Ghost Dance

A review of Visit Teepee Town, Native Writing after the Detours, edited by Diane Glancy and Mark Nowak, Coffee House Press: 1999 / pre-publication review copy, no price, no ISBN.


When you get home you must make a dance to continue five days. Dance four successive nights, and the last night keep up the dance until the morning of the fifth day, when all must bathe in the river and then disperse to their homes.... Do not tell the white people about this. Jesus is now upon the earth. He appears like a cloud. The dead are still alive again.... You will receive good words again from me sometime. Do not tell lies.

{from “The Messiah Letter,” [1891] of Wovoka [aka Jack Wilson] rendered into more grammatical English by James Mooney, a government ethnologist, from a transcription by Casper Edson, an Arapaho who attended the Carlisle Indian School.}


This excerpt of a written account of the spoken words of a Native American spiritual leader of the Ghost Dance religious ceremonies prefigures many of the issues Visit Teepee Town concerns itself with. What we have with this letter and the attending explanation is, minimally, the representation of Native American ideas by official media, the distortion of those ideas by anthropologists / ethnologists / representatives of the imperial dominant culture, oral language transcribed and made grammatically acceptable to White audiences, and a call for a return to a golden past.


The editors of this anthology explain their relationship to the Ghost Dance this way: “These poems attempt to per(FORM), in their own way, a ghost dance in which the power of language to (FORM)ulate / re(FORM)ulate a lost or endangered world returns.” It’s obvious that the editors are emphasizing FORM, but more particularly it is form as a way of looking backward in order to see forward. I, instead, want to emphasize the ghost dance, not in its historical reference as the editors use it to make analogies to the revival of endangered tradition [a Christian hybrid revival of old-time-religion, publicized by an agent of the federal government in language translated and twice transcribed]. The ghost dance I refer to is the dance of writing, which indirectly brings me around to the editors’ emphasis on performance [aka orality or orature or performance poetics].


Writers do not write for a real and physically present audience; writers write for a real but non-present audience, an audience who may not yet exist at all during the act of writing. In other words, writing is an act of faith that we have a partner: a language dance with ghosts. The editors, ironically, seem to want to refuse to dance, seeing in writing morbidity instead of esthetic freedom. In their own words, they are more than a little suspicious of writing: “These works represent a fraction of the recent postindian poetics exploring a revival of the magic of sound, the voice on which that sound rides, and the un-naiilng down of oral tradition.” This assertion that “writing kills language,” that learning to write is “learning how to hammer the voice onto page with those little nails called, alphabet” is more than a little curious if not profusely ironic. This written condemnation that writing causes the death of language is understandable given the historic attack on oral cultures by literate ones; however, it is not only hypocritical to write the death of writing, it obscures the esthetics the selections in this anthology hope to illustrate.


Look at the anthology as advertised in Poets & Writers in 1996:

Anthology of Native American writingseeks submissions of hybrid and hyphenated radical writings including poetry, poetics, and theory and criticism that resists established methodologies of defining indigenous aesthetics. Open works exploring bilingual texts, re-interpretations of traditional tales, and critiques of the Western tradition in anthropology and the social sciences are especially encouraged.


What the editors got from this call is a rich and varied collection of poems, fiction, and essays, most from writers with a Native American heritage. The work collected here is a direct challenge to previous collections that have been made up [obvious pun] of renditions by white poets of red songs and stories. The editors also seem to be offering a challenge to previous collections of the “best of” Indian writing, writing that often is Indian only because of the writers’ often tenuous tribal affiliation.


The anthology begins with James Thomas Stevens’ poems, a selection from his book Tokinish, that give us a thematic opening into the pervasive issues of imperial domination and mis-representation by utilizing materials from Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, at the time a true island of enlightenment in a sea of prejudice. Thomas’ poetry, relying as it does on Williams’ study of the Narragansett Indian language, is mirrored by the selection from Rosmarie Waldrop who relies on the same material, his A Key into the Language of America. Including Waldrop in any anthology makes it worth having, but using her work in relation to Stevens’ focuses attention onto language, Native American language, language as an adjunct to conquest and control, and all the key issues concerning “indigenous aesthetics.”


The Narragansett Indians were massacred in 1675 by Puritan troops who shot, slashed, and burned to death all the wounded men, women and children. Williams, of course, was considered a heretic to the Pilgrims for many things, including his Key (1643). Stevens’ line could be referring directly to the Puritans and their legacy of sexual repression intimate with the violence of imperialism: “Allegory of conquest, the shipwreck of intercourse.” Thomas highlights the violence of writing over the oral culture as much as the physical violence done by the Puritans to the Narragansett.


