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“For 500 years, others spoke for us”: Reprint of An Interview with Native American author Craig Womack

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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.

Just for the record, I’m an Indian from Mumbai (formerly called Bombay), India, not a Native American. And the term “Indian” wherever it appears in the following interview and introduction refers to Native American Indian peoples, not the population of the Indian sub-continent. But the issues at the heart of the Native American question are relevant to people everywhere who have been subjugated at any time in their history to foreign rule or racial oppression. Because, finally, they are human issues. And that humanity is what binds all of us. The need for dialogues such as this one is greater than ever. In that spirit then…

“For 500 years, other spoke for us.”
Craig S. Womack in conversation with Ashok Banker

How would you describe the situation of Native American literature today?
For 500 years, other people spoke on our behalf. Now, we’re finally speaking for ourselves. All these centuries, we’ve lived in a kind of historical limbo. That’s changing now.

How did these changes come about?
Access to education has made a difference. I’m the first from my family in this generation to go to college and university. There are a lot of our people in boarding schools today, turning into American citizens – mainstreaming themselves. Over the ’60’s and ’70’s a lot of Native Americans began to stand up for their rights. Protested for Fishing, Hunting, Land rights. (Grins) They stopped being so well behaved as they were before. Now, Red Power and Red Pride are two key phrases you hear everywhere. And it’s a reality, not just a catchphrase. A completely different mindset, believing that American Indian culture exists in its own right.

How did this affect American Indian literature?
Activism led to authoring. It gave our people confidence that we could stop being the subjects of non-Indian stories, and become authors of our own stories.

What led you to write Red on Red?
I grew up reading Native authors and reading how other critics read them. I found that publishers, editors, book reviewers, critics, all these people publishing and commenting on Native literature were from outside our community. And they were applying their principles of literature to these Native works. But really there is no one right way to read the literature of a community. Any way is as legitimate as another. But if you try to see it as a local, grassroot-level dialogue between the text and the community in which it’s set, you get so much more out of it. By reading with a sensitivity to local Native issues, relevant to our own people, you get so much more from the text.

That’s interesting because in a sense we face a somewhat similar situation in India, where Western criticism and publishers seem to influence our own assessement of our literature and authors. Do you see any similarity in American Indian and Indian-Indian literature?
I haven’t read a lot of Indian authors but I think it’s basically a problem of White Text. Both Native Americans and your people face a lot of basic survival problems. That makes it hard to develop a body of literature. You need a group of intellectuals who are involved in every aspect, who understand how the community is presenting its language, art, intellectual ideas. Instead of relying on White Text to judge you.

How much of a difference has the American media played in popularizing American Indian literature and bringing it to the attention of the mainstream readership?
It’s had a very positive response in certain ways. Authors like Louise Erdrich, for instance, have crossed over into the mainstream readership, winning major awards, featuring on bestseller lists. But the attention is very limited. You see a few authors get a lot of attention – which they certainly deserve. One unusual example was Silko’s Almanac of the Dead, a great great novel with the very bold premise that Native Americans get America back!

So the majority of Native authors still don’t come to the attention of the general book reader? Or is it that general readers aren’t interested in ethnic literature? After all, Americans are famous for not wanting to look beyond their own backyard!
The influence is more in other areas. For instance, there’s now a much more holistic attitude to the environment. Whether it’s pollution or saving the planet or protecting endangered species, certain walls like this have come down. People are not just talking about these issues now, they’re actively involved in them. The media is responsible for making non-Native Americans aware of these issues, which we have always taken for granted.

You’re part Creek and part Cherokee, but a very educated intellectual. How active would a Native American like you be in your community rituals and events?
Traditional culture is very strong and active today. The Creek community have 15 active ceremonial grounds where a lot of young people regularly participate in community gatherings. Great singers, dancers come together to take part, and that’s lovely to see, that’s how we remain close to the earth, rooted, always knowing who we are. There’s also a lot of support for young people to get education, learn skills – both modern and traditional ones. All our Indian skills are still active, but it’s not just that old cliche of the Indian with a blanket. Before it was Either/Or. Now, there’s no conflict between the two cultures, Western and Indian, we move in both worlds.

There’s a lot of humour in Red on Red, and this also seems to flow through a great deal of Native writing. Would you say this is an integral part of the Native personality and literature?
Oh, yes. It comes from our culture. Very deep, fundamental part of our culture. Among us, whenever Indians meet, we always laugh a lot. We tell stories and it’s always a lot of humour. That’s something that’s impossible to capture on the page, because it’s such an oral tradition. We have a saying among my people: ‘If it wasn’t funny, it wouldn’t be Creek’.

That’s another unexplored side of the Native personality that ‘white’ literature never brought out. They only wrote about the violent, rebellious aspects. Probably it was easier to simplify than observe realistically?
Well, if you look at Native texts honestly, you’ll find a lot of them are very funny. But here’s a certain sense of guilt among White people that makes them want to focus on a tragic vision of our people and our past. When Thomas King’s novel Green Grass, Running Water was published, there was a glowing full page review in Time magazine which said something to the effect that ‘unlike other Native American novels, this one has humour’. But almost all Native stories have always had humour! This goes back to our tradition of telling stories orally. Creation stories, for instance, which are the essence of our narrative tradition, have so much humour in so many difference forms. That’s why earlier Native writers kept trying to find ways to express this oral tradition in print, through the use of dialect, personal letters, Creek English, the politics of our community. I’ve talked about this in Red on Red.

To a reader who hasn’t really discovered Native writing, what are the books you’d recommend as starters?
Some really important ones are God is Red by Vine Deloria, it’s about comparitive religion, and compares Christian with Native philosophy. House Made of Dawn, of course, a superlative example of technique and modernism. Leslie Silko’s Almanac of the Dead, because it’s a very critical text that’s completely non-assimilistic. Black Eagle Child by Ray Youngbear, which is a superb example of the tribal way to tell a tribal story.

What about older narrative works? Have any of the creation tales or epics been transcribed and published?
There’s a lot recorded in books by both Native and non-Natives. But generally, the approach to oral tales has been the old-fashioned anthropological way: looking at the hero as a trickster or a monster. But in fact, some of the great stories are still waiting to be told, stories of how my people signed treaties with non-Natives without fully realizing what they were signing. The Indian point of view on so many important historic events and issues. But the non-Native critics look back at those texts and think they’re just stories about talking animals!

So there’s an entire Alternate (Native) History of the United States still waiting to be writing.
Oh yes. So much waiting to be unearthed.

What is your next book about?
I’ve just completed a novel. It’s called Drowning in Fire and it should be out by the end of 2001. There’s a collection of novellas I’m working on now, a different kind of Indian story, a piece of historical fiction. There was this Cherokee playwright who wrote a play called The Green Growth of Lilacs which was turned into the musical film Oklahoma. Her name was Lynn Rig and she went on to write screenplays for Hollywood, work with Bette Davis, so it’s a really interesting look at the Cherokee mind in a Western environment in that period. There are other stories like that of other realities.

And do you find your Native identity to be an advantage when submitting a manuscript to publishers?
It’s a mixed bag, a blessing and a curse. There’s often a lot of interest but for all the wrong reasons. Publishers expect the book to be some kind of exoticized Indian fiction, not really a realistic insight.

That sounds very similar to the attitude to Indian writers until very recently. So perhaps there are similarities between the two kinds of ‘Indian’ writers after all!
I’ve been very impressed by the depth and amount of interest in Native Literature by Indians I’ve met on this trip. It’s like a great hunger for knowledge about Native writing. I hope it continues.

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About The Banker

  • Temple Stark


    This is primo and thoroughly fascinating. A story teller is a story teller is a story teller.

    I’m reading a 1958 book – and academic book – on the Negro Folktales tradition, which being academic comes across as odd (50 cents at book sale). The author – name escapes me at the moment – talks about how this story or that falls into the §351.1.3 category of vulture fools bear.

    Thanks. Looking forward to the next piece – especially if it’s new.

  • Ashok K. Banker

    Thanks, Temple. As my grandma used to say, I appreciate the appreciation!

    I’m mixing the new with the old. Am almost out of the old now anyway, so you’ll be seeing solely new pieces by me from here on out.