What is the difference between literature of the western tradition—"white" literature—and American Indian literature? What reliable distinctions can we make; what taxonomy can we apply to a genre only nebulously defined? After years mumbling that critical bone, I have tasted only a little marrow. I don't have a suggestion for making the distinction; but I can offer a few informed questions which may open directions of inquiry.
But first, some observations may suggest that the distinction does not merit consideration: Nezahualcoyotl, prince of fifteenth-century Texcoco, wrote poems no more alien to the western tradition, except for subject matter, than Rilke's or Villon's. And Jim Welch, certainly an "Indian poet," in the sense that each word applies to him separately, has said that he wants recognition as a poet, not as an "Indian poet." And if the poetry of, say, Gary Snyder differs substantively in form or content from that of half a dozen youhg American Indians writing poetry—Simon Ortiz, Leslie Silko, Peter Blue Cloud, Roberta Hill, for instance—I am at a loss to see or identify that difference. And if there is something intrinsically "Indian" about The Surrounded or Sundown not equally true of The Man Who Killed the Deer—some identifiable theme, approach to a theme, element of style or ground in tradition—I have been unable to find it.
The most sacrosanct of texts is not safe from controversy, as the case of Black Elk Speaks must demonstrate. The question of that book's authenticity smoulders, fed by scholarly investigation into the Neihardt manuscripts, fueled by explicit contradictions in The Sacred Pipe and in the autobiography of John Fire (Lame Deer). The most popular of texts almost inevitably are exposed as pathetic or invidious hoaxes: Hanta Yo, which charged inexorably toward our television screens for all the informed attempts to halt its desecration of Yankton religion and its Ayn Rand-derived "objectification" of Yankton culture; Seven Arrows, a cult novel denounced by the people who are its subject; the endless serial of Carlos Castaneda's utterly spurious autobiography, a million-dollar baby born in one of the century's most thorough academic put-ons, the endless and embarrassing promotion of white racist Forrest Carter's mediocre novel, The Education of Little Tree, as a poignant true story of Indian childhood by the crass cynicism of an academic press.
Finally, the translation of traditional Indian texts is a literary desert scattered with the corpses of last year's "authentic" recreations, translations as ephemeral as mayflies, by translators well-meaning and well-trained enough to humble this year's aspirants. We have seen translations in the late nineteenth century make the Navajos seem precursors of Whitman, more modern translations in which the Chippewa midewiwin societies become Imagist collectives, and contemporary ones that make the Zunis Beat Poets. We have seen anthologies of poetry assembled from the literal texts in government documents, often gussied up to make them "poetical" by verbal cosmetologists lacking rudimentary knowledge of the source languages.
Peter Wild, in his Boise State University Western Writer's Series pamphlet on Welch, has approved Jim Welch's rejection of the label "Indian poet," and Wild particularly objects to the insistence, on the part of certain ethnic lit proponents, that you can't "really appreciate" an Indian poet unless you understand the writer's work socio/ethno/culturally. Is this different, Wild asks, from demanding that we read European poetry in its original languages, or from holding that we cannot truly appreciate eighteenth-century English verse because we have no immediate apprehension of the Augustan poet's sense of his place on the Great Chain of Being? I find Wild's complaint apt, especially in the context of Welch's work; I have wondered, as Wild does, to what degree Welch himself can be expected to know the details of Gros Ventre initiation ceremonies or Blackfeet folklore.
And yet—there has to be an "and yet"—
Ray Young Bear, an Iowa Mesquakie, employs a surrealism in his poetry unlike that in Welch's; it plays in and out of a vocabulary of folklore that often "realizes" the apparently surreal. Welch's surrealism is a literary style, but Young Bear's represents the world apprehended from a Mesquakie perspective. Welch's literary roots are academic poetry schools and his work more influenced by Stafford, Tate, and Hugo than by tribal storytellers; Young Bear holds no academic degrees; his poems are composed in Mesquakie and then translated during the writing process.
