Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Native American Perceptions of the Other in Louis Owens’ Wolfsong


Louis Owens’ widely-discussed novel Wolfsong (1991) illustrates both the homecoming nature of Native fiction, and an eco-conscious world view which exists in opposition to the view of the white community and westernised Indians.  At the opening of the novel, a road crew is carving a new route through the temperate rainforests in the Cascade mountains of western Washington state.  The land has been designated a wilderness area[i], but government authorities have recently granted permission for the construction of an open-pit copper mine.  From the cover of the trees above the road crew, Jim Joseph makes a one-man protest, shooting at the bulldozers to disrupt their progress. 
To Jim Joseph and the traditional Stehemish people, the ancient cedars are sacred, and as he makes his escape through the forest to his hidden camp, we see that he is at home there, comfortable and familiar in what is to him a deeply intimate space.  As Joseph’s ‘boots [sink] into the forest floor’ (Owens, 1991:5), Owens depicts him as being part of the forest, and this connection is strengthened as spirits emerge from the trees when the old man begins to dance:
Between the trees the shadows began to move.  First a flicker like the waving of a branch or a ghost of rain or moth, and then a steadier movement and finally they began to come out into the spaces between the trees and weave and step. (ibid:6)

When Jim Joseph dies of an apparent heart attack, his nephew, Tom, returns from college in California to attend the funeral.  As a child, Tom had listened to his uncle’s stories about the wolf spirit and ‘the real world, before everything became crazy’ (ibid:34), while his older brother Jimmy ‘ran off down the gravel road to play with the white kids in town’ (ibid:37).  Now, on his return home as an adult, Tom feels something of his uncle’s connection to the land and has ‘a sudden impression that the peaks surrounding the valley [have] shifted to block [his] way out’ (ibid:41).  Inheriting the wolf spirit which guided his uncle, Tom feels the urge to take up the fight against those who would destroy what remains of the forest, but his mother warns him that ‘[there are] things you would have to know now to stay in this valley…Things no one can teach you’ (ibid:77-8).  Tom’s mother realises that the world has moved on and that the knowledge needed to return to the old ways, even if it were possible to do so, was lost long ago.  Hiking into the wilderness in a quest for his spirit guide, Tom wonders what the ‘real names’ (ibid:94) are for the mountains around him.  The old language has been lost, and even the stories which place the Stehemish people within the landscape and give them identity have been all but forgotten. 
In Wolfsong, Owens presents two distinct and opposing perceptions of the natural world – that of Tom who turns to the landscape for spiritual renewal, and that of the largely white-operated enterprises which seek to exploit its natural resources.  Looking across the landscape to Dakobed, the one peak whose ‘real name’ has survived, Tom begins to understand the importance of the land:
He stared at the white mountain, the center, the great mother, and tried to feel what it had meant to his tribe.  They had woven it over thousands of years into their stories, telling themselves who they were and would always be in relation to the beautiful peak.  Through their relationship with the mountain, they knew they were significant, a people to be reckoned with upon the earth.  Away in four directions the world streamed, and Dakobed was the center, reference point for existence.  One look, and a person would always know where he was. (ibid:92-3)

       Tom realises that the landscape is key to who the Stehemish are as a people, providing them with an identity which is distinct from other tribes.  In contrast, the White perception is that the mountains are an impediment to financial gain:
The loggers – growing more and more desperate – cursed the mountain for having spawned a wilderness around itself, a barrier between saws and timber.  The miners looked at the mountain and thought of copper and molybdenum and more. (ibid:93)

Language, and the loss of language, plays an important role in the way the earth is perceived in Wolfsong.  Jim Joseph explains how the government school where he was sent as a boy left his mouth ‘swollen and dry with someone else’s words’ (ibid:5) and later, he tells Tom that before the arrival of white men, the concept of ‘wilderness’ did not exist:
[…] there wasn’t any wilderness and there wasn’t any wild animals.  There was only the mountains and river, two-leggeds and four-leggeds and underwater people and all the rest.  It took white people to make the country and the animals wild.  Now they got to make a law saying it’s wild so’s they can protect it from themselves. (ibid:81)

Through the loss of his indigenous language, Jim Joseph has become disconnected from the land and his traditional culture, yet he sees irony in the language that has been imposed upon him.  The loggers and miners curse the wilderness as a physical barrier which impedes their progress, but the designation of land as a ‘wilderness area’ implies the land’s need of protection.  The wilderness is a threat to the loggers and miners, but it is also threatened by them.
Jennifer Brice points to the role of religion in shaping non-Native perceptions of landscape:  ‘Simply stated, whites are taught (by the Bible, for one, which gives man “dominion” over the earth) to see the land as separate from themselves’ and to use its resources for their own benefit (Brice, 1998:127).  Because white culture does not view the earth as a sentient being, human needs take precedence over the needs of the earth.  Tom Joseph’s mother makes a similar observation, about Christianity and the way white society perceives its relationship with the land:
“Indians used to know how to live so’s we didn’t destroy our mother earth.  We had to live that way because we knew we would always be here.  I think white people treat the earth like they do because they think they’ll only be here for a little while.  They believe Jesus Christ, our Lord, is going to come and fix everything and take them all away, so they don’t take care of things.”   (Owens 1991:77)

Although she, herself, is a Christian, Tom’s mother is aware of the damaging effects which Christianity has had on her people.  Ultimately, however, she is pragmatic, and tells Tom that ‘things got to always change’ (ibid:77).  For her, change is unstoppable, and Tom’s challenge is to find a way to reconnect with and honour his Stehemish roots in this changing environment. 
Owens portrays a marked difference in perceptions of landscape along ethnic lines.  Not all Native writers, however, subscribe to this view.  



[i] Federal lands designated as wilderness are protected from use by motorised vehicles and from all forms of development.

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