Introduction: Post-Renaissance Indigenous American Literary Studies
Abstract and Keywords
The Oxford Handbook of Indigenous American Literature is dedicated to the rich literary traditions of the Indigenous peoples of North America and the Pacific and Atlantic regions that share significant cultural, political, and literary, as well as imperial and military, histories with it. Both leading and emerging scholars in the field examine the many genres (plays, poems, novels, short stories, songs, oral stories, autobiographies, and films) that comprise these traditions. They analyze the work of familiar writers in new critical and political contexts and introduce readers to many previously unknown or under-studied Indigenous writers. The collection illuminates the development of an inter- and trans-Indigenous orientation in Native American and Indigenous literary studies and highlights the importance of reconciling tribal nation specificity, Indigenous literary nationalism, and trans-Indigenous methodologies as components of post-Renaissance studies in Indigenous American literature.
The Oxford Handbook of 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 literary nationalism. Tribal nation specificity encourages a shift in critical focus from identity, authenticity, hybridity, and cross-cultural mediation to the Native intellectual, cultural, political, historical, and tribal national contexts from which Indigenous literatures emerge. American Indian literary nationalism works more explicitly to produce literary criticism that supports the intellectual and political sovereignty of Indigenous communities and tribal nations. Both literary critical modes affirm that these contexts, communities, and tribal nations are the first concern of the discipline.
As these methods of interpreting Native writing became customary in scholarly circles in the mid- to late 1990s, an institutional shift was occurring throughout North American universities. Indigenous writing was taught with greater frequency in courses in English departments and programs such as women’s studies, ethnic studies, and, of course, Native studies. A critical mass of Native students was working its way through graduate school in literary studies, and many more Native people were establishing themselves as nationally and internationally known literary scholars and writers. These Indigenous scholars and their allies started writing articles and books and mentoring younger Native scholars. They helped to establish new programs in American Indian studies at the Universities of Oklahoma (1994), Illinois (2002), and Georgia (2004), and they had a significant role in the founding of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (2007).
Their collaboration with colleagues in other fields also helped to make possible the initiative called “First Peoples: New Directions in Indigenous Studies.” In 2009, the Andrew Carnegie Mellon Foundation announced a grant to four university presses (p. 2) to fund the publication of forty books in Indigenous studies in four years. By publishing influential literary criticism and theory, directing programs, finding resources for students in the form of fellowships and postdoctoral appointments, working with and against university bureaucracies for greater recognition of the field, and building coalitions among Indigenous and allied scholars across institutional, tribal national, and settler-colonial borders, this generation of scholars shaped a new Indigenous literary critical conversation. A flood of scholarship followed on recovered writers and new literary histories, methods, genres, and regions.
The Handbook also recognizes the significant development of an inter- and trans-Indigenous orientation in Native American and Indigenous literary studies. Many scholars in Native American and Indigenous studies were skeptical about the transnational turn in American studies and related disciplines. A reluctance to incorporate the transnational into Indigenous literary studies is a consequence of the legitimate apprehension that transnationalism is a threat to the basic political act of speaking and listening in the margins when critics assume that the only nations under consideration are settler-colonial. Such an assumption either leaves Indigenous peoples out of the conversation or, if they are present as bit players, reinforces their marginalized status. Many of the contributors to the Handbook work to reconcile tribal nation specificity, Indigenous literary nationalism, and trans-Indigenous methodologies. The field appears poised to embrace simultaneously all three methods as necessary components of post-Renaissance Native American and Indigenous literary studies.
After and Before the Renaissance
The study of Indigenous American creative expression is an old practice. Wherever Indigenous peoples have expressed their experiences in spoken word and written text, they have also interpreted these narratives. In some cases, the earliest texts still survive—on paper, stone, hide, string, shell, bark, or other media—although the understanding of these texts by those who inscribed them is sometimes unclear to contemporary audiences. In other cases, Europeans transcribed Indigenous American texts into colonial languages and revised, censored, and decontextualized the oral traditions that they recorded on paper. Perhaps the oral traditions and physical texts were more accessible to some early European observers than were Indigenous peoples’ own interpretations of them. Perhaps some European transcribers and translators were more interested in the oral traditions and texts as cultural curiosities than in the active role they played in Indigenous peoples’ understanding of their place in the world. Although the history of an intellectual tradition of Native American and Indigenous literary criticism is still not well documented, Indigenous literary studies claims a continuity with an intellectual past that, as the field grows, will continue to come into sharper focus.
