FUMBLING TOWARD GOD:
ANCIENT AND MODERN CONVERGE
Kathryn Jean Dorr
B.A., Metropolitan State College of Denver, 1999
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Humanities
This thesis for the Master of Humanities
Kathryn Jean Dorr
has been approved
Dorr, Kathryn Jean (Master of Humanities)
Fumbling Toward God: Ancient and Modem Converge
Thesis directed by Myra Bookman, Associate Director
Western philosophy and Western literature have been informing each other
since ancient times. Plato, the father of Western philosophy, often drove his lessons
home by citing Homerian passages. Likewise, Homer, the father of Western literature
"did philosophy" when he used his characters to illustrate and contrast the nature of
virtue. This informing has continued and is still viable.
This thesis asserts that when Nietzsche set about to break Plato's hold on
philosophy and the arts, he opened a path that has taken Western philosophy to a
stance that is very similar to the traditional philosophy of indigenous cultures around
the world. Subsequently, and perhaps as a result, the great social movements of the
1960s and 1970s caused the American literary academy to allow space alongside the
classics for the works of non-Westem, ethnic American, and women writers within the
The thesis traces the trajectory by way of which at least one branch of Western
philosophy, existential phenomenology, has arrived at a place that is much closer to
the ancient paradigm held by traditional Native Americans than to its Platonist roots.
Each philosophical turn is represented by one of our great Western thinkers, beginning
with Plato himself and ending with a radical interpretation of Maurice Merleau-
Ponty. Each turn is then mirrored and interpreted by offerings of literature written by
American Indian and Chicano/a intellectuals.
Finally, the thesis argues that, as the disciplines of philosophy and literature
continue to inform each other, a new shape of both is emerging that offers a means by
which Western humanity may, once again, be at home in the world.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidate's thesis. I recommend
I dedicate this thesis to my son, Glenn, for his nobility of spirit and purpose and for his
unwavering devotion during the best and worst of times.
I hope I have made him proud.
My thanks to each member of my thesis committee for the time and generosity extended
to me during these past two years. They and several other professors helped me turn a
dim vision into a realization.
I am indebted to David Rhaesa, who so often asked the right question and offered the
I am also indebted to Susan Simons, proofreader extraordinaire, for her much needed
and much valued words of encouragement.
2. INTRODUCTION ................................................5
An Ancient Paradigm.................................... 10
Oral Literature: A Contradiction inTerms?............... 29
My Grandmother's Stories.................................31
Silko's "Yellow Woman"...................................36
4. DANGEROUS MAYBES............................................37
Tragedy in Native American Literature....................43
Zitkala Sa and Mourning Dove......................43
John Joseph Mathews' Sundown......................45
5. STARTING OVER ..............................................50
Heidegger: The Nothing, Being, and Language .............50
N. Scott Momaday's The Man Made of Words..........55
N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn ............59
Derrida: Tracking the Trace..............................63
Louise Erdrich's Tracks ..........................65
Chicano/a Philosophy and Literature: Tracking the Native.70
Gloria Anzaldiia's La Frontera (Borderland! ..........71
Oscar Zeta Acosta's Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo .73
6. THE RETURN .....................................................76
Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology .......................76
David Abram's Radical Interpretation ........................81
John Joseph Mathews' Talking to the Moon .............86
Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony........................89
7. CONCLUSION: FUMBLING TOWARD GOD................................ 93
The Literature.............................................. 93
SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY ............................................99
Phaedrus: And you, you surprising man, appear to be the
oddest person.You really seem to be a visiting stranger being
guided around, as you say, and not a native. You seem to me to be
acting as though you never go out across the frontier and in fact as
though you don't even go outside the city walls!
Socrates: Forgive me, you most excellent fellow, for I'm a
friend of learning. The countryside and the trees don't want to teach
me anything, but the people in town do. Yet you seem to me to have
found the prescription to bring me out.
Socrates' remark in many ways encapsulates not only Plato's conviction about
how to obtain knowledge but also his sentiment toward Nature. It is the final sentence
of Socrates' remark, however, that isolates the purpose of the discussion that will
It is noteworthy for our purposes that Plato's comment also sets him in
opposition to the Homeric literature of his time, which relies on man's interaction with
the animated landscape to impart its wisdom. In addition, the statement belies the
fact that Socrates, himself, often drove his lessons home by citing Homeric passages in
which Nature is one of the characters. And just as, despite this statement, the father
of Western philosophy was informed by Homeric literature, one might say that Homer,
the father of Western literature, was often "doing philosophy." In The Iliad and The
Odyssey, for example, he personified and contrasted, in his heroes, the much debated
philosophical question of the nature of virtue. Likewise, when Socrates debated the
properties of eros with the great playwright, Aristophenes, philosophy and literature
were informing one another. This informing has continued throughout the ages. The
communication is still viable, I believe. The tension remains, however.
Recently, relatively, in the past one hundred years or so, a path has opened
that may afford an opportunity for a new convergence of the two disciplines. Because of
the great social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, the American literary academy has
shifted enough to allow space for the works of non-Westem, ethnic American, and
women writers within the university curriculum. Almost simultaneously, by way of
existentialism and phenomenology, Western philosophy has made room for a stance
that is strikingly similar to the philosophy of indigenous peoples and of cultures with
strong ties to oral tradition. No longer must we rely solely upon "as told to" accounts by
Western anthropologists and ethnographers. Rather, we are able to see the
convergence between the paths of Western philosophy and First Peoples of the world
because, for the first time in history, these people are writing, and their writing is now
part of the curriculum in American academia.
Because I was raised by my two grandmothers, one Irish, one Oglala Lakota
Sioux, I received both a Western European educationwith its reliance on dualism,
rationality, and writingand a non-Westem education that abounded with ambiguity,
paradox, and narrative. These two traditions were always at odds within me. Having
attended university in the early 1960s, the mid-1970s, and the late 1990s, I have been
witness to a complex evolution within the academy. The literary curriculum of the
1960s reflected the influence of the great Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s with the
inclusion of writers like Langston Hughes. But there were no other American ethnic
minorities visible. And the only woman writer of any prominence was Emily Dickinson.
When I entered university again in 1974, the second women's movement was underway.
The inclusion of more women writers, women's studies, and goddess traditions was now
apparent and clearly the result of that movement. By 1996, even though mostly
electives, courses in women's studies and literature written by ethnic Americans were
available, and some multicultural study was often mandatory. But it was not until I
decided to minor in philosophy that I began to see the road that at least one branch of
Western philosophy had taken. For the first time, I was hearing and reading
philosophical theories that were not completely incompatible with the teachings of
my Sioux grandmother.
So perhaps it is due to my search for a personal mythology that I am enlivened
by the congruency that I see as having emerged between the discipline of philosophy
and the discipline of literary study. Perhaps it is this same personal journey that
prompts me to seek ways in which the two disciplines can inform each other so that a
new shape of both may offer a means by which Western thinkers can bridge the space
between modem and pre-modem, between East and West, between oral and written
history, between ambiguity and absolutism, between autonomy and interconnectedness,
between Nature and civilizationor at all events by which they may dwell more
My claim is that Western philosophy has taken a turn that brings it closer to
Native American philosophy than to its Platonist roots. If it is accurate to make such a
claim, then it would seem necessary to follow the trajectory. In doing so, the path has
led me from Plato to Nietzsche to Heidegger to Derrida to Merleau-Ponty and, finally,
to David Abram's radical interpretation of existential phenomenology. It is thus my
contention that, having arrived at the place where at least one branch of Western
philosophy now dwells, we see that it is already inhabited by an ancient paradigm. I
think of this place as limenal because it is a threshold from which Western thought
may step either in or out.
In addition to tracking, so to speak, the path of Western philosophy, I will ask
the disciplines of philosophical study and literary study to inform each other in a new
way. Literature has always reflected philosophysometimes that of its author,
sometimes that of its region, sometimes that of its time. It will do so in this discussion,
as well. In this case, however, it may be difficult to discern which is the reflection and
which is the original, as the literature reflects the double image of ancient and modern
philosophy. And I shall ask it to do more than merely mirror the philosophy; I shall
ask the literature to interpret it. Therefore, at each step along the philosophical path
we will walk, a piece of literature will be offered that I believe both reflects and
There will be a minimum of literary analysis and critique herein; as just stated,
the literature itself will be playing the role of analyst and critic. No, rather than
literary criticism that traditionally tells the reader what the literature means,
thereby translating it, I will be engaged in the attempt to afford the reader an
opportunity to experience the literature. My inspiration for this part of the endeavor is
Susan Sontag, a provocative critic of culture and the arts since the mid-1960s, whose
essay "Against Interpretation" has always challenged me to be "transparent" in my
reading of literature, to experience "the luminousness of the .thing in itself, of things
being what they are" (9). As she notes, "The earliest experience [italics in original] of
art must have been that it was incantatory, magical; art was an instrument of ritual....
The earliest theory [in original] of art, that of the Greek philosophers, proposed that
art was mimesis, imitation of reality" (1). Every form of literary criticism is an
insistence that art justify itselfby content, by structure, by historical context, by
political or ethical value. This thesis will do no such thing. While Sontag may be
correct when she says that "none of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all
theory" (2), my goal, nonetheless, is to "reveal the sensuous surface" of the literature
"without mucking about in it" (8). Of extreme interest to me is that, as we shall see,
Sontag's method, though she never uses the term, is precisely Merleau-Ponty's
phenomenological method of experiencing the world.
Finally, I will endeavor to disabuse the Western mind of the notion that the
ancient paradigm shared by indigenous people around the world is one that we in the
course of human progress have evolved above, beyond, and away from. It is my hope
that the tendency to transpose "ancient" and "primitive" will be rethought, at least in
the sense that the term "primitive" is used synonymously with simple and childlike,
"the persistent belief held by Western intellectuals that non-Western peoples
represent an earlier stage of their own cultural evolution" (Deloria, Spirit 41~). I hope
to show, ironically, that Plato's notion of knowledge as recollectionalthough not of
knowledge gained in a pre-embodied state but in a more ancient time that remains
embedded in our psyche~is not only applicable but also valuable to the modem mind.
For this paradigm of which I speak has not been outgrown, nor has it failed; it has
simply been forgotten. Gratefully, it is being remembered at a time when our planet and
the life upon it is in dire need of it.
The Western mind has only recently begun to question the wisdom and accuracy
of thinking of the body, mind, and spirit as separate entities. The traditional Western
mindset that divides and classifies has extended, of course, to include the way we
approach education, the arts, and all aspects of daily living. Humans are considered
separate from all of Natureother animals, plants, and the Earth herself. Woman is
clearly separate from man, adult from child, race from race, class from class, young from
old. Western thought is held apart from Eastern and indigenous thought. Not obvious
perhaps, but inherent in such a system, is valuation and hierarchy. Humans are
considered to be privileged with an intelligence that is superior to other creatures in
nature, and thus to have more value. Man is physically stronger and considered
intellectually more logical than woman, and thus to have more value. These are
merely a few examples of how this dualistic pattern of valuation permeates the
Western mind. Such has been the dominance of Plato.
Perhaps the characterization most ascribed to Western attitude in the last two
centuries is its faith in the Enlightenment movement and the metaphysical system. But
this modern paradigm is fraught with contradiction. The celebration of science and
reason with its concurrent dismissal and suspicion of anything premodem, an optimistic
faith in the autonomy of the rational independent subject and the improvability of
humankind, has doggedly persisted in spite of two world wars and the Holocaust. Yet
pervading this optimism has been a sense of intangible loss; suspicion of some lurking
failure; doubt in modernity's ability to fulfill its promise of a sophisticated
civilization, material prosperity, and individual liberty. Reason and democracy gave
way almost simultaneously to bureaucracy, industrial blight, social disintegration,
vulgar consumerism, and alienation. Many believe modernity is over, that we are now
in a postmodern age in which humankind has sunk from alienation to apathy, from
uncertainty to nihilism.
The most striking aspect of modernitywhether thought of as a chronological
category, a distinctive style in art, or a philosophical/sociological projectis that it
immediately displayed elements that led it to question its own legitimacy. The
characteristics of what would come to be termed "postmodernism" followed very
quickly on the heels of modernity's inception. "In short, Modernism was ... an
extraordinary compound of the futuristic and the nihilistic, the revolutionary and the
conservative ... a celebration and a condemnation" (Bradbury 46).
From the beginning of the "Modernity Project," as it has come to be termed, a
contentious debate roiled between Nietzsche, the strongest opponent to the project, and
Kant, its most consistently idealist spokesman. Kant's appeal to rely only on self-
grounded reason and Nietzsche's notion of radical freedom perhaps most clearly
delineate the co-existence of incompatible philosophical positions so characteristic of
Kant's notion of synthetic a priori truth, a truth that is known independently of
observation, is both a reaction to Hume's skeptical empiricism and a valorization of
the God-given structure of the human mind that analyzes its data in terms of a
particular set of permanent categories. His system grants to rationalists that sense
data alone cannot provide knowledge, and grants to empiricists that there can be no
knowledge in the absence of sensorial contribution. Kant's attempt to distinguish
knowledge from belief, yet ground belief in rational moral necessity, was acceptable to
the modem mentality that was weary of the extravagant claims made by
metaphysicians and theologians but who were also suffering from the lack of a
legitimate role for belief. Kant's critics, however, accused him of merely "kicking God
out the front door in order to let him in through the back door."
Nietzsche was one of those critics. Nietzsche responded to the crisis of his time
not by demanding a new "critique of reason," as had Kant, but by calling for a new kind
of human existence. For Nietzsche, there is only flux and chaos upon which we must
impose our willhis infamous will to power or, more correctly, urge to freedom.
Therefore, there can be no such thing as knowing in the Platonic sense; rather, all
knowing is inventing. When confronted with the charge that his claims constitute not a
philosophical insight into the ultimate nature of being, but simply another poetic
interpretation of being, Nietzsche responds, "Well, all the better!" Nevertheless,
Nietzsche did not consider all interpretations equally valid. Only those "lies" that
affirm life are truly noble lies for him. All others are nihilistic and on the side of
death. There is a kind of subversive subjectivity in all this that is very much a part of
When Nietzsche "took to doing philosophy with a hammer," it was with the
idea that the path must be completely cleared. He refused to work from within a
metaphysical system. He was so adept at exposing and ridiculing Platonic rationalism,
essentialism, and universalism that many who followed him were left with either a
playful disregard for any attempt at serious philosophy, or with a gloomy nihilism.
Pippin is succinct when he states that the philosophical problem of modernity is
"simply, how to understand genuine independence or autonomy [as]... the classical
ideal of freedom through knowledge ..., the self-imposing of a moral law,... a poetics
of originality and creation, or a kind of thoroughgoing ironicism" (38). Added to this
paradox is a strange amalgam of apocalypticism and doom, the Christian European
linear view of history, the "death of God" and the "divination of man," and the idea
that "nature [is] to be mastered, not contemplated" (5).
The quintessential modem person not only believes in the supreme authority of
reason, but also that reason is self-grounded. Anything less is immaturity. Humanity
must no longer look to external authority for life guidance. Herein may lie the ethos of
modernityits self-consciousness. To be modem is to be painfully self-aware; to see
oneself as completely disconnected from the past, containing not only the future, but also
the eternal; to see oneself as a solitary soul, an ascetic, a "hero" creating himself
moment by moment. Perhaps this stance of complete incompatibility with antiquity,
that everything premodem is wrong, and the assumptions about the autonomy and self-
determination of man made angst and alienation inevitable.
It is certainly hue that Western philosophy is and has always been self-
absorbed. The noble search for meaning and truth; the disputes about whether meaning
and truth are absolute or ambiguous, situated, and contingent; Nietzsche's will to power
and freedom; the arrogance of science; modem disillusionment and subsequent
alienation, even nihilismall are endeavors and conditions of the self.
Jurgen Habermas, however, the most determined living proponent of the
modernity project, rejects this "paradigm of consciousness" as the definition of
modernity. Nor will he walk the "'counter-Enlightenment' path hewn by Nietzsche"
(Habermas xi). For Habermas, Nietzsche represents "the entry into post-modernity"
(qtd in Pippin 81). Likewise, even though Kant's categories of the mind are a priori,
Habermas finds them nevertheless to be "just so many embodiments of the principle of
subjectivity" (Habermas 18). The problem he finds with this subjective philosophy is
that it ignores the need to unify the separation between the self and history. "The
question now is whether one can obtain from subjectivity and self-consciousness criteria
that are ... fit for the critique of a modernity that is at variance with itself" (20). He
does not give up on the ideals of modernism, especially where it concerns reason as the
final arbiter. In this sense, he concurs with Kant. However, he insists on situating
reason within social interaction while presupposing that modern humanity has been
irreversibly shaped by the Enlightenment; he therefore proceeds from within formal
structures that reflect universal values.
There is another voice that speaks for modernity not only in his devotion to
analytical method but also in his focus on the individual, the autonomous self. That
voice belongs to the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. As an analytical
philosopher, Freud aligns himself firmly with logic, which in turn aligns itself with
the Enlightenment, science, and the abolition of superstition.
Very early in Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud relates an interesting
anecdote involving his dear friend, Romain Rolland. Freud had sent Rolland a copy of
The Future of an Illusion in which he explains the phenomenon of religion as wish
fulfillment. His friend disagrees that infantile wishes are the source of religion and
instead locates the source in a feeling he called "a sensation of 'eternity', a feeling as of
something limitless, unbounded~as it were, 'oceanic'" (723). Freud goes on to
respectfully reject this theory, presumably because he found no empirical basis for this
oceanic feeling. Freud admits that "It is not easy to deal scientifically with feelings"
and therefore feels justified in "attempting to discover a psycho-analytic--that is, a
geneticexplanation of such a feeling" because "the idea of men's receiving an
intimation of their connection with the world around them through an immediate
feeling .. fits in so badly with the fabric of our psychology" (723). Outside of
pathological neurosis and the suckling infant, the only other state in which Freud finds
evidence of this feeling of absence of boundaries is being in love, a temporary state at
best. Freud dismisses his friend's question by asserting that "a feeling can only be a
source of energy if it is itself the expression of a strong need" (727).
Freud's treatise then moves rather quickly away from this perplexing question
and toward an analysis of why man is at odds with civilization. He articulates one of
the strongest human needs in something he calls the "pleasure principle" in which we
are instinctively driven to pursue pleasure and to avoid pain. This drive often puts us
at odds with Nature; our own bodies; and with the family, state, and society because,
according to Freud, these three are, in fact, the greatest sources of our suffering.
It is curious at this point in the analysis to realize that although the greatest
aim of civilization is purportedly to subjugate and exploit the forces of nature, one of
man's perceived sources of suffering, man is nonetheless hostile toward civilization. It
is Freud's conclusion that human hostility toward civilization exists because
civilization requires the renunciation of instinct. It is my contention that he should not
have left Rolland's notion behind, as shall become clear presently.
One of Freud's more disturbing theories is that of Thanatos, the death instinct.
Not unlike the ancient attempt made by Empedocles to explain change and movement
by positing two forces which he called Love and Strife, Freud posits the theory that
Eros is the force of unity, the bringing together to produce new creations, and Thanatos
is the force of destruction, breaking down old unities into fragments. That is to say, as
Freud puts it, Thanatos is a "contrary instinct seeking to dissolve those units and to
bring them back to their primaeval, inorganic state" (754). In his system, the death
instinct lurks "in the background behind Eros" (755), is manifested as sadism if it is
directed outwards, and as masochism if directed inwards. This instinct can be
harnessed by civilization, "moderated and tamed" as it were, and used to conquer and
I am compelled to ask, however, Is it possible that pursuing such an end is, in
fact, Thanatos? If Nature, the earth and its environment, is at the very least the source
of our embodied existence, would it not be wiser to follow a course of living in harmony
with her? Freud claims that "civilization is a process in the service of Eros," that its
meaning consists in "the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instinct of life
and the instinct of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species" (755). But if
civilization destroys the habitat of the human species, Can it really be serving Eros?
It is undoubtedly apparent at this point that the term "modernity" is
problematic. Yet it is one of the anchors of this discussion--as a representation of
reality, a perception of reality, and as an interpretation of reality. Modernity, as a
project, is an attempt to address the question of what it means to be a human subject. So,
while we have already seen that modernity is haunted with doubt about its own
legitimacy, it is also clear that it presumes the validity of its faith in cosmopolitan
civilization, material prosperity, rational science, efficiency of method, and the right
to individual liberty based on the authority of reason and the demystification of life.
It is to these fundamental assumptions that this discussion will refer whenever the
terms "modem," "modernity," and "modernism" are used. However, these terms will
also be used in reference to the excruciating tension that is inherent in the resulting loss
of tradition, social disintegration, consumerism, and alienation--from Nature, from
spirituality, from the Other.
The stage is now set upon which humankind tries either to repair some of the
negative results of modernity in order to find and center itself again, or simply tries to
cope. Thus, while Habermas is resentful of Nietzsche's farewell to the "dialectic of
enlightenment," others attempt to unmask the hidden agenda of power in
Enlightenment thinking. They argue that the Enlightenment's self-proclaimed purpose
of emancipation from dogmatism has degenerated into method that amounts to the
deification of science and the objectification of the human subject. Certainly it is hard
to counter the fact that this so-called "instrumental rationality" does incline toward
the reduction of quality to quantity, of reason to doctrine, and the idealization of
knowledge-even if that knowledge be spiritless, detached, and sterile. It is here that
Modernity clashes most sharply with another philosophy that is primordial and, I
An Ancient Paradigm
This collision of paradigms can be seen clearly in the words spoken in 1820 to
George Sibley, Army agent, by Big Soldier, a chief of the Missouri region Osage tribe.
I see and admire your manner of living, your good warm
houses; your extensive fields of com, your gardens, your
cows, oxen, workhouses, wagons, and a thousand
machines, that I know not the use of. I see that you are
able to clothe yourselves, even from weeds and grass. In
short you can do almost what you choose. You whites
possess the power of subduing almost every animal to
your use. You are surrounded by slaves.
Every thing about you is in chains and you are slaves
yourselves. I fear if I should exchange my pursuits for
yours, I too should become a slave.
The Osage chief had recognized that European Americans were becoming slaves
to the Nature-subduing technology they had created. His observation is not unlike the
conclusion reached by Thoreau, the conclusion that drove him to Walden Pond.
Conversely, however, for unnumbered generations, human beings viewed
themselves as part of the wider community of Nature, and they carried on active
relationships not only with other people but also with other animals, plants, and
natural objects (including mountains, rivers, winds, and weather patterns), that we
have only lately come to think of as inanimate. Freud himself laments the fact that
"men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that... they would
have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man" (772). Thus, I cannot
help but wonder if, at our core, the loss we sense is of something so basic to survival, so
fundamental to the health of our psyche that we deeply resent the thief, whether we
were complicit in the theft or not. We may also know that the thief is civilization.
For all its self-variance, self-doubt, and self-consciousness, modernity's most
serious flaw, and one to which all but a few of its proponents are seemingly blind, is its
failure to recognize not only the interconnectedness but also the interdependence of all
things. Yet it is this single premise that, if one must choose only one, is the hallmark
and foundation of First People's view of the world. As modernity continues in its quest
for autonomy, Native people are struggling to maintain, remember, and reclaim
community--a sense of oneness with the land and everything that dwells thereon, the
air and everything that breathes, the water and everything that lives therein, even
the cosmos. For these traditional people, all is connected; nothing we do ever stands by
itself, but rather has consequences for the broader reality. There is great care then to
respect all life and not to place humans above it.
Therefore, while the Christian church, Western philosophy, and science have
participated in separating us from the Earth; while Western man (more than woman) is
antagonistic toward Nature, blames it for its suffering, and seeks independence from it;
while Westerners are hostile toward civilization, the very tool we use to subjugate and
exploit Nature; the Native view looks at life as a "giveaway." There is an optimism
about this view that believes the soul is made to give of itself and is the only real
reason the human race survives at all.
