.] in their work and move into thinking about Indian populations as simply gatherings of exiles and émigrés and refugees, strangers to themselves and their lands, pawns in the control of white manipulators, mixed-bloods searching for identity […] (30).

Rejecting concepts from postcolonial discourse for their focus on alienation and victimhood, Cook-Lynn argues that Native American writers and critics need to address tribal histories and build on communal experiences. In a related endeavor, Craig Womack states bitterly that Native American texts are taught in courses on ethnic literature or multicultural literature: strung together with “the same damn Bakhtin quotes we've all heard a million times,” literary ethnic studies are reduced to “little more than an English department version of the melting pot” (8). He castigates the reluctance of Native American writers to create a substantive body of critical work on Native American texts, leaving the ground to non-Indian “outsiders”.

For Womack, the acceptance of professional division between Native writers and academics is an effect of internalized colonialism: the authority of comment and critical analysis has been turned over to or appropriated by critics who do not share the writers’ tribal background and privilege textual patterns of hybridity. Womack himself works toward a Native American discourse whose aesthetics and politics [are to] rest on the cultural and political sovereignty of the tribes. In a less polemical way, Robert Allen Warrior and Jace Weaver have developed related projects. Warrior is concerned with the “unchartered territory” of an American Indian intellectual tradition as a source for interpretations of contemporary Indian literature; he seeks to establish a Native American discursive community that generates critical concepts of its own (xvi). Weaver, in turn, regards a commitment to community as the most important feature of Native culture (44). One of his foremost goals is to re-discover authors that were not included in the canon of Native American literature because of their distinctly tribal orientation.

With such arguments, these Native American critics set aside the pervasiveness of cultural contact and the manifold cultural negotiations characteristic for all contemporary writing in order to focus on Native American texts as expressions of tribal sovereignty. This is, of course, a strategy some postcolonial critics have also advocated: opting for strategic essentialism, notions of cultural authenticity are invoked in order to construct postcolonial nations as political entities with a common purpose and history; structures and practices of transculturality are considered of secondary importance (Weaver 36f). Responding to these interventions, Krupat has mapped the current field of Native American Studies by distinguishing between nationalism, indigenism and cosmopolitanism (locating himself in the third camp). Since all three types of discourse share an anti-colonial stance, Krupat argues that these forms of Native American writing should be constructed as supplementing each other in order to avoid the exclusionary logic of European nationalism (“Nationalism” 7).

In his book Red Land, Red Power, Sean Kicummah Teuton also attempts to mediate between the different standpoints. He stresses the “multiculturalism of twentieth-century Indian country,” already acknowledged by the Red Power Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s which searched for a common ground uniting tribes with specific experiences (4). Teuton shares Warrior’s concern to move a Native American intellectual tradition to the center of Native American critical discourse, but maintains that the representatives of this tradition (such as Apess, Eastman, Standing Bear or Ellen Deloria) engaged in cross-cultural dialogue. Arguing for a “tribal realism,” Teuton advocates a socially committed literature predicated on the emergent present.

Less conciliatory, Gerald Vizenor has attacked the normative idea of authentic tribal representations, refering to the “translations, interpretations and representations of the absence of tribal realities” (17). Vizenor's vitriolic wit is directed against notions of Native American culture as archaic and timeless, which he both links to and contrasts with “simulations of tribal identities in the literature of dominance,” including “nationalism, pan-tribalism, new tribalism, and reservation residence” (59). He engages in irony and paradox to articulate the self-contradictions of “postindian” identities, which resonate with repressed histories, counter-memories, and simulations of survivance. For Vizenor, tribal identity rests on tribal stories, which exist in various shadow forms, the nationalist narratives and Vizenor’s own texts among them. Citing the ghost dance as “the religion of renewal” which was spread among different tribes by the use of the English language, Vizenor argues that “[t]he shadows and language of tribal poets and novelists could be the new ghost dance literature, the shadow literature of liberation that enlivens tribal survivance” (105, 106).

Novels must be regarded as the most important cultural media of 19th century nationalism, as Benedict Anderson famously argued, since they rewrite the past as the nation’s pre-history, they establish a continuity between past and present, and offer a concept of community against modernity’s atomizing forces by embedding actors from different social contexts in the same time frame. For the same reasons, the historical novel and the bildungsroman claim a prominent status in postcolonial societies: the protagonists of these novels typically seek to create a meaningful bond of common purpose with others sharing the same cultural predicament and the same historical “roots”. Thus Teuton writes,

the protagonists [of novels by Momaday, Silko, Welch, U.H.] cannot recover their lands, their pasts, and their lives until they reconnect with the elders, healers, and other members of their communities. In so doing, they undergo a process of remembering and reinterpreting experiences of colonialism and related feelings of self-hatred. Upon achieving a more enabling picture of themselves in the Indian world, they are transformed (33).

Teuton conceives of these texts as achieving a cultural recovery by a working-through of the past. This process requires a confrontation with the uncanny (cf. Cheah 247). For the imagined community of the emergent nation (or tribe) is haunted by ghosts from an unresolved past: by the dead of lost uprisings, the shadows of failed efforts of renewal, and the doubles of the Euro-American colonizers.

The figure of the specter as defined by Jacques Derrida, elaborated by Barbara Johnson and cited by Marjorie Garber (14f.) might explain the appearance and function of these specters. According to Derrida, there is “a question of repetition: a specter is always a revenant. One cannot control its comings and goings because it begins by coming back. […] It is a proper characteristic of the specter [..] that no one can be sure if by returning it testifies to a living past or a living future, for the revenant may already mark the promised return of living being.” (Derrida, 11 and 99). For while the ghost is usually regarded as a copy, a revenant of the original, this ontological hierarchy is also undermined, since the ghost is conceived of as an articulation of the forgotten, the latent and the repressed, and for this reason is not contained in the original. Spectrality, thus conceived, subverts the notion of authenticity in the moment of the latter’s invention; for if the present coexists with certain elements of the past, there are no stable preexisting communities or cultural roots that could be recovered.

Spectrality has also become the term of choice in arguments against essentialism. Thus Harry Harootunian observes a tendency in the field of postcolonial studies to return to notions of cultural authenticity as “the unassailable domain of native interiority free from the corrosions of the outside world,” and describes this return as “the appearance of the uncanny out of time, the revenant, a ghostly repetition that has erupted from the surplus of what has been suppressed to trouble the stable boundaries between past and present” (“Postcoloniality” 154, 170). The ghost of nationalism refuses to be laid at rest. Advocating a history “founded on the now of recognizability”, Harootunian conceives of postcolonial societies as being confronted with “a premodern culture of reference that had not yet died, returning from a place out of time to haunt and disturb the historical present” (History 17).

Spectrality characterizes the dynamics of post-colonial self-recognition: to contest colonial stereotypes also means confronting their after-images in postcolonial cultural self-definitions. To reject the nostalgic invention of a unified past entails renouncing concepts of cultural authenticity as the basis for political claims of recognition. In citing, translating, reproducing or rewriting literary texts and documents from the past, the postcolonial novel conjures up ghosts – pacifying them by introducing a nationalist narrative, but simultaneously disrupting the latter’s claim of cultural authenticity. Vizenor’s “new ghost dance literature” and the postcolonial notion of spectrality thus refer to similar configurations of doubleness: of deconstructive and reconstructive tendencies supplementing and cancelling each other out in postcolonial and indigeneous texts.

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