Whether more traditional than Young Bear or more assimilated intellectually than Welch, the contemporary American Indian author is a person between two worlds, a mediator—to the extent he can be, she chooses to be—between white literacy and an Indian culture little removed from alliteracy. An American Indian author may possess excellences that recommend him to a world audience of literate readers, yet those very qualities may interfere with the experience of the American Indian reader; an author may speak precisely to her culture, albeit in English, and in the vocabulary of that culture, while the white reader wonders about her mastery of basic English grammar. Truly mediating works are rare: The Man Who Killed the Deer, Ceremony, certain of Peter Blue Cloud's poems, and some of Scott Momaday's best work.
Momaday has performed equally well at both poles over his brief and incomplete career: He is the author of a novel rooted in experimental fiction, as indebted to Nabokov as to folklore, at once rich with autobiographical detail and personal observation, and networked with ethnographical research, scholarly erudition and literary allusion; he is the author of an evocative blend of Kiowa folklore, poetry and personal memory, and historical research that somehow attains the appearance of pure surface, for all the mass of design and precision of purpose.
Momaday's poetry has evolved, since it was first praised in Yvor Winters' Forms of Discovery, from dense, post-Symbolist exercises to include an open form most easily described as prose-poetry. The stages of that evolution represent the differences between poetry as it is conceived of in the Western tradition and poetry as it appears most typically in American Indian cultures. I would like to look briefly at two poems that occupy each pole of this discrimination, and then to look more carefully one of Momaday's finest acts of mediation, the poem "Eagle Feather Fan."
"Pit Viper" and "The Horse that Died of Shame," from The Gourd Dancer (Harper& Row, 1976), represent the polarities of Momaday's work. "Pit Viper," one of his first published works, part of a set of three animal poems (one on each of the three central animals of House Made of Dawn) is a dense, challenging poem, heavy with private image, most of its beauty in the language itself. A description of an old rattlesnake shedding his skin, it demands meticulous attention even to elicit the topic, much less to apprehend what is being said about the topic. The very vocabulary resists immediate understanding: "cordate" Momaday calls the head, rather than simply "heart-shaped"; like the opening words of "Buteo Regalis" ("His frailty discrete") or "The Bear" ("What ruse of vision, /escarping the wall of leaves, /rending incision"), the vocabulary warns us of a poetic landscape at once precise and forbidding, clean and crisp and, like the thin clear air of mountaintops, not for the untrained or casual-minded.
The cordate head meanders through himself:
Metamorphosis. Slowly the new thing,
Kindled to flares along his length, curves out.
From the evergreen shade where he has lain,
Through inland seas and catacombs he moves.
Four lines of scientific precision open the poem, coupled with a single metaphor so accurate as to hardly seem one, but our expectations tumble in the fifth line, neither factual nor photographic. Arrested by the line, we finally decrypt it as a hyperbolic image for the viper's age. He moves backward in time, from under the tree where we found him into the "inland seas" of prehistory, the caves and catacombs of Time. The next lines stretch our understanding still further:
Blurred eyes that ever see have seen him waste,
Acquire, and undiminished: have seen death—
Or simile—come nigh and overcome.
They describe the snake's eyes, beginning in observable fact but torqued immediately into Byzantine syntax, a sentence that concludes self-reflexively, almost recursively, in a comment about the poem itself, an extended simile. Then, done with us, the poem surfaces again in mere observation, returning to the fact of the snake, the fact of his shedding, and the biology of reptilian age and hunger.
Alone among his kind, old, almost wise,
Mere hunger cannot urge him from this drowse.
I do not intend to suggest through this sketchy analysis that "Pit Viper" is a good (or a bad) poem, nor to imply that poetry should be more accessible than this or its companion pieces. This kind of poem appeals to a certain understanding, its nature essentially, though certainly not exclusively, Western, white. The contrast to the other poem, "The Horse that Died of Shame," is immediately apparent:
Once there was a man who owned a fine hunting horse. It was black and fast and afraid of nothing. When it was turned upon an enemy it charged in a straight line and struck at full speed; the man need have no hand upon the rein. But, you know, that man knew fear. Once during a charge he turned that animal from its course. That was a bad thing. The hunting horse died of shame.
