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.    

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