An indigenous understanding of life requires an acceptance
that life inhales and exhales our existence not with a
detached indifference but with full expectation that the
entire individuation of one's being will be a "giveaway" to
the generations before us and to those that will follow. . .
an unfolding of human consciousness of which we are only a
small part but are required to engage as certainly as a
midwife for the birth of a child.
As an ethical stance, this belief is not a worship of Nature, but it does require a
certain attitude toward itto act responsibly toward other forms of life, and to seek to
establish communications and covenants with other forms of life. Vine Deloria, Jr.
(Standing Rock Sioux) expresses this attitude well when he says,
We want to have certain benefits from the physical world.
In seeking something for ourselves, we must recognize that
obtaining what we want at the expense of other forms of
life or of the earth itself is shortsighted and disrupts the
balance that the whole fabric of life requires.
Instead of the Hobbesian/Freudian image of the predatory jungle, in which the most
powerful swallow up the weak and unprotected, for Native people, life is better
understood as a delicate tapestry-like web in which all life forms provide a necessary
An unadorned yet wonderful example of the concept of connectedness can be seen
in the linguistic patterns of the Wintu tribe of Northern California in which a boy tells
an anthropologist, Dorothy Lee, of a sick dog. Translated literally, the boy says, "Dog
ail I." The easiest interpretation into English would be, "My dog is sick." But, in doing
so, Lee insists, "we fracture and dismiss the Wintu world. We translate out of Wintu
way out and into our own world view. We dissolve the whole quality of the
relationship between dog and speaker and reconstitute it along separated and
possessive lines" (qtd. in Dunsmore 12).
This paradigm of connectedness converts not only into an ethics of care but also
into a methodology for understanding the world.
Tribal peoples are as systematic and philosophical as
Western scientists in their efforts to understand the world
around them. They simply use other kinds of data and
have goals other than determining the mechanical
functioning of things__The old Indians were interested
in finding the proper moral and ethical road upon
which human beings should walk. All knowledge, if it is to
be useful, was directed toward that goal.
(Deloria Spirit & Reason 431
So, in the Native view, knowledge does not exist for its own sake; knowledge is
derived from individual and communal experience; all experience has value and
instructs us in some aspect of lifewe cannot "misexperience" anything; we can only
misinterpret what we experience. Clearly, knowledge, to have value, must exist
within a moral framework of understanding. Deloria speaks strongly when he discusses
the Indian's love of wisdom:
Lacking a spiritual, social, or political dimension, it is
difficult to understand why Western peoples believe
they are so clever. Any damn fool can treat a living thing
as if it were a machine and establish conditions under
which it is required to perform certain functionsall
that is required is a sufficient application of brute force.
The result of brute force is slavery.... Reductionism is
about the least efficient way to gamer knowledge.
Native people seek to understand the meaning of human existence with an eye
toward maturity. Unlike the modem goal of self-interpreting autonomy, one is
considered mature in the Native scheme when s/he is able to reflect on the ordinary
. things of life and how they relate to everything else. "Maturity is a reflective
situation that suggests a lifetime of experiences [and] an increasing ability to reflect on
experience.... Because Western society concentrates so heavily on information and
theory, its product is youth, not maturity" (14). Maturity, then, is a lifetime process
that travels from information to knowledge to wisdom.
One of the most memorable statements made by Chief Joseph, the well-honored
chief of the Nez Perce in the late 1800s, was this: 'The earth and myself are of one
mind." If not merely dismissed as romantic primitivism, these powerful words raise
many questions for the Western thinker, not the least of which are questions regarding
the nature of mind itself. Perhaps his words can be dismissed more kindly as
metaphorical. But the next sentence nullifies that possibility: "The measure of the
land and the measure of our bodies is the same." The context in which these words were
spoken in 1877 was one of final defense before war as the United States government
came to the Fort Lapwai reservation to "encourage" Joseph's people to give up their
ancestral homeland. These words represent
the power and spirit and mystery of voice, primal voice,
raised to its highest, finest level, in defense of ways of life
that include not only oneself and one's people, but one's
ancestors, the unborn, the land itself, and all the various
forms of life through which the land expresses itself.
In traditional Native teaching, matter and mind are not separate, nor is mind
the special province of human beings. The world and everything it contains is the
product of mind, just as it is the expression of mind. So when animism is attributed to
Native beliefs, it should properly refer to the belief that matter is living, which is not
inconsistent with the discoveries of modern physics. It follows then that if human
beings isolate themselves from Nature, they will become impoverished and
imbalanced. "Our very domination of other forms of life cuts us off from potential
sources of renewal, redirection, and order" (41). Lonely, disoriented, alienateddoes
this not describe the most prominent aspect of modem humanity?
Nevertheless, the idea that the universe is alive is alarming to the modern
thinker, for it recalls the fear of revealed truth, religious abuse of power, and the Dark
Ages of ignorance and superstition. Deloria is adamant that this animistic view of the
universe is not pantheistic, at least not in the usual sense that frightens scientists and
theologians alike. He insists that American Indian tribal people did not turn trees and
animals into deities. "Most of the tribes were content to stop their description with a
simple affirmation of the existence of Spirit. The Sioux, in fact, simply said the 'Great
Mysterious'" (Spirit & Reason 481.
The place-centered nature of the Native world view cannot be
overemphasized, and it is implicit in Chief Joseph's words. In addition to his
statement that "the earth and myself are of one mind," there are numerous other
examples on record of similar declarations made by Native leaders.
One such declaration was made by Chief Crazy Horse (Oglala Lakota Sioux), a
legendary figure of my childhood, whose ferocity in battle and devotion to his people I
heard told of by white and Indian alike. Tashunca-uitco, his Oglala name, had been
promised that he could retrieve his wife, who was gravely ill with tuberculosis and
interned at Fort Robinson, just a few miles from where I was bom. But, when he entered
the guardhouse and saw the bars on the windows, he knew he was to be imprisoned.
Preferring physical death to the death of his spirit, he drew his knife and slashed the
wrist of the man trying to hold him. As he expected, a white soldier lunged with his
bayonet, stabbing Crazy Horse in the back and mortally wounding him. When asked
"Where are your lands now?," Crazy Horse, dying, pointed and said, "My lands are
where my dead he buried."
Just as Chief Joseph went on to say, "The earth is my body," so Chief Curley
(Crow) said in 1912, "The soil you see is not ordinary soilit is the dust of the blood,
the flesh and the bones of our ancestors" (Dunsmore 45). Dwamish Chief Se-ah-th
stated it similarly in 1855 when he said, "Whatever befalls the earth befalls the
children of the earth. If you spit upon the ground, you spit upon yourselves" (46).
Words like these, so universally expressed by Native people, may help us to
understand why "relocation" was a literal means of destroying a people, for there is
inherent in their thinking an absence of fixed boundaries between the self and the
physical world from which they were bom, within which they exist, and to which
they will return.
Deloria contrasts this place-centered view of life with the Western time-
Western European peoples have never learned to consider
the nature of the world discerned from a spatial point of
view----Time has an unusual limitation. It must begin and
end at some real points, or it must be conceived as cyclical
in nature [with endless repetitions]_If time becomes our
primary consideration, we never seem to arrive at the
reality of our existence in places.
(God is Red 76,85)
This time-centered, non-experiental approach to life inevitably leads to the
assumption that because of human progress, we now know more than people knew in the
One of Deloria's most radical views is that belief systems, whether in
philosophy or religion, do not arise from the human imagination but from community
experience. His abiding criticism of modernity is its obsession with interpreting rather
than having experience, along with its denigration of tradition as "childish wish
predictions [and] superstitions that have arisen because of a great psychological need"
(157). His reference to Freud here seems obvious. He defends Native traditions as
having originated from the collective experiences of people who knew more about the
specific places where they lived than Western science and philosophy can ever teach
us. "Rather than trying to escape from the influences of the lands on which they lived
through positing concepts such as individuality or eschatology, they remained in the
world of experience" (Warrior 105). Inherent in this respect for tradition is fear, not of
Nature, but of the potential destructive power of human agency.
So, for traditional Native people, reality is constituted by the interweaving of
present moment experience and memory in the form of tradition. Deloria calls it
"reality by the senses" (Spirit & Reason 381. The "old Indians" know that change is
inherent in Nature as it constantly seeks to renew itself. This must not be confused with
evolution, for. they are referring to the changes for which the creature already
possesses the potentiality. Nor are the changes that take place driven by teleology,
some predestined end. The inherent flux that is apparent in the universe and in all life
forms is that of renewal, expansion, and exhilaration. Again, because the universe is
alive, it is also indeterminate, even innovative. It is this very indeterminacy that
raises the possibility for human participation in history.
Certainly at this point there must appear to be no possibility of resolution or
even of finding a point of convergence between the Native mindset and modernity. Yet
my entire purpose is to show that there is. Therefore, two additional points must be
made before we proceed. First, it is imperative that we realize that the traditional
views of Native people have not been maintained in a historically seamless manner.
Second, we must not be so naive as to think that there is a facile consistency in this
Robert Allen Warrior (Osage), literary and cultural critic, identifies four
historical periods as decisive to the issue of Native American sovereignty and
resistance to assimilation, of traditional values and mindset, and of intellectual
freedom and creativity. The boundaries between these periods, while elastically
drawn, are meant to reflect the impact of the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 on the
generations of Indians that followed.
Warrior labels the period between 1890 and 1916 as "Assimilationism and
Apocalypticism" (5). This period is characterized by the rise of Native intellectuals
who had come to believe that further resistance to the U.S. government was both futile
and suicidal, that the survival of their people depended upon their becoming
"civilized." Leaders like Sioux physician Charles Eastman helped to found the
Society of American Indians, which cooperated with and supported Richard Henry
Pratt's "christianizing/ civilizing mission." This mission had metamorphosed from the
doctrine known as Manifest Destiny by which Americans were inspired to inhabit and
control the continent. Used by the English to justify their own colonization, Americans
used the ideology to rationalize Pratt's "educational experiment."
With perhaps the best of intentions, Pratt founded many schools that forcibly
separated Indian children from their families, schools in which Native children were
told to "leave their Indian at home," meaning their language and spiritual ways. The
fact that most "educated" Indians returned to their reservations was a personal defeat
for Pratt. When Indians "returned to the blanket," they were generally dismissed as
uneducable and heathen.
The problem that Indians faced when they graduated from these experimental
schools was the realization that the ideals they had been taught were not actualities.
In addition to simply not being accepted into the U.S. mainstream, they found the
larger white world to be struggling with its own turn of the century maelstrom in which
it was frantically trying to adjust to its technology. The only alternative that white
society had to offer to replace traditional Native values was extreme individualism.
In retrospect, Warrior asserts that these Native leaders
failed to recognize that the ideals they sought for U.S.
society and Natives were far from realizable and that
the Indian situation at the turn of the century was a
battle of community values versus individualistic chaos
rather than a battle of one set of cohesive, livable values
Nevertheless, the recent memory of Wounded Knee convinced the "progressive"
Indian leaders of the period that Natives must adopt the ideals of Anglo-American
civil society. Therefore, although generally rejecting Pratt's paternalism and
attempting to maintain what they saw as the worthy values of traditional life, they
determined to do so in the context of white Western civilization. They lived by the
treaties signed with the U.S. government, cooperated with the Bureau of Indian
Affairs, lobbied Congress for aid and citizenship, practiced Christianity, and
suppressed Indian apocalyptic movements like peyotism and the Ghost Dance. These
leaders died, clinging to the hope that their people would prove themselves worthy of
recognition by and equality with the larger U.S. population.
Warrior describes the period between 1925 and 1960 as "A Generation of Free
Agents" (14) because of its lack of organization and coherency. Whether the Native
intellectuals of this period had internalized the larger message of individualism or
there was simply no articulate political project to be had, these thinkers did not have
much in the way of a common experience to draw from. Men like John Joseph Mathews
(Osage) were erudite and as equally critical and suspicious of the older "progressives"
as they were of Euro-American values. Many, like Mathews, were of mixed blood who
had grown up in a bicultural existence. They served almost literally either as walls or
bridges between the "full-bloods" who were clinging to dans and ceremonies and white
settlers who were bent on usurpation. Most, again like Mathews, were the products of
white men who had married Indian women, often as a way to control Indian land
The policy of the U.S. government during this period was to "undermine all
[tribal] efforts to retain sovereignty and communal integrity.... individualizing
communally held lands and abrogating relationships with self-determined tribal
governments" (17). The Homestead Act of 1862 and the Dawes Act of 1887 contributed to
my own heritage. My maternal grandfather availed himself of the Homestead Act,
which offered 160 acres of land that "was not being used" to whites as an incentive to
move West, the only condition being that the settler make it "productive." This
arrangement meant, of course, that the land must be farmed or. ranched, fenced, and
welled within five years in order for ownership to be finalized. The environmental
impact of this practice and the ensuing clash of cultures was inexorable.
Nearly simultaneously, the Dawes Act allowed Indians to become landowners
for the first time in American history. Inspired by Henry Dawes' belief in the
"civilizing power of private property,"it carried with it a hidden pitfall in that if the
taxes were not met, the land that had been freely theirs for centuries could be "legally"
taken from Indian landowners. Accompanying the law was the requirement that
Indians "anglicize" their names. The Miriam Report of 1928 exposed the fact that this
allowed whites to slip their relatives onto the rolls, sometimes by marrying Native
women. The act was repealed in 1934.
So, alongside the fact that there was little in the way of cohesive political
progress in the face of rampant exploitation, the spotty efforts of individuals were
confined by and large to writing. It was these solitary writers, like Will Rogers
(Cherokee) and D'Arcy McNickle (Cree), however, who set the stage for a later
generation of storytellers, polemicists, and activists to emerge who would be taken
Warrior characterizes the period between 1960 and 1973 as a "Battle to Define
'Red Power"' (26). Activism again became visible, made up of an odd assortment of
Indians, journalists, leftist protestors, white clergyand Marlon Brando. Natives
began to assert treaty rights in regard to land, natural resources, fishing, and religion.
"By defying state laws in full view of the media and law-enforcement personnel, these
Natives were among those initiating a new way of bringing their political struggles to
the attention of the United States and the world" (26). This new, adversarial style
became the trademark of Indians who had taken advantage of educational
opportunities following their service in the U. S. Armed Forces during World War n.
But if the government had expected these young men to lead their people into
the mainstream of Euro-American values and society, they were disappointed; most
educated young Indians were thoroughly critical of white America and instead
aggressively embraced Native cultural traditions as "both source and centerpiece" of
their activism (28). In fact, expressed anger somehow re-kindled hope among Native
people that they could once again take control of their own lives. Significantly, the
leadership during this period encouraged critical reflection in the midst of political
action. Warrior quotes his father as saying, in 1967,
We must make decisions about our own destinies. We must
be able to learn and profit from our own mistakes. Only
then can we become competent and prosperous communities
----Too much of what passes for "grassroots democracy"
... is really a slick job of salesmanship.
So while they owed much to other anti-colonial struggles in the U.S. and elsewhere,
these intellectual leaders were committed to nationalism on their own terms, and
powerful and prolific writing was as much their instrument as was political
Interestingly, while Native political activism was designed to gain the
attention of the world, Native intellectual writing was not. These writers wrote for
their people and themselves. Unlike Mathews, they were not reclusive; but, like
Mathews, they were educated, and they remembered Wounded Kneenot because they
were there, but because it was a part of their psyche, a sensory memory.
Without doubt, the towering figure of this period is Vine Deloria, Jr., bom on
the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota in 1933, just a few miles from and a few
years before my own birth. The son of an Episcopal minister, he left the reservation to
be educated in a Connecticut prep school, Iowa State University, the U.S. Marine Corps,
and Augustana Theological Seminary. As was true for many of his contemporaries, his
education served to make him antagonistic toward Euro-American Christian culture as
well as pragmatic in his politics. "The solutions we find to pressing daily problems
rarely come into the arena of credal surety. The answers we find in the heat of battle
and the quiet of meditation are answers to questions we did not think we asked" (qtd. in
Deloria's search for solutions to the dismal Native condition was really a
search for sovereignty. The search led him to the University of Colorado Law School.
He intended to use his legal education to defend treaty rights and traditional ways.
"The message of the traditionals is simple: a return to basic Indian philosophy,
establishment of ancient methods of government by open council, a revival of Indian
religions and replacement of white laws with Indian customs" (33).
So just as disillusionment with the promises of the Enlightenment would be a
factor in the counterdiscourse of modernity, many of these same motivations and
longings led Native thinkers to debate, affirm, and reclaim something forgotten. "The
gap between the traditional nationalists and the mainstream-educated elite was only
one of many gaps in need of a bridge by the late 1960s" (34). No single viewpoint was
able to encompass the divergent elements of the struggle and philosophical search.
Like many modern voices, the Native writers and activists of this era express
individuality along with disdain for nostalgia and romanticized tradition while also
articulating deep suspicion of science, technology, and urbanity. All the while, others
were hammering away at religion, history as commonly told, and hegemonic
philosophy. Literature like Deloria's Custer Died For Your Sins (1969), Momaday's
House Made of Dawn (1968), and Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970)
led to the 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan that resulted in the occupation of the
Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. and the occupation of the Wounded Knee
monument at Pine Ridge.
By 1977, Deloria had written or contributed to fifteen books, fought many legal
battles in court, and provided a theoretical stance for a Native American future. But he
also understood that activism bums itself out, that history is fluid, that truth is
situated in time and place, and that another moment had come to an end.
One of the legacies of that moment was the creation of American Indian studies
programs in United States colleges and universities. Consequently, Warrior dubs the
period from 1973 to the present "The Need for Generational Perspective" (41). In
contrast to the strong sense of cohesion of the first period, the isolation of the second,
and the activism of the third, the fourth period could be characterized by its intense
and determined impulse to forge a tradition of writing. Thanks to earlier efforts by
Mathews, Deloria, and Momaday (who won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1969 for
House Made of Dawn), publishing houses began accepting more American Indian works
of literature. What is perhaps most striking about their work is its diversity of genre-
essays, anthologies of prose and poetry, short stories, plays, films, and novelsand
diversity of perspective. Samplings from this literature will serve here as
representative of the informing between literature and philosophy, the most common
theme of which is the need to unify the discourse.
It is, in fact, in the literature that Native American philosophy is revealed as
tension-filled and sometimes as simply incohesive and inconsistent. To think otherwise
would be to not only romanticize and essentialize Native people, but also to deny the
very tenet of situated and influenced truth that is fundamental to their philosophy.
The Indian intellectual process is as open to influence as any other. So my purpose here
will not be to tease out the "Indianness" of the writing. That would be to play the
"Anglo vs. Indian" game, which is parochializing and monolithic. Rather, my purpose
will be to show that, flowing through the literature, is a recognition that Native
people have something, even if only dimly remembered. Warrior says that "Western
Christian culture and society is built upon the delusion that human beings as
individuals and in social groupings can somehow overcome the influence of the
nonhuman world and of decisions made by other humans" (114). One will find no such
delusion reflected in American Indian literature. One will find, however, great inner
conflict and doubtwhat might be termed existential angst
American Indian intellectuals have come to recognize the need to understand
the society that dominates them in order to understand the situation they find
themselves in as a result of that domination. Therefore, in the literature, we will see
themes of withdrawal, stuggle, resistance and, due in large measure to Deloria, a
willingness to critically reflect upon both the value and the limits of their traditions
and their present work. Warrior asserts that, until recently, Indians have been
caught in a death dance of dependence between, on the one
hand, abandoning ourselves to the intellectual strategies
and categories of white, European thought and, on the
other hand, declaring that we need nothing outside of
ourselves and our cultures in order to understand the
world and our place in it.
The sovereignty for which Natives struggle, then, is intellectual sovereignty, a
declaration that the Native perspective is humanizing in ways that other ideologies
are not, but also that this humanism is situated in a place where it is rarely affirmed.
In sonorous tones, Warrior calls our attention to the starkly existential and embodied
nature of this realization:
American Indian communities work every day not knowing
whether what they are doing is going to have any lasting
effect; in the same place as the earth itself, struggling to
regenerate itself against the greatest odds anyone could
ever have imagined ... realizing the fragile miracle of
survival after five centuries of pain and endurance-not
being satisfied that those limits should keep us from at
least saying something, even if only the moon will listen.
Here, the Native talks to himself, "comforting his heart with hard maxims,
for his heart was sore as never before" (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra 131). For
Native Americans, this philosophy of "hard maxims" cannot be separated from
language. Whether spoken in the oral tradition or, more recently, through the mastery
of the written word, language for the Indian both reveals and protects the soul. It has
always been so.
Alfred North Whitehead once said, "All of Western philosophy is but a
footnote to Plato" (various). I do not disagree, for this thesis is but another argument
among the countless arguments, of note and of little note, with Plato that make up much
of the history of Western thought. Every philosopher since Plato has had to contend
with his theories, questions, and observations by either working from them or in
opposition to them. And every writer, if writing in the West, whether knowingly or
unknowingly, writes either from within Plato's paradigm or from without.
Plato's ideal world was one of order, consisting of absolute, universal, and
hierarchical values that denigrated Nature and human embodiment while valorizing
an other-worldly realm of Forms, Mind, and a somehow preexisting disembodied
human soul that ever contemplates and longs to return to that perfect world where it
will again be free from the drag of the body. Plato's idealism is a reaction against the
Sophists of his day whose ethics of relativism, which in his mind placed the
appearance of virtue above true virtue, he found dangerous. That the highest realities
of Truth, Goodness, Love, arid Beauty could be as impermanent as human words was a
repugnant notion to Plato. Therefore, above all, he pursues definitions and the
essential nature of things.
Unlike the Sophists' Eristic method, often said to be disputation aimed at
winning rather than at reaching the truth, its goal being the ability to defend all sides
of an issue, Plato's was a dialectical method of question and answer, the philosophical
aim of which was to get at the truth. Fundamental to this method is the belief in the
existence of universal truth. It starts With a hypothesis, but does not assume it is
certain; one must check for coherence, try to find its flaw. In order to know if an
hypothesis is sound, one must measure it against a standard that does not shift~the
Form of the Good. In order to even begin to go through the process, of course, one must
already know implicitly what the Good is. (Perhaps this is why my Oglala
grandmother distrusted the questions asked of her by white Americans. She said,
"They already know what answer they want.")
It needs to be restated here that inherent in his attempt to identify essentially
similar and dissimilar things by their properties, is a hierarchy of valuation that
permeates the physical and mental universe. This is best illustrated by Plato's "Simile
of the Line" in which the eternal, intelligible world of true Being is separated from the
material, visible world of becoming and dying. In descending order, the modes of being
are pure reason/The Forms; understanding and knowledge/concepts and numbers; belief
and opinion/material things; conjecture/images. About the material world of animals,
plants, and human artifacts we can at best hold correct opinions. With respect to mere
images, we can engage in conjecture only.
Clearly, the material world of Nature, including the human body, is held in
relatively low esteem by Plato. Consistently, any type of "knowing" by virtue of the
senses or experience and situation would be distrusted by Plato. Only contemplation of
the intelligible world of the Forms, whose properties are essential properties--non-
spatial, non-temporalwill lead to anything other than the vague, implicit
knowledge latent in all of us, since all learning for Plato is recollection of our pre-
embodied state when we were in direct touch with Meaning. Most highly valued is
explicit knowledge that is conscious and articulated. We have already seen how
Plato's reaction against relying on implicit knowledge, which fails to resolve
ambiguity, impacted Freud's reaction to his friend's claim of "oceanic feelings." Like
Plato, Freud's psychoanalysis assumes that ambiguity is apparent only, that
everything can be properly categorized and ultimately known.