—From The Way to Rainy Mountain
In the one color of the horse there were many colors. And that evening it wheeled, riderless, and broke away into the long distance, running at full speed. And so it does again and again in my dreaming. It seems to concentrate all color and light into the final moment of its life, until it streaks the vision plane and is indefinite, and shines vaguely like the gathering of March light to a storm.
The language itself is direct, simple, and clear. We picture the horse's speed like a shooting star's, the horse's flight as a transfiguration, all immediately. No single word challenges the common vocabulary, no image demands reflection before we can see it in the mind's eye. The bare statement somehow, by virtue of its appearance in a book of poetry, merits the label "poem." And the "poem" is accompanied by a headnote, presumably prose, since headnotes are usually not poems themselves. Besides, the headnote is a excerpt from The Way to Rainy Mountain, where it was certainly "prose." The poem is two words shorter than the headnote but fifteen syllables longer—nearly 20%—and it contains four sentences to the headnote's eight. The poem follows its headnote like a succeeding paragraph; they do not quite flow smoothly together, the transitional bridge fractured by the source reference added below the headnote, but the poem at once continues and comments upon the headnote. Without the headnote, the poem would still speak its language clearly and summon the image Momaday concentrates his vision upon, but the meaning would become private, the poem contextless.
"The Horse that Died of Shame" transforms a moment of folklore into a moment of supernatural magic. The headnote tells a tale we do not quite believe on a naturalistic level, a story whose climax violates our sense of the nature of horses, but a story with no other demands to make on our credulity; up to the moment of the horse's death, the story seems "true." The poem, however, renders the idea of the horse's death in an extended metaphor, taking the one "lie" of the folktale and magnifying it into an magic image of a supernatural horse abandoning an unworthy master and, by implication, an unworthy plane of existence. The horse's supernatural origins, unmentioned in the headnote, Momaday signals immediately by a reference to "many colors," a term from Navajo mythology and associated with the gods. At once the term announces the spiritual nature of the horse and vivifies the sheen of its blackness. Its speed, natural in the headnote, becomes unnatural, unlimited, as Momaday "dreams" of the horse accelerating into a blur then beyond that into pure light.
The viper slipped across an indefinite line between reality and metaphor, while the horse crosses a different, if equally indefinite border, that between reality and the spirit, between this world and another world behind it. Certainly either poem could have been written by a white author or an Indian, but for the white audience, the sense in which the horse inhabits a "poem," however lovely the language, is much more problematical. Perhaps an Indian reader would be as troubled by that problem, but I think not. I would expect less empathy for the statement about the viper, not because it is not as good a poem — by my standards, it is better — but because the snake poem lacks "significance," the topic is ultimately trivial.
"Pit Viper" is private, self-involved, disinterested in the physical context, intellectual and abstract in the senses that those words pertain to what I have said about it. "The Horse..." is social, outer-directed, contextual, consensual if we can accept as context the consensus of the Kiowa attitude toward horses. It is true in that exquisite sense which Black Elk pointed us toward when he said of the story of the coming of the pipe: "...whether it happened so or not I do not know; but if you think about it, you can see that it is true."
The interaction of reality, spirit, and imagination: it is in both poems, yet how different the results. The difference is style, context, intention and meaning. The horse poem is as bare a statement as the bare photograph of the snake, yet rich with the dream beneath bare fact. The richness of the snake poem is a richness of the intellect, an intensity of distillation rather than expansion. The snake poem exists for itself, for Momaday, and for the apprehending reader. Its complexity is internal — the meanings of the words, their relationships. The complexity of the horse poem is external — that is, its meaning extends beyond the poem, its context is a culture, and it can be best understood as a portion — not a restatement but a portion — of a world view. The making of an image is a symbolic act: "let this stand for." A simile may approach and be overcome by the reality the poet gropes to capture; but in a world where words are things, not signs, no such Platonic disjunction between reality and language exists.
