Saturday, 23 March 2013

The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Exploring Western American Identity, Pt 2

The Quest for Native Identity

Before any discussion of Indian identity can take place, one needs to ask what, exactly, is ‘an Indian’?  Hilary Weaver sets out the complexity of the Indian identity discussion:

There is little agreement on precisely what constitutes an indigenous identity, how to measure it, and who truly has it.  Indeed, there is not even a consensus on appropriate terms.  Are we talking about Indians, American Indians, Natives, Native Americans, indigenous people, or First Nations people?  Are we talking about Sioux or Lakota?  Navajo or Dine?  Chippewa, Ojibway, or Anishnabe?  Once we get that sorted out, are we talking about race, ethnicity cultural identity, tribal identity, acculturation, enculturation, bicultural identity, multicultural identity, or some other form of identity?
(Weaver 2001:240)

The mixedblood Indian writer Hertha Dawn Wong identifies two key features which distinguish the Native American concept of self from that of Euro-Americans: having a connection to and an involvement with community, and a sense of having an interdependent relationship with the universe.  ‘Generally, native people tend to see themselves first as family, clan, and tribal members, and second as discrete individuals. . . . Instead of emphasis on an individual self who stands apart from the community, the focus is on a communal self who participates within the tribe’ (Wong 1992:13-14).  Citing Howard Gardner, Wong goes on to state that Euro-American society is fascinated by the ‘notion of the solitary hero’ while Native Americans tend to view the community as ‘the determining force in an individual’s life’ (Wong 1992:14).  In the same vein, Bevis remarks that the Native American perspective values the group above the individual because ‘the individual alone has no meaning.  Individuality is not even the scene of success or failure; it is nothing’ (1996:30).  The second key feature Wong notes emphasises again the individual’s relationship with the natural world and a sense of having ‘a profound personal responsibility for helping to maintain balance’ (1992:14).  In both of these situations, the individual is seen and accepted as being subordinate to something greater than themselves. 
         In cultures which have undergone sudden and dramatic changes, as have been experienced by Native Americans, traditional routes to identity formation are difficult to maintain.  Loyalties become stretched, relationships altered, and cultural knowledge damaged or lost entirely.  Even when concerted efforts are made to protect the fabric of traditional culture, influences from the dominant society are frequently too strong to resist and in a relatively short period of time, vital connections tying the individual to their cultural heritage are easily broken. 
In Native American communities throughout the country, one of the primary issues involved in discussions of Indianness is the prevalence of intermarriage and mixed-race children, but further complicating the mixedblood debate is the thorny issue of blood quantum.

Mixedblood Identity

Sherman Alexie
At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Blood Quantum law was introduced by the government of Virginia Colony to determine eligibility for citizenship rights. Persons with at least one-half Native ancestry were deemed to be ‘Indian’ and were therefore excluded while those with less than one-half were considered ‘white’.  Since the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 restored a number of rights concerning tribal self-governance and land ownership, blood quantum has been used to substantiate claims for tribal membership, and entitlement to government annuities and other tribal benefits. The practice is highly contentious for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it permits an outside body to classify an individual’s racial identity, regardless of the cultural affiliations that person may have. But despite these government attempts to define Indianness, the question of who is and who is not Indian remains key to contemporary Native American fiction. 
In his fiction and in interviews, Sherman Alexie has repeatedly voiced concerns that mixed-race relationships result in a dilution of Indian cultural identity.  In conversation with Dr. Ross Frank, Alexie states that:

The most dangerous thing for Indians, then, now and forever, is always going to be the fact that we love our colonisers.  And we do.  And [because of that] we are disappearing.  And we will disappear.  And what “Indian” is in a hundred years from now will be unrecognisable to the Indians of today.
 (Frank, 2001)

Alexie (who is 13/16 Indian, comprised of Spokane, Coeur d’Alene and Flathead) claims to have ‘made a conscious decision to marry a fellow native American (sic)’ and has stated that he would prefer his children do the same as a way of protecting tribal culture and Indian identity from becoming lost in a homogenised America (Campbell 2003:118). 
          Although Alexie is keen to preserve Indians as a race, he is neither sentimental nor nostalgic.  Colonisation, with its attendant genocide, dislocation and forced assimilation, he argues, has left Indians with a legacy of suffering which is now integral to Indian identity:

[Y]ou cannot separate our identity from our pain.  At some point it becomes primarily our identity.  The whole idea of authenticity – “How Indian are you?” – is the most direct result of the fact that we don’t know what an American Indian identity is.  There is no measure anymore.  There is no way of knowing, except perhaps through our pain.  And so, we’re lost.  We’re always wandering.
(Nygren 2004:147)

When Chess encounters the mixedblood child towards the end of Alexie’s novel Reservation Blues, the only positive future she can imagine is for the child to ‘breed the Indian out’ of his genes by marrying a white woman, and for his offspring to marry white partners: ‘The fractions will take over. Your half-blood son will have quarter-blood children and eight-blood grandchildren (sic), and then they won’t be Indians anymore. They won’t hardly be Indian, and they can sleep better at night’ (Alexie 1996:283). 
Alexie explores this dilemma again in the short story ‘Class’ when the Indian lawyer Edgar Eagle Runner marries blue-eyed blonde Susan McDermott.  Disapproving of her choice of spouse, the bride’s family boycott the wedding.  Edgar’s ‘dark-skinned mother’, though, is ‘overjoyed’: ‘She’d always wanted me to marry a white woman and beget half-breed children who would marry white people who would beget quarter-bloods, and so on and so on, until simple mathematics killed the Indian in us’ (Alexie 2001:40).  Grassian (2005) suggests that this desire for pale-skinned descendants is evidence of Edgar’s mother’s self-loathing, but surely this is missing the point of Alexie’s argument: ‘when I think about Indians, all I think about is suffering.  My first measure of any Indian is pain’ (Nygren 2004:153).  Could the preference for pale-skinned children simply be an acknowledgement that life would be easier for them if they were seen (and saw themselves) as white? 
In both of these examples from Alexie, the characters who express a desire to ‘breed out’ Indian blood are themselves Indian.  As readers, we understand the desperation that lies behind these statements.  When similar comments are made by non-Indians, however, the speaker’s motives are clearly suspect: ‘Sister Sebastian once told Louise that the best thing Louise could do for herself and for all of her race was to marry a white man and move off the reservation’ (Earling 2002:131). 
The nuns’ contempt for Indianness is evident from the very start of the novel when we learn from Charlie Kicking Woman how the children under their care absorb the nuns’ scorn and turn it inwards on themselves:

[T]he whole while I attended the Ursulines’ the nuns told me how stupid Indians were, again and again, so many times that I began to believe we were stupid.  The idea sank to my heart and I would go home and sulk at the hard life I couldn’t escape, knowing my grandparents must be stupid too . . . .
(Earling 2002:33)

Behind their masks of compassion, the nuns sow the seeds of self-hatred and quietly promote the Indians’ self-annihilation through intermarriage and assimilation.  As Louise, herself half Flathead and half white, contemplates Sister Sebastian’s advice, we see the conflict that intermarriage brings to the tribe:

She thought of all the young Indian women who had chosen to marry white men. They would come back to the reservation with their half-breed sons, with their daughters, faces watchful and afraid. Indian women who held their pale children back from the dance while their husbands visited other squaw men and talked about the stupidity of the tribe, the drunken Indians, all the ways in which Indians could never make things work, lazy Indians, stupid Indians, grinding talk applied to everything Indian, while their own half-breed children squatted in the warm sawdust at the edge of the arena, or stood frowning at the fry bread stand, always away from the tepee circle.
(Earling 2002:131-2)

Although Louise repeatedly runs away from the convent school, we see that she is no longer fully at home on the reservation.  She is drawn to the allure of the white world, with its freedoms and comparative wealth, and in assuming that world’s values, Louise is tricked into rejecting the values and traditions of her own people:

Louise had shrunk back from the stink of brain tanning, even when Grandma called for her help. She hadn’t wanted to boil tallow and pound chokecherries into meat. Lately Louise had become uncomfortable with the smell of buckskin tamarack and jerked meat. She remembered Mrs. Finger sniffing her clothing, how she had hung all Louise’s clothing out on the white clothesline soon after she had arrived. . . . Mrs. Finger had made Louise feel that she was soiled, that her skin would never wash clean, that her dresses would always smell like wood smoke. And she wondered if she too had become like Charlie Kicking Woman, homesick at home, alone with thoughts that she was better and worse than everyone else.
(Earling 2002:96-7)

         Like Charlie, who finds himself ridiculing Indians along with his white colleagues, Louise has sought to be accepted by the white world, reinventing herself in its image.  Both have denied their true identities and donned the mask of assimilation only to be met by rejection.
In these unromanticised fictions, we glimpse the pain Alexie says is at the heart of Indian identity, a pain which is particularly acute in those of mixed ancestry.  But we also see the power of those who are fullblood and the high regard they receive from their community.  These ‘pure Indians’ retain the spiritual qualities that have been lost to the mixedbloods, and are endowed with a special relationship with the natural world: ‘[Louise’s] grandmother did not disturb the grass [as she walked].  She left no wake in the quiet grass.  Louise had known her grandmother to pick huckleberries without staining her fingers.  She was quick and limber.  She was respectful.  She carried the old ways in her’ (Earling 2002:96).
Baptiste Yellow Knife, who is described as ‘the darkest Indian Louise had ever seen, a beaver-dark boy who stood with a strange certainty’ (ibid:5-6) also carries the old ways with him and is recognised by other members of the tribe for his traditional spiritual powers:

Baptiste was from the old ways and everybody hoped he would be different from his mother. He knew things without being told. He knew long before anyone else when the first camas had sprouted. He would inform his mother the night before the flower would appear and he was always right. He knew stories no one but the eldest elder knew but he knew the stories without being told. “He knows these things,” her grandmother had said, “because the spirits tell him. He is the last of our old ones, and he is dangerous.”
(Earling 2004:4)

Baptiste’s powers are viewed with trepidation, particularly by the mixedbloods who feel the absence of any such connection to their cultural past.  Intermarriage has denied them the special knowledge of their ancestors and Baptiste’s bond with the old ways is seen as a threat because ‘he could see and hear things other Indians could not’ (ibid:5).

 Identity Gaps

Baptiste Yellow Knife is in no doubt about his identity.  He strides with confidence through the pages of Perma Red, certain about who he is and the particular role he is destined to play.  He knows his family and his history, and consequently understands how he fits into the landscape in which he lives.  Baptiste knows himself as fully as it is possible for an individual to know himself in an uncertain world.  And although he resides on a reservation in 1940s Montana, not in the pre-contact world of his ancestors, Baptiste conforms to Kellner’s description of traditional forms of identity: 

[I]n traditional societies, one’s identity was fixed, solid, and stable.  Identity was a function of predefined social roles and a traditional system of myths which provided orientation and religious sanctions to one’s place in the world . . . . One was born and died a member of one’s clan, a member of a fixed kinship system, and a member of one’s tribe or group with one’s trajectory fixed in advance.
(Kellner 1992:141)

Such characters, however, particularly in contemporary literature, are rare.  In fiction, as in reality, we see how difficulties surrounding identity arise when there are gaps in the individual’s knowledge of their own story.  William Kittredge writes about how a lack of information about his family’s history in nineteenth century Oregon affected his own sense of identity:

William Kittredge
[A]mong the people who had got hold of some land, people who had something to lose, a man who told stories was regarded as suspect and sappy.  Perhaps people imagined that stories about the strength of ambition and will involved in climbing out of poverty were too lurid for polite mention.  They turned closemouthed and secretive.  For whatever reason, the stories died, and nobody told us anything revealing from the history of our family, or our neighbors’ families.  It was right there, as I understand it, that our failures, in my family, began.  Without stories, in some very real sense, we do not know who we are, or who we might become.

We have already discussed the importance that the oral storytelling tradition has among Native Americans and the role it plays in imparting cultural knowledge.  But storytelling, and the power it has to inform group and individual identity, is not limited to indigenous peoples.  All societies, traditional and modern, use stories to transmit knowledge, history, beliefs and values, and place the individual within a communal and ongoing history.  When stories fail to be told and retold, though, not only do gaps form in our collective memories, threatening the cohesion of the group, but as individuals we begin to question who we are and how we fit into the world.
          When eight-year-old Bob Dollar is abandoned into the care of his Uncle Tam in Annie Proulx’s novel That Old Ace in the Hole, everything he knows about himself is shattered: ‘In the early years Bob often felt he was in fragments, in many small parts that did not join, an internal sack of wood chips’ (Proulx 2004:9).  His parents’ departure leaves Bob with numerous questions about who they were, why they left and why they never returned for him, and in an attempt to explain their behaviour he concocts stories.  But Bob knows these stories are merely fantasies, and that the real answer is that ‘he hadn’t been important enough to take along’ (ibid:7).  The void in Bob’s life, however, is created not just by the absence of his parents but by his almost total lack of knowledge about them as people.  It is this lack of information that leads Bob to question who he, himself, is:

He had no idea who he was, as his parents had taken his identity with them to Alaska.  The world was on casters, rolling away as he was about to step into it.  He knew he had a solitary heart for he had no sense of belonging anywhere.  Uncle Tam’s house and shop were way stations where he waited for the meaningful connections, the event or person who would show him who he was.  At some point he would metamorphose from a secret reindeer to human being, somehow reconnected with his family.
(Proulx 2004:37)  

Orphans and children with absent parents are widespread in Native American fiction:  Abel in N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn; Karl and Mary in Louise Erdrich’s The Beet Queen; Tayo in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony; Louise White Elk in Debra Magpie Earling’s Perma Red; and Alexie’s Thomas Builds the Fire (Reservation Blues), Zits (Flight), and John Smith (Indian Killer) are just a few examples of characters whose missing parents leave them with questions about their own identity. In James Welch’s The Death of Jim Loney we see the tragic affects that absent parents and unanswered questions can have on a character’s sense of self.   
          Abandoned as a baby by his Indian mother, then abandoned again by his white father at the age of eight or nine, Jim Loney’s life is scarred by absence.  After the woman into whose care he has been left also disappears, and his older sister, Kate, moves to the east coast, Jim Loney is psychologically, if not physically, alone.
Loney’s white girlfriend, Rhea, romanticises his mixedblood heritage, telling him, ‘you’re so lucky to have two sets of ancestors.  Just think, you can be Indian one day and white the next.  Whichever suits you’ (Welch 1979:14).  As we have seen previously, though, being a mixedblood is seldom an advantage in Native American fiction, and Loney would prefer ‘to have only one set of ancestors.  It would be nice to think that one was one or the other, Indian or white.  Whichever, it would be nicer than being a half-breed’ (ibid).  Living just outside the Fort Belknap reservation, in the small town of Harlem, Montana, Loney has no knowledge of an extended family, white or Indian, or connection with a tribal community who might help him to construct an identity.  For Loney, being mixedblood means that he is neither Indian nor white. 
         One of the key images, repeated throughout the novel, is of a black bird which appears to Loney in waking visions:

It came every night now.  It was a large bird and dark.  It was neither graceful nor clumsy, and yet it was both.  Sometimes the powerful wings beat the air with the monotony of grace; at other times, it seemed that the strokes were out of tune, as though the bird had lost its one natural ability and was destined to eventually lose the air.

Loney instinctively understands that the bird has some kind of spiritual significance and tells Rhea, ‘Sometimes I think it is a vision sent by my mother’s people.  I must interpret it, but I don’t know how’ (ibid:105).  Without anyone to guide him, the meaning of the vision is lost, as is the meaning of a half-remembered Bible verse: ‘Turn away from man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?’ (ibid:1).  Again and again the vision and the words come to him, but their message remains undiscovered. 
Like Bob Dollar, Loney grapples with fragments of memories which he is unable to piece together into a cohesive story.  But without a sympathetic Uncle Tam figure, Loney has no one to help fill in the gaps in his personal history so that he can make sense of his life and see a way forward: 

[H]e couldn’t connect the different parts of his life, or the various people who had entered and left it. Sometimes he felt like an amnesiac searching for the one event, the one person or moment, that would bring everything back and he would see the order in his life. But without the amnesiac’s clean slate, all the people and events were as hopelessly tangled as a bird’s nest in his mind, and so for almost a month he had been sitting at his table, drinking wine, and saying to himself, “Okay, from this very moment I will start back – I will think of yesterday, last week, last year, until all my years are accounted for. Then I will look ahead and know where I’m going.” But the days piled up faster than the years receded and he grew restless and -despondent.

