I can't say I'm any kind of expert on Native American literature - far from it - but I have read a few texts.
For centuries the only literary record of American Indian lives and people came to us through the works of non-Indian authors. The savage raiders of James Fenimore Cooper's romances, Injun Joe in Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, Queequeg in Herman Melville's Moby Dick, the renegades of countless Western pulps.
Until as recently as 1968, only nine novels of any significance by American Indian authors had been published. Then in 1969, Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel House Made of Dawn and won acclaim and readership from non-Indian authors. The Seventies saw a flood of Indian publications that has only swelled over time.
But even as native American literature grew from strength to strength, its worth continued to be judged by Western non-Indian standards. How can you fit a square peg into a round hole? How can you unlock a door with a pencil instead of a key?
Similarly, it's unfair to read Native literature by applying conventional postmodern literary criticism.
This was the important and illuminating argument raised by Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism, first published in November 1999. The author, Craig S. Womack, was Assistant Professor of Native American studies at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta at the time of writing the book. He is Muskogee Creek and Cherokee.
What intrigued me then personally, and still does, is that Native American literature, while being the authentic voice of a near-extinct people, is judged almost entirely in the context of a 'white, immigrant' perspective: namely, the perspective of those non-Native peoples that settled the land we now call the United States of America.
It's a frustrating paradox.
How can a group of people whose ancestors all but massacred and made extinct your ancestors possibly give anything you produce a fair and balanced assessment? So when, a few years ago, when a visiting Native American writer and editor, Craig S. Womack, was passing through Mumbai under the aegis of the USIS, I had the opportunity to pose these and similar questions to him.
Reading over the interview transcript even today, it holds up just as well as the day we spoke. For one thing, the basic issues remain much the same. And, unfortunately, will probably remain so for a while yet. Which is not to say that progress isn't being made, but that it's very, very slow. And I wonder if the current climate, both political and social, in the USA lends itself to a faster rate of change. Which only makes them all the more urgent and demanding of our attention.