Even more lowly in Plato's system is art. Ontologically, since art deals with
images, art is an imitation of an imitation. In his discussion of art in Book X of The
Republic, Plato posits that what artists do is hold a mirror up to Nature. That is to say
they copy the appearances of men, animals, and physical objects. Thus art is only
slightly more meaningful than a reflection in a pool of water, as illustrated by his
famous allegory of "The Cave." Epistemologically, the mental activity that creates
art is nothing more than conjecture. Artistic inspiration for Plato is more closely
defined as "demonic possession" (enthousiasmos). This experience is praised by
Socrates, however, in the Phaedrus, where poetry is accorded a place along with
prophecy and love as forms of divine madness. Nonetheless, even there, this state of
artistic inspiration allows only a dim, however enthralling, memory of the Ideas, the
eternal Form of Beauty. When Socrates, in the Apology, questioned the poets as to "the
meaning of what they had written," they were unable to explain: "I decided that it
was not wisdom that enabled them to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or
inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime
messages without knowing in the least what they mean" (22 b-c). Aesthetically, art is
a distraction because it is expressed sensually, hence drawing man's attention away
from Beauty itself, which is purely spiritual. We shall see just how far-reaching is
this separation of beauty from the sensuous. Suffice it to say for now that art cannot be
justified in Plato's system as an activity worthy in its own right. Poets are mere
servants of Plato's ideal State and may remain so only if their art teaches piety and
virtue. The so-called pleasures of art are condemned as created by and appealing to the
appetitive side of the soul-erotic, violent, corrupting, and inciting anarchy. One way,
in fact, to view the whole enterprise of The Republic is as a plea that philosophy take
over the role that art had hitherto played in Greek culture. In this scheme, it seems
that even the father of Western literature must step down.
Homer was an illiterate poet, and his Iliad and Odyssey were part of oral
tradition until written down, about 600 bee. In Homer, everything is externalized;
phenomena are uniformly illuminated, at a definite time and in a definite place;
thoughts and feelings are completely expressed; events take place in leisurely fashion
and with very little suspense. Apart from its lack of anonymity, his work shares much
with Native American oral literature, especially in its tribal context. Like the oral
traditions of. American Indians, Homer's poetics originally existed in performance and
in the shared memories thereof, not in print. It would have been well known to all
adults, "who probably could not remember when as children they first heard versions of
it" (Ramsey xix). The story itself would be perceived as part of the shared repertory or
body of myth of the tribe. Its plot contains "magical" repetitions and other
"ritualesque" narrative elements. Importantly, as an artistic property, it belonged to
the group and was not conceived of as being the creation of an individual "author;"
rather, it was expected to speak to and for the consensus of the group and to provide "an
imaginative 'centering' of the group's values, purposes, and pleasures" (xx). It is
perhaps this latter function and influence that impelled Plato to position himself in
opposition to art.
In spite of Plato's low opinion of the poet, however, Western literature
continues to feed on the great narratives of Homer and has yet to exhaust their wealth.
Subsequent writers found that, similar to the relationship between Plato and later
philosophers, they must either reject the epic and its heroes and write in rebellion to it,
or emulate it. Some, like Sappho, openly scorn the bloody battlefield as a backdrop for
human emotion. Much later, Jane Austen, in the recusatio tradition, writes anti-epics
wherein the sitting room, not the battefield is the milieu. Others, like Vergil, pay
tribute to Homer by openly borrowing his characters and his epic style. And if it were
not enough to know the earthly fate of Homer's characters, Dante tells us of their
eternal fate, as well. And we must not forget that most beloved character, don Quixote
who, though more noble in purpose, is like Odysseus in his quest for adventure and as
model for all the great heroes, tragic heroes and anti-heroes, to follow.
Homer's majestic tales contain timeless themes of ritual, of journey, of divine
intervention into time and place, of the soul and destiny, of masculine and feminine
archetypes, of the child in search of its father, and of the great return. Within its
pages, we confront the monsters of our imagination and the dark forces within ourselves.
We wonder if we, like Odysseus, would reject the offer of immortality in favor of the
quest, knowing the quest included a journey into that "dark night of the soul." As
Odysseus careens from one hazard to the next, our curiosity is sated for awhile and we
can settle once again for our own mundane existence. But it is not long before we begin to
wonder if the universe makes any sense at all, or if it is simply chaos.
It is this very ambiguity that Plato railed against.
Throughout Homer's grand poetry, we find the theme of dual causality-
individual will versus fate or the will of the gods. It is difficult, in fact, to separate
the roles of the deities from the roles of men and women, for they constantly intersect.
It is interesting to note that, in The Iliad, we see a resignation to the will of the gods,
with only the rare individual, Achilles, resisting it. The basic premise had been that
the gods are in control of all human endeavor from birth to death and beyond. The gods,
while capricious, certainly take great interest in the affairs of men. Indeed, they are
protrayed as the script writers and the audience. Zeus is on the side of the Greeks,
while his wife Hera is determined that the Trojans will prevail. Her seduction of Zeus
distracts him long enough for her to create a golden cloud that unites earth and sky,
thereby obscuring his view of the battle for a time. Of course, when he awakens in fury,
the victory of the Greeks is assured. Whether it is the god Apollo, the goddess
Athena, Aphrodite, Hera, or Zeusall are deeply involved in the outcome of human
destiny. It is not until The Odyssey that we get the idea that the gods are tired of
being held responsible for everything that happens to humans: "My word, how mortals
take the gods to task! All their afflictions come from us, we hear. And what of their
own failings? Greed and folly double the suffering in the lots of men"(I. 48-51).
It is this very idea of whimsical, arbitrary, and anthropomorphic gods
governing the lives of men that Plato deplored.
It is Homer's depiction of the hero, however, that touches one of Plato's rawest
nerves, for the notion of the heroic cannot be extricated from his all-important notion of
virtue. Virtue, for Homer, is socially determined; that is to say, social position
determines identity and obligation. Plato found this view to be essentially self-
interested and obviously relative. While he envisioned virtue as self-interested as
well, Plato was concerned with what is good for the soul. Therefore, other-regarding
virtues such as attention to fairness, justice, and altruism were essential to his
absolutist system. The definition of virtue should be the same for everyone, according
to Plato; there should be one proper moral code, regardless of one's social position.
Certainly Achilles is the epitome of the tragic hero, whose pride, anger, and
stubbornness is completely self-centered and is based in large measure on his social
position. His refusal to return to battle because of a perceived slight to that position,
thereby exhibiting his willingness to risk not only the lives of his men but also that of
his beloved friend, can only be called obstinate, reckless, atedoomed follyall
characteristic of the tragic hero. His hubris is exceeded only by his hatred of Hektor,
his Trojan antagonist. Hektor, to the contrary, is heroic in his refusal to retreat. This
too is expected of him; in fact, in spite of their pleas that he remain at home, Hektor
fears the disapproval of the women of Troy if he does not enter battle (Book 22). In the
end, it is his loyalty to the notion of aristeia, the rule of the best, that urges him
onward to face Achilles. His farewell to Andramache in Book 6 foreshadows his
death: "I know in my heart Troy must fall." He is dedicated to its defense in spite of
this knowledge. But his courage (Plato would call it recklessness) is the fatal flaw
that ultimately fails him. When Hektor dies at the sword of Achilles, Troy falls.
Still, Achilles cannot govern his addiction to his own wrath. His brutality increases,
becomes hopelessly confused with his grief, and spins into desperate isolation as he
drags Hektor's body in circles. In true ring composition, the opening words of The Iliad
foreshadow its end: "Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus' son Achilleus and its
It is this very portrayal of human nature as convoluted and inscrutable that
For Plato, there is only one human nature, one function, and one definition of
virtueand it is eternal. Wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice are the virtues of
the soul. To function well, to do what it alone does bestwhich, for Plato, is reason
this is virtue, the unique function of the human soul. In the virtuous life, the rational
life, irrational desires are subordinate to reason; therefore, Achilles is no hero, nor is
Odysseus is portrayed by Homer as the clever and curious hero, the restless
explorer, whose life is full of dangerous women, and who is favored by the goddess
Athena. But, in fact, it is never dear whether he is noble-longing for home and
family, or comic-addicted to food, sex, and danger. Is he the greatest adventurer or the
greatest nostalgic? The scene with Calypso in Book Five illustrates the riddle that is
Odysseus: "As wise as she is, I know that Penelope cannot compare to you in stature or
in beauty.... And yet the only wish I wish each day is to be back there, to see in my
own house the day of my return!" But Homer goes on: "As Odysseus spoke, the sun sank;
the dusk came, and they withdrew deep within the cavern to lie and love in each
other's arms." And yet, between the life of ease and immortality in a strange land and
the risky return home, he chooses the latter. Odysseus seems to choose reconciliation
with the finite. Or does he? The marriage bed tames him only briefly. Later writings
find the sea calling to him again, leading him to a "sea-borne death." Ultimately,
only the poet is saved as Homer and Odysseus merge into one. The adventurer, of course,
never intends to finish the adventure.
One might expect Plato to think more kindly of Odysseus, for whom knowledge
is power. But just as Achilles was driven by the many-headed beast of his appetites,
Odysseus was led by his, and certainly neither led ascetic lives of contemplation so
valued by Plato. No, both chose the short, glorious life over the eternal. The roguish
qualities of Odysseus are akin to the powers of the gods who are not bound by human
judgment. There is the sense in Homer that if one wants to conqueror write, or fall in
loveone must tap into this force of the muse, the daemon. This is the underworld, the
realm of the unknown, the shadowy feminine mystery. The male quest, for Homer and
most later epic poets, always involves a journey into this realm, along with a
confrontation with the feminine forbidden. The very structure of the epic mirrors a
cyclical pattern as world view: Creation, birth, life journey, trials, conquest or defeat,
death, rebirth. In this timeless vision> humans get many chances.
In order to fully appreciate the tension that has held sway between Western
philosophy and art, one must not only realize Plato's commanding influence but also
grasp his notion of life, not as cyclical but as a spiral of creation, birth, enlightenment,
and perfectionthe latter of which can be accomplished only upon return to the pre-
embodied state which is eternal. In our embodiment, we are limited to contemplation of
The Good as our only means of attaining enlightenment. The truly virtuous man is rare,
therefore, because human virtue entails arriving at a mean between deficiency and
excess. Courage, then, is a virtue, cowardice a vice. An excess of confidence, i.e.
recklessness, is a vice as well, however. Authentic virtue is the right use of a neutral
characteristicconfidence being the neutral characteristic in this scheme. It becomes
immediately clear why Plato would not extol the virtue of Achilles, Hektor, or
Plato analogizes the virtuous man to the ideal State. He divides the ideal
State and the virtuous soul into three equivalent parts that together practice four
cardinal virtues: The rulers of the State parallel the rational part of the soul in that
each exhibits the virtue of wisdom; the guardians of the State parallel the spirited
part of the soul in that they exhibit the virtue of courage and obey reason; the third
class of the State is composed of "the rest," the masses who are like the appetitive
part of the soul wherein lies desire. This last division of both the State and the soul
must be governed by wisdom and courage in order to exhibit the cardinal virtue of
moderation. The entire state/person, to be in harmony, must engage in self-mastery in
which the superior parts control the inferior parts. This unity, or integrity, this
perfectly functioning successful State or soul is what Plato means by justice. When a
person possesses this internal justice, the person is happy. Conversely, the unhappy
soul is ignorant, cowardly, and licentiousin all, irrational. This life, for Plato, is not
worth living. Only the rational part of the soul is uniquely human, divine, and
immortal. But, while embodied, the rational part of the soul can be "pulled about
whithersoever either of the others drag him" (The Republic 589a). This description
immediately conjures the image of Achilles, Hektor, and Odysseus. Later, in Book X,
Plato has Socrates state that, "to know its true nature [that of the soul] we must view it
not marred by communion with the body" (611c). This doctrine relies, of course, on
Plato's essential belief that the soul and body are separable. This view is pervasive
throughout Western philosophy.
But can one doubt that the attempt to bring into harmony and balance the soul
of Achilles would entail a loss of depth, texture, and emotional brilliance? Is it not his
recklessness, his inability to contain his passion, that makes him more than what he
isjust a character in a poem? Is it not Hektor's failure to sustain his courage, his final
cowardice one might say, that captures for a fleeting moment the frailty of the human
condition? Is not the duplicitous curiosity of Odysseus the quality that renders us more
than mere voyeurs and compels us to follow in wonder, indeed to place ourselves
precisely there? Like Odysseus, are we not often tom between duty and freedom? Is art-
-bereft of abandon to passionworth seeing, worth reading, worth hearing? Is not Plato
and the philosophy he exemplifies according too privileged a place to reason?
Perhaps it is only from the Platonic perspective that the poets' inability to explain
and render art into a formula looks like lack of wisdom.
Socrates sought to make deductions from poetry. But the fact is that no critical
method satisfactorily uncovers the eros of poetry; poetry seeks to convey to our
imagination something more than just an accurate reflection of reality. C. Day-Lewis,
in his essay entitled "The Nature of the Image," has said that poetry "looks out from a
mirror in which life perceives not so much its face as some truth about its face" (3).
Oral Literature: A Contradiction in Terms?
Trying to apply conventional Western critical method and theory to Native
American literature is like trying to capture the nature of the image in the mirror in a
photograph. The result will be flat and one-dimensional. Many critics abandon the
effort, relegating the literature to "oral tradition." But while it is accurate to say that
Native writers have close ties to oral tradition, many of them are just as aware of the
lack of influence on their lives of oral tradition. For many of these writers are Indians
of the diaspora, dealing with themes of alienation, self-hate, social dysfunction, and a
search for something stolen and forgotten.
Poet Wendy Rose (Hopi), who grew up far from the traditional culture that
supposedly dominates her consciousness, responds in this way to the observation that
her work derives from Native oral traditions:
I think my particular work probably leans more toward
European-derived ideas of what poetry is and who poets
are.... The need to express the self, the need to make
one's own emotions special and to explain it to other
people, I don't think really exists in most Native
American cultures. And I think that is an important
component of my work.
(qtd. in Warrior 120)
In a biographical essay entitled "I Tell You Now," Rose asks, "How do you reconcile
being an 'Indian writer' with such a non-Indian upbringing? It is not the Indian way to
be left so alone, to be alienated, to be friendless" (Neon Scars 51). Nonetheless, her
statement reveals an awareness that there is an "Indian way," and she often speaks of
having roots in Hopi land, of finding those roots, and rebuilding herself as a Hopi. Her
words are representative of the tension between the particularity of experience and
As has already been hinted at, my purpose is not to prove an inextricable
connection between oral and written Native American literature. For me, it is a given
that current Indian literature is informed by indigenous tribal literary traditions and
by Euro-American literary models as well. Two of the mainstays of this thesis, in fact,
N. Scott Momaday and Leslie Marmon Silko, have written their most widely read
novels from exactly these two perspectives. Momaday's House Made of Dawn places
his tragic protagonist, Abel, in an urban setting. He structures, yet plays with,
essentially Western literary form; whereas, Silko's Tayo of Ceremony finds healing
amidst the traditional life and myths of the Pueblo. In either form, Native writers are
living up to their traditions of imaginative insight, skillful word play, and reverence
The most common criticism leveled at the idea of treating oral narrative as
literature is that the very fact that it is unwritten, without letters, precludes it as
such. But for oral societies such as pre-invasion American Indians, "literature is
whatever language is deemed worthy of sufficient repetition to assure it will be
remembered and passed along" (Krupat qtd. in Wiget, Handbook 31. Moreover, much of
what we call literature today was once called "poetry," Homer being an example that
has been considered at length. Nevertheless, this view, that to be literature it must be
written, is reflected in most conventional wisdom today and was certainly echoed by
Robert Spiller in his 1963 edition of The Literary History of the United States: "The
literature of this nation began when the first settler from abroad of sensitive mind
paused in his adventure long enough to feel he was under a different sky, breathing a
new air, and that a New World was all before him with only strength and Providence
for guides" (qtd. in Wiget, Critical Essays 1).
It is important to deconstruct that assessment of literature and to recognize that
it is evaluative, not descriptive. Andrew Wiget calls our attention to three points in
First, judgments of satisfaction are intimately linked to
the reader's prior literary experiences.... Second,
judgments of satisfaction about literary experiences are
rooted in the reader's experiences of life as lived....
Third, recognizing a fundamental gap between our actual
and literary experiences and those of Native Americans
and their literature, we confront our own ethnocentrism
as the basis of evaluation.
So, while some Euro-American readers find American Indian stories repetitious and
even boringly simple, some Native American readers find Euro-American stories, as
well as their general speech patterns, to be cluttered with chatter and meaningless
detail. The point is that much criticism is merely a mask of aesthetics that hides a
combination of cultural vanity and a vague racial determinism.
The second, and I believe more credible objection to treating oral narratives as
literature is the problem of interpretation, that the "as told to" narratives are prima
facie suspect. While I do not find this objection to be just warrant for ignoring the
wisdom and delight they may convey, I certainly agree that much is lost in translation.
Therefore, with this consideration seriously in mind, representations of Native oral
literature in this discussion will be limited to those told to me directly by my Oglala
Lakota grandmother. I will take great pains to smooth out her English syntax only
enough to make it readable by those who were not fortunate enough to sit at her feet
and walk with her among the tall grasses of the South Dakota and Nebraska High
My Grandmother's Stories
These stories share with Homer the common characteristics of oral narrative
discussed earlier. Each expresses the awareness of man's beholden place in the natural
order and in the human community, the recognition of which is a part of the Native's
very imagination; Nature as the spiritual basis of human survival is widely and
insistently dramatized in the traditional oral literature of Indians. And all convey the
Native notion of the hero as vulnerable, flawed, and many-dimensional. I heard the
stories many times, but my grandmother seemed to emphasize them more urgently when
the decision was made that I would leave the reservation and travel west to Denver.
West, the direction of difficulty.
I will tell them in the way they were told to me:
Old Man and Old Woman disagreed on whether people should die. Old
Man thought it cruel. Old Woman insisted. "If the people do not die, they will not feel
sorry for each other and sympathy will not exist in the world." Old Woman usually
won their many arguments. But Old Man resisted more this time. "Then let them die for
four days only." he said. "That will not teach them sympathy!" she retorted. So Old
Man cleverly suggested they decide by throwing a buffalo chip in the water. If it
floats, the people will not die forever. It does float, but Old Woman throws a rock into
the water and sinks the buffalo chip. Old Man gives up but warns her that she will
regret the decision. Sure enough, when Old Woman's own daughter dies, she tries to
undo their agreement on death. They reach a compromise. "The people will not die
forever. They will die for four days only. During that time, they must visit the
underworld and upper world to learn the proper way to live. Then they may return. But
we will not tell the people that they will die for four days only. They must think they
will die forever, so there will be sympathy in the world.. And when they return to life,
they will have forgotten that they died for four days only. They will be babies again
and spend their lives trying to remember what they learned in the other worlds." This
also seemed cruel to Old Man. But he said no more, knowing this was the best deal he
One is struck immediately by the notion of learning as recollection and its
similarity to Plato. Beyond that, however, there is more unlikeness than likeness. The
place of learning here is a dark lower world, presumably populated by mysterious
forces, that hints at danger to the soul, and a light upper world that affords
enlightenment. Death is apparently a spiritual necessity, but the goal is life renewal,
not escape from life or the end of life. The story also reflects the Sioux belief that the
Creator is not the ultimate Great Mystery, in that s/he also is subject to wisdom and
folly. The aspect of being at the mercy of Creators who quarrel over the fate of humans
cannot be missed.
Bear was a tyrant over Rabbit because he could be. So Rabbit must hunt for
Buffalo but never eatonly grasses, grains, and roots. Hungry Rabbit hides a Buffalo
blood clot in his clothing and places it in the Sweat Lodge where it becomes a boy who
grows with miraculous speed. He becomes a young brave who unforgivingly ends the life
of Bear and all his familyexcept for the youngest female cub who had risked her own
life to save morsels of food for the old ones. Blood Clot Boy defends and feeds the
people, overcoming his enemies with his ability to shape-shift. But his adventures
include many dangers; He must travel West where he will be deceived by Iktomi, the
trickster. Iktomi calls him "little brother" and persuades him to kill a bird and
retrieve it from the top of a tree. Our hero sheds his clothes and weapons in order to
show kinship. Iktomi, of course, promptly steals everything, leaving the boy stuck in
the tree, unable to make a rejoinder to the treachery. In the meantime, Iktomi, having
donned the hero's clothing and weapons, enters the camp, marries the daughter of the
chief, and receives much undeserved praise. But he is unable to feed the people
spiritually or physically. In the meantime. Blood Clot Boy is freed from the tree by a
young girl who has been abused by Iktomi's jealous wife. Our hero enters the camp and
drives Iktomi from the circle. His last conquest is a conquest of love. A beautiful girl
among the band has scorned his attentions. So he rubs certain herbs on his flute and
plays it outside her tipi. She is unable to resist him. They do not live happily ever
after though, because Blood Clot Boy must return to his home in the other world, now
that his job is done.
The adventures of Blood Clot Boy could fill the pages of a book nearly as large
as Homer's Odyssey. I have rendered here only a selection that illustrates the values
of a hunting society who survived by being generous and humble, humility being the
foundational virtue of the Lakota thirteen virtues. For the Lakota, other virtues such
as bravery and generosity lose their authenticity unless accompanied by humility. As
an aside, while it is the bravery and determination of Crazy Horse that lives on in
legend, it is his humility~the fact that he never recounted his deeds in battle--that is
treasured by the Lakota.
Although the rabbit and bear are not blood relatives, they are neighbors and
therefore must act as relatives in order for life to continue in harmony. The ceremonial
creation of power assures that balance. The importance of finding the correct life path
is always a solitary one in traditional Sioux mythology, yet the hero always returns to
community. Along the way, the hero makes many mistakes and is often prideful and
foolish, therefore easily deceived and taken advantage of, trapped, and wounded. He
encounters those who have suffered, from whom he learns compassion; he encounters the
old ones, from whom he receives wisdom. And when it comes to romance, I never heard
a "happily ever after story." Romantic sexuality, for the Sioux, is unrestricted and
joyful, but unreliable and relatively unimportant. It is more important for males and
females to demonstrate bravery and offer comfort to those in need. The fact that the
hero usually begins as a spirit-being who is bom into a human body and manifests
his/her supernatural identity only gradually is a metaphor for the process of human
development. Unlike the Christian savior, the Native hero is not perfect; rather, s/he
is the embodiment of accomplishment learned by failure.
The trickster figure is prominent in this story as well as in the next. The
trickster takes many forms, but is always male. He can be cute and playful but also
dangerous and destructive. He always speaks the truth, thereby educating, and
exposing human folly. He is generally independent of temporal and spatial boundaries
and frequently exhibits some physical abnormality; he often manifests a two-fold
nature, generally amoral and asocial, and tends to be ambiguously situated between life
and death, good and evil. Significantly, he appears most often at crossroads,
doorways, and thresholds. Even when encountered in open spaces, he is situated
between social order and the other world of chaos. His outrageous acts include
hypnotizing pheasants and prairie chickens into dancing with their eyes shut, until he
kills them with a club; seducing beautiful women into following him with the promise
of sexual ecstacy, until he cooks and eats their babies; finding a way to marry his own
daughter without being detected. But, in the end, trickster is always found out and
driven from the camp because of his arrogance and carelessness. Nevertheless, every
story ends with the hint of his survival so that he may proceed to further adventures.
What follows is one of his darker manifestations:
The two-headed snake moves through the grasses, searching for souls to devour.
But listen well. There is only one way to lose your soul to the snakethat is to run. He
will tangle your legs, and you will fall. The fangs of one head will hold you while the
tongue of the other reaches in and extracts your soul. The snake will then slither away
with your soul, to feed upon it at his leisure. You will get up, wondering at your good
luck to be alive. But when you start to walk away, you will realize suddenly that you
are lost. Lost you will remain, wandering,, trying to remember your purpose all your
days. Look around you, my Granddaughter, Can you see that many have seen him?
And many have run?
Then what must I do, Grandmother?
You must stand. You must face him. Never look away, though your knees shake
and your heart stops still in your chest, though his hissing warns you to run. Do not turn
away, even though his foul breath and spit is on you, and your stomach turns. Stand,
and face him. For when you do, he will come closer until his heads face each other. He
will no longer be facing you. He will see himself.
Then what will happen, Grandmother?
He must choose. His fangs may lock in a death grip, never relenting. If this
happens, he will devour himself and roll away into a disgusting ball. Or perhaps he
will see his own soul and no longer look elsewhere for truth; he will see it in his own
eyes. And so must you look within in order to be free, my granddaughter.
For the Sioux, evil is the other face of loneliness, and loss is the other face of
fear. The difficult way is always the best way. Contact with dark forces is necessary
in order to gain wisdom. Avoidance of this path is to lose one's way, which leads to
isolation, dismay, and apathy. This belief accounts for the tribal role of the shaman.
As healers, visionaries, and poets, the shaman may ritualistically leave the middle
world of ordinary reality to explore either the lower or upper worlds. To enter the
lower world, s/he typically visualizes an entrance in the earth such as a cave, hollow
tree, or water hole. To enter the upper world, the shaman may visualize ascending to
the sky from special locations such as mountains, treetops, or cliffs. While in the Lower
World, the shaman may encounter "power animals," take on that animal's power and
knowledge to diagnose and treat illness or foresee events that will be significant in the
life of the tribe. Likewise, there are "star beings" available to the shaman while s/he
is in the Upper World, beneficent entities to consult for guidance. The Upper World
represents a "quest" in which the shaman may turn to solitude and fasting as a way to
set aside the everyday world and merge with the cosmos.
Although the shaman may be in an altered interior state of ecstacy, to those
looking on, s/he may exhibit bizarre, even life-threatening behavior that can go on for
some time-behavior that a Western psychologist would undoubtedly pronounce to be
severe psychopathology. What is happening is that the shaman is in direct contact
with power, the life force of the universe that embraces equally the joy, pain, and
death of life. In the shamanic tradition, there is no good or evil; there is only power.
This power is not easily contained within one person's body and mind.
While in the realm of hardships, the shaman enters the underworld of
suffering, disease, and decrepitude to awaken his warrior nature by battling with the
spirits that cause disease. (In Jungian psychology, this stage corresponds roughly to
confronting the shadow, the dark and neglected portion of the personality.) While in
this realm, the shaman may encounter Death itself, not only physical death, but also
other forms of ego death. From this complete dismemberment of his being, the shaman
is resurrected into the realization that life and death comprise a unity of masculine and
feminine, pain and pleasure. A shaman's good intention is tested by his willingness to
reenter society with an awakened sense of compassion to heal and serve the community.
Ultimately, this tradition teaches that by recognizing our connectedness to the sacred
web of life, we can heal physical, emotional, and spiritual diseases.
There is a significant distinction between Native lore and the poetry of Homer.
Homer's women, unless they are goddesses, are never heroes. They are trophies,
victims, bystanders waiting for the hero's return. A Native hero is a heroine as often as
not, with sexual freedom and power. She may be called Thought Woman, Spider
Woman, Com Woman, Yellow Woman or the Lakota culture giver, White Buffalo Calf
Pipe Woman. In one story, she turns the possessive lover who is interested only in her
sex into the rudimentary being he already was, a skeleton covered with snakes. She
rewards the good lover who seeks her wisdom as well as her body by making him her
messenger to the people. Even her husband owns only his pony and war/hunting
paraphernalia. When he brings meat, it is his only as long as it remains on his horse.
Once he drops it on the ground, it is hers to distribute according to her wisdom. Clearly,
she is both nurturing and demanding, but both male and female are free.
Silko's "Yellow Woman"
This concept of freedom is clearly illustrated by Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna)
as she tells the story of Yellow Woman and Silva, the roguish, handsome Trickster. It
is a very erotic tale in which time collapses as the past and future are contained in the
present, and the line between myth and reality, sex and Nature are blurred. Silva
appears, takes her, vanishes, is killed, reappears, and whispers, "Someday they will
talk about us, and they will say, "Those two lived long ago when things like that
happened'" (Yellow Woman 339). Yellow Woman is sexually awakened, resists, loses
and regains her identity, strays from her village. She returns with twin boys, half not
believing he was anything but a man. "And I told myself, perhaps if I believe it, he
will come back sometime and be waiting again by the river" (344). Did she simply
dream and become one with the story of Yellow Woman so well known in the village?
Is Yellow Woman all women? It is pointless to ask logical questions.
The story teaches as much by what is missing as by what is told. Absent is
censure, charges of promiscuity or adultery, rigid gender roles. "We are all a mixture of
male and female, and this sexual identity is changing constantly.... Women were just
as likely as men to have a si'ash, or lover" (67). Because the Creator is female, there is
no stigma on being female, and all children belong to the mother and the clan. Yellow
Woman is a hero because of her return with new-found strength and wisdom, which
serves her people well in times of peril. "Her triumph is achieved by her sensuality,
not through violence and destruction. For these qualities of the spirit, Yellow Woman
and all women are beautiful" (72).
What is manifest in Native oral literature are parallel myths of
individualism and community. This is different than the Western view of the former
as male, romantic, and heroic and the latter as female, nostalgic, and weak. It shares
with Homeric literature an absence of the need to impose order and resolve
contradiction. It is helpful to see Homer's poetry and Native story as evidence of
countervailing thought that has always been present, flowing around, under, and
through like Heraclitus' river that cannot be stepped in twice, ever changing, never
still. The world is, in its very essence, flux and a unity of opposites. For Heraclitus, the
world is like a child at play. It is for a return to this view that Nietzsche determined
to wreck the Platonic view of art and philosophy, indeed of the universe.
Existentialism, deconstructionism, postmodernism, the death of God, the end of
metaphysics, the end of philosophy, anti-semitism, Nazi fervor, the collapse of
civilizationwhether in blame or in praise, all of these have been attributed to
Nietzsche, the man who did philosophy with a hammer.
Over a century after the madman in the marketplace declared "God is dead!"
young seminarians still recoilmuch more so than if he had simply asserted 'There is
no God." For the madman says:
We have killed himyou and I. We are all his murderers.
But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up
the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire
horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth
from its sun? ... Has it not become colder? Is more and more
night not coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in
(The Gay Science 181)
According to Nietzsche, it is the twin blades of rationalism and science that killed
Godthat infinite sea, that fixed horizon, that ordering sun. For Nietzsche, the belief
in any eternal standard of judgment and order is an illusion, a survival technique, and a
sign of weakness. To believe in enduring things is to deny change and flux; to believe in
equal things is to deny ambiguity.
Why, then, is his writing exuberant? Why does the removal of the promise of
heavenly reward and threats of hell make him gay? Why is it that the proponents of
modernity, from Kant to Habermas, find this grim logic chilling while he finds it
exhilarating? The answer lies in the possibility of freedomdizzying, radical
How do we begin to talk about him, this man who, according to some, was
deeply spiritual and politically naive? Whether worshipped or abused, he stands as
the first philosopher to answer Plato and who in turn must be answered by those who
have come after him. If all philosophy after Plato is but a footnote, then Nietzsche is
Since we must begin someplace, let us begin here: There should be no doubt that
when he attacked Plato, he was fully aware that he was attacking the basis of all
Western thought. If the core of Platonism is a reaction against relying on implicit
knowledge that fails to resolve ambiguity, then the essence of existentialism is to
acknowledge ambiguity and to declare that explicit knowledge really describes a fake,
invented world. Existentialists are making a fundamental epistemological claim that
we cannot fully understand the world, and that claim is rooted in the ontological claim
that the world is unknowable. Is it possible to overstate just how extreme a departure
this assertion is?
But Nietzsche was dead before the tenn "existentialism" was bom. It was
literary figures like Dostoyevsky and Camus who made the term popular. In part
because their literature is bleak and dark, existentialism is commonly thought of as
negative and pessimistic. Certainly existentialism does contain a negative aspect in
that it denies an old world view, but its positive aspect lies in its attempt to find a new
one. So while Nietzsche is often known only for his attacks on Christianity,
democracy, and science, what he is actually doing is picking up a thread that had been
Nietzsche adopted Heraclitus' amoral view of the world and grounded his
philosophy in a mystic intuition of the origin of all things, That origin is power-
illogical, terrifying, magnificent. By identifying, even if only metaphorically, the
basic stuff of the universe as fire, Heraclitus brought a new insight to the way the pre-
Socratics explained the observable phenomenon of change. Of the four recognized
elementsair, fire, water, and earththere was something about fire that explained
both the appearance of stability and the fact of change. The flame's form is stable, but
everything in the flame changes. From this, Heraclitus concluded that reality is
composed not of a number of things, but of a process of continual creation and destruction.
Even then (470 bee), Heraclitus was called "the Dark One," and his ideas were
interpreted pessimistically. Like existentialism, his ideas constituted not merely a
philosophy but a mood, almost a worldview of nostalgia and loss. But never did
Heraclitus say that there was no Wisdom within the chaos. In truth, he believed that
changes in one direction for one aspect of the universe were balanced by changes in the
opposite direction for another.
Nietzsche picked up this thread and found strength in its pessimism. In so
doing, he set himself against the mechanistic view brought on by science that sees the
world as governed by laws of efficient causality and also against the Platonic
teleological view of a world judged in terms of final causality that pursues a
determinate purpose of perfection. Finally, Nietzsche sets himself against what he
considers to be the weak pessimism of Christianity or any system that judges the world
morally, finds it aporetic, condemns it, and longs to escape it.
In spite of his objections to Plato, Nietzsche greatly admired the Greeks, the
Homeric Greeks it would seem, whose values of power, victory, pride, and nobility
spelled goodness and whose Olympic gods were indifferent to good and evil. "Nothing
in these deities reminds us of asceticism, high intellect, or duty: we are confronted by
luxuriant, triumphant existence" (The Birth of Tragedy 29). Since Plato, as Nietzsche
sees it, man has become sickly and conformist. And since Plato's philosophy has
entwined itself about art, "forcing the latter to cling closely to the trunk of dialectic"
(88), Nietzsche holds Plato (or more directly, Socrates) responsible for the destruction
of art as well, especially tragic art, needed even more now that God is dead.
Tragedy in the arts singularly exhibits the truth, of Heraclitus' view of the
world as amoral. Nietzsche illustrates the importance of the role of tragedy by taking
us back to the Greek principles of art as epitomized by the gods Apollo and Dionysos. It
is, in truth, the tension between these two that created the art form known as tragedy.
In addition to the tension felt by these two principles, it soon becomes apparent that
there is a corresponding philosophical tension between the Socratic/Platonic world
view and that of Heraclitus. In short, art and philosophy are informing one another.
To further understand the force of this tension for the philosopher, one must
think about God, and for Nietzsche, the Ground of Existence is an artist:
God as the supreme artist, amoral, recklessly creating and
. destroying, realizing himself, indifferently in what ever
he does or undoes, ridding himself by his acts of the
embarrassment of his riches and the strain of his internal
contradictions.... a successful solution of God's own
tensions, as an ever new vision projected by that grand
sufferer for whom illusion is the only possible mode of redemption.
Once this image of God as artist is accepted, one must by necessity look at art.
Susan Sontag makes a great distinction between the experience of art and the
theory of art. She longs for the time when art was "incantatory, magical." Nietzsche
shares that longing. In The Birth of Tragedy, he outlines how experience was
supplanted by theory. His contrasting of the Apollonian creative principle and pure
Dionysian creativity affords him a way to argue that Plato's rational order is merely
an illusion that attempts to mask the true chaotic nature of the world. He simply
points to the obvious unpredictability in the world. Illusion, as expressed in art, is
likened to the Apollonian creative principle. Nietzsche likens this principle to
dreaming: "It is a dream! I want it to go on" (21). Named for one of Greece's most
important gods, it is art at its most intelligent, serene, disciplined, and well balanced.
We need the temporary illusion of order to be able to function. Unlike Platonism,
however, the Apollonian principle is aware that it is an illusion. As a principle of
individuation, it recognizes the boundary between the dream state and the waking
But when this principle of individuation is shattered by
the tremendous awe which seizes man when he suddenly
begins to doubt the cognitive modes of experience, in other
words, when in a given instance the law of causation seems
to suspend itelf,... then we are in aposition to apprehend
the essence of Dionysiac rapture, whose closest analogy is
furnished by physical intoxication.
When the god of cool white marble Doric sculpture, clean lines, and willed illusion
gives way to loss of boundaries, this merging into Nature, "long alienated or subjugated"
(23), and the "primordial One" (24), not only recognizes the fundamental indeterminacy
of life, but also celebrates itsuffering, reshaped by art. In shamanic-like frenzy,
Man now expresses himself through song and dance as the
member of a higher community; he has forgotten how to
walk, how to speak, and is on the brink of taking wing as
he dances. Each of his gestures betokens enchantment;
through him sounds a supernatural power.
Tragedy, as an art form, emerged from both of these principles and, in fact,
brings them together. Tragedy exhibits the truth of Heraclitus' view of the world as
amoral and understands it in aesthetic terms. That is to say, the Ground of Existence
(God) arbitrarily brings new principles into being with each new creative act, which
cannot be judged on the basis of any pre-existing rules. There are no rules. Dionysos
offers us access to the truth of our existence and Apollo gives us a way to bear it.
Silenus, companion of Dionysos, portrays the human condition in the most tragic terms
possible: "Ephemeral wretch ... What would be best for you is quite beyond your reach;
not to have been bom, not to be, to be nothing, [italics in original] But the second best is
to die soon" (29). So,
in order to be able to live at all, they [the Greeks] had to
place before them the shining fantasy of the Olympians. . .
The Apollonian need for beauty had to develop the
Olympian hierarchy of joy .. The gods justified human life
by living it themselvesthe only satisfactory theodicy.
Homer, "the naive artist" (32), "nurtured in the bosom of nature/'whose heroes "always
triumph over titans and kill monsters" (31), gets credit for the supreme Apollonian
Another poet and contemporary of Homer is honored by Nietzsche as the "first
'subjective7 artist" (37). But, because of centuries of domination by Platonic reason,
Archilochus, "soldierly servant of the Muses, knocked about by fortune" (37), has been
submerged into near oblivion. So then, for modem man,
the subjective artist is simply the bad artist, and since we
demand above all, in every genre and range of art, a
triumph over subjectivity, deliverance from the self, the
silencing of every personal will and desire; since, in fact,
we cannot imagine the smallest genuine art work
lacking objectivity and disinterested contemplation,
Archilochus is of little use.
But when the subjective artist is touched by the laurel of the objective artist,
"music now begins to emit sparks of imagery, poems which, at their point of highest
evolution, will bear the name of tragedies and dramatic dithyrambs" (38). Nietzsche
uses the story of Oedipus and the myth of Prometheus to illustrate how both the
Dionysian and Apollonian principles are at work in tragedy: Oedipus, who is a wise
ruler, even a seer, and kind to his people, is destroyed because he unknowingly commits
the supreme sins of killing his father and marrying his mother. Prometheus is
eternally punished for bringing good to mankind because of the arbitrary and jealous
nature of the gods. The devotion to both principles lies in the illusion of order which
prevails in both stories for a time by giving the characters, events, and emotion form
and shape (Apollonian individuation), and the ultimate futility of trying to keep the
force of the world's intrinsic irrationality and chaos at bay (Dionysian powers and
insights). The pure tragedy lies in the lack of explanation, resolution, apology, or
condemnation. Tragedy, by its amoral stance, affirms rather than veils the chaos of
the world. This affirmation is tragedy's redemption of life.
The rise and fall of pure tragedy is linked to the rise and fall of the
Heraclitean world view. Once "Socrates' great Cyclops' eyethat eye which never
glowed with the artist's divine frenzy-turned upon tragedy" (86), tragedy died.
Tragedy, "abstruse and irrational, full of causes without effects and effects seemingly
without causes" (86), died. First came the disintegration of the chorus. "Optimistic
dialectics took up the whip of its syllogisms and drove music out of tragedy" (89). Due
to the influence of Socrates, Euripides eventually dominated the "new tragedy." In his
plays, for every complication there is a resolution, an explanation. Order is always
restored. "Once that optimistic element had entered tragedy, it overgrew its Dionysiac
regions and brought about their annihilation and, finally, the leap into genteel
domestic drama" (88). In this sense, new tragedy is not even true to the Apollonian
principle of order which knew it was creating illusion and was, therefore, not in conflict
with the Dionysian principle. Under Socrates' influence, the belief that the world
really is rational, tragedy could no longer be morally ambiguous, with uncertain
endings; instead, it began to deny the world's indeterminacy. "The Euripidean hero, is
compelled to justify his actions by proof and counterproof, and for that reason is often in
danger of forfeiting our tragic compassion" (88). Nietzsche's statement that "tragedy
died by suicide" is particularly apt because, by killing the Dionysian principle, the
Apollonian principle died as well; tragedy was no longer true to its purpose of affirming
and redeeming the indeterminacy of the world.
Nietzsche's wrath at Socrates will not be mitigated and must be given one more
Faced with the evidence of the Platonic dialogues, we
are certainly not entitled to see in Socrates merely an
agent of the disintegration [of tragedy]. While it is clear
that the immediate result of the Socratic strategy was
the destruction of Dionysiac drama, we are forced,
nevertheless, by the profundity of the Socratic experience
to ask ourselves whether, in fact, art and Socratism are
diametrically opposed to one another, whether there is
really anything inherently impossible in the idea of a
But the title of his piece is "The Birth [not the Death] of Tragedy." Nietzsche
believed there were signs of "Heraclitean double motion" (120) that would bring the re-
emergence of the Apollonian and Dionysiac spirit in his lifetime. Certainly all of the
countervailences of modernity were played out in late 19th and early 20th century
literature and art. Alan Bullock captures the ordered efficiency of technology and the
break up of old patterns by juxtaposing two paintings: one of a street scene in London's
banking district; the other of the human form as painted by Picasso (58). In the field of
architecture, Stephen Watson seeks a path between extremes, "a 'universal' space
which might homogeneously combine both the space of the figural and the space of
reason" (85), between poetics and geometries, between the deterministic "principle of
mechanics .. and spontaneity .. freedom ... creativity" (88). The orthodox New
Critic dogma of impersonal poetry as escape from emotion, as espoused by T. S. Eliot,
came face to face with Virginia Woolf's phenomenological idea of human entanglement
with the world. So, while Nietzsche greets the "auspicious signs of .. the gradual
reawakening of the Dionysiac spirit" he simultaneously asks, "How can the petty
intellectualism of our day deal with this monster that has risen out of the infinite
deeps? There is no formula to be found ..." (Birth of Tragedy 119). Is this not one of the
essential questions for Modernity?
Tragedy in Native American Literature
What Nietzsche could not have known was that late in the century of his
death, across the Atlantic, a similar upheaval was taking place. Just as he was
concerned that the voice of tragedy might be lost forever, American Indians, in the
wake of dispossession and depletion, were fearful that their oral traditions would
disappear forever as their communities became more and more fragmented. Some began
to write down the legends and folktales of their tribes, as well as their own personal
narratives. These early pioneers of an emerging American Indian literary tradition
infused their writing with living tragedy.
Zitkala Sa and Mourning Dove
Their writing style is spare not only because of the difficult challenge of
moving from an oral mode of cultural expression to a written form, the dilemma of
which stories to choose, and the problem of translation but also because they seem to
know intuitively that their people's tragedy cannot be explained nor assuaged.
Zitkala Sa (Dakota Sioux) published a collection of legends in 1901 and a collection of
autobiographical essays in 1921. Mourning Dove (Okanogan) is best known for Co-ge-
wea; the Half Blood, the first novel by an Indian woman, published in 1927. She also
wrote a collection of traditional tales that was published in 1933. In both women's
writing, there is a sense of moving between the remembered past and the alien present,
the Indian and white worlds, tradition and changea limenal world in flux.
The influence of the white reading audience upon these early Indian writers
cannot be overlooked because, within the American imagination, Indians have always
been regarded as "exotic," "primitive," or "romantic." The literary forms chosen by
Mourning Dove and Zitkala Sa, namely romance and autobiography, were remarkable
in that they are so far removed from the Indian storytelling tradition. Within the oral
tradition, stories exist to explain the way things are and to record history, and they are
considered to be true because they have been passed from one generation to the next.
Oral storytelling is a communal event; it cannot exist without the dynamic between the
teller and the audience. But writing is individual and isolated. The writer by
necessity stands apart from the subject and comments on it. Writing goes beyond the
domain of the spoken word into a world that must be recreated and contextualized. In
spite of these influences, their stories exhibit unresolved agony, joy in the face of
despair, and a sense of ease with the mystery of life.
The work of Zitkala Sa painfully reveals the isolation of not belonging
anywhere. She was highly suspect by the traditional Sioux people on the reservation
where she had grown up because in their minds, she had abandoned, even betrayed, the
Indian way of life by getting an education in the white man's world. To those at the
Carlisle Indian school where she had taught in 1898-99, on the other hand, she was
anathema because she insisted on remaining "Indian," writing embarrassing articles
such as "Why I Am A Pagan" that flew in the face of the assimilationist thrust of their
education (Wiget, Critical Essays 204). She uses her writing both as an outlet for
personal expression and as a political weapon, which more closely aligns her with
later Indian activists.
Like Zitkala Sa, Mourning Dove was very conscious of the passing of an era and
the disappearance of age-old customs and tradtions. But unlike her predecessor, she
had none of the advantages of education, having barely achieved little more than
three years of formal schooling. Bom in a canoe near Bonner's Ferry, Idaho, in 1888,
Mourning Dove's paternal grandfather was an Irishman who apparently married her
grandmother under false pretenses in order to share her wealth. Mourning Dove based
much of the plot of her novel on the betrayal of Indian women by white men (207).
Continually plagued by poverty, forced to travel with the seasons as a migrant worker,
"Mourning Dove took her battered old typewriter and tried to work after long hours in
the field or orchard" (207). She was courageous enough to be willing to examine her
own times and people, but her greatest obstacle was overcoming suspicionsthose of her
people of anything written, those of the white world of anything written by an Indian.
Consequently, she felt forced to collaborate with Lucullus McWhorter, a white
archaeologist, who "fixed up" her stories and eventually acted as her business
manager. "Unfortunately, he could not stick just with his explanatory footnotes, but
felt compelled to insert into the narrative innumerable didactic passages about the
injustices suffered by Indians that were hardly relevant to the story" (209).
Next in the trajectory is John Joseph Mathews (Osage). Mathews was bom in
1894 of white and Indian heritage. He is part of the "generation of free agents" as
identified by Robert Allen Warrior. He earned a degree in geology at the University of
Oklahoma in 1920 and later attended Oxford University in England where he received
a degree in natural science. He was a flight instructor with the American
Expeditionary Forces in Europe and spent the next few years roaming Europe and North
Africa. He returned to Oklahoma in 1929 and built a secluded cabin on his treaty
allottment of land where he lived and wrote until his death in 1979 (Wiget, Handbook
Tohn Toseph Mathews' Sundown
Sundown is a melding of the Apollonian and Dionysiac principles of art into
what I believe Nietzsche would find to be a brilliant piece of tragedy. It also serves as
one more example of the cross-fertilization possible between literature and philosophy
as the protagonist struggles with the Platonic need to impose order that exists in
tension with the encroachment of internal chaos.
"The god of the great Osages was still dominant over the wild prairie and the
blackjack hills when Challenge was bom" (1). By this reckoning, Mathews'
protagonist was bom before the massacre at Wounded Knee. Challenge (Chal) was
given his name by his father: "He shall be a challenge to the disinheritors of his
people" (4). The challenge turns out to be a spiritual one as the story chronicles his
self-destructive descent into alcoholism, self-hatred, and despair. As in many Native
American novels, the mixed-blood characters highlight the conflict between
traditional Native life and assimilative Anglo dominance. Chal is no exception. His
mixed-blood father represents the period following Wounded Knee when progressive
Indians optimistically believed that the U.S. government would "do only what's fair"
(8). The strain between progressives and "traditionals," mixed-bloods and full-bloods
asserts itself early in the novel.
Chal is deeply affected by his father's determination to make him worthy of
American citizenship while obviously experiencing increasing disillusionment with
the government. His father's efforts take the form of sending Chal to private school
and university, and finally encouraging military service. During these years, Chal
struggles with three emotions that shape him. First, he feels something within that
he can neither contain nor release. Second, he feels failure after every attempt to
conform to "civilized society." Finally, he feels shame whenever he enjoys an "Indian"
Even in childhood, the sounds of naturethe flight of a wild turkey, the howl
of a wolf, the yip of a coyote, the hoot of an owl, the gurgle of a river, the windthat
blended perfectly with the chanting and drums of his people, would cause "some
inscrutable sorrow" to well and flood him, "something that was not understandable and
was mysterious;" he would "cry because there was something in him which seemed to
choke him and which couldn't come out" (44). This desperate longing for something
that he cannot name never leaves him.
One day he removed his saddle when the rain started, undressed, and
raced naked, but even then he felt that he had not got rid of that thing
which was within him.... breaking into an old war song, [he remained]
gripped by this thing within which he couldn't satisfy. ... A great
unhappiness filled him, and for the briefest moment he envied the
coyotes, but he didn't know why.
When his boyhood full-blood friends, Running Elk and Sun-on-His-Wings, join
him at university, he begins to feel rent in two. On the train that takes them to college,
Chal feels repulsion at the sight of the many ugly towns built by whites during the
land rushes ,of the late 19th century. But he keeps this feeling to himself, "so that
nothing would disturb those waters to keep them from reflecting the impression that
ought to be mirrored, if one were to remain in step [with proper Euro-American values]"
(90). The two full-bloods are also silent, but for different reasons. Their expressionless
faces hide their deep suspicion and resentment toward the repugnant white values they
have decided to endure ,in order to play football.
The breaking point for these friends comes during their fraternity initiation in
which the three Osages are called forward to be paddled. Chal steps forward and
allows the white fraternity man to humiliate him. The other two, however, refuse to
submit and leave the next day in disgust (106). Chal "felt a little angry with them,
and with all the others at home because they were so backward . talking and acting"
(112). He sticks it out but finds himself increasingly withdrawn because he is so
worried about appearing uncivilized. He is never able to sustain lighthearted banter
with his fraternity brothers because deeply instilled is his Indian veneration of
silence. "Always he remembered the silence, and though he grew more loquacious as he
learned to say meaningless things, he had a reverence for it as long as he lived; even
when he assumed that veneer which he believed to be civilization" (13). Although his
dark good looks intrigue the young women on campus, his long silences make them
uncomfortable. After every fraternity party or sorority dinner, he returns to his room
alone, certain that he is queer, out of step. He often says to himself, "I wish I didn't
have a drop of God damn Indian blood in my veins" (160).
Perhaps most painful to observe are his attempts to repress any joyful physical
experience or any experience with Nature.
He walked past the buildings of the University, then
out into the road leading toward the river. There was
a tingling in his fingertips as he walked faster, then
suddenly he had an impulse to trot, but before he did
so he looked back to see that no one was in sight, then
he broke into a trot down the road. He felt the cold air
in his face and a fierce kind of well-being came up in
him____Soon he was dodging about and bending low as
he fan. Then he stopped suddenly. He looked around to
see if anyone had seen him.... He sat down, panting
slightly. He felt his face grow hot as he realized that
for the last few minutes he had been imagining himself
a coyote.... Then he said aloud, "I guess I am crazy all
Whether experiencing sexual desire or oneness with Nature, his joy is always followed
by shame and a feeling that "he had somehow1 reverted" (138).
This self-loathing continues during his military service. He often lies about his
origins, explaining his dark skin by saying he is Spanish so as not to scare away white
women. His only respite is when he is flying. "He thought of himself as being
separated by a great abyss from Sun-on-His-Wings and Running Elk, and from the
village with the people moving among the lodges" (208). But Chal must return to the
Osage after his father is killed by white bandits.
The rest of the novel describes his slow surrender to alcoholism. In a drunken
haze, he attends a ceremonial dance in order to impress two white women who are
seeking an exotic experience of "real Indians doing Indian things" (252). The drums pull
him into memory of his childhood. Later, he attends another ceremony and finds
himself beside his old friend, Sun-on-His-Wings, who has become a peyotist. Chal
longs to become a part of what the peyotists call "the Great Frenzy" and takes some of
the hallucinogen. He has to go outside and vomit. His friend joins him and says, "That
is the evil that has come out of your body" (269). Chal is tempted to join the peyotists,
but something within him cannot commit to it.
The next section is so illustrative of the human longing for merger and loss of
boundaries that it must be replicated in its entirety: After an all-night party, Chal
buys some bootleg whiskey, and speeds around the dirt roads until he can no longer
contain the need "to express himself in some bodily action" (296).
Suddenly, he began to dance. He bent low over the grass
and danced, and as he danced he sang, and as he sang one
of the tribal songs of his people, he was fascinated by his
own voice, which seemed clear and sonorous on the still
air. He danced wildly and his blood became hotter, and
yet that terrific emotion which was dammed up in his
body would not come out; that emotion which was dammed
up and could not be expressed. As he danced he wondered
why that emotion which had begun to choke him did not
come out through his throat. He was an Indian now and he
believed that the exit of all spirit and emotion was the
throat, just as the soul came out through the throat after
death. He was in pain and he danced frantically for some
sort of climax; that sense of completeness that consummates
the creative urge; an orgasm of the spirit. But he couldn't
dance fast enough, and his singing lacked the fire to release
his dammed up emotion.The dance became wilder and
suddenly, in his despair, he broke the rhythm of his singing
and yelled, but still his emotion was choked in his body. He
wanted to challenge something; to strut before an enemy. He
wanted by some action or some expression, to express the
whole meaning of life; to declare to the silent world about
him that he was a glorious male; to express to the silent
forms of the blackjacks [like scrub oak] that he was a brother
to the wind, the lightning and the forces that came out of the
Chal finishes the rest of his whiskey and falls asleep on the ground.
I do not believe that it stretches the point too far to say that the constrictions of
reason, autonomy, and the need to be civilized prevent Chal from surrender to the
ecstasy of oneness with the land, with his people's ancient traditions, with the cosmos
of life. Tragically, because his psyche remains deeply divided between the rational
and the intuitive, white and Indian, modem and ancient, the oceanic feelings that
could only emerge through alcohol eventually drown him.
In the final chapters, the novel offers hints at possibilities for healing. The
courage of an old full-blood, Roan Horse, whose unbent dignity stirs great pride in Chal,
creates in him an intense urge to vindicate himself before his mother, "this Indian
woman who could see into a warrior's heart" (310). This urge leads him to think of
returning to flying or going to law school in order to defend his people from exploitation
and disinheritance and, finally, to declare that he will go to Harvard and become "a
great orator" (311). But, in Nietzschean-like tragic form, these alcohol-drenched
musings cannot be sustained in waking life. Each morning, he awakens to the misery of
his inability to render his world manageable, comprehensible, and thus less fearful.
He makes the same promise each day not to drink, then to have only one drink but, by
sundown, he once again seeks the numbness and anesthetization of pain that only
alcohol will bring him. What he could not know, but that Mathews knew, is that there
is dignity in this absolute investment in tragedyand immeasurable vindication.
It would be a mistake to think of Chal as an antihero. Chal has fallen from a
great height, as have his people; thus, the story is the stuff of legendary tragedy. Like
Achilles, his psyche contains too much. The scene in which he dances alone on the
prairie offers him and the reader the chance for catharsis, but it is not to be. His tragic
flaw is his utter powerlessness to be who he truly is, both modem and ancient. Instead
of finding creative truth in the silent chasm that has grown between the two
paradigms, he sees only a terrifying and empty abyss, the sight of which he indeed
shrinks from. He is unable to embrace either his Native or his white self, he is unable
to be at home in the world. His mother's vision of him as a warrior gives us a glimpse
of the man he might be, and our growing resignation to his defeat contributes to the
tragedy. The novel gives us no assurance that Native people will recover that which
has been lost, or that they will find a new place in the world, or indeed that they will
even survive. Mathews, like Nietzsche, refused to see history as progress. Neither
did he view history as an abstract ideal. There is no looking for closure here, nor
revenge, nor judgment This hovel is situated in history; it is situated in place.
For many observers of modernity, Nietzsche's expose of art and philosophy
contributed to nihilism and what Martin Heidegger called an age of "ungrounded
truth." In Europe, along with the emulations in America, art became skeptical, ironic,
formal, self-enclosed, and sterile. For example, Native poet and critic Paula Gunn
Allen (Laguna Pueblo) postulates that T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" (1944) tries to enter a
state of timelessness but accomplishes this only intellectually. She says, "This [poem]
makes you contemplate, or makes you reflect, but it does not make you dance. And what
an Indian knows is that when you are in that mythic space, you dance [italics in
Heidegger also recognized the fact that modem technology was perpetuating
the Platonist tendency to think of Nature as mere material for the use of human beings.
He was also aware that Nietzsche's "death of God" had left a vacuum of
meaninglessness. It was his belief, in fact, that even Nietzsche did not escape the
nihilism of modernity. So he started over by turning his attention to the meaning of
Heidegger: The Nothing. Being, and Language
The world's darkening never reaches
to the light of Being.
We are too late for the gods and too
early for Being. Being's poem,
just begun, is man.
To head toward a star~this only.
ToThink is to confine yourself to a
single thought that one day stands
still like a star in the world's sky.
"The Thinker as Poet"
The question of being became Heidegger's guiding question; not what makes
something what it is in order to establish its usefulness to man and over which man may
then have dominion, but what it is to be at all. He recognized that the objective world
includes subjective interpretation, but he also recognized that there are limits to the
subjectivity one can bring to the object and still have an object. For Heidegger, any
understanding that human being (Dasein) has of Being (Ground of Existence) is a pre-
understanding that has already been lostinto infinity. We are thus isolated
individuals in a state of "thrownness," thrown into a world not of our making, always
trying to retrieve that which was lost. This quest is by its very nature absurd.
Authenticity, however, is barely possible. Barely, because even it
entails the embracing of dread. Dread is the anxiety caused by the realization that our
personal death is the only thing that is truly ours. Authenticity also requires
conscience. While we cannot choose the world into which we are thrown, we can choose
our actions. Finally, for authenticity, we must realize that our individual life is
situated in history, that our fate is inextricably connected to the fate of others.
Significantly, for our purposes, Heidegger was convinced that authenticity was being
destroyed by modernity's fragmentation into technology, "machine science," and
With modernity ... "knowing" is construed as
essentially a "representing," and therefore "being" as a
kind of result of such attempts to represent and secure
one's representing. We understand ourselves as
"picturing" the world, and the world as whatever can
be successfully pictured by us. And so the "fundamental
event of the modem age is the conquest of the world as
(qtd. in Pippin 119)
In the process, Heidegger felt that art had moved "'into the purview of aesthetics,"'
and had become "the object of a merely 'subjective' experience"(Pippin 119).
Like Nietzsche, Heidegger admired the pre-Socratics for their truly
ontological questions in the face of Being. But these "true thinkers" were followed by
Plato. Plato distracted thought away from Being and led it into contemplation of an
artificial idealistic world of Forms. Likewise, modernity's technological revolution
had distracted human beings to the point that Being was altogether forgotten.
Heidegger calls us "back to a remembrance of Being," to a primordial astonishment in
its presence. In so saying, he has been accused of nostalgic primitivism. In any case, as
the translator of Poetry. Language. Thought observes, Heidegger is calling us away
from the "thin abstractions of representational thinking and the stratospheric
constructions of scientific theorizing, and toward the full concreteness, the onefoldness
of the manifold, of actual life-experience" (xvii).
Heidegger later turned to language as "the house of Being," not that humans
speak language but that language speaks itself through humans. He began to see poets,
not philosophers or scientists, as the true custodians of Being. As in Nietzsche, the
Platonic hierarchy of modernity is inverted. It is the artists, not the scientists, who
come closer to Truth. Eventually, for Heidegger, even poetic language gives way to
poetic silence-the silence between the words as art grows out of human subjectivity
(daseiri), reaches into Being, and brings into being something new. Art then can function
as the "homeland" that he felt mass culture was destroying. He strongly felt that
beauty and truth must not be the mere instrumentalities that modernity was making of
This nuance of being at home in the world, "dwelling" in the sense of pausing,
lingering, even brooding, captures something profoundly absent, and longed for, within
the modem psyche. For Heidegger, the world is not some spatial object like the things
it contains; it is already caught up in a vast, sprawling web of elements that is
foregrounded against some horizon that is never entirely fixable by our gaze.
in order to find something beautiful we must let what
encounters us, purely as it is in itself, come before us in
its own stature and worth ... We must freely grant to
what encounters us as such its way to be; we must allow
and bestow upon it what belongs to it and what belongs
(qtd. in Eagleton 292)
There is something collaborative in this statement that recognizes an interdependence
between dasein (human subjectivity) and the world. The extent to which objects are
independent of dasein reflects the extent to which Being is constituting them; the extent
to which the world desires to be known by dasein and the extent to which dasein is open
to the world reflects the extent to which we will be at home in the world. It is by
means of such resolute openness that We are said "to find ourselves particularly attuned
to beings which we are not and to the being which we are" (qtd in Pippin 127).
Therefore, in his essay entitled "Building Dwelling Thinking," Heidegger writes, "We
come back to ourselves from things without ever abandoning [italics in original] our stay
among things" (152). Indeed, he characterizes the emotional depression of his age as a
loss of rapport with "things."
Heidegger loved a phrase from the German poet, Holderlin; "poetically man
dwells." In his essay of the same name, Heidegger gives us a fuller explication of the
poem and what it means to truly dwell in the world through "poetic creation," not the
erection of buildings. But because art had, in modernity, become the purview of mere
good taste, poetry was deemed not practical or useful. One sought the poetic when one
wanted to be snatched away from the Earth. But the full stanza says, "Full of merit,
yet poetically, man / Dwells on this earth." Heidegger maintains that "Poetry does
not fly above and surmount the earth in order to escape it and hover over it. Poetry is
what first brings man onto the earth, making him belong to it, and thus brings him into
dwelling" (218). The poetic is man's natural state, yet modernity on the face of it belies
such a notion. Notwithstanding, Heidegger insists that we experience the absence of
the poetic by very reason of the fact that we are by nature endowed with it, just as the
blind man is "by nature endowed with sight.... Thus it might be that our unpoetic
dwelling, its incapacity to take the measure, derives from a curious excess of frantic
measuring and calculating" (228).
Language is not a mere tool, one of the many which man
possesses; on the contrary, it is only language that affords
the very possibility of standing in the openness of the
existent. Only where there is language, is there world. . .
Only where world predominates, is there history.
There is a hint of something new here, something that suggests that the isolation of
human subjectivity could give way to the collective conversation. The artist then must
engage in what he called ein andenkendes Denken, a thinking that memorializes and
responds to Being.
Heidegger finds in the poet's words (Stefan Georg),"Where word breaks off, no
thing may be," a suggestion of how language creates the world in which we live. If
language is creation through linguistic acts, then the paradoxical question is raised as
to whether language names or creates reality. But he is not playing an etymological
language game here. If we consider what he has to say about the "thinging of things"
whether it be the jug in "The Thing," the bridge in "Building Dwelling Thinking," or
the house in "Language"we see that he is seeking authenticity as a forgotten way of
living in the world; a way that gathers and stays and acknowledges and responds to
other mortals, to earth and sky, plants and animals, even to divinities whether present
or absent. (Nietzsche, too, had said that the soul, in its "urge to freedom," in its
striving to become more than itself, in its quest for pure expansion, must have moments
of stabilization during which it "gathers itself.") Although the feeling of
helplessness will be with us always, since these entities have being apart from human
being and human will, through language we perhaps may speak to the being of all
these beings and respond to it in a mortal way that speaks of what it hears.
But Heidegger's words also indicate a presence between words, an absence that
is a presence if you will, like the blind man's absent sight, a constitutive lack that
Jacques Derrida will make use of and that will be addressed later in this discussion.
Nietzsche had asked, "What if in truth the nothing were indeed not a being but also
were not simply null?" In "Language," Heidegger states that "Language itself is
language and nothing else besides. Language itself is language" (190). And he is
indifferent to the accusation that this statement is a tautology, getting us nowhere.
"But we do not want to get anywhere. We would like only, for once, to get to just where
we are already" (190). As further indication of a presence between words, he goes on to
admit that language may be an abyss that is not empty.
If we let ourselves fall into the abyss denoted by this
sentence [that language is language], we do not go
tumbling into emptiness^ We fall upward, to a height.
Its loftiness opens up a depth. The two span a realm in
which we would like to become at home, so as to find a
residence, a dwelling place for the life of man.
For Heidegger, the purpose of art is to articulate the experience of the
"originary" as absence, or non-being, but not as null. "Man has hardly yet pondered the
mystery of this process. Language withdraws from man its simple and high speech. But
its primal call does not thereby become incapable of speech; it merely falls silent"
("Building"148). It is the function of the authentic mortal and especially of the artist,
then, to hear and respond to the presence within the silence. This hearing and
responding is something he refers to as "calling." So the apparent conundrum of
whether language names or creates reality is no conundrum at all. For,
naming calls. Calling brings closer what it calls. . Thus
it brings the presence of what was previously uncalled
into a nearness. But the call, in calling it here, has
already called out to what it calls. Where to? Into the
distance in which what is called remains, still absent.
One of the characteristics of modern writers is their struggle with the sense
that something essential and vital in language has gone. W.B. Yeats expressed it this
way in "The Nineteenth Century and After."
Though the great song return no more
There's been delight in what we have:
The rattle of pebbles on the shore
Under the receding wave.
There is an impression of clinging to the few fragments of remaining beauty as a hedge
against the prevailing boredom and despair that characterizes much of modem art.
The modem time is therefore, in this sense, a destitute time.
But I believe Heidegger is calling for the artist to listen to the silence as the
way that Being presences in the world and to think about the essence of that silence.
Therefore, his metaphysics is not one of knowing but of thinking. Again, "poetically
man dwells," so the language by which the artist speaks what s/he hears in the silence
is poetic language that "unconceals." Poetry is the saying of truth because "it bids all
that is~world and things, earth and sky, divinities and mortals~to come, gathering
into the simple onefold of their intimate belonging together" (206). This "experience of
thinking" results therefore in a poetry that says and means more than it speaks.
All our heart's courage is the
echoing response to the
first call of Being which
gathers our thinking into the
play of the world.
In thinking all things
become solitary and slow.
Patience nurtures magnanimity.
He who thinks greatly must
"The Thinker as Poet"
N. Scott Momadav's The Man Made of Words
This notion of language saying and meaning more than it speaks is strikingly
illustrated in theKiowa story of "The Arrowmaker" as told by Momaday in The Man
Made of Words.
Once there was a man and his wife. They were alone at
night in their tepee. By the light of a fire the man was
making arrows. After a while he caught sight of something.
There was a small opening in the tepee where two hides
had been sewn together. Someone was there on the outside,
looking in. The man went on with his work, but he said to
his wife, "Someone is standing outside. Do not be afraid.
Let us talk easily, as of ordinary things." He took up an
arrow and straightened it in his teeth; then, as it was
right for him to do, he drew it to the bow and took aim,
first in this direchon and then in that. And all the while
he was talking, as if to his wife. But this is how he spoke:
"I know that you are there on the outside, for I can feel your
eyes upon me. If. you are a Kiowa, you will understand what
I am saying, and you will speak your name." But there was
no answer, and the man went on in the same way, pointing
the arrow all around. At last his aim fell upon the place
where his enemy stood, and he let go of the string. The arrow
went straight to the enemy's heart.
This story is about language, after all. It is in language that the arrowmaker
places his faith, within language that the arrowmaker's life hangs in the balance.
N. Scott Momaday tells us that language involves sacred matter.
The arrowmaker is preeminently the man made of words.
He has consummate being in language; it is the world of his
origin and of his posterity, and there is no other. But it is a
world of definite reality and of infinite possibility. . .
We can imagine him, and he imagines himself, whole and
vital, going on into the unknown darkness and beyond....
We know very little about him, except that in the story is
his presence and his mask. . For the storyteller, for the
arrowmaker, language does indeed represent the only
chance for survival. It is appropriate that he survives in
our time and that he has survived over a period of untold
The survival of this and other stories of language is significant because, until
recently, they were part of pure oral tradition and therefore "neither more nor less
durable than the human voice" (84). There is a great silence that dwells between the
great oral tradition and the more recent literary one. It is a silence that we are only
beginning to hear and respond to.
It is easier to hear the silence in oral literature, for the words are more rare.
Momaday asserts that because writing has enabled us to store vast quantities of words
indefinitely, it encourages us to take words for granted. "And we have become in
proportion insensitive to silence" (15). .
In the Indian world, a word is spoken or a song is sung not
against, but within the silence. In the telling of a story, there
are silences in which words are anticipated or held on to,
heard to echo in the still depths of the imagination. In the
oral tradition, silence is the sanctuary of sound.Words are
wholly alive in the hold of silence; there they are sacred.
Heidegger, to my knowledge, did not differentiate in hierarchical fashion
between spoken and written language when he extolled the poetic. To be sure,
Momaday acknowledges that all the stories of all the world proceed from the moment
when man makes his mark, when he "fixes the wonderful image in his mind's eye to a
wall or rock" (13). But we should not forget that oral tradition is the foundation of
literature, "a continuum of language that goes back thousands of years before the
printing press-back to the times of originan indigenous expression, an utterance that
proceeds from the very intelligence of the soil" (85).
Clearly, Momaday, like Heidegger, is concerned with authenticity and
originary experience. The old Indians held to a conviction that the Earth is vital and
vitalizing to its inhabitants, that there is a spiritual dimension to it, a dimension to
which man rightly belongs. So Momaday would agree with Heidegger that the poet
does not snatch us away from the Earth; no, s/he reminds us of our relationship to it. "I
shall celebrate my life in the world and the world in my life. In the natural order man
invests himself in the landscape and at the same time incorporates the landscape into
his own most fundamental experience. This trust is sacred" (39). And, to be valid it
seems, that experience must be expressed in words.
Momaday is interested in the way a person looks at a given landscape and
"takes possession of it in his blood and brain" (47). Likewise, Heidegger refers to "the
upward glance [that] spans the between of sky and earth. This between is measured out
for the dwelling of man---Man's dwelling depends on an upward-looking measure-
taking of the dimension, in which the sky belongs just as much as the earth"
("Poetically" 220). Momaday illustrates the concept this way:
One hundred centuries ago. There is a wide, irregular
landscape in what is now northern New Mexico. The sun is a
dull white disk, low in the south; it is a perfect mystery, a
deity whose coming and going are inexorable. The gray sky
is curdled, and it bears very close upon the earth. A cold
wind rims along the ground, dips and spins, flaking drift
from a pond in the bottom of a ravine. Beyond the wind
the silence is acute. A man crouches in the ravine, in the
darkness there, scarcely visible. He moves not a muscle;
only the wind lifts a lock of his hair and lays it back along
his neck. He wears skins and carries a spear. These things
in particular mark his human intelligence and distinguish
him as the lord of the universe. And for him the universe is
especially this [italics in originaljlandscape; for him the
landscape is an element like the air. The vast, virgin
wilderness is by and large his whole context. For him there
is no possibility of existence elsewhere.