The sense of magic — that imprecise term aptly describes the nature of Momaday's "Indian" poems. The difference between the styles of the poems suggests the difference between Western and Indian jewelry, between diamonds and turquoise. The virtue of the diamond is crafted virtue, essentially — the precision of the faceting, the polish of the stone. The virtue of the diamond is a function of mass as well as of size; a stone's quality is determined by its density, its weight. The tradition of Western poetry has been a quest for the right word, for density of language, for compression that, ideally, implodes to a candescence.
Turquoise has other virtues. It comes from sacred land, carrying with it the place that is home to the spirit — its value is profoundly contextual. It is, ideally, found rather than made: finished with a fine polish, but natural, prized for the organic net of matrix that tangles and meanders through it. The context of diamond is sheer vacuum. Flawless means empty, seen unsympathetically, and the color of diamond is the spectral illusion of color, created by the artist's craft. Turquoise is utterly itself, utterly surface, precipitate, solidification of water and sky, with earthen matrix paradoxically flowing like water through its blue-green rolling surface.
Momaday has performed equally well as a craftsman in diamond and in turquoise, as these two poems, occupying these poles of poetic discourse, illustrate. I'd like to conclude with a poem I consider his most successfully integrated statement, a mediating poem in which he uses the conventions of Western poetry to express an event quintessentially Indian. The poem is "Eagle Feather Fan":
The eagle is my power,
And my fan is an eagle.
It is strong and beautiful
In my hand. And it is real.
My fingers hold upon it
As if the beaded handle
Were the twist of bristlecone.
The bones of my hand are fine
And hollow; the fan bears them.
My hand veers in the thin air
Of the summits. All morning
It scuds on the cold currents;
All afternoon it circles
To the singing, to the drums.
Gone is the hermetic vocabulary, and in its place simple, transparent language; gone the introspective musing, the intellectual grasping at an abstract distinction between reality and illusion, and in their place a delicate weave of magical transformations. Bare statement creates the force of the poem, which is at once about Indian dancing, about totems, and about the laminant relationship of body and spirit. By identification with the eagle, the speaker at once becomes and bears in his hand the bird that is his power. The fan, a portion of an eagle's wing, at once stands for and is the eagle, and its state of being it transfers to the speaker, whose hand simultaneously holds the eagle, is the eagle's foot clasping a perch in a bristlecone pine, and is the fine, hollow-boned wing riding the thin air. By the eighth line, the hand holding the fan has been completely transformed, and the feathers of the fan bear the speaker in the thermal gyres where he, as eagle, moves. All eagle, the speaker rides the cold, thin air, circling in the Eagle Dance and circling as eagle, at once dancer and spectacularly distant observer of the dance, not abstracted into the intellect but withdrawn outward, into the larger world the dance puts the sacred dancer inside.
What is the relationship of the human mind to reality? Here it is magical, one where metaphor becomes reality, where imagining is making, where the dreamed is real. What is the relationship of a god to its worshippers? Here the eagle is the dancer, the spirit of the dance and the spirit, the diety approached by the dance; the dancer is not supplicant but both worshipper and diety. Diamond and turquoise: the simile fails before the accomplishment of the poet, this poem at once neither gem and both.
Certain universal human and aesthetic values shape all literary art. Perhaps all critical distinctions are merely heuristics, temporary assumptions that allow us to isolate and examine a work of art. I am not comfortable with such a relativist position. Certainly literature springs from the community, whether because the artist is spokesman of that community or gadfly. Both roles had their places in American Indian cultures, and traditional Indian literatures include examples of both kinds of art.
But what is the American Indian author's community? A contemporary writer usually exists in a world community, and her work reflects a plenitude of influences. Leslie Silko has acknowledged a debt to Henry James, Jim Welch studied with Richard Hugo, Momaday was a protegé of Yvor Winters and Fray Angelico Chavez. An American Indian author must attend to the question of audience. Who are his readers? Does he write, as Simon Ortiz and Ray Young Bear have, for the children of his own tribe or region? Does she write for the future or the present, for some aesthetic end supported by a private literary idealism, for "the ages," for that small community of fellow writers who speak her literary language?