The approximately forty-year-old academic field of Native American and Indigenous literary studies represents a brief period in the literary critical history of the Americas. (p. 3) In its US (and, somewhat later, Canadian) incarnation, the field emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. An increase in published works by Indigenous authors coincided with the rise of sovereignty and civil rights activism by grassroots and Red Power leaders and by Indigenous students, faculty, and their allies. Many scholars in the field still feel the pressure of the moment Kenneth Lincoln called the “Native American Renaissance,” the period from approximately 1968 to 1995. The most celebrated writers of the early years of this era—Paula Gunn Allen, Vine Deloria, Jr., Joy Harjo, N. Scott Momaday, Simon Ortiz, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gerald Vizenor, and James Welch in the United States; Maria Campbell, Jeannette Armstrong, Lee Maracle, and Beth Brant in Canada—remain an important part of scholarly conversations. They are aesthetic and political touchstones for much of the scholarship on Indigenous literatures in North America. Less prominent in current conversations are the Indigenous scholars of the early Renaissance, such as Geary Hobson and Joseph Bruchac, who documented an Indigenous literary history and made new Native voices available to a broad reading public in The Remembered Earth (1981) and Songs from This Earth on Turtle’s Back (1983). Both Hobson and Bruchac continue to advocate on behalf of Native writers across the continent and beyond.
Ethnographic methodologies that generated questions about identity and cultural authenticity dominated American Indian literary studies during the Renaissance. By the late Renaissance, Louis Owens and Gerald Vizenor were the most prominent literary critics, although Greg Sarris’s Keeping Slug Woman Alive (1993) was well received at the time. Owens understood identity, especially mixed-blood identity, as a central concern of Native American novelists. Vizenor’s interest in mixed-bloods, or what he calls “cross-bloods,” as tricksters who destabilized colonial definitions of Indianness, reinforced a discipline-wide interest in identity and representation. Although identity and representation continue to be issues with significant political components, in the 1990s, some critics began to argue that creative writers and literary critics interested in these issues often neglected history, political crises, and the complexities of cultural identity in Indian Country.
Most post-1995 criticism accepts tribal nation and community-specific contexts as the most important points of critical reference for the interpretation of Native texts. In the United States at least, this criticism repudiates mixed-blood as a central critical focus, though identity remains a significant concern for some scholars. Robert Warrior was the earliest prominent literary critic to insist on the centrality of land and treaty rights and the support of tribal nation sovereignty to ethical readings of the literature. Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, in the essay “The American Indian Fiction Writer” in Why I Can’t Read Wallace Stegner and Other Essays (1996), insisted that American Indian creative writers, in addition to literary critics, should make these issues central to their work. With help from Vizenor’s skeptical approach to decontextualized, colonial Indianness, other historically minded literary scholars such as Jace Weaver and Craig Womack began to reconsider the Red Power era’s political and intellectual insistence on protecting American Indian sovereignty. At the same time, they rejected the earlier era’s adherence to a reductive view of Native identity and politics. One significant consequence (p. 4) of this shift in literary critical focus is the constant assertion of tribal nations and communities as polities distinct from (although still deeply entangled with) settler-colonial nations.
Whereas in the United States academic critics most forcefully shaped these conversations, in Canada, creative writers did so, particularly Aboriginal women. Maria Campbell reached a broad reading public with her 1973 autobiography Halfbreed, but it was not until the publication of Beatrice (Culleton) Mosionier’s searing In Search of April Raintree (1983) and Jeannette Armstrong’s Red Power-inspired novel Slash (1985), as well as the incisive fiction and essays of Lee Maracle and Beth Brant, that mainstream Canadian literary scholars began to regard Indigenous writing as something more than ethnographic reportage. In the early 1990s, following the highly publicized Mohawk resistance in Oka, Québec, and the subsequent report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1991–1996), Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Daniel David Moses, Tomson Highway, Beth Cuthand, Thomas King, and others expressed and analyzed the reasons for Aboriginal peoples’ anger and frustration. They also demonstrated that Indigenous arts could transform the lives and relationships of everyone, Indigenous peoples and settler Canadians alike, although such transformation required an honest assessment of Canadian colonialism and its enduring force.
As this Handbook makes clear, non-Natives have always played a role in working on behalf of Indigenous literature, its creators, and its communities. The 1977 Modern Language Association/National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar on “Native American Literature: Criticism and Curriculum” is an important illustration of this point. Directed by Paula Gunn Allen, Larry Evers, Dexter Fisher, John Rouillard, and Terry Wilson and attended by Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Joy Harjo, Victor Masayesva, Kenneth Roemer, LaVonne Brown Ruoff, James Ruppert, Leslie Marmon Silko, and many others who would become prominent writers, teachers, and critics in the field, this gathering demonstrated intertribal and cross-cultural cooperation at its most productive. Yet the 1990s saw Indigenous people, as literary critics as well as critical artists, becoming much more involved in shaping the discipline and its intellectual focus. Native writers became more than the objects of study—they were also theorists and critics of the writing they produced. As their paradigm-shifting work made clear, Indian Country was not as one-dimensional as was implied by the overwhelming focus on Red Power and the most prominent Renaissance writers.
Contemporary scholars in the field owe a debt to the writers and critics of the Renaissance. Shari Huhndorf’s reading of the politics of space in Louise Erdrich’s Tracks (1988) and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Sacred Water (1993) is one example in the Handbook of the field’s continued engagement with the work of Renaissance writers. Huhndorf argues that Erdrich and Silko reveal dispossession and patriarchy as complementary colonial forces. She asserts, therefore, that both authors treat gender as a necessary area of critical inquiry in any anticolonial movement. Crystal Kurzen situates Silko in a history of Indigenous women writers, including Gertrude Bonnin and Rigoberta Menchú, who serve Indigenous political causes by reconceptualizing the formal conventions of (p. 5) Western autobiography. Kurzen sees, too, an emergent trans-Indigenous autobiographical genre with its own formal structures.
In “Vine Deloria, Jr. and the Spacemen,” another chapter devoted to a writer from the early Renaissance, Craig Womack identifies camp and theatricality as features of Deloria, Jr.’s discussion of Native time and space in God Is Red (1972). Womack has some fun at Deloria, Jr.’s expense, but he does so in an effort to demonstrate why this revered writer’s work is still vitally important to Native American literary studies. Warren Cariou’s survey of post-1960 Indigenous Canadian literature focuses primarily on the same era of resurgence. Cariou identifies the Oka Crisis in 1990 and the heated debates over the appropriation of Native voices and the representation of Native lives by non-Native writers as touchstones of Indigenous Canadian literary history. He observes, too, that Indigenous writers in Canada have continued to explore the role orality plays in written traditions in the twenty-first century. In her evocative meditation on Indigenous poetics and Salt Publishing’s Earthworks series, Sophie Mayer reads poets of the Renaissance in conversation with emerging writers, tracing the interweavings (and “interleavings”) among them, the reader, and the world. Sean Kicummah Teuton’s analysis of the American Indian novel tradition similarly places Renaissance-era writers in historical relationship with more recent novelists but also brings underrepresented writers from the long history of Indigenous (and especially Cherokee) novel production into nuanced consideration.
Tribal nation specific and American Indian literary nationalist methods opened new areas of inquiry by shifting the keywords of scholarly conversation from identity, culture, and mediation to history, politics, citizenship, sovereignty, and diplomacy. This shift in emphasis especially helped to invigorate the study of seventeenth- to nineteenth-century Indigenous writers. Native writers of earlier periods rarely performed or sounded like Russell Means. For that matter, writers from the early Renaissance rarely performed or sounded like Red Power activists, although they often conveyed a regard for what many readers understood as authentic Indigenous cultural traditions. The early writers were usually Christians, however, and had adopted a variety of European immigrant social and cultural practices. Yet the historical and political significance of their writing becomes much more clear once the question shifts from how Samson Occom and William Apess experienced their bicultural Native lives to how they served the Native communities to which they belonged.
Lisa Brooks and Phillip Round have introduced contemporary readers to many American Indian writers from the seventeenth to the first half of the nineteenth century. Brooks mentions an astonishing array of early Native writers in her chapter. She asserts that the letters, petitions, diaries, and other works by Captain Joseph Johnson, Ben Uncas, Samson Occom, Samuel Ashpo, Henry Quaquaquid, Joseph Johnson, Jr., Joseph Brant, and Hendrick Aupaumut, among others, establish a politically potent counter-narrative to the representation of Native people in Cooper’s The Pioneers (1823) and The Last of the Mohicans (1826) as isolated, unlettered, and doomed. Several of these writers, especially Aupaumut and Occom, figure prominently in Round’s chapter. Other early Native writers, such as Sarah Simon, Mary Occom, and Elijah Wimpey, also make (p. 6) an appearance as Round discusses the uses to which writers in Indian Country put alphabetic literacy. He argues that early Native writing was primarily a community and nation-centered practice.
These post-Renaissance methodologies also open the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to recovery and reevaluation. Maureen Konkle regards the writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft as an object lesson in both the power of Native voices in the nineteenth century and the profoundly oppressive sociopolitical forces against which Native writers fought to be heard on their own terms. In particular, Konkle attends to Schoolcraft’s defense of Ojibwe culture as an important act of resistance. In his study of novels by S. Alice Callahan and John Milton Oskison, Joshua Nelson contends that a tradition–assimilation binary continues to plague Native American and Indigenous literary criticism. He uses, however, a rigorous, tribally specific approach to redefine tradition and assimilation as processes and tactics embedded in tribal practice rather than as descriptors of fixed identities.
As Nelson suggests, different eras and territories require Indigenous writers to adopt distinct literary and political strategies. Keavy Martin describes an Inuit literary and political practice that prioritizes local, Inuktitut-speaking audiences. Inuit have generally rejected the colonial expectation that they develop a “mature” literature, that is, a literature in English and recognizable European genres. Martin considers the literary choices that Inuit make as sovereign acts that challenge institutions to re-evaluate their willingness to indigenize curriculum and other parts of the academy. Huastecan Nahua poet and novelist Natalio Hernández wrote his poetry collection Xochikoskatl (1985) in Mexicanoh or Nahuatl, but he translated the poems into Spanish. Adam Coon argues that Hernández uses Spanish to draw attention to what is untranslatable from Mexicanoh. At the same time, Nahua epistemologies and cultural practices, especially those related to corn, shape the form of Xochikoskatl. By emphasizing the vitality of Nahua cultural and intellectual traditions in the late twentieth century, Hernández also positions Nahua people as actors in the daily life of the Mexican nation.
Whereas Martin focuses on Inuit literature in Inuktitut and Coon discusses bilingual Mexicanoh and Spanish poetry, Emilio del Valle Escalante considers a text published first in Spanish then translated into Yucatek Maya. Del Valle Escalante contextualizes Jorge Cocom Pech’s autobiographical account Muk’ult’an in Nool/Grandfather’s Secrets (1997), first published as Testimonio de una iniciación: la prueba del aire, la prueba del sueño (1994), within a burst of Yucatek Maya literary production beginning in the early 1980s. Cocom Pech embraces the appropriation of Western literary forms in the service of expressing and asserting the value of Maya ways of being and knowing in the modern world. However, Del Valle Escalante also challenges Cocom Pech’s text on the basis of its patriarchal gender politics. Margaret Noodin’s explanation of the creative and critical relationship between Anishinaabe literature and Anishinaabemowin, the Anishinaabe language, further clarifies the continuing significance of Indigenous languages to a more complete understanding of Indigenous literary histories.
Geographic breadth is one of the defining features of the Handbook, as these chapters focused on literature in Indian Territory, Nunavut, the Huasteca, Yucatán, and the Great (p. 7) Lakes region attest. The American of the title includes the continent of North America and those geographic and oceanic regions that share significant cultural, political, and literary, as well as imperial and military, histories with it. In his consideration of what he has identified as “The Red Atlantic,” Jace Weaver reveals a much deeper history of trans-Atlantic intellectual and creative exchange than has been previously recognized. He offers a compelling argument for a deeper engagement of the oceanic as well as the continental influences on Indigenous literary production. In a related chapter, Shona Jackson attests to a much more widespread Indigenous presence in the Caribbean than the general population and the academy acknowledge. The insistence on Indigenous Caribbean disappearance in the region’s literature, Jackson argues, allows creoles to establish the parameters of their social world. Guyanese Arawakan/Lokono poet and songwriter Basil Rodrigues, however, subverts the dominant representation of Indigenous Caribbean peoples as extinct by reconnecting Native history to living creolized Indigenous cultures.
Indigenous authors from Guåhan (Guam) and Amerika Samoa, like Yucatek Maya and Huastecan Nahua writers, produced a surge of publications in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Caroline Sinavaiana Gabbard identifies John Kneubuhl’s work in community theater in Honolulu in the 1940s as an important origin for contemporary Indigenous Amerika Samoan literature, and more Indigenous Amerika Samoan writers joined Kneubuhl beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Constant human movement across community, national, colonial, and geographic spaces and the expression and exploration of Indigenous Samoan gender identities, such as fa`afafine, are prominent features of their writing. In his chapter on Chamorro writers of Guåhan, Craig Santos Perez discusses poets who continue to work within the oral poetic form of tsamorita. Although Spanish colonial and US imperial practices have transformed tsamorita, Chamorro writers use it still to create an imaginative communal space and affirm the Chamorro cultural value of inafa’maolek. Kanaka Maoli writers also draw on a long literary history. Noenoe Silva’s chapter on Hawaiian literature focuses on the rich archive of Hawaiian writing in newspapers, especially in the nineteenth century, that offers a significant intellectual history for the flourishing creative and political writing by Kanaka Maoli writers today.
The Handbook also devotes multiple chapters to Indigenous literatures north of the Medicine Line. In addition to Cariou’s and Martin’s contributions, the Handbook includes chapters by Margery Fee, Sam McKegney, Sarah Henzi, and Kristina Fagan Bidwell. Fee’s study of early Indigenous literary production in what is now Canada includes texts and events from the seventeenth century to the 1960s. She reveals a remarkable archive and numerous complicated textual relationships between Indigenous writers and their settler-colonial neighbors that promise to redefine much of what we thought we knew about that literary history. After he outlines the history of Indigenous literary criticism in Canada, McKegney reads Eden Robinson’s 2006 novel Blood Sports as a narrative that moves from a critical emphasis on the maintenance of distinct Indigenous cultural traditions to a commitment to create a broad-based anticolonial coalition. Henzi addresses one of the most underrepresented literatures in (p. 8) Canada: Francophone writing by Indigenous authors in Quebec. She is among a small handful of scholars bringing attention to these texts and the struggles of their authors to be heard within the province and across the country. Bidwell reviews the divisive battles over Metis identity and places these battles in regional and historical contexts. She then asserts that Metis authors tend to reject the racial definitions at the core of the antagonism among Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups. Instead, they develop more flexible and less divisive definitions of Metis identity based in shared familial, communal, and regional histories. Like Martin’s chapter on Inuit literature in Nunavut, James Ruppert’s contribution is a necessary intervention in Native literary histories that obscure or entirely elide literary traditions of the peoples of the far North. Ruppert’s chapter provides a detailed history of the Native literatures of Alaska beginning with the written transmission of oral literatures in the nineteenth century and continuing to contemporary creative and critical writing.
Other important areas of study have also experienced transformations with roots in the critical and theoretical shifts of the 1990s. Malea Powell’s story of how the field of Native rhetoric emerged to take up both shared and distinct concerns in the study of Indigenous textual production is a case in point. Within the context of the disciplinary history of Native rhetoric—the how of meaning-making—Powell analyzes the field’s historical and ongoing political, intellectual, and ethical challenges. Similarly, Robert Warrior’s comparison of Indigenous nonfiction by Louise Erdrich, Thomas King, and Paul Chaat Smith asks us to view such writing not as an accessory to fiction and poetry but as a vital literary tradition in its own right. Like Powell and Warrior, Christopher Teuton asks us to reconsider our categories and definitions. He rejects the reductive binary of oral traditions and writing and argues for a nuanced understanding of the relationships between them.
The chapters on many different Indigenous literary histories invite the comparative or trans-Indigenous methodology that Chad Allen advocates. Allen asserts that the field has neglected comparative Indigenous approaches with untapped decolonizing potential. He reviews some of the perceived impediments to this kind of critical practice before demonstrating the possibilities that several anthologies and books, such as Mohawk/Samoa: Transmigrations by James Thomas Stevens and Caroline Sinavaiana Gabbard, provide for trans-Indigenous interpretation. Allen’s trans-Indigenism is an example of the modified transnational approaches that Joseph Bauerkemper sees as definitive of the field’s engagement with this influential critical method. The relationship between the national and transnational in Indigenous literary studies, Bauerkemper argues, is dialogic rather than oppositional, lateral rather than hierarchical. His reading of LeAnne Howe’s 2007 novel Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story demonstrates how the Indigenous transnational can complement Native nationhood.
The Handbook also includes chapters on issues such as racial and blood identities that remain divisive in Indigenous nations and communities. Criticism in the late 1980s and early 1990s privileged mixed-blood perspectives that understood hybridity and cultural crossing as powerful responses to the limitations of race logics. Often, these inquiries were disconnected from broader political and historical contexts. Mixed-bloods remain (p. 9) primarily conceived as Native and northern European; other possibilities and affiliations are often left at the conceptual margins. In addition to the chapter by Bidwell, the contributions by Kiara Vigil and Tiya Miles on Red-Black literature and Domino Renee Perez on Chican@ Indigeneity make compelling arguments about the insufficiency of racial categories to reflect accurately or even to recognize many significant relationships of belonging. Vigil and Miles consider the writings of black Indians, as well as the ways in which African American, American Indian, and Red-Black writers articulate the shared and distinctive histories between them. In her own major intervention in the field, Perez situates the work of Chican@ theorist Gloria Anzaldúa within the context of Native American and Indigenous studies. Perez offers a constructive, provocative assessment of Anzaldúa’s mestizaje and “new tribalism” and asks us to consider the risks of not challenging Anzaldúa’s conceptions of Indigeneity.
The past fifteen years have also seen a dramatic growth of scholarship on diverse Indigenous genders and sexualities. Paula Gunn Allen brought sustained attention to these issues in The Sacred Hoop (1986). Although not the first Native writer to take up these topics, her book challenged readers to reassess their assumptions and to understand gender and sexuality, as Huhndorf does in her chapter, as central analytical concerns. The discipline has changed much in the years since, with more attention and respect accorded to Indigenous women’s writing. Mark Rifkin discusses the ways diverse sexualities are erased from many tribal contexts and the obstacles that continue to hinder the representation of queer desire and identity in contemporary Indigenous literature. In particular, Rifkin asks us to consider how contemporary queer and two-spirited Native writers represent history in ways that illuminate the queer Indigenous past, present, and future.
Certain genres have also struggled for recognition. Alexander Pettit discusses more than fifty plays in his survey of Native drama in the United States and Canada. He identifies recurring themes, foremost the dignity of Native peoples in the face of historical and contemporary abuses, while observing that many of the plays under consideration are at least the equal of the best work by some of the most celebrated European and US playwrights—Brecht, O’Neill, Pirandello, Williams—of the twentieth century. Scholars have also not incorporated books by Indigenous authors for young readers into the conversations in the field. For young readers, these books are one of the first lines of defense against the pernicious representations of Native people in much children’s literature. Loriene Roy reviews the principal authors of what she calls a new Indigenous children’s literature canon, and she identifies biographies of contemporary Native people as particularly important for their emphasis on survival. Like Pettit, Denise Cummings focuses on American Indian and First Nations artists. Cummings outlines the contemporary contexts of Indigenous filmmaking, then situates Leslie Marmon Silko’s film Arrowboy and the Witches as a precursor to feature films such as Smoke Signals (1998) and Naturally Native (1998). These films did not contribute to a dramatic increase in feature films by and about Indigenous people, Cummings notes, although Indigenous filmmakers have continued to overcome persistent obstacles to produce Native-centered films in a variety of genres and media.
(p. 10) As Dean Rader observes in his chapter, Native American and Indigenous writers have long produced literary works that exceed the boundaries of familiar literary forms. Rader demonstrates that many Native writers combine text and image in a way that rejects any division between the two. Instead, Indigenous writers integrate text and image so that they become equal partners in the production of meaning. Jodi Byrd examines how Indigenous writers employ, subvert, or redefine generic conventions. Along the way, she examines such diverse genres as Wild West zombie video games, captivity narratives, magical realism, and speculative fiction ranging from horror to fantasy and asks readers to consider the ways in which these disruptions and rearticulations of various genres affirm the imaginative possibilities of Indigenous peoples today. LeAnne Howe even gently resists the academic genre of the anthology chapter by beginning her contribution to the Handbook with a poem that is not an epigraph but an important part of her argument. Howe interprets building mounds and playing Native Ballgame as linked Indigenous performances that help to sustain Southeastern tribal nations.
College and university classrooms have been vital to the development of Indigenous literary studies, as much sites of political intervention as of intellectual and aesthetic exploration. This collection includes three chapters on pedagogy and the emotional, intellectual, and ethical challenges that often arise in the Native American and Indigenous literature classroom. These chapters, all by well-respected literature teachers in the United States and Canada, offer personal and professional insights into three different teaching and learning contexts: Franci Washburn discusses the stakes of being a Native person in the Native literature classroom, whereas Channette Romero explains some of the complications that arise when teaching Indigenous literature in a multiethnic classroom. Renate Eigenbrod’s contribution is a meditation on the risks and possibilities of an explicitly transformative pedagogy, one that takes into account her own subject position as a non-Native teacher and fully engages those of students and the texts themselves. What emerges in these three chapters is a richly nuanced conversation about the profound power of Indigenous writing as it is experienced in communities of readers. Together, they ground the theoretical concerns of other contributions in the Handbook within lived practice and remind us that these words are far more than collected marks on a page.
Indigenous literature is written, as Weaver notes, “that the People might live.” In a world in which Indigenous peoples are constantly represented as always on the margins of modernity and on the verge of disappearing, Native American and Indigenous literature serves as an affirmation of a robust Indigenous cultural present. In the face of continued state coercion, this robust literary Indigeneity—as conveyed by Indigenous voices in films, novels, short stories, autobiographies, plays, poems, songs, and oral stories—is (p. 11) also inherently, although polymorphously, political. To study these works in their many forms and to contemplate their varied purposes and concerns is to participate in the processes of resurgent Indigenous possibility. The Popol Wuj, for example, is the oldest written Indigenous text under consideration in this collection. Thomas Ward reads it as a temporal and spatial map of the Maya world, in which the first humans are made from white and yellow corn. It includes stories that are well over two thousand years old. In addition to contemporary Mayas, other Indigenous American writers and critics draw knowledge and inspiration from it. They help to remind their readers, too, of the ancient history of the women and men of maize and their Indigenous relatives who continue to live in the Americas.
We are honored to welcome you to this collection and to introduce you to the scholars who have committed themselves to the task of sharing their work on Indigenous literary expression. We are also pleased to include the afterwords (her plural) by ku’ualoha ho’omanawanui, distinguished Hawaiian poet, artist, editor, literary critic, and language advocate. Her afterwords, which draw the varied lines of inquiry of the volume together, extend an invitation to us to continue these conversations in generous ways and offer an important reminder of the power these stories possess: for us, for those who came before, and for those yet to come. (p. 12)