Though both of Loney’s parents abandoned him, and he is troubled by his almost complete lack of knowledge about his mother, it is the absence of his father, Ike, which he feels most intensely.  His sense of loss is further heightened when, after twelve years, Ike returns to Harlem but refuses for another fourteen years to acknowledge Loney’s existence.  The destructiveness of this paternal rejection is foreshadowed early in the novel when Loney dreams that his father places a shotgun in his hands, telling him, ‘“You might need this, . . . where you’re going”’ (ibid:24).  Isolated, rejected, and with a sense that as a person he is incomplete, Loney sees himself as ‘small’ and ‘nothing’, and believes he has ‘become something of a nonperson, as one only can in a small town’ (ibid:32, 37, 41).  Day by day, his world collapses in on itself, burying him beneath the suffocating rubble of unanswered questions.

         Despite not having any real connection with his cultural or familial roots, however, Loney does feel a connection to the landscape – the prairies and buttes and distant mountains around Harlem.  Over the years, his sister Kate has repeatedly urged Loney to leave Montana and join her in Washington D.C. where, she tells him, he can start again and make something of his life.  But Loney resists her offers because he ‘could not conceive of a life in the East’ (Welch 1979:19).  Likewise, Rhea presses him to go with her to Seattle, suggesting that there he might finally break free from his past and from the visions of the black bird.  But again, Loney resists.  He is certain that the visions are meant to teach him something vital about his life and he does not want to lose them.  What little Loney knows about himself is firmly attached to that specific area of central Montana, and to leave this landscape would be to lose any chance of ever knowing himself more fully. 
We also see Loney’s connection to the landscape through the repeated images of two geographical features, both located on the reservation: the Little Rockies at the extreme south; and Snake Butte, a ‘perfect fortress’ with ‘jagged columns of granite and shallow caves’ (ibid:47), halfway between the mountains and Harlem.  At the beginning of the novel, Loney expresses no particular emotion in regard to the ‘small range’ (ibid:13) on the horizon, visible from his porch, from Rhea’s window and from the main street of Harlem, but the Butte, with its ‘crude drawings of deer and fish and lizard’ (ibid:47) etched into the stone elicits a sense of trepidation: ‘he never got over the feeling that there were lives out there.  Even now it was not good to think about it’ (ibid).  And later, when Loney visits the butte with his sister before her return to Washington, he remembers the ‘dim walls watching him’ when he went fishing there as a boy: ‘There were faces in the walls.  He had discovered them then, and he saw them now.  He had never looked closely because he didn’t want to recognize any of the faces, and certainly not his own’ (ibid:89).  Although Loney claims he ‘never felt Indian’ (ibid:102), he has a sense of there being a living history embedded in the butte and by fearing that he might find his own face among the stony walls, he unconsciously recognises his ancestral links.
By living off the reservation, Loney is separated from both the butte and the mountains, just as he is separated from his Native heritage, but through their constant presence they are, quite literally, a grounding force which, over the course of the novel, draws Loney back towards the source of an Indian identity. 
In a dream, Loney finds himself in the cemetery of the Catholic church ‘down in the valley east of the agency’ (ibid:33).  There, he meets a young Indian woman ‘dressed the way women dressed in pictures thirty years ago’ (ibid: 34), whose face, though not familiar, ‘was a face he had seen before’ (ibid).  The woman is wailing for her lost son who ‘will not allow himself to be found’ (ibid) and points ‘across the prairies to the Little Rockies. . . . [which] were high and blue beneath the snowy peaks’ (ibid).  In indicating that it is in the mountains where her son is lost, we infer that it is there he can be found. 
Unnerved by the sighting of a bear, Loney accidentally kills his childhood friend, Pretty Weasel, while the two are out hunting, but begins to question whether the shooting was in fact intentional.  It is at this point that Loney goes to his father’s trailer at the edge of town.  He knows that this is his last opportunity to ask about his mother and find ‘an explanation to their existences’ (ibid:146). 
It is a poignant meeting, with Loney seeking his father’s approval and making excuses for the way he treated Loney’s mother: ‘“You couldn’t help yourself.  You can’t help the way you are”’ (ibid:142).  As they drink a bottle of homemade whiskey, Loney childishly begs Ike to continue: ‘“Don’t be mad.  I want you to tell me other things”’ (ibid).  When Ike tells Loney that his mother was ‘“as good a goddamn woman as the good lord ever put on this poor earth”’ (ibid:143), Loney seems almost giddy with joy, and again presses Ike to reveal more: ‘“And now – where is she now?”’ (ibid).  There are many rumours about what happened to Loney’s mother, with some claiming she ‘went crazy.  A combination of booze and an excess of men’ (ibid:70); that she was ‘in the state [mental] hospital in Warm Springs’ (ibid); in prison; or working with Eskimos in Alaska.  When Ike tells Loney that the last he knew was that she was a nurse in New Mexico, Loney’s mood turns.  ‘“I’d have thought she’d be on the skids”’ (ibid:143), he says.  If his mother were an alcoholic or mentally ill, or incapacitated in some other way, Loney might be able to find a plausible excuse for her absence.  The thought that she could be living a full and healthy life elsewhere only reinforces his feelings of abandonment.  And when Ike tells Loney that the woman who took him in after he, too, left, the woman whom Loney ‘had tried hardest to love’ (ibid:51), did so simply because she was a social worker, the final glimmer of hope is extinguished.  Loney no longer has anything to lose – or anything to gain.
Loney finally tells his father that he has killed Pretty Weasel and that he is going to Mission Canyon in the Little Rockies, rather than turning himself in to the police.  Louis Owens regards this confession as the point at which Loney finally takes control of his life for he knows that his father will inform the police.  By accepting Ike’s sixteen-gauge shotgun, Loney re-enacts his earlier dream and ensures that the police who come after him know he is armed.  In this way, Loney orchestrates his own death, effectively committing suicide by proxy. 
Loney drives south towards the Little Rockies, abandoning his car to walk through the early-morning streets of Hays, the little reservation town ‘on the edge of the world’ (ibid:166).  From there, he continues to the narrow entrance of Mission Canyon, from where he takes ‘one last look at the world’ (ibid:167).  As Loney passes through the canyon entrance, into a new, different world, we sense a change taking place:

If it had been any other night Loney would have been a little frightened by those towering cold walls, the darkness and his step.  He thought about the Indians who had used the canyon, the hunting parties, the warriors, the women who had picked chokecherries farther up.  He thought about the children who had played in the stream, and the lovers.  These thoughts made him comfortable and he wasn’t afraid.

As he makes his way up to a vantage point above the valley to wait for the police to arrive, Loney remembers his dream about the young woman who was mourning her lost son, and this time he recognises her:

She was not crazy – not now, not ever.  She was a mother who was no longer a mother.  She had given up her son to be free and that freedom haunted her.  All the drinks, all the men in the world, could never make her free.  And so she had come back to him in his dream and told him that her son would not allow himself to be found.  He was not in that churchyard grave – he was out here in these mountains, waiting.

Owens (1992:154) and Paula Gunn Allen (1986:145) both refer to Loney’s death as that of a warrior for although he has been unable to find a direction or purpose for his life, he ultimately decides his own destiny by choosing the place and manner of his death. 
While Allen believes that Loney has finally come to recognise the black bird as his spirit guide, and sees his last actions as evidence that he has reconnected with his heritage, Owens is less convinced.  Yes, Loney dies a warrior’s death, but according to Owens, he remains a victim in death, just as he was in life, because he still has no concept of contemporary ‘Indianness’.  Rather, Owens argues, Loney believes in the Euro-American conceit that the world of ‘real’ Indians no longer exists: ‘By choosing to die “like a warrior,” Loney adopts the stance of the Indian as tragic hero, that inauthentic, gothic imposition of European America upon the Native American’ (Owens 1992:155). 
It is true that Loney has not achieved complete identity at the novel’s end and that his concept of what it is to be Indian is in its formative stages.  But this is not surprising given the dysfunctionality of Loney’s life.  His lack of teachers and guides has impeded his emotional progress and his search for self-knowledge.  Loney has not reached his goal of finding an identity for himself, but he has taken his first steps towards it.    

Friday, 8 March 2013

The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Exploring Western American Identity, Pt 1

The Shaping of a Western Identity
photo by Karen Murray

In June 2010, The Crab Creek Review sparked debate on a number of academic blogs about the validity of regional classifications of contemporary writers when it published an interview with the novelist David Guterson.  Responding to a question about ‘Northwest writers’, Guterson, who was born and has spent most of his life in Seattle, and whose novels are mostly set in the city and its Northwest environs, was vociferous in refuting regionalism as a valid contemporary concept:

There might have been a time when geography and culture converged in such a way as to make the regional identification of artists a worthwhile practice…. Today, with the exception of the handful of essentially isolated cultures remaining on the planet, human beings have a limited relationship to place, and this is, of course, reflected in the arts.  To be a ‘Northwest writer’ in the 21st century simply means that, like billions of people in other places, your sensibility and view of the world are informed by influences near and far – but mostly far.  Even thirty years ago this wasn’t the case.  There was something quite Northwest indeed about the so-called ‘Northwest School’ of poets…but that now seems a thing of the past.  Today we have a lot of writers who live here but who are in no way representative of ‘place’ in the way those poets were. 
(Agodon 2010) 

Guterson suggests that distinct regional identities cannot exist in a country such as the United States where twenty-four hour television, global branding and ease of travel have brought us into contact with so many of the same influences.  But is Guterson’s claim really valid?  Are regional identities, which he admits were until recent decades regarded as defining features of many authors’ work, no longer pertinent in contemporary society?  Surely regional identities will exist, and will percolate through a writer’s work to give it a distinct flavour, as long as regions themselves exist. 
Despite the influences which Guterson points to, the United States is not a homogenised whole.  Southerners are distinct from Southwesterners; Easterners are distinct from Northerners; and Midwesterners are distinct from Westerners.  Clear differences remain in the ethnic makeup of the various regions, as well as differences in innumerable aspects of daily life such as cuisine, laws, religion, education, and what can only be described as mindset.  Within its borders, there exists in the United States countless pockets of difference which result in place-specific identities. 
It is my contention that the influences which Guterson points to as having undermined regional identities have in fact resulted in only superficial changes in the way we see ourselves.  We may watch the same sitcoms and eat the same franchised fast food as our compatriots in other parts of the United States – and indeed, in other parts of the world – but I would argue that the primary factors responsible for shaping the way Americans define who they are as individuals are the same factors that have always shaped them: our families, and the landscape and history of the place we call home. 

American Identities: modern, mobile, mutable

In his essay ‘Region, Power, Place’, the writer and academic William Bevis describes an image of American society which I believe is at the heart of Guterson’s argument.  This ‘capitalist modernity’, Bevis writes, ‘seeks to create a kind of no-place’ where all Americans can belong and is intrinsically at odds with regionalism (Bevis 1996:21).  What we think of as modern identity, characterised by being ‘mobile, multiple, personal, self-reflexive, and subject to change and innovation’ (Kellner 1992:142) is not, according to Bevis, an identity at all because it strives to eliminate regional distinctiveness in favour of neutrality.  Euro-Americans, he suggests, particularly those aspiring to positions of power, sacrifice real identity in favour of an indistinct and unidentifiable ethnicity which cannot be linked to any single location.  By adapting our behaviour to become ‘a nobody, from nowhere’ (Bevis 1996:22) in order to reap the economic empowerment modern society offers, we become defined by vocation rather than place. 
          Unlike Guterson, though, Bevis continues to believe in the relevance of regionalism and views western American literature, with its emphasis on nature and landscape, and its distinctive regional voice, as being an important means of resisting the generic not-identity of contemporary America

Western Identities: belonging to place

‘The question of what we are depends greatly on where we are.’
(Ladino 2009:45)

At the close of the nineteenth century, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner published his essay ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’ which attempted to chart the development of American identity in relation to the westward movement of the frontier.  As mentioned in Chapter One, this ‘Frontier Thesis’ posited the idea that as each new wave of settlement pushed further and further west, ‘civilisation’ repeatedly came up against the ‘savagery’ of the wilderness and, in the space between these two opposing forces, a distinctive American identity was forged.  To meet the challenges of the unfamiliar environments they encountered, Turner states that Americans were forced to adapt their ways of thinking and that successive waves of pioneers increasingly diverged from their long-settled European cousins.  Over the three centuries in which the frontier was on the move, this evolutionary process also created a marked division between East and West, with the latter becoming, in Turner’s eyes, more independent, more democratic, and more ‘American’ as it drew closer to the Pacific coast.  Turner described the characteristics of American identity produced by the frontier as being:

That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom – these are the traits of the frontier.
(Turner 1893:59)

Western American writers, as we have already seen in the examples of Wister’s The Virginian and Cather’s O Pioneers!, have actively nurtured the myth Turner created of a West ripe with optimism and opportunity, a land where prosperity awaits the hard-working, the pure-of-heart, the rugged and the self-reliant.  Turner’s vision remains the foundation of Western identity: the way he imagined us is the way we wish ourselves to be.  It is an image, however, that many are increasingly forced to question.

In the introduction to Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, Wallace Stegner’s collection of essays on identity and the West, the author acknowledges the ‘unquenchable hope’ and ‘indigenous optimism’ (1992:xxvii) embodied in Turner’s thesis, and refers to the West as ‘hope’s native home’ (ibid:xxi).  Yet he admits that he, himself, struggles to remain hopeful in light of the environmental damage caused by generations of immigrants exploiting the land’s limited resources and delicate eco-system. 
Much of the optimism of the western frontier stems from the availability of inexpensive or free land, particularly from the 1840s onwards.  Land provided people, often for the first time, with the opportunity to support themselves and their families, independent of an employer.  Owning and cultivating one’s own property offered the hope of economic freedom and the ability to decide the course of one’s own fate.  In Stegner’s words, western hopefulness resulted from ‘the common man’s dream of something for nothing’ (ibid:xxvi).  But while free land offered the hope of prosperity, actual prosperity was elusive.  Because of the arid climate found throughout much of the West, it was often only through harsh and exploitative practices that the land could, for a short time at least, be made profitable. 
In his memoir, Hole in the Sky, the writer William Kittredge looks back on the farming and ranching empire his family built in southern Oregon during the early years of the twentieth century – an empire the size of Delaware which he describes as being ‘one of the paradigm ranches in the American West’ (1992:152).  As with many frontier farmers, however, the Kittredge family found the natural world to be an imperfect place, too wet in the shadow of the mountains where the snowmelt collected in the spring, and too dry in the alkali plains which dominated the landscape.  Determined to improve the land’s fertility, the wetlands were drained and the desert was irrigated: ‘We were doing God’s work, and thought we were making a paradise on earth, a perfection of fields’ (ibid:171).  For a few years, Kittredge writes, the ‘new ground’ his family created produced the finest crops found in the country (ibid:43). 
But while the Kittredge family grew wealthy by reshaping the land, their actions had devastating, long-term consequences for the environment.  It is this ever-increasing damage to the landscape which tempers the natural optimism of many contemporary westerners like Stegner.
The American West is an arid landscape which, prior to American settlement, supported a sparse population of Native people who lived within the limits of the resources that were readily available.  Once settlement began, however, it was necessary to find permanent sources of water.  Wells were drilled, dams were built, and rivers were redirected.  As the population has grown, demand for water has outpaced the ability of the ancient underground aquifers to replenish themselves and  access to what is now known to be a finite supply of water has proven to be the major environmental dilemma facing the West.  Stegner makes the point bluntly: ‘in the dry West, using water means using it up’ (xxiii).  High concentrations of people, with a desire for golf courses, green lawns, swimming pools and numerous other water-consuming luxuries of modern suburban life pose a very real threat.  For ecologically-conscious Westerners like Stegner, such concerns can make it difficult to remain hopeful about the region’s future.
Life in the West, though, has always been precarious, and just as the landscape has engendered a sense of hopefulness in Western identity, its challenges have also engendered tenacity.  A fine balance exists between prosperity and failure, and Westerners take pride in their ability to endure the harsh conditions which the West frequently metes out.  As Francis Scott Keister says in That Old Ace in the Hole:

Goddam, I’m a Texas native, I was born right here in the panhandle, right in Woolybucket.  Us native panhandle Texans don’t whine and bitch about wind and dust and hard times – we just get through it.  We work hard.  We’re good neighbors.  We raise our kids in clean air.  We got a healthy appreciation for the outdoors.  We pray and strive to remain here forever.  We are Christians.  We are bound to the panhandle like in a marriage.  It’s like for sicker or poorer, richer or healthier, better or best.  Livin here makes us tough, hard and strong. 
(Proulx 2002:197-8)

The challenging conditions of the Western landscape are part of what differentiates the West – particularly the rural West – from the East, and the ability to cope with these challenges is one of the things which Westerners claim sets them apart from Easterners.
I am not the first to suggest that Western identity is shaped by landscape.  Just as the land is subject to erosion by wind and water, spurred on at times by unwise agricultural and logging practices, in the Western myth the land itself exerts an eroding force on the human psyche.  It sculpts the individual and shapes them into a human version of itself, like Keister’s assessment of Texans as being ‘tough, hard and strong’.  Where this erosion is most effective, landscape and individual fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and the individual develops a sense of belonging to a specific place – a place where he feels complete.  Stegner describes how he discovered his Western identity when he moved to Iowa at the age of twenty-one: ‘the very first time I moved out of the West I realized what it meant to me’, he writes: ‘I was a Westerner’ and once parted from the landscape ‘I also began to realize how deeply it had been involved in my making’ (1992:19,17,18).

Regional identities are just that – regional.  They encompass vast areas of space with diverse population groups, extremes of landscape and climate, and histories which though part of the greater American tapestry contain patterns which are unique to and have particular importance to specific localities.  To talk of a ‘western identity’ is to talk in generalities.  Even if we limit the definition of ‘the West’ to its most westerly environs, excluding everything to the east of the Rockies, the landscape included would take in both the coastal rainforests of Washington and Oregon state and the high deserts of Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico.  It would include the metropolis of Los Angeles and the rural farming communities of north Idaho.  It would include the fourteen million Hispanic Americans who have lived in the Southwest for generations, and California’s 3.5 million Asian-born immigrants.  While there will undoubtedly be some commonalities between the people of the West – what divides us cannot be said to be any less significant than what unites us.  Rather than a single Western identity, numerous local identities exist, formed in part by the unique mix of influences which come together in a specific location.
photo by Karen Murray

Within Idaho, a state roughly the same size as Great Britain but with a population density of just 19 people per square mile,[i] landscape, politics, history and even time zones act to separate the residents of one part of the state from another. Eighty per cent of the state’s 1.5 million people live in south Idaho, along the 400-mile long arc of the Snake River Plain.  Southern Idaho is primarily a desert region of volcanic and alluvial soils and thanks to widespread irrigation, first introduced by Mormon immigrants in the mid nineteenth century, it has become a major agricultural belt.  Thanks to the fertility of this region, automobiles registered throughout Idaho bear license plates sporting the motto ‘Famous Potatoes’.  Since 1865, when north Idahoans claim the territorial capitol was ‘stolen’[ii] from Lewiston and transferred to Boise, south Idaho has also been the seat of political power. Politics, economics and religion have all contributed to the sense of difference between north and south, and these factors have largely been shaped by the landscape. 
       Winding alongside the Little Salmon and Salmon rivers much of the way, Highway 95 is the only road in Idaho connecting north and south.  Prior to the completion of the White Bird Hill segment of the road in 1921, travellers between the two regions had either to travel cross country or via the neighbouring states of Oregon and Washington to the west or Montana to the east.  The historical lack of movement between the two regions has, for the most part, continued to the current day and has fostered a real sense of physical separation.  The feeling remains so strong that since the 1880s, north Idahoans have made repeated calls for secession (Wrobel and Steiner 1997:183-4).
 The first big influx of Americans to north Idaho came in the wake of the discovery of gold on the Nez Perce Indian reservation in 1860.  On hearing that gold could be found ‘in every place in the streams, in the flats and banks and [that] gold generally diffused from the surface to the bedrock’ (quoted in Allen 1990:5), thousands of prospectors quit the expended placer mines of California and headed into the rugged mountain regions of Idaho Territory, above the Clearwater River.  Where prospectors went, merchants, whiskey traders, gamblers and highwaymen soon followed (USDA no date:2) and by early 1861, several boom towns had taken root within the boundaries of the Nez Perce reservation, including the illegal ‘tent city’ at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers which would become the city of Lewiston,[iii] serving as a supply station and a drop-off point for prospectors travelling into the territory by steamboat.[iv]  Josephy (1965:407-8) states that ‘In January 1862, it was estimated that $3,000,000 in gold had already been shipped from mines on the Nez Perce reservation, and it seemed to be just the start.’  An earlier treaty had negotiated access rights for miners, but conflicts grew as Americans poured into the country and ignored the restrictions it imposed.  To the Americans, it was clear that a new treaty was needed.  In June 1863, Nez Perce leaders already living within the boundaries of the proposed reservation signed a treaty that ceded almost ninety per cent of the land previously occupied by the tribe (Josephy 1965:429).
From whichever perspective we choose to look, we can see how the landscape of Idaho, in geographical, geological and economic terms influenced its history and continues to shape the consciousness of its people.

Land and landscape is, of course, also a vital component of Native American identity.  The Cherokee scholar Sean Kicummah Teuton states that ‘Indigenous people, by definition, grow from the land, and … everything else – identity, history, culture – stems from that primary relationship with homelands’ (2008:45).  Not only does the land directly provide the people with the necessities of life, sustenance and shelter, but it also serves as a repository for tribal history.  Past events are connect to and remembered through the places where they occurred, and by remembering, retelling and reimagining these (hi)stories in situ, landscape becomes an active participant in the sharing of cultural knowledge.  Writing about her Laguna Pueblo ancestors, Leslie Marmon Silko discusses the importance of landscape in the oral storytelling tradition, and describes how these stories can be seen not merely as allegorical ‘maps’ but as practical methods for locating oneself in and finding one’s way through a specific space:

. . .[H]unting stories [for instance] were not merely after-dinner entertainment. These accounts contained information of critical importance. . . . Hunting stories carefully described key landmarks and locations of fresh water. Thus, a deer-hunt story might also serve as a map. Lost travelers and lost piƱon-nut gatherers have been saved by sighting a rock formation they recognize only because they once heard a hunting story describing this rock formation.
(Silko 1996:32)

          What Silko describes here is a functional relationship, whereby the land is not only a repository for stories but also serves as an aide-memoire, assisting in the preservation of cultural memory.  By encouraging the recall of the stories attached to it, the earth reinforces the identity of the people. 
Often, though, the Native relationship with landscape is expressed in metaphysical terms.  The poet and novelist Paula Gunn Allen, who also identifies herself most closely with her Laguna Pueblo heritage, describes the relationship thus:

We are the land. . . . More than remembered, the Earth is the mind of the people as we are the mind of the earth.  The land is not really the place (separate from ourselves) where we act out the dramas of our isolate destinies.  It is not a means of survival, a setting for our affairs, a resource on which we draw in order to keep our own act functioning.  . . . It is rather a part of our being, dynamic, significant, real. . . .
. . . [T]his relationship [is not] one of mere ‘affinity’ for the Earth.  It is not a matter of being ‘close to nature.’ The relationship is more one of identity, in the mathematical sense, than of affinity.  The Earth is, in a very real sense, the same as ourself (or ourselves), and it is this primary point that is made in the fiction and poetry of the Native American writers of the Southwest.

(Allen 1979:191)

Allen’s assessment follows that of Luther Standing Bear who, when recounting the Lakota creation story, says of the relationship, ‘We are of the soil and the soil is of us’ (1978:45). 
In fiction, we see this same sentiment expressed in Wolfsong, where Jim Joseph is at home in the forest of Washington state, and together with his wolf spirit guide, as he, too, becomes part of the landscape: ‘. . . [H]e became a shadow, and then he disappeared’ (Owens 1991:4).  In Jim Joseph, Owens depicts a traditional culture and traditional forms of identity which are slipping from grasp in a contemporary and quickly changing landscape.  The ancient forests are being ravaged with the help of the local indigenous community, and tribal memory is all but lost in a world where economic pressures outweigh cultural concerns.
          Debra Magpie Earling hints at these same ontological connections in her novel Perma Red when she writes of Charlie Kicking Woman pining for Louise White Elk:
I compare Louise to the land, connect the idea of her somehow to when I was a kid and we’d have to go to wakes in Camas Prairie.  God, I hated that country.  It was hot and dry, nothing but weeds or cold stinging wind at thirty below.  A couple of trees.  An August dust so fine it powdered your knees when you walked, or sand-snow drifting across houses and roads, brutal and blinding.  That was Camas Prairie.  Now I drive that stretch of road in winter and summer.  I come down into that valley and the fields are pale and the sky is pale and peaceful with a sun that lights even the ragged weeds, every distant hill, every rock shimmering a different color.  I can see for miles and I can’t stop looking or thinking about how lucky I am to see this country, to belong here.  I can’t stop looking at this land and I guess that’s what Louise is like to me.  She’s always changing.  I can’t get a fix on her.  But because we have shared close to the same plot of land, because we are from the same tribe, we are alike.  Something about Louise and something about all the Indians here is something about me, a blood kinship, a personal history shared.
(Earling 2002:28)

What Charlie expresses, here, is clearly a spiritual union with the land around him, a land that is deeply familiar, yet also mysterious which, like Louise, he cannot quite fathom.  And while he compares Louise to the land, he also identifies himself and the other members of the Flathead tribe with the piece of ground they occupy.  They are alike because they come from the same land, and because of the cultural history that land contains.  For Charlie, the land itself is key to who he and his community are. 
          This connection is not something he is able to share with his wife, however:

Aida, my wife, is Yakima Indian.  She grew up far from the Flathead, and sometimes that makes me feel distant from her, as if something is missing between us.  Aida can live here the rest of her life, speak pretty much the same language, but her home place is different from mine.  I hold no remembrance of the people and places of my wife’s past.  Louise, on the other hand, has always been a part of everything I have known and loved.  She is part of me.

It would appear that Charlie does not see his wife as having the same sense of belonging to the Camas Prairie that he feels and that regardless of how long she lives on the Flathead reservation (or indeed how long they are married), her identity will remain, at least in part, other.  This admission implies that Charlie believes there is more to identity than can be acquired through long-held familiarity or a desire to belong, an idea we will return to later in this chapter. 

[i] According to the Office for National Statistics, the 2010 population density of Great Britain was 717 persons per square mile (
[ii] In 1863 the first governor of Idaho Territory, William H. Wallace, named Lewiston as territorial capital, partly due to its location at the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers, which would allow easy passage of Idaho gold to the US Mint in San Francisco. In the very first legislative session, calls were made for the capital to be moved to Boise but these were not passed into law until the second session in December 1864. Questions arose as to the legality of the second session, however, due to it taking place prior to the January 1st 1865 start of term for the voting legislators. Three months later, the new acting governor, accompanied by a party of soldiers from Fort Lapwai, broke into Lewiston’s capitol, and stole the First Great Seal and other territorial documents, taking them to Boise which was eventually given legal status as territorial capital in June 1866.
[iii] The erection of permanent structures was not permitted on Indian land without consent of the Nez Perce, but many of the early buildings set up in Lewiston circumvented the law by having canvas roofs and thus meeting the definition of ‘temporary’. Many others, however, made no pretence at keeping within the law. 
[iv] At a distance of 465 miles from the Pacific coast, Lewiston has the distinction of being the furthest inland seaport city in the western United States (Idaho Dept of Commerce