Heidegger knew that modernity was making this relationship with the land
more and more remote. Therefore, he devoted much of his essay on language to the
explication of a poem by the Swiss poet Georg Trakl entitled "A Winter Evening." The
poem is not responding to the high plains of North America or the vast deserts of the
Southwest; it speaks from the view of a window dressed with falling snow and a
threshold "turned to stone by pain" ("Language" 201) But in the explication, we get an
idea of why it is now necessary for us to "call" the world to us. Confined as modem
humanity is to buildings, we can perhaps understand how we and the world meet at the
window sill or the threshold of a doorway. "World and things do not subsist alongside
one another. They penetrate each other. Thus the two traverse a middle. In it, they are
at one" (202).
It is in this essay that Heidegger first uses the term "dif-ference," the term
that Derrida will later play with. Whether a crouching man with a spear, a child at
a window, or a woman standing in a doorwayit is at that middle point, where we are
most intimately connected with the world and are yet completely distinct from it, that
human being dwells. "The primal calling, which bids the intimacy of world and thing
to come, is the authentic [italics mine] bidding. This bidding is the nature of speaking.
Speaking occurs in what is spoken in the poem. It is the speaking of language. Language
speaks" (206). And whether shaman, singer, or storytellerall are poets. And it is the
poet who bids the world to the dif-ference, who listens to the stillness, lays his voice
upon it, whether in speech or writing, and responds. Then s/he is at home.
Finally, Momaday also fingers the puzzle of whether language names or
creates reality. He gives us an old Pawnee war song:
Let us see, is this real,
Let us see, is this real,
Let us see, is this real,
This life I am living?
Ye gods, who dwell everywhere,
Let us see, is this real,
This life I am living.
As in the story of the arrowmaker, for the warrior about to enter into battle
with his enemy, an individual life and his language are one entity; when one hangs in
the balance, so does the other. "The whole formula underscores the quality of life, yet
the attitude toward life itself is uncompromisingly rational, the pose nearly
indifferent, nearly haughty."
Consider this from the Sioux:
even the eagle dies
Concentrated and beautiful, it is a nearly perfect formula.
There is only the mysterious equation of soldiers and flight
on the one hand and the eagle and death on the othera
profound equation in which the eternal elements of life and
death and fear are defined in terms of freedom and courage
and nobility. One might well brood upon the death of eagles.
Momaday is alert to the risk inherent in languageof being misunderstood, of
misconstruing, of shattering the stillness, of inauthenticity. If man is to be
distinguished from other creatures, it is in this possibility.
I played at words. / It was a long season. / Soft syllables, / /
Images that shimmered, / Intricate etymologies. // They
cohered in wonder. / I was enchanted. // My soul was at risk. /
I struggled / Towards hurt, / Towards healing, / Towards
passion, / Towairds peace. // I wheeled in the shadow of a
hawk. / Dizziness came upon me; / The turns of time confined
and confounded me.
Trakl says, "Pain has turned the threshold to stone" ("Language" 203).
Heidegger says, "The seam that binds their being toward one another is pain" (204).
You see, I am alive, I am alive
I stand in good relation to the earth
I stand in good relation to the gods
I stand in good relation to all that is beautiful
I stand in good relation to the daughter of Tsen-tainte
You see, I am alive, I am alive.
N. Scott Momadav's House Made of Dawn
The story contained in this work spans the years from 1945 to 1952, the years
previously identified by Warrior as "a generation of free agents" (14). This was a time,
due to the trauma to the U.S. national psyche brought on by Pearl Harbor, the
Holocaust, and World War II, when concern for Native issues had declined to the point
of non-existence. Many Native American men fought in that war and witnessed its
horrors as surely as did other American men. But, unlike most American men, these men
came home to poverty and isolation. The old ways seemed forever lost, barely a
memory, and memory was beset by queasy visions of the revulsion of war fought on land
where they could not find their footing. And the promises of modernity? Even the most
devout believers now doubted them. Disillusion was the prevailing mood. It is fitting
then that this novel is permeated by the loneliness of a solitary man. Running.
Dypaloh. There was a house made of dawn. It was
made of pollen and of rain, and the land was very old and
everlasting. There were many colors on the hills, and the
plain was bright with different-colored clays and sands.
Red and blue and spotted horses grazed in the plain, and
there was a dark wilderness on the mountains beyond. The
land was still and strong. It was beautiful all around.
Abel was running. He was alone and running, hard
at first, heavily, but then easily and well.
It would not be incorrect to say that this beginning foreshadows the end of
Momaday's Pulitzer Prize winning novel. For it ends thus:
He was running, and his body cracked open with pain, and
he was running on. He was running and there was no reason
to run but the running itself and the land and the dawn
appearing---He was alone and running on____He could
see the canyon and the mountains and the sky. He could
see the rain and the river and the fields beyond. He could
see the dark hills at dawn. He was running, and under his
breath he began to sing. There was no sound, and he had no
voice; he had only the words of a song. And he went running
on the rise of the song. House made of pollen, house made
of dawn. Qtsedaba. [italics in original]
But it would be more correct to say that there is no beginning and no end to this
novel. That is the reason for the words, "Dypaloh" and "Qtsedaba." Although Kiowa,
Momaday lived for many years in New Mexico among the Jemez Pueblo. These words
are Jemez Pueblo words. They indicate an opening into and out of the circle of life. For
Momaday, the words are a literary device that facilitates for the writer and the
reader an entry into and a departure from Abel's (Spanish pronunciation, Ah-bel) story.
Even that statement is misleading, for this is much more than Abel's story. It is an
Indian story, a hero's story, a modem story.
It would not be incorrect to say that the construction of the novel is circular--a
ring composition-like Homer's Iliad. But it would be more correct to say that the novel
is constructed in ritual forma ritual of reconnection. It is not a sentimental story, not a
nostalgic story, not a denial of the present. For an Indian, the past is always present,
fluid and eternal. There are four narratives in the novel, and they do not always fit in
a facile manner. In addition, the story is achronological. Paula Gunn Allen says that
conventional chronological narrative can only be a sad story for Indians. "And what
you're going to have, when an Indian writes a chronological tale, is a tale of
colonization and death. That's what's going to happen. Nothing else can happen to an
Indian in a chronological time frame" (MELUS 19). Thinking, telling the world as
chronological, historical progression is for the Indian akin to Heidegger's notion of
"picturing," "representing" the world. It is not being with the world.
Many critics have mistaken the running motif of the novel for escapethe
alienated hero running from the past, his people, himself. But Abel is not running from
anything, nor is he running toward anything. The escape motif of the modem novel
cannot be applied to Momaday's work. The Native holistic view of the world
precludes this kind of interpretation; when everything is viewed as part of a whole,
there is no possibility or need for escape. No, the running is a ritual of reconnection to
the land and to language. For Abel's alienation consists not in the loss of mother and
grandfather, not even in alcoholism; it consists in the loss of community and culture,
land and language. Abel's long detour into the white world of modernity has
disconnected him from what it means to be with the world.
When Abel returns to the pueblo after the war, he discovers that he has been
He could not say the things he wanted; he had tried to
pray, to sing, to enter into the old rhythm of the tongue,
but he was no longer attuned to it. And yet it was there
still, like memory ... Had he been able to say it,
anything of his own language ... would once again have
shown him whole to himself; but he was dumb. Not dumb
-silence was the older and better part of custom still
but inarticulate [italics in original].
So Abel stumbles over his native tongue, and his English will not take him where he so
desperately needs to go, into.the healing ceremonies. He cannot pray correctly; he
cannot express his anguish. In Heidegger's words, Abel is unable to "call" the world to
himself. Abel is not alone and silent; he is lonely and voiceless.
Momaday has written extensively, and we have alluded to it here, about the
risk of distortion and loss of truth value in language. His "Priest of the Sim" character,
Tosamah, preaches about the writer of the New Testament Book of John, "Old John was
a white man, and the white man has his ways. ... He talks about the Word. He talks
through it and around it. .. He adds and divides and multiplies the Word. And in all
of this he subtracts tire Truth" (93). Many critics have interpreted Tosamah's words as
a way for Momaday to attack white culture. I find in them, not racial commentary, but
an affinity to Heidegger's recognition of modernity's destitution of language. "An
Indian is an idea which a given man has of himself" (Words 97). "Man has consummate
being in language, and there only. The state of human being [italics in original] is an
idea, an idea which man has of himself. Only when he is embodied in an idea, and the
idea is realized in language, can man take possession of himself" (104).
There is a powerful moment of epiphany for Abel at about the midpoint of the
novel that calls to mind the epiphany of Joyce's Stephen, Eliot's Prufrock, and
Mathews' Chal. Like Stephen, Abel is on a beach. But rather than having been
spiritually abused by the Church, Abel has been beaten by a sadistic police officer. In
his broken and delirious state, Abel sees men running toward him.
The runners after evil ran as water rims, deep in the channel,
in the way of least resistance, no resistance. His skin
crawled with excitement; he was overcome with longing and
loneliness, for suddenly he saw the crucial sense in their
going, of old men in white leggings running after
evil in the night. They were whole and indispensable in
what they did; everything in creation referred to them.
Because of them, perspective, proportion, design in the
universe. Meaning because of them. They ran with great
dignity and calm, not in the hope of anything, but
hopelessly; neither in fear nor hatred nor despair of evil,
but simply in recognition and with respect. Evil was.
This "running after evil" recalls the many running rituals of Indian people, but
particularly one of the Navajo, among whom Momaday also lived~"Chantways," in
which men run through irrigation ditches to protect the harvest by running toward that
which would destroy it. The vision speaks to Abel as a way to reconnect with his
people, his salvation. The key is to run hopelesslywithout resistanceritually. He
is finally able to name his anguish.
He had lost his place. He had been long ago at the center,
had known where he was, had lost his way, had
wandered to the end of the earth, was even now reeling on
the edge of the void. The sea reached and leaned, licked
after him and withdrew, falling off forever in the abyss.
So many critics have found this to be a novel of despair, defeat, even suicide.
But Abel's running in the prologue and in the conclusion is the same, as is the running of
the old men in his vision. There is magic taking place here, and healing. Abel recalls
his earlier running. "He had loved his body. It had been hard and quick and beautiful;
it had been useful, quickly and surely responsive to his mind and will" (100). Later, as
he runs, his body is broken and in tremendous pain, but he presses on until "he could see
at last without having to think." He no longer has Ore voice to sing the ritual chant,
but he has the words. "House made of pollen, hpuse made of dawn." The words have
reconnected him to the universe, and he is no longer lonely.
This house made of pollen, made of dawn, is clearly not a building nor an
architectural idea; it is an ephemeral dwelling. "To dwell, to be set at peace, means to
remain at peace within the free, the preserve, the free sphere that safeguards each
thing in its nature" (Heidegger, "Building" 149). Heidegger goes on to note that
human being consists in dwelling and, indeed, dwelling in
the sense of the stay of mortals on the earth. .. under the
sky .. remaining before the divinities .. belonging to
men's being with one another. By a primal [italics in
original] oneness the four-earth and sky, divinities and
mortalsbelong together in one.
Those who have interpreted Abel's running as suicidal have missed the fact that
Momaday would have understood Heidegger's conviction that "To initiate mortals into
the nature of death in no way means to make death, as empty Nothing, the goal. Nor
does it mean to darken dwelling by blindly staring toward the end... Rather,
dwelling itself is always a staying with things" (151). Abel's running is his staying
with the earth and sky, divinities and mortalsand with language. Yes, he has been
unvoiced, but he has the words, and he has the silence between them.
Tacques Derrida: Tracking the Trace
It is precisely this silence that Derrida is tracking. "Let us be more precise
here. In order to dislodge the 'trace' from its cover (and whoever believes that one
tracks down some thing? [italics in original] one tracks down tracks) (158).
For the better part of Derrida's essay, "Differance," he does a lot of punning; he
playfully deconstructs the French word, differer which, in French, means "to differ" but
also means "to defer." By intentionally misspelling the word (substituting an "a" for
the "e"), he causes confusion because, again in French, the sound will remain the same.
All of this may be a bit lost on English speakers. Regardless, his point should not be
entirely missed, since in English as well, almost all words have multiple meanings.
Derrida is saying more than that, however; he is saying that the meaning of words is
found in their difference from other words. Thus, by changing one letter in the word,
the word "can no longer be understood according to the concept of 'sign.'... We
ordinarily say that a sign is put in place of the thing itself, the present thing. . Signs
represent the present in its absence ... when we cannot take hold of and show the
thing" (138). However, in this case, "differance is neither a word nor a concept" (135).
Then is it a sign signifying nothing? Exactly so. But not nothing as null.
Derrida begins to veer toward existentialism by citing Nietzsche. "Is not the
whole thought of Nietzsche a critique of philosophy as active indifference to
difference, as a system of reduction?" (148). And, of course, we must not forget that
Nietzsche once mocked Descartes by accusing him of being duped by grammar, by failing
to carry through his method of doubt by failing to doubt his own Western subject-
predicate culture. Thus differance starts to take oh some kind of meaning "as the
diverted and equivocal passage from one difference to another"(148) and as the "trace"
of something. Then, by referring to Heidegger's difference between Being and being,
Derrida begins to give us an idea of what he is up to. As we have seen, for Heidegger,
any understanding that being has of Being is a pre-understanding that has been lost into
infinityalways already~and dasein is always trying to retrieve it. For Derrida,
every presence of meaning or of being ("being" can only present itself in the context of
"meaning") is an absence, and every absence is a presence. Dijferance, then, may be
something akin to the "trace" of the difference between Being and being "now forgotten
by metaphysics" (155). Derrida takes it a step further by stating that even the trace
has "sunk from sight" so that we are dealing with the "disappearance of the trace's
Just as Heidegger came to place more and more emphasis on the silence between
words, Derrida asserted that, while there will always be a system or structure to
language, it is not a closed system. There are always spaces in play. And the system
never captures the Trace, the Nothing, the Dijferance. Hence, Derrida's method of
continually deconstructing the text in order to find what is lurking in the spacesor
what may have been silenced. But, as Nietzsche has taught us, we fill the spaces (the
absence) so that we can proceed, and we often mistake the filling for Truth (Presence).
The trace points to an absence, but once we articulate and name it, we shape and limit
But we "already know" that if it is unnamable, this is not
simply provisional; it is not because our language has still
not found or received this name ... It is because there is no
name for this ... It must be conceived without nostalgia ...
On the contrary, we must affirmin the sense that
Nietzsche brings affirmation into playwith a certain
laughter and with a certain dance [all italics in original].
I surmise, therefore, that we must track itthe dijferance, the absence of
Presence, the none, the Nothing, the Tracewithout nostalgia as well. Momaday
To see nothing at all, nothing in the absolute. . That was
to be free and finished, complete, spiritual. ... To say
"beyond the mountain," and to mean it, to mean, simply,
beyond everything for which the mountain stands, of
which it signifies the being. . And there, just there, that
[italics in original] was the last reality,
There is no nostalgia here. Derrida reminds us that Heidegger said, "'What is
hazarded here, however, is not something impossible, because Being speaks through
every language; everywhere and always'" (160).
Derrida forcefully rejects the notion of private understanding. "In monologue,
nothing is communicated" (49). And he likes to quote Norman Malcolm: "'Only in the
stream of life does an expression have meaning"' (xxii). He lauds "living speech" as
the best way to preserve "living presence in all its forms" and also acknowledges the
"spirituality of the breath" (10).
For it is not in the sonorous substance or in the physical
voice, in the body of speech in the world, that he will
recognize an original affinity with the logos in general,
but in the voice phenomenologically taken, speech in its
transcendental flesh, in the breath, the intentional
animation that transforms the body of the word into
flesh ... what one accords to the voice is accorded to the
language of words [italics in original].
"Is it not language itself that might seem to unify life and ideality?" (10).
Louise Erdrich's Tracks
I know of no finer literary rendition of this tracking the trace of the trace, this
futile yet inexorable seeking of what is already lost than this story by Louise Erdrich
(Ojibwe) that she herself says "comes up different every time and has no ending."
Tracks has two narrators, neither of whom is objectively reliable, yet
subjectively, completely so; for their view of Fleur (and the novel is about nothing if it
is not about Fleur) emanates from love and hate. The story could simplistically be re-
named "The Warrior, the Trickster, and the Enemy." It is set in North Dakota in the
years spanning 1912 and 1924, the period previously identified by Robert Allen Warrior
as "Assimilationism and Apocalypticism," both of which are compelling forces in the
narrative. Set in a historical moment, the pressure to become "civilized" and educated
landowners collides with Native pride, gnawing physical hunger, and betrayal. The
characters are living out the realities of the Dawes Act of 1887 which, we will recall,
"allowed" Indians to "own" the property that had been freely theirs for centuries, so
long as they could raise the purchase price and pay the taxes. Like so many, the
Chippewa at Matchimanito~the Pillagers, the Kashpaws, the Morrisseysmust
choose between famine and taxes as the lumber company circles their land like hungry
hyenas who have cut a she-lion from her pride.
The presence of both ancient and modem is immediately evident in the way the
story is marked in time by seasons and datesin the old way ("Manitou-geezisohns,
Little Spirit Sun" to "Minomini-geezis, Wild Rice Sun") and in the modem way
(Winter 1912 to Fall 1919-Spring 1924). Throughout, old Nanapush talks to his
granddaughter, Lulu, making sure that she knows her family history, including the
unfolding of the "Pillager myth" that her mother, Fleur, embodies. The haunting
opening words must be read in their entirety:
We started dying before the snow, and like the
snow, we continued to fall. It was surprising there were
so many of us left to die. For those who survived the
spotted sickness from the south, our long fight west to
Nadouissioux land where we signed the treaty, and then
a wind from the east, bringing exile in a storm of
government papers, what descended from the north in
1912 seemed impossible.
By then, we thought disaster must surely have
spent its force, that disease must have claimed all of the
Anishinabe that the earth could hold and bury.
But the earth is limitless and so is luck and so
were our people once. Granddaughter, you are the child
of the invisible, the ones who disappeared when, along
with the first bitter punishments of early winter, a new
sickness swept down. The consumption, it was called ...
Our tribe unraveled like a coarse rope, frayed at either
end as the old and new among us were taken....
My girl, I saw the passing of times ... I guided the
last buffalo hunt. I saw the last bear shot, I trapped the
last beaver ... I spoke aloud the words of the government
treaty, and refused to sign the settlement papers ... I axed
the last birch . and I saved the last Pillager.
Fleur, the one you will not call mother....
They say the unrest and curse ... was the doing of
dissatisfied spirits. I know what's fact... Our trouble
came from living, from liquor and the dollar bill. We
stumbled toward the government bait, never looking down,
never noticing how the land was snatched from under us at
The myth involves the three drownings of Fleur by Misshepeshu, the "love
hungry" water monster who seduces her and kills anyone who saves her. The myth is a
source of power for Fleur but a source of fear for the tribe. So when it becomes clear that
they are impotent against the white encroachment onto their land, Fleur, who lives
alone and apart and "messes.with evil, studying half-forgotten medicine," (12) is the
The other narrator is Pauline, the mixed-blood who personifies the tribal split.
But more than that, she serves as the carrier of destruction caused by hatred. Like
Chal in Sundown. Pauline has learned to hate the Indians around herespecially
Fleur, the consummate warriorand the Native in herself. Her hatred for Indians is a
modem mask for her hatred of sexuality, of the Earth, of woman. She will be the
catalyst not only for the ruin of Fleur and the decimation of the tribe, but she will also
herself descend into religious madness. We watch in disgust as she heaps physical
punishment on herself in her fevered pursuit of Christian salvation and whiteness. But
always there is Fleur, silently taunting her and carrying herself with fierce insolence
even when near starvation. In the following scene, Pauline's apocalyptic fanaticism
verges on the hysteria that it will become.
One night of deepest cold He [Christ] sat in the
moonlight, on the stove, and looked down at me and
smiled in the spill of His radiance and explained. He
said that I was not whom I had supposed. I was an
orphan and my parents had died in grace, and also,
despite my deceptive features, I was not one speck of
Indian but wholly white. . He had an important plan
for me, for which I must prepare, that I should find out
the habits and hiding places of His enemy. ... I should
not turn my back on Indians. I should go out among them,
be still, and listen. There was a devil in the land, a
shadow in the water, an apparition that filled their
sight. There was no room for Him to dwell in so much
as a crevice of their minds. . !
I did not tell Superior,.. but waited for the light,
for the next instruction by His lips, as to what I should do
She was the one who closed the door or swung it
open. Between the people and the goid-eyed creature in
the lake,.. Fleur was the hinge.. .. Our Lord had
obviously made the whites more shrewd, as they grew
in number, all around, some even owning automobiles, while
the Indians receded and coughed to death and drank....
There would have to come atuming, a gathering, another
door. And it would be Pauline who opened it... Not Fleur
There is much that could be said about the nature of power in this work. Fleur's
power comes from her love of the landscape. But by setting herself unbendingly against
the white world and against any of her own people who sell their landwhether it be
for survival or assimilationshe has rigidly internalized her power, individualized
it, placed herself in an isolated vacuum. Her proudly defiant counterstance has locked
her into mortal combat; her reaction has limited her, made her dependent upon, what
she is reacting against. Nanapush observes,
I saw the barrier of her obstinate pride had kept my words
safely beyond belief. In her mind she was huge, she was
endless. There was no room for the failures of anyone else.
At the same time, she was a funnel of our history. As the
lone survivor of the Pillagers, she staggered now beneath
the burden of a life she was failing to deserve.
Ultimately, her power deserts her.
By contrast, Nanapush's power is fluid. He wisely says, "Power dies, power
goes under and gutters out, ungraspable. It is momentary, quick of flight and liable to
deceive. As soon as you rely on the possession it is gone. Forget that it ever existed, and
it returns. I never made the mistake of thinking that I owned my own strength, that was
my secret" (177). And, typical of the trickster, Nanapush's power rests in his love of
language. "I talked both languages in streams that ran alongside each other, over
every rock, around every obstacle. The sound of my own voice convinced me I was alive..
.. I got well by talking. Death could not get a word in edgewise, grew discouraged, and
traveled on" (7,46). Language is the vehicle he uses to save others as well. When Lulu
is found nearly dead from exposure to the bitter cold, Nanapush keeps her alive by
My tongue grew thick in my mouth when I'd sipped
all the water. My throat clutched and my eyes itched for
sleep. I did not stop. I talked on and on until you lost
yourself inside, the flow of it, until you entered the swell
and ebb and did not sink but were sustained. I talked beyond
sense-by morning the sounds I made were stupid mumbles
without meaning or connection. But you were lulled by the
roll of my voice.
But in the end, Nanapush's ability to talk his enemy'into submission cannot
save the tribe from the relentless march of modernity. "My girl, listen well. Nanapush
is a name that loses power every time that it is written and stored in a government file"
(32). Nor can Fleur's dream of her people's once dreadful nobility prevail against the
relentless onslaught of logging and the retreat of the tribe.
The back of the famine broke. But in this there was
something lost. Fleur had not saved us with her dream,
and it now seemed what was happening was so ordinary
that it fell beyond her abilities. She had failed too
many times ... Her dreams lied, her vision was obscured,
her helper slept deep in the lake . She was hesitant in
speaking, false in her gestures, anxious to cover her fear.
The tribe is split, Fleur loses her land (though not without a final flourish of
power), and she leaves
with an extra set of moccasins slung over one shoulder.... She
looked at me [Nanapush], her face alight, andthen she set out.
I watched her until the road bent, traveling south to widen,
flatten, and eventually in its course meet with government
school, depots, stores, the plotted squares of farms.
And so there is no trace of Fleur, the warrior whose heart and breath stopped
. with every felled tree.. There is a space here in the story that only Momaday's words
can possibly fill. "Now there is a funeral silence .. the endless wake of some final
word" (The Way to Rainy Mountain 12).
When Fleur's daughter, Lulu, returns from the government school, Nanapush is
It was a dusty, blowing and waterless day, when
they brought you back to us. The year was 1924 ... the
rattling green vehicle the government sent pulled in and
jammed on the brakes in a cloud of grit. The air was harsh,
sucking at the lakes and ditches in a threat of drought.
Dazed children burst from the door.
You were the last to emerge.... Your grin was ready
and your look was sharp. You tossed your head like a pony,
gathering scent. Your braids were cut, yoUr hair in a thick
ragged bowl, and your dress was a shabby and smoldering
orange, a shameful color like a half-doused flame, visible
for miles, that any child who tried to run away from the
boarding school was forced to wear.... Your knees were
scabbed from the punishment of scrubbing long sidewalks,
and knobbed from kneeling hours on broomsticks. But your
grin was bold as your mother's, white with anger that
vanished when you saw us waiting.
We call the meaning to us from the space where the love of landscape and the
love of language meet~the difference. The story began here, with Pauline: "The
Pillagers were as stubborn as the Nanapush clan and would not leave my thoughts. I
think they followed me home. All the way down the trail, just beyond the edges of my
sight, they flickered, thin as needles, shadows piercing shadows [italics mine]" (6).
And the story continues here, with Nanapush: "Lulu. We gave against your rush like
creaking oaks, held on, braced ouselves together in the fierce dry wind" (226).
Lulu is the "living present, ... or rather the presence of the living present
[italics in original]" (Derrida 6). "It remains, then, for [her] to speak [italics in
original]... in order to make up for the breakup of presence" (xxviii). We now know
that in the decades that followed, Native people have done just that. They have also
served as a model for finding presence of meaning in the silence of the landscape and in
the silence of the space between the words.
Chicano/a Philosophy and Literature: Tracking the Native
Tracking the trace becomes tracking the Native as we turn to the work of
Chicano/a intellectuals. Whether in the fierce poetry and essays of Gloria Anzaldua
or the sometimes raunchy but always musical storytelling of Oscar Zeta Acosta, the
personal search for the Native permeates the work of Chicano/a writers.
Los Chicanos, how patient we seem, how very patient.
There is the quiet of the Indian about us. We know how to
survive. When other races have given up their tongue,
we've kept ours. We know what it is to live under the
hammer blow of the dominant norteamericano [North
American] culture. But more than we count the blows, we
count the days the weeks the years the centuries the eons
until the white laws and commerce and customs will rot in
the deserts they've created, lie bleached.
[Do you] choose not to understand for fear that I'll get even
with you? Do you fear the herds who were slaughtered,
butchered and cut up to make life a bit more pleasant for
you? ... still we mean you no harm. We are not a vengeful
people. Like my old man used to say, an Indian forgives,
but he never forgets.
One may already have detected a sudden shift in tone from writers referenced
earlier, a hint of patient outrage perhaps. Some Anglo critics have been put off by the
defiance against hegemony that permeates Chicano/a work-art, literature, poetry.
Indeed, the term "Chicano" itself, so volatile in the 1960s, re-emerged in the 1980s
with the vanguard of Chicano/a writers and scholars who joined forces with other
emergent writers of color. Despite the disputes generated by the word even in their own
community, and despite attempts by the dominant society to label them more
generically, most writers and scholars of Mexican descent refuse to give up the name.
For that reason, it is necessary for us to explore the significance of the name in
terms of its political, gender, and spiritual implications along with the broader impact
these writers have had and are having on academia. But more important to the
purpose of this discussion is the mystical thread that runs through Chicano/a writings
that links them to Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, and Merleau-Ponty; Deloria,
Mathews, Momaday, Erdrich, and Silko. I believe that link is found at the point
within the Chicano/a where Anglo meets Indian, where Western meets Native. It is
their unique consciousness of a point of convergence, a limenal space, a border, I believe,
that explains why the art of the Chicano/a contains more mythology, lilt, and
hilarity than it does rage, force, and vengeance. Because, beyond all else, Chicano/a
art is a quest, a quest for the Native, the Earth, the Silence.
Gloria Anzaldua's La Frontera ('Borderland')
Chicano/as are a mestizo or mixed people. They combine, in varying degrees
indigenous (from pre-Columbian times), European (from Spain's invasion of the
Americas), and African (from the millions of slaves brought to the Americas) roots.
Anzaldua expresses the mix with wry humor.
As a culture, we call ourselves Spanish when referring to
ourselves as a linguistic group and when copping out. It is
then that we forget our predominant Indian genes. We
are 70-80% Indian. We call ourselves Hispanic or Spanish-
American or Latin American or Latin when linking
ourselves to other Spanish-speaking peoples of the
Western hemisphere and when copping out. We call
ourselves Mexican-American to signify we are neither
Mexican nor American, but more the noun "American" than
the adjective "Mexican" (and when copping out).
Thus, when a Chicano/a writer explores his/her identity, s/he discovers there
is no fixed identity. The name "Chicano/a" is not a name one is bom with; rather, it is
consciously assumed and serves as a reminder of historical crisis, confusion, and
political and idealogical conflict and contradictions. This crisis of the "true self" is
poignantly captured by Anzaldua in the following poem:
She has this fear
that she has no names
that she has many names
that she doesn't know her names
She has this fear
that she's an image
that comes and goes
clearing and darkening
the fear that she's the dreamwork inside someone else's skull
She has this fear that if she digs into herself
she won't find anyone
that when she gets "there"
she won't find her notches on the trees.
She has this fear that she won't find her way back
Anzaldua is candid whenever she speaks, and that includes when she is
of the decidedly less than spiritual aspect of expressing one's identity.
When not copping out, when we know we are more than
nothing, we call ourselves Mexican, referring to race and
ancestry; mestizo when affirming both our Indian and
Spanish (but we hardly ever own our Black ancestory [sic]);
Chicano when referring to a politically aware people bom
and/or raised in the U.S.; Raza when referring to Chicanos;
tejanos when we are Chicanos from Texas.
Clearly, although some have forgotten or may deny their genealogy, others
proudly claim it and search for their always already lost origins, feeling a profound
spiritual kinship with the lost. So while to claim the name Chicano/a is to give voice
to a people historically at the bottom of a hierarchical economic and political
structure, it is also a struggle with spiritual borders.
To live in the Borderlands means you
are neither, hispana india negra espaiiola ni gabacha [white woman]
eres [you are] mestizo, mulata, half-breed caught in the crossfire between camps
while carrying all five races on our back
not knowing which side to turn to, run from.
To live in the Borderlands means knowing
that the india in you, betrayed for 500 years,
is no longer speaking to you,
that mexicanas call you rajetas [betrayer]
that denying the Anglo inside you
is as bad as having denied the Indian or Black.
The name expresses a struggle with language, as well. Many Chicano/a writers
feel their writing should serve a social and moral function. But, very soon, they come up
against a literary tradition which tends to exclude them and a sense of entitlement in
which they cannot share. No one would question the necessity for a writer to delve into
his cultural past, and to write from that place. But when a Chicano/a writer does this,
he finds both Spanish and English, and an oral tradition. It is undoubtedly a fertile
place from which to speak, but it is not always understood.
In any case/ while Chicano/a writers are struggling to enter the literary world
from which they have been excluded in this country, they are also searching for a new
consciousness. "It is not enough to stand on the opposite river bank, shouting questions,
challenging patriarchal, white conventions. ... At some point, on our way to a new
consciousness, we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two
mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once and, at once,
see through serpent and eagle eyes" (78). This tolerance for ambiguity is:
.. work that the soul performs. That focal point or fulcrum, that
juncture where the mestiza stands, is where phenomena tend to collide.
It is where the possibility of uniting all that is separate occurs. . and
though it is a source of intense pain, its energy comes from continual
creative motion that keeps breaking down the unitary aspect of each
new paradigm.... duality is transcended.
Oscar Zeta Acosta's Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo
It is fitting that this piece is as much a memoir as it is a novel, since the line
between dream and waking reality is blurred throughout. The work chronicles Acosta's
attempt to be a modem man in America, exemplified by the fact that his most prized
trophy is the framed certificate hanging on the wall of his office, "signed by the chief
justice himself," that proclaims him to be "Attorney and Counselor at Law" (29) This
American symbol of authority is juxtaposed, however, with the vomit and blood of his
ulcers. Daily, he listens to the sad tales of his mostly poor clients and tries to work
within the legal system to obtain for them their needed annulments, restraining orders,
bail, unemployment benefits, and stays of deportation.
Yes, for twelve months I have seen their frightened eyes,
that look of desperation that only hungry people carry
with them to their lawyer's office. ... I call the piggish
creditors at Household Finance and tell them I represent
Mrs. Sanchez, that I'm with the Legal Aid Society. . .
I will be heard, under order of the chief justice, is that clear?
But he is not heard. He plays by all the rules, wears a suit, speaks perfect English, but
sees few victories. Yet the stream of unable-to-pay petitioners awaits him every
morning. Beset by sexual and cultural impotence, haunted by slurs of obesity and
laziness, his psychiatrist wants him to talk about his mother and his ancestry. "Sex
and race. It's one and the same hangup.... But I don't have time for that racial crap
now" (19). Eventually, this big brown man surrenders to sadness and helplessness. He
walks away from his practice and heads for where he does not know without a map.
Much of the book reads like a very bad drug trip verging on insanity. It is
extremely difficult to know what is real, what is chemical vision, what is nightmare.
In fact, Acosta did travel for a time with the "Road Poets" of the 1960s~Hunter S.
Thompson, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg. From his account, we
learn about his growing up years in Riverbank, Texas where the world was. "divided
into three parts: .. Mexicans, Okies and Americans. Catholics, Holy rollers and
Protestants. Peach pickers, cannery workers and clerks" (78). We also see the America
of this turbulent era from a different angle, the double vision of the acculturated
Native, completely absent of nostalgia. "I speak as a historian, a recorder of events
with a sour stomach. I have no love for memories of the past" (18).
Eventually, he parted company with "Ginsberg and those coffee houses with
hungry-looking guitar players ... shouting Love and Peace and Pot" (18). Alone again,
he begins to see dimly a destination. "I decided to go to El Paso, the place of my birth,
to see if I could find the object of my quest. I still wanted to find out just who in the hell I
really was" (184).
When he arrives, "just a stone's throw from the border," via Greyhound bus, his
soul is flooded with something more profound than memory, more sensuous than sight or
smell or touch.
Gutted, packed, crowded sidewalks teeming with brown
faces, black hair and that ancient air of patience which
I'd always seen in the faces of the indio from the
mountains of Durango.... When I tired of crying I
returned to the depot, picked up my bags and jumped the
streetcar for Juarez.
Once in Juarez, something in him begins to settle for the first time in his life. His
chronic impotence begins to abate in the vision of
women of brown face, black, long hair and eyes for the devil
himself. .. speaking in that language of my youth ... a
language perfect in every detail for people who are serious
about life and preoccupied with death only as it refers to
that last day of one's sojourn on this particular spot.
Ah! But this is not a happily ever after tale. It ends ambiguously, with hints
of new struggles to be coped with. Acosta's border experience can be compared with the
other epiphanies we have looked at. Like Abel in House Made of Dawn, his native
tongue lies clumsily in his mouth and piecemeal in his memory. Like Abel, its sound
moves him deeply and teases him with the possibility of spiritual wholeness. When
the border guard approaches him, Acosta realizes that he looks like an American in
his "Pendleton shirt and Lama boots" (186). With sardonic wit, he expresses his fear of
being arrested for "Impersonating a mexicano," bringing back memories of other times
when he did not belong. "The Okies spit on my prick because I was a nigger faking it as
a Mexican. And the Americans wanted me to forget I was ever a savage with secret
his "Pendleton shirt and Lama boots" (186). With sardonic wit, he expresses his fear of
being arrested for "Impersonating a mexicano" bringing back memories of other times
when he did not belong. "The Okies spit on my prick because I was a nigger faking it as
a Mexican. And the Americans wanted me to forget I was ever a savage with secret
codes" (187). And indeed he does spend time in a Juarez jail because of too little
Spanish and too much tequila. The stay was valuable, giving him time to confront his
white side, so to speak. Si, soy culpable [I am guilty].... I am guilty of all those nasty
things, vile language, gringo arrogance and americano impatience with lazy
Finally, he walks the rainy streets of the border towns of El Paso and Juarez,
alone but not completely lonely, and speaks from his soul.
My name is Oscar Acosta. My father is an Indian from the
mountains of Durango. Although I cannot speak his
language...you see, Spanish is the language of our
conquerors. English is the language of our conquerors...
Now what we need is, first to give ourselves a new name
.... A name and a language all our own__I propose we
call ourselves the Brown Buffalo people....No, it's not an
Indian name, for Christ sake...don't you get it? The buffalo,
see? Yes, the animal that everyone slaughtered. Sure, both
the cowboys and the Indians are out to get him....
I walk in the night rain until the dawn of the new
My single mistake has been to seek an identity with
any one person or nation or with any part of history....
I am neither a Mexican nor an American__I am a Chicano
by ancestry and a Brown Buffalo by choice.
And so we leave Acosta at the border, the threshold, in that limenal space
between two languages, two cultures, between the ancient and the modem. We leave
him pausing, lingering, broodingnot yet comfortable, still feeling besieged by the
Native and the Western mind. But he is "standing in the openness of the existent,"
naming and calling the world to himself, still and always helpless.
The Twentieth Century has ended on a note of disillusionment. Science has
given us comfort and convenience that the ancient Greeks could not have conceived. But
modem humans still feel like Sisyphus. We are still looking for a reason to go back
down the hill and heave the rock again. As Chicano/ as are tracking the trace, or the
trace of the trace, of the Native as a spiritual response to the tyrrany of rationality,
Western thought is turning toward a realm from which it too has been estranged by the
long legacy of Platonist dualism. When, and if, we find our home once again in the
land, the ground of our embodied existence, perhaps we will more peacefully dwell.
This land was Mexican once
was Indian always
And will be again.
Maurice Merleau-Pontv's Phenomenology
David Abram, a contemporary ecologist and philosopher, has stated that
"phenomenology is the Western philosophical tradition that has most forcefully
called into question the modern assumption of a single, wholly determinable, objective
Edmund Husserl founded the philosophy that he called "phenomenology"
(from the Greek phainomenon, meaning "appearance"). Like Descartes, Husserl placed
consciousness at the center of all philosophy. But, unlike Descartes, he did not see a
dichotomy in consciousness-thought knowing itself and not knowing the world, having
been deceived by the senses. This Cartesian split, of course, persevered as the Idealist
Movement tended to eliminate the world as a source of knowledge and the Empiricist
Movement stressed the passivity of consciousness. Both of these movements saw no
bridge between thought and world. Husserl, on the other hand, developed a method
that he intended would demonstrate both the form and substance of the mind. This
method would be purely descriptive and not theoretical. That is, it would describe the
way the world actually makes itself known to consciousness without the aid of any
theoretical constructs from either philosophy or science. This is the world he called
the natural standpoint, the everyday world as experienced. Writing about this natural
standpoint, Husserl said,
I am aware of a world, spread out in space endlessly, and in
time becoming and become, without end. I am aware of it;
that means, first of all, I discover it immediately,
intuitively, I experience it. Through sight, touch, hearing,
etc.,... corporeal things ... are for me simply there,...
"present," whether or not I pay them special attention.
Husserl believed that this world, as actually lived, naturally reveals its
content to those conscious of it, but he wanted to "get behind" the content in order to
reveal its structure. To do so, he employed a method that he called "phenomenological
reduction"(from the Greek epoche, meaning "suspension of belief"). This method
"brackets" experience and describes it while suspending all presuppositions and
assumptions normally made about that experience. When applied to the experience of
time, for example, bracketing means that we must suspend all belief in clocks and
calendars. Thus "lived time" is always experienced as an eternal now that is tempered
by a memory of earlier "nows." Similarly, a phenomenological reduction of the
experience of space reveals the difference between lived space and mapped space. (It
must be mentioned here that the similarity between Husserl's notion of lived space is so
similar to the traditional Native concept that it is simply stunning and explains why
American Indians were so unprepared for the European ideal of mapping and owning
land.) However, lived space, for Husserl, is always experienced in terms of a
"here/there dichotomy in which one is always "here," and everything else is always
"there." (As we have seen, Native belief makes a much more ambiguous distinction.)
As one of Husserl's disciples, Heidegger, as we have seen, radicalizes the
concept of consciousness with his notion of "being-in-the-world" in which he
underscores the reciprocal relation of subjectivity and worldthus his emphasis on
mood-consciousness and finding meaning in experience rather than imposing meaning on
This brings us to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who pushes Husserl's definition of
consciousness even further. Like Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty is interested in the relation
of the self and the world, i.e., experience. For him, under the Cartesian dichotomy,
"while the living body became an exterior without interior, subjectivity became an
interior without exterior, an impartial spectator" (56). No, for Merleau-Ponty, the
world and the self are analytically inextricable. His is a radical departure from both
the idealists and the empiricists because his foundational premise is the embodiment
of the self and the entanglement of the self and the world.
Merleau-Ponty, like Nietzsche and Heidegger, is reacting to the "scientific"
notion of truth and reality. "Classical science is a form of perception which loses sight
of its origins and believes itself complete" (57) whereas Merleau-Ponty's
phenomenology maintains that "all my knowledge of the world, even my scientific
knowledge; is gained from my own particular point of view, or from some experience of
the world without which the the symbols of science would be meaningless" (viii). He
does not see the relation between consciousness and the world as a problem needing
explanation; he sees it as a fact, a given, that needs description. This "foreswearing of
science," (a sort of bracketing) treating science as a "second-order expression" of "the
basic experience of the world" (viii), means describing rather than explaining human
experience. This "return to the 'things themselves'" (viii) asks us to pay attention to
sensation, to recognize that qualities arise within indeterminacy, and to walk
comfortably with flux as the past spills into the present. Furthermore, the present is a
field that is always embodied, cultured, gendered, and relational. Thus, since the mind
and the world are inextricably entangled, even that which we know rationally is in
some way the result of our embodiment, our entanglement with the world. This is an
understanding of the world that I hope to show is startlingly congruent with the
traditional Native teachings that we have looked at.
In particular, Merleau-Ponty's notion of the phenomenal field places him very
close to American Indian tradition. "This phenomenal field is not an 'inner world/ the
'phenomenon' is not a 'state of consciousness/ or a 'mental fact/ and the experience of
phenomena is not an act of introspection or an intuition" (57). It is the world itself that
is "always already there" before humans reflect upon it.
Phenomenolgy, alone of all philosophies, talks about a
transcendental field [italics in original].... It is also why
phenomenology is phenomenology, that is, a study of the
advent [italics in original] of being to consciousness,
instead of presuming its possibility as given in advance,
... judg[ing] what is by what ought to be.
Leslie Marmon Silko's challenge to the English definition of "landscape"
might just as easily have been penned by Merleau-Ponty.
Pueblo potters, the creators of petroglyphs and oral
narratives, never conceived of removing themselves from
the earth and sky. So long as the human consciousness
remains within [italics in original] the hills, canyons,
cliffs, and the plants, clouds, and sky, the term landscape,
as it has entered the English language, is misleading. "A
portion of territory the eye can comprehend in a single view"
does not correctly describe the relationship between the
human being and his or her surroundings. This assumes the
viewer is somehow outside or separate from [italics in
original] the territory he or she surveys. Viewers are as
much a part of the landscape as the boulders they stand on
.... The land, the sky, and all that is within themthe
landscapeincludes human beings.
("Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination" 265)
Merleau-Ponty champions describing the way the world reveals itself to
consciousness without the aid of speculative invention. Once I pay attention to the
landscape and become conscious of it, I can draw great meaning from it. Approaching
the landscape in a participatory way, rather than with the desire to mark it, to
conquer it, affords the individual an opportunity to live in an eternal now. I imbue the
landscape with meaning, I suffuse the whole with anticipation and memoiy, and rush
into the ultimately non-experienceable then-ness of the future.
Merleau-Ponty identifies the experiencing self with the bodily organism. This
body, as it experiences and inhabits the world, affords the very possibility of contact
with oneself through reflection. And, far from restricting my access to things and to the
world, the body is my very means of entering into relation with all things. He, in fact,
portrays the body as the very center of awareness; in so doing, he demolishes any hope
that philosophy might eventually provide a complete picture of reality. But then
phenomenology does not strive to stand outside the world in order to explain it; it tries
to describe the world from within it.
Ultimately, to acknowledge the life of the body is to acknowledge our existence
as one of the earth's animalsa part of the landscape. It would seem to follow that the
Western philosophical tradition that valorizes a human incorporeal dimension that
sets us apart from, and above, all other forms of life would fall away. Likewise,
Descartes' "Great Chain of Being" that asserts a thorough dichotomy between
mechanical, unthinking matter (including the human body) and pure, thinking mind
(ours and God's) is rejected. Such hierarchies are wrecked by phenomenology's
recognition of how fully immersed we are in the world. Does, then, the human
intellect, or reason, really set us free from our existence in the world? No, but we are
invited to participate in the world. We are part of the phenomenal fielda figure
against a background, viewing a horizon, within an atmospherethat is already
fraught with meaning. Could it be that meaning is to be found in our experience of the
world and not in explanation of the world?
It is certainly true that Merleau-Ponty insists upon a frank recognition of the
limits of rationality. Our ideas are temporal, precisely because they spring from our
embodiment. But his hedge against the charge of relativism is his assertion that,
despite limitations, our ideas are capable of being true, so long as we maintain an
openness to the phenomenal field of nature and culture. In this way, he also counters
the danger of sinking into an unmitigated skepticism that would abandon all hope of
arriving at truth. While some object to his ambiguity and tendency toward self-
verification, and see in phenomenology's attempt to retrieve a pre-reflective lived
world merely another attempt to explain, Merleau-Ponty's premise is that the
philosopher is wrong to proceed as if he were not linked with the surrounding
circumstances. "The I that constitutes the world comes up against a sphere in which it
is by its very flesh implicated" (54).
So to analyze and explain the world in order to claim explicit knowledge of it is
really to prattle about a fake, invented thing. (Deloria smiles.) Again, ambiguity
should not be mistaken for relativism in phenomenology.
Phenomenology is a study of essences... phenomenology is
also a philosophy which puts essences back into existence
... all its efforts are concentrated upon re-achieving a direct
and primi hue [italics mine] contact with the world, and
endowing that contact with a philosophical status.
It is, in short, an effort to "return to that world which precedes knowledge, of which
knowledge always speaks" (ix).
Active participation in the sensuous, more-than-human world is the core of
Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology that says "the real has to be described,... the real is
a closely woven fabric. It does not await our judgement before incorporating the most
surprising phenomena__The world is not an object such that I have in my possession
the law of its making (x). Likewise, phenomenology teaches us that neither the
perceiver nor the perceived is wholly passive in the event of perception.
The sensible gives back to me what I lent to it, but this is only
what I took from it in the first place. As I contemplate the
blue of the sky, and abandon myself to it and plunge into its
mystery, it "thinks itself within me." . The relations of the
sentient to sensible are comparable with those of the sleeper
to his slumber. I surrender.
This recovery, then, of the sensory dimension of experience also recovers for us the
living landscape in which we are "corporeally embedded."
David Abram's Radical Interpretation
In Merleau-Ponty's final work, The Visible and the Invisible, a work
interrupted by his sudden death in 1961, he begins to write about "the flesh of the
world." Abram, a living philosopher and ecologist, notes that
By "the Flesh" he means to indicate an elemental power
that has had no name in the entire history of Western
philosophy. The Flesh is the mysterious tissue or matrix
that underlies everything ... a mystery of which we
have always, at least tacitly, been aware, since we have
never been able to... imagine [italics in original] a
sensible landscape that would not at the same time be
While expressing great admiration for the work of both Husserl and Merleau-
Ponty, Abram also raises challenging questions, leveled especially directly at the
latter. If we take as a given that modern humanity is disconnected from sensory
perception (as has, I believe been established) and that Merleau-Ponty asserts that
perception is necessarily the source of all experience and inherently participatory,
have we not encountered a double bind? He also wants to know how it is that Western
humanity generally has tended to have an exploitative relationship with the rest of
nature while most indigenous cultures display a remarkable harmony with it.
Referring to the North American continent, he observes,
that indigenous peoples can have gathered, hunted, fished,
and settledthese lands for such a tremendous span of time
without severely degrading the continent's wild integrity
readily confounds the notion that humans are innately
bound to ravage their earthly surroundings.
Abram locates the answer to both questions in the evolution of language in the Western
Every attempt to definitively say what language is [italics
in original] is subject to a curious limitation. For the only
medium with which we can define language is language
itself. We are therefore unable to circumscribe the whole
of language within our definition. It may be best, then, to
leave language undefined, and to thus acknowledge its
open-endedness, its mysteriousness.
Not only should we specifically recognize Heidegger and Momaday in Abram's
statement, but we should also, by now, be generally familiar with phenomenology's
comfort with ambiguity that the statement represents. Beyond that, the statement
calls forth Merleau-Ponty's treatment of language as intention that has not yet been
referred to in this discussion.
Merleau-Ponty thinks of language as an intentional act that is not a sign of
meaning but an embodiment of meaning. Language began as bodily gesture and is
spontaneously expressive, as well as immediately understood.
Faced with an angry or threatening gesture, I have no need,
in order to understand it, to recall the feelings which I
myself experienced when I used these gestrues on my own
account____I do not see anger or a threatening attitude as a
psychic fact hidden behind the gesture, I read anger in it.
The gesture does not make me think of anger [italics in
original], it is anger itself.
We should not be surprised that he would consider language to be a sensual act of
participation with the world.
Abram deduces from this notion that "we thus learn our native language not
mentally but bodily [italics in original] (75). Further, Abram claims that, for Merleau-
Ponty, language, even written language, never completely loses its primitive nature,
what Abram calls "the flesh of language." Nevertheless, Abram acknowledges a loss,
a loss that he accounts for in part by the consistent preoccupation of Western
philosophy with "human spedalness" by conceiving language as "an exclusively
human property" (77, 78). It follows for Abram that, in order to maintain the
exclusivity of language, it must be considered a
purely abstract phenomenon.... Only by overlooking the
, sensuous, evocative dimension of human discourse, and
attending solely to the denotative and conventional aspect
of verbal communication, can we hold ourselves apart from,
and outside of, the rest of animate nature.
Thus the loss of the "physically and sensorially resonant" (80) aspect of language is
lain at the feet of Western philosophy.
Abram further accounts for the loss, not only of the sensuousness of language but
also of the intimacy with Nature, by citing the movement in the Western world away
from speech to writing and from phonetic writing to the alphabet. It is not my purpose
to reproduce his theory in its entirety, as compelling as it is, but rather to show how he
has taken the phenomenological turn of Western philosophy and pushed it into ever
closer consonance with the ancient paradigm of Native Americans. According to
Abram, human language originated in and reflected the sounds and contours of its
environment, as does the language of other animals. Even when writing emerged, it was
pictorial of its surroundings. When ancient Semitic tribes began to develop the
alphabet, "a new distance open[ed] between human culture and the rest of nature" (100).
The trajectory continues with the Greeks. The Greek alphabet had "no sensorial
reference at all" (102). Language had become grammar. Ironically, Plato expresses
concern about the use of writing in the Phaedrus. "If men learn this, it will implant
forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on
that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves,
but by means of external marks" (275a).
Abram continues his doctrine of loss by noting that human interaction with
Nature has been altered by the development of the alphabet as it begins
to function as a mirror reflecting us back upon ourselves. [It
establishes] a new reflexivity between the human organism
and its own signs, short-circuiting the sensory reciprocity
between that organism and the land_____Human encounters
and events begin to become interesting in their own right,
independent of their relation to natural cycles.
So while the Western mind would typically think it odd, even superstitious, to say
that stones speak to us, it is taken for granted that "marks of ink on dead trees" (to
quote a favorite professor) speak volumes. This is, indeed, a new kind of animism.
Abram's theory ultimately rests in the "forgetting and remembering of the air."
He is correct to note that "nothing is more common to the diverse indigenous cultures of
the earth than a recognition of the air, the wind, and the breath, as aspects of a
singularly sacred power" (226). Certainly, my Lakota grandmother often whispered
the words, "ivoniya wakan" (sacred air or God's breath) during prayers and ceremonies.
Abram goes on to note that "its obvious ties to speechthe sense that spoken words are
structured breath,... and indeed that spoken phrases take their communicative power
from this invisible medium that moves between uslends the air a deep association
with linguistic meaning and with thought" (227).
The obvious fact that not only are we physically immersed in and sustained by
the airjust as surely as are sea creatures in and by waterbut that we also affect it
further emphasizes the participatory nature of our existence. "Just as we are nourished
and influenced by the Air at large, so do our actions and thoughts affect the Air in turn.
The individual, that is, is not passive with respect to the Holy Wind; rather she
participates in [italics in original] it, as one of its organs" (235). Awareness of this
participation is the basis for Native ceremonies using the peace pipe. The smoke from
the pipe allows the participants to see their intentions and offerings move through the
air. Just as the smoke makes the invisible breath visible, the movement of the air
itself can be seen.
Abram believes that all was lost when visible letters in the form of vowels
were inserted into the alphabet by the Greeks. Earlier Semitic phonetic writing had no
letters for vowels that rely entirely on the interaction of human breath and air to be
articulated. "It was only with the plugging of these last pores .. that the perceptual
boundary established by the common language was effectively sealed, and what had
once been a porous membrane became an impenetable barrier, a hall of mirrors" (257).
Now, language is entirely self-referential, leading to complete human isolation.
'Today the seeking self looks out at a purely 'exterior' nature from a purely 'interior'
zone,... a private 'mind' or 'consciousness' unrelated to the other 'minds' that surround
it, or to the environing earth" (257).
Finally, Abram relates his theory of loss in language to the question of space
and time. In so doing, he touches upon one of the most stubborn obstacles between modem
Western thought and traditional American Indian philosophy.
Writing down oral stories renders them separable, for the
first time, from the actual places where the events in those
stories occurred. The tales can now be carried elsewhere;
they can be read in distant cities or even on alien continents.
The stories, soon, come to seem independent of any specific
I, of course, have "carried" my grandmother's stories to just such places, with this
difference: When I "tell" the stories to my grandchildren, I imbue them with my own
memories and sensory ecstasy along with the remembered cadence of my grandmother's
voice. I am fully cognizant that, in reducing them to writing for this treatise, much is
Once the stories are written down, however, the visible text
becomes the primary mnemonic activator of the spoken stories
[italics in original]the inked traces left by the pen as it
traverses the page replacing the earthly traces left by the
animals, and by one's ancestors, in their interactions with the
And how does Abram link alphabetical writing to the Western view of time and space?
'This double retreat, of the senses and of spoken stories, from the diverse places that
had once gripped them, cleared the way for the notion of a pure and featureless 'space'"
In like fashion, the Western mind generally thinks of time as linear; thus, it
expects progress, goals, and achievement. But Native thinking views time as cyclical,
circular, and as enclosing space. So space is never thought of as empty; even the
invisible is simply that which has not yet manifested. Space is experienced as place.
But, to read a printed linear line of text, one must disengage from the curvature of time.
Abram acknowledges these Native ideas while also alluding to Heidegger's Being and
Time in which he muses upon "a forgotten sense of time as the very mystery of Being, as
that strange poweressentially resistant to all objectification or representationthat
nevertheless structures and makes possible all our relations to each other and to the
world" (205). He also refers to notes written by Merleau-Ponty. "In what sense the
visible landscape under my eyes is not exterior to ... other moments of time and the
past, but has them really behind itself [italics in original] in simultaneity, inside
itself, and not it and they side by side 'in' time" (207). This, for Abram, is the beginning
in Western thought of the end of conventional distinction between space and time.
Perhaps it also heralds a return to the primordial.
Abram is, of course, doing more than simply giving an account of how Western
humanity has lost its way and more than just describing its current condition; he is also
calling for a new ecology. Regarding the first, although his work focuses on the
evolution of language, he is not naively unaware of other factors such as agriculture,
numbering systems, and technology. And he is not deploring reason; he is asking us to
strive for intellectual rigor "without forfeiting our animal kinship with the world
around us... to think in accordance with the senses, to ponder and reflect without
severing our sensorial bond with the owls and the wind" (264). Regarding ecology, he
denounces "huge centralized programs, global initiatives, and other 'top down'
solutions" (268) as being ineffective because they themselves are disconnected from the
real needs of the living world.
What would this new way of reasoning mean for Abram? First, he deplores the
nostalgic notion of "going back," along with any utopian notion that might arise. His
ecological approach is much more personal and put into practice in the ordinary motion
of life. He is asking precisely what Momaday asserts:
None of us lives apart from the land entirely; such an
isolation is unimaginable. We have sooner or later to come
to terms with the world around usand I mean especially
the physical world, not only as it is revealed to us
immediately through our senses, but also as it is perceived
more truly in the long turn of seasons and of years. And we
must come to moral terms. There is no alternative, I believe,
if we are to realize and maintain our humanity, for our
humanity must consist in part in the ethical as well as
in the practical ideal of preservation.
For Abram, then, as for Momaday, ecology is a matter of remembering the
Earth. This is such an alien idea for modern Western humans that we ask, What does
it mean? It surely begins with touching it, listening to the sounds made upon it, giving
attention to the motions of the wind, and really seeing the colors of dawn and dusk. But
it also, according to Momaday, involves a kind of "staying" with the land through its
seasons, experiencing its moods, and dwelling upon it in the Heideggarian sense.
Merleau-Ponty has described this kind of attention and awareness as a searchlight
that reveals the pre-existing. It is here that we find answers to the questions we are
Tohn Toseph Mathews' Talking to the Moon
John Joseph Mathews' return to the prairie of his Osage youth is a nearly
perfect composite of the urgings of Momaday, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. The book
is organized according to the seasons of the year, with each chapter named for the
Osage words for the moon of each month. The introductory chapters explain why he
returned. "Coming back to the blackjacks was so natural that I didn't want to have a
definite reason for coming" (14). As stated earlier, Mathews had received a degree in
natural sciences from Oxford, had lived in Switzerland and Los Angeles, and had
traveled throughout Europe and North Africa.
So after years spent in many other parts of the earth, I had
come back to the very spot where I had lain as a boy,
watching the circling of the red-tailed hawks and actually
shedding tears over the fate that had made me earth-bound,
the spotted bird dog and the flaxen-maned pony indifferent
to my tragedy.
The book was not written until after ten years had passed. It was during those
ten years that he wrote Sundown. While the novel narrates the suffering of a young
Osage amidst the overwhelming historical changes taking place in Oklahoma
Territory in the years after the Wounded Knee massacre, Talking to the Moon has been
compared to Thoreau's Walden. I find it to be vastly different. Thoreau was seeking
respite from civilization while Mathews was simply coming home. Certainly, both
had seen modernity's continuing legacy of despair and resignation, but Mathews tells
us, "I wasn't running away from anything and was certainly not vindictive. I had been
comfortable and had access to all the mechanical comforts and had appreciated them
deeply" (14). He was, however, hoping to resolve a conflict that had troubled him for
some time. That conflict, as he saw it, was between Western humanity's "fumbling
toward God" that led it to dream of and create beauty and its "slavery to the primal
laws of survival and reproduction" (16).
Upon his return, he quickly discovered two things: Most immediately apparent
was the ravaged landscape that was the "natural result of human shortsightedness"
(16) during the oil boom. Not far behind came the realization that he himself could not
live on the land without changing it. "My coming back was dramatic in a way; a
weight on the sensitive scales of nature, which I knew would eventually be adjusted if I
lived as I had planned to live; to become a part of the balance" (2). He was satisfied
that, with the exception of the roof, his sandstone house was part of the balance. "The
house with its stone colored by nature was nature's own, and, to bear out the impression,
a coyote came trotting across the ridge without even looking up from his hunting, just as
darkness fell" (17).
Once committed to the venture, another painful awareness emerged. "My
perceptive powers had been dulled by the artificialities and the crowding and
elbowing of men in Europe and America" (2). Over time, he had to come to terms with
the fact that as long as he fed himself "artificially from cans brought from town,... I
.was not a part of the economic struggle of the ridge which results in the balance, and
therefore I was really an anomaly" (60). He decided to truly live from the land and
fight for survival as all other life forms must. As a result, an interesting theory
evolved about the nature of life.
Mathews observed four stages of life that, because all life forms, including
human society, come from the same life force, held true for all. The first stage he
identifies as "youth and survival" in which animals engage in play that prepares
them for adulthood (215). This stage is followed by "chesho" (virility) during which
animals attempt to find their place in the environment by challenging those already
established (229). The next stage is hunka" (maturity) and is characterized by the
guarding of one's territory arid fending off challengers. Eventually, of course, this
battle will be lost as one's prowess begins to fade. This is the stage of "senility" when
even those who have previously failed in the challenge to one's territory simply wait
for the inevitable decline (230). Mathews found these same stages even in plant life as
he observed "the remnants of the forest, now struggling to survive like an animal at
Most pertinent to this discussion is his observation of an odd characteristic that
he observed in all animals during the stages of virility and maturity. He refers to this
characteristic as a "primal urge for ornamentation" (12). Mathews attributes his own
need to write for an audience to "the mature urge to ornamental expression" (14).
Apart from its obvious end of attracting a mate, thus promoting the survival of the
species, it became significant for Mathews as a way to account for the differences
between Indians and Europeans/Americans. "Their [Indians] mental processes were still
under the influence of the natural background, and the Osage religion of Wah-Kon-Tah
was as much a product of the blackjacks and the prairie as the human" (77). Euro-
Americans, on the other hand, thought themselves divorced from "the primal laws of
survival and reproduction" (16). Thus, the wonders of civilization include "war and
unnatural crowding of men, slavery, group fanaticism, and social abnormalities_Men
had begun to think that they were cutting their bonds with the earth; that they had
tom themselves loose from the restrictive laws of biology" (3). The consequence of this
arrogance is obvious for Mathewsirreversible desecration of the land. "The laws of
the earth for survival are laid down, and man is not far enough away from the earth to
supersede them with those of his own creation; he can only go back to the earth to
ascertain where he has diverged from the natural processes" (226).
But Mathews could not have written Sundown had he not recognized that his
people, as well as white people, had gotten off the correct path. His account in
Sundown of Chal's return home from military service, upon the death of his father,
attests to this realization. As we will recall, Chal participated in a peyote sweat
lodge ceremony. He was drunk and deeply tortured. The peyote caused him to vomit
wretchedly, but it also cleared his mind. Slowly, the chanting and drumming began to
infuse his soul, and he listened to the words of an elder.
You are Indian. Here are graves of your grandfathers. You
came out of this earth here.... White man came out of ground
across that sea. His thoughts are good across that sea... his
songs and those things which he thinks, those things which
he talks, are ugly here because they did not come out of this
earth... We can dp nothing. But we are Indian, we are not
white men... our feet go along another road, but our hearts
are on road that is dim.
Chal is profoundly moved by the ceremony, but soon the old doubt and shame creep into
his mind. The feelings that he is primitive haunt him once again> and he turns again to
the only solace he knowsalcohol.
Both in his novel and in his memoir, Mathews reflects the deeply held belief
that there is a unique bond between humans and the land that bore them, a belief that
is shared by all traditonal American Indians. At the end of his writing, he
whimsically observes himself and his "great Ego" in a self-deprecating way. "My
egotism bom of the struggle demands, at this stage in my life, that I become an Our
Lady's [Nature's] juggler, with word symbols as my poor tools, to sweat at the feet of a
beauty, an order, a perfection, a mystery far above my comprehension" (244). He wants
us to know that none can ask the questions better than a coyote talking to the moon and
that he has heard the question-just as he has heard the "aftersilence leaving it so
hauntingly unanswered" (243).
In that aftersilence, we hear...
is sitting in her room
and whatever she thinks about
She is sitting in her room
thinking of a story now
I'm telling you the story
she is thinking.
Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony
In the preface to Phenomenology to Perception. Merleau-Ponty cautions that we
might "be inclined to give up the idea of covering a doctrine which says everything,
and [may] wonder... whether he is not faced rather by a myth... Even if this were the
case, there would still be a need to understand the prestige of the myth" (vii). One
could say that Ceremony is the story of a man trying to understand the prestige of an
ancient myth, the myth that there is no separation between self and other, between
humans and Nature.
He had believed in the stories for a long time, until the
teachers at Indian school taught him not to believe in that
kind of 'nonsense.' But they had been wrong. Josiah had
been there, in the jungle; he had come.Tayo had watched
him die, and he had done nothing to save him.
Emo liked to point to the restless dusty wind and the
cloudless skies, to the bony horses chewing on fence posts
beside the highway; Emo like to say, 'Look what is here
for us. Look. Here's the Indians' mother earth! Old
dried-up thing!' Tayo's anger made his hands shake. Emo
was wrong. All wrong.
Tayo is sick. He has fought the Japanese in the jungles of the Philippines
alongside his full-blood cousin whom he was charged with bringing home safely. He
was unable to do that. He has prayed for the jungle rain to end and has come home to a
six-year drought on the New Mexico Laguna Pueblo reservation. He has served
America but failed to support his family. He is not mentally intact and has nearly
surrendered to the foggy oblivion offered by the drugs and the white walls of the
veteran's hospital psychiatric ward. He has returned home broken, frightened, and
full of shame. He lies in a darkened room where he vomits and criesuntil it is decided
that a ceremony is the only way to save him.
Ku'oosh, the local medicine man, "spoke softly, using the old dialect full of
sentences that were involuted with explanations of their own origins, as if nothing the
old man said were his own but all had been said before" (34). After the blue commeal
and Indian tea ceremony is complete, Ku'oosh says, "There are some things we can't cure
like we used to" (38). Tayo is not able to make the old man understand that it is
possible to have killed without knowing it.
It was all too alien to comprehend, the mortars and big
guns; and ... even if he could have led him through the
fallen jungle trees and muddy craters of tom earth to
show him... the dismembered corpses and the atomic
heat-flash outlines, where human bodies had
evaporated... the old man would not have believed
anything so monstrous.... Not even oldtime witches
killed like that.
Ku'oosh does understand that stronger medicine is needed. Tayo is taken to a Navajo
medicine man who lives in the hills above Gallup.
Tayo is tormented by the knowledge that, while he was fighting, his Uncle
Josiah died. He tells the Navajo medicine man, "He died because there was no one to
help him search for the cattle after they were stolen" (124). His uncle had discerned
that the white-faced Herefords that their white neighbors raised could not survive in
the harsh desert conditions of the pueblo. "Cattle are like any living thing. If you
separate them from the land for too long, keep them in bams and corrals, they lose
something" (74). So he had bought a herd from Mexico. "These cattle were descendants
of generations of desert cattle, bom in dry sand and scrubby mesquite, where they
hunted water the way desert antelope did" (74). But because they were allowed to run
free, they were stolen. Josiah, without his son, Rocky, and nephew to help him, lost
everything. And when word came of the death of Rocky, Josiah passes.
To Betonie, the Navajo, Tayo tells, for the first time of his haunting memory.
My uncle Josiah was there that day. Yet I know he couldn't
have been there. He was thousands of miles away, at home
in Laguna. We were in the Philippine jungles. I understand
that. I know he couldn't have been there. But I've got this
feeling and it won't go away even though I know he wasn't
there. I feel like he was there. I feel like he was there with
those Japanese soldiers who died.
After listening quietly, Betonie replies, "The Japanese,... It isn't surprising
you saw him with them. You saw who they were. Thirty thousand years ago they were
not strangers" (124). The ceremony that will dispel the Western myth of autonomy has
Following the beautiful sand painting ceremony that culminates with a sudden
flint-arrow cut on the top of Tayo's head that oozes unchecked during the chanting and
dancing, Tayo sleeps without nightmares for the first time. As he is sent on his way, he
is told by Betonie to look for stars, a mountain lion, and a woman. After spending time
with all these, Tayo knows that, for the ceremony to be complete, he must track and
find his uncle's cattle. There is a moment when, having set the cattle free and having
been discovered, it appears that he will be taken to jail or killed. As he lay tied up on
the ground, "he was aware of the center beneath him... It was pulling him back, close
to the earth ... he knew how it would be: a returning rather than a separation" (201).
It is difficult to ascertain how much time passes. Tayo brings the cattle home.
He remembers to gather and plant the tall dark green plant with round pointed leaves
"for the light. The light of the stars, and the moon penetrating the night" (227) that he
had promised the woman he would. He looks for traces of her, for "lines of sand pressed
by her body, [the] delicate track of her blue shawl trailing into the weeds ... He had
not dreamed her; she was there as certainly as the sparrows had been there, leaving
spindly scratches in the mud" (222). And he greets the sunrise, "cry[ing] the relief he
felt at finally seeing the pattern, the way all the stories fit together~the old stories,
the war stories, their storiesto become the story that was still being told" (246).
The Native doctrine of connectedness resonates throughout the narrative, but
never more poignantly than during the first ceremony. Tayo is admonished by old
Ku'oosh that he must be healed, not just for his personal survival, but "for this fragile
world" (36). Likewise, their doctrine of time and space is apparent in Tayo's healing.
'The dreams had been terror at loss, at something lost forever; but nothing was lost; all
was retained between the sky and the earth, and within himself. He had lost nothing"
What She Said:
The only cure
is a good ceremony.
That's what she said.
CONCLUSION: FUMBLING TOWARD GOD
Throughout this discussion, I have sought congruency between the mindset of
modernity and the ancient paradigm of Native Americans. I hope I have found the
prescription. I would now like to address in some sort of conclusionary manner both the
treatment of the literature herein and the abiding ethical question that has been held
at bay throughout.
There has been much debate within the American academy about how, and
even if, one should evaluate literature. This debate has become acute since the
emergence in literature of previously unheard voices. Surely Barbara Hernstein Smith
is correct when she points out that to respond to, to render an opinion about, to include or
exclude a certain piece of literature in a curriculum is to evaluate literature (Richter
1552). My intention within these, pages has been to simply listen to Native American
and Chicano/a voicesand to do so with as little mediation as possible-and to search
for parallels between those voices and the relatively new voices of Western
philosophy. Although presented in the reverse, I can only assure the reader that I
The core of Sontag's essay, "Against Interpretation," alluded to in the preface
of this discussion is that "real art has the capacity to make us nervous" (5). All of the
literature I have presented here makes me nervous. Remember Momaday's 'The
Arrowmaker"? The "running after evil" in his House Made of Dawn? The drownings of
Fleur and the apocalyptic fanaticism of Pauline in Erdrich's Tracks? The hint by
Acosta that Indians could "get even"? Sontag asserts that in literary criticism, "by
reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that [italics in original],
one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable" (5). So I
have tried to toe the line between presenting the literature and reducing it to its
Yet, even though Sontag challenges us to "show how it is what it is, even that
it is what it is, rather than show what it means [italics in original] (9), she is not
particularly encouraging of the endeavor. And I know that I did not completely