The politics of contemporary Indian literature resemble the populism of the Beat Movement in that the writer often feels a need to serve as a spokesperson for a community defined socially rather than aesthetically. Simon Ortiz spent a year debating whether his poetry should be printed, whether it should even be recorded; he felt that his tradition was organic, oral, and that perhaps artificial preservation of his work violated that tradition. Ortiz' poetry is some of the most accessible being produced by young Indian writers and is criticized (unfairly, I might add) for its lack of challenge.
Other writers, like Ray Young Bear, have chosen to express a private vision, diminishing their popular and academic appeal by speaking exclusively in the vocabulary and diction of their social community. Young Bear's poetry often seems to be addressed to Mesquakie elders; images and phrases communicate beautifully to outsiders, but the whole statement of a poem often eludes our understanding. The non-Mesquakie feels like an observer rather than an audience, not so much addressed by the poet as overhearing him — and overhearing him as he speaks in a language almost but not quite English, an effect at once tantalizing and frustrating.
Scott Momaday and Leslie Silko, writers whose intellectual debt to fellow author Frank Waters has yet to be thoroughly examined, occupy a middle ground, each of them writing for a large community of readers while maintaining a personal and intellectual connection to the non-literary Indian world. Silko performs this feat by writing work as complex as any experimental novelist's but providing a coherent surface to the work. Momaday achieves a different result by changing voices. In his public readings, he intermingles poetry as difficult as "Pit Viper" with poems as direct as "The Horse that Died of Shame." The direction of his work seems to be toward what I have called "mediation," a trail Waters pioneered, Momaday and Silko and Louise Erdrich are blazing, a new generation of American Indian writers at their heels.
American Indian writers can perform for the literary Wild West shows, trapped up in leather and feathers and furs, painted, ululating for the academic tourist. Oftentimes we can't tell if we are seeing a tourist show or the real thing, and occasionally the Indians themselves decide to remind us of the difference, as the Hopis did when they barred tourists from the revenue-generating Snake Dance because white disrespect for the sacred elements of the occasion was offensive. American Indian writers can address their work to their fellow tribespeople, a legitimate artistic choice that excludes not only the non-Indian but often the non-Zuni, non-Apache, non-Choctaw. Or they can use their personal and community background as any writer does, writing of Montana winters and starvation in the same way others use the ghettos of Newark and Los Angeles or the culture clubs of New Haven.
The poets' choices have produced some good poetry. An educated literary preference may be little more than personal; and what I hope to find in a poem by an American Indian writer is an act of mediation, an attempt to speak across the unnarrowing gulf that separates white and Indian. The Indian author has blood-relations in both camps; she is by her calling the hybrid of literature, and that can be her strength.
I have singled out three poems of Scott Momaday's for examination because they neatly illustrate the breadth of his craft and the polarity of white and Indian aesthetic. I have said that he speaks with two voices, and I will conclude by suggesting that "Eagle Feather Fan," by far his best poem, indicates he has much to gain by deciding which voice is his own and cultivating that one. He works well in the thin, precise atmosphere of the aesthete, a world of diamonds and clockwork nightingales, and he can perform, though perhaps less well, the organic craft of the shaman/singer. Personally, I find his mystic visions unconvincing. He might remark, with some justice, that the aesthete and the shaman share some qualities of mind, and that I have emphasized the differences between brother artists. His best works — The Way to Rainy Mountain, poems like "Eagle Feather Fan" and "The Colors of Night" — demonstrate that shared vision, gems of some new alchemy.
Citational Data: If you wish to refer to this article, use the following citational data
Mick McAllister. "Diamonds and Turquoise: The Poetry of N. Scott Momaday". At Wanderer's Well http://www.dancingbadger.com/diamond.htm (May, 2002).
Searching the web for Momaday links is a source of extraordinary frustration. With a writer like Momaday, mentioned so many places (Altavista finds his name 4000+ times), the limitations of web search, which is about as structured as digging through a neglected closet, become immediately apparent. There seems to be no substantive site dedicated to him or his work. If anyone finds one, please let me know. A good page to start from, if you are researching, is his entry at the Internet Public Library.
I have posted three of my own essays on Momaday's work:
Diamonds and Turquoise:
The Fictive Wish:
The Complaisence of Privilege: