25 March 2008

Notebook Artifact: Summer 1995

Written in a spiral notebook 28 June 1995, Fort Loudon Lake, Tennessee.

What we call history and what we call the novel are more recent than what we call the Columbian encounter. When Natives embrace writing and written genres, we cannot affirm that what they embrace is wholly Western because these forms emerged in a world deeply infused with economies and ideologies formed in contact with multiple non-European worlds. (Even the Renaissance and subsequent Reformation owe much to the deepening interchange between Christian and Muslim words that characterized the late-Middle Ages.) However, we might examine how “history” and the “novel” were formed as Western constructs during an imperial age, and how they must be reformed in our own and future ages. While American Indians were always present as the Other in history and the novel as we have received them, they now speak as agents who employ and transform these genres. Still, the Natives of today do no share the same world as their ancestors any more than Europeans and Americans share the same world as Europeans of the sixteenth century. Still yet, there is enough continuity with the past in present-day native communities that many writing as Natives offer perspectives that must be distinguished from the perspectives of European Americans.

American Indian fiction and American Indian history are deeply European American discourses. These discourses must be transformed by Natives, as well as by non-Natives writing about Natives, in order to more accurately render the worlds of the indigenes of North America—past and present. One location of transformation may be the construct that distinguishes “history” from “fiction”.

This is not to say that we must lose our ability to distinguish what is true or accurate from what is not. Rather, truth must be seen from other points-of-view. Truth may be situational, rather than empirical. It may be experiential, rather than objective.

I am not advocating that we abandon the practice of history, especially not ethnohistory and the new Indian history. I am advocating that the truth-claims of these genres of writing do not necessarily have priority over the truth-claims of fiction. In fact, certain so-called novels by contemporary American Indian writers, if not more truthful and more accurate than what we call history, at least offer necessary truths that cannot be accommodated within the constrictions of history as it is currently understood. It is possible, therefore, that some of the best work in American Indian history in our day is packaged as fiction, and is thus too much ignored by historians.

Literary critics, on the other hand, who often believe they already understand these truths of fiction, too easily posit themselves as more enlightened than historians. Yet, without the groundings in material realities and the ability to step back from their subject matter that are second nature to the historian, they are equally restricted by their conventions of analysis. Despite a strong movement toward several forms of interdisciplinary multiculturalism in literary studies, the offerings of historians have been too much ignored. In taking fiction seriously as history, it is imperative that we remember the conventions of history as they have been received.

There remains a crucial difference between the food obtained by such human constructs as the atlatl, bow and arrow, gun, and slaughterhouse, and the food consumed by Peter Pan and the Lost Boys in one of their imaginary meals. Too often, in extolling the truth-value of fiction, it is easy to forget the difference between the death of the Jim Loney of fiction and the many real persons who have died similar deaths.

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