Red Land, Red Power: Grounding Knowledge in the American Indian Novel

August 21, 2008

Most North Americans are aware of the cowboy-Indian images promoted by Hollywood movies. Few are aware of their 19th-century connection to racist dime-store novels popular in the heyday of westward US expansion. Even fewer still are aware of the "noble savage" perfectionism conjured up by 19th-century European scholars in opposition to the "Indian as savage" ideology.

"Decolonisation requires answering to colonial memory," says Sean Kicummah Teuton in Red Land, Red Power. Teuton challenges the theoretical positions of scholars who have dominated the landscape of literary criticism and analysis of Native Indian writing, and in doing so he debunks the stoic noble savage image and contends that scholarly perceptions of Indians have not changed much.

Instead, Teuton, a Tslagi citizen, offers tribal realism as a theoretical model for the analysis of Indian literature. In his reading of landmark 1960s-1970s novels by Native American writers N. Scott-Mommaday, Leslie Marmon-Silko and James Welch, he takes into account the tenacity of original oratory, continued knowledge production, continued engagement of oratory through communal processes and resistance to imperial domination.

"We need a way to distinguish between cultural narratives that provide assessments of colonialism or protect human worth and narratives that condone imperialism or allow racist domination," he states. In the process of evaluating scholars who claim to know who tribal people ought to be, Teuton cogently and persuasively argues that in the struggle to clarify Indian identity, academics such as Paula Gunn Allen et al. consign Indians to an idealist margin that precludes change. Tribal people know they are more than spirit-formed, essentialist and spirit-mediated people. Nowhere is this more evident than in Teuton's statement that the Pueblo Indians can live quite nicely with an atheist in their midst.

He contends that Gerald Vizenor's cross-blood trickster discourse, which sought to correct the essentialist framework advanced earlier by Allen et al., is reminiscent of the racialised view "of Indians in the 19th century. This trickster space cannot explain cultural difference in the struggle for social and political power, nor can it lay claim to a distinct tribal history and hold it up to the world: it is just too narrow."

Truth has a past, present and a future, according to Salish tribal teaching. Red Land, Red Power makes plain that reductionist perceptions of Native Indian oratory and literature serve to maintain colonialism, and only "a profound act of imagination can break the colonialist cycle of cultural deprivation". Three quarters of the way through the text, it struck me that there is no way for the coloniser or those colonised members who refuse to decolonise to understand Indian societies, their relation to the land and story.

Before Teuton's theory of tribal realism, Indian people were stuck with theories that are little more than narrow spaces in which tribal people dance, spinning hopelessly like tops trying to fit the model. I am not sure if Teuton intended this text to be humorous, but along with this realisation I chuckled as the theories espoused prior to this text began to look like strange little mascots, denying the existence of Indian knowledge production prior to US domination and hiding from the complexity of social transformation inherent in so many of our stories, past and present.

Although I was a little surprised that Teuton included the business of "living in harmony" with nature more or less uncritically in his conclusion, his work is a powerful text that debunks old myths and creates a framework for seeing the world for what it is. Red Land, Red Power is a must-read.

Red Land, Red Power: Grounding Knowledge in the American Indian Novel

By Sean Kicummah Teuton
Duke University Press
312pp
£48.00 and £12.99
ISBN 9780822342236 and 42410
Published 15 July 2008

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