Richard Slotkin’s, Regeneration Through Violence puts the issue like this: “The predominant theme in all these works [Puritan literature] is that of European renewal through discovery and conquest of the New World.” It’s easy to see why the editors want to see writing as coffin nails, but Waldrop has a much more succinct take on it: “There were 20-odd broken jaws given birthplace and enough (Eu)rope for hanging.” Waldrop shows that the issue is not writing; it can’t be, and the critique of writing by writing as the source book for performance is hardly to be taken serious.


Several of the writers, though, write critiques of writing as central to their work. Victoria Lena Manyarrows’s poem on language asserts that “we are the people who speak the words & a language / of endangerment.” She may claim to represent her people, but it’s hardly credible for any writer who wishes to assert her individuality to claim group representation. Besmir Bringham’s poetry by contrast writes about writing with a full awareness of its limitations and its ability to do the [writing] ghost dance:

Song / of Language, melody of liberation; / feeling for blank spaces, i touch the / pen to paper, touching the flakes / of snow / that with sudden warmth melt, melt / in the hand, absorbent / crystals that enter the pores, shape / and reshape. Beauty is singular.

Juan Felipe Herrera makes necessary distinctions between kinds of writing in his autobiographical prose / poem “Literary Asylums.” It is not writing itself that is the issue but whose writing: “(Writing is richman’s work, therefore richman’s history. Lately, the unrich are growing accustomed to the forbidden pleasures of writing.).”


The editors give the writers a chance to represent themselves with large and rich selections of work. Lise McCloud’s “National Holiday Thunder Chrysanthemum With Pearls & Reports,” a post-mod fiction, runs over thirty pages. Gerald Vizenor, the unacknowledged master of the collection, has poems, fiction, and an essay calling for recognition of Native writers as individuals. Vizenor, certainly one of the most innovative writers of the late twentieth century, calls for acknowledging Native writers as individuals. This is interesting, coming as it does at the end of the century that has proclaimed the death of the writer as individual. This tension between Native American writers who reject the collective authorship bestowed upon them and non-Native post-modern writers who seek such collectivity is one that the editors don’t exploit. Mining more of Vizenor’s rich work would be the place to uncover this tension and relate it to other work in the collection. The title of his poem “Museum Bound” is itself a nice play on words that points toward that tension. His fiction, “Beavers,” is a criticism of “the wordies” contra the “natural peoples” that should make many readers rush out to buy his Dead Voices from which this selection is excerpted.


The collection has, as expected, identity poems. Carolyn Lei-lanilau’s “Hawaiians, no Kanaka, nah Hahn-Y-in” chronicles growing up Hawaiian. Linda Hogan’s poems are rooted in Native tradition as are Wendy Rose’s poems that are critical of anthropologists’ mis-representations. Maurice Kenny criticizes archeologists and students’ lack of knowledge of Native-White history in an interesting anti-orality poem: the audience leaves to socialize and the poet writes “I stand on a stage and read poems, / and read poems, and read ….”. Allison Adele Hedge Coke’s poetry looks backward, “Then they came and change things,” and sees the Indian as victim: “Chemotherapy— / white man’s / man-made cancer….” Nora Marks Dauenhauer and Richard Beauenhauer offer traditional tales, Tlingit oral narratives. Larry Evers and Felipe Molina’s traditional coyote trickster songs lead nicely into Peter Blue Clouds stories about Coyote as a contemporary, my favorite pieces in the collection. But in this collection it is hard to choose favorites. Another might be Sherman Alexie’s poem “The Native American Broadcasting System” about erasure and misrepresentation:

Best Performance by a Non-Native in a Native American Role. Nominees this year include Burt Lancaster, Charles Bronson, Trevor Howard, Burt Reynolds, and Kevin Costner.

All of this represents but a small part of an anthology that should become a staple in collections of contemporary literature.


However, as much as I like this anthology and try to accept it on its own terms, the stated intent for works that are “hybrid and hyphenated … that resist established methodologies of defining indigenous aesthetics” leads me to wonder how well the editors followed their own criteria. As much as I admire the poetry of Linda Hogan, Wendy Rose, Sherman Alexie, and Maurice Kenny, their poetry in the selections here do little of what the editors advertised for except to make reference to anthropologists and stereotypes about Indians. I had hoped to see more stylistically radical poetry, work that demonstrates a post-post-modern, or post-indian, poetics by established Native American writers who have pioneered such poetics.


Where is Simon Ortiz? His From Sand Creek is one of the greatest long poems of recent times, a poem that draws heavily upon his Native heritage, making the historic personal and contemporary in a way unique to our poetry. And what about Joy Harjo, whose poetics is as radical as her politics? And why no fiction from Leslie Silko, perhaps a selection from Almanac of the Dead? Nothing here from Adrian Louis, a poet who challenges the staid conservative reigning poetics through sheer force of language. Equally disappointing is the lack of poetics utilizing the rich history of Native American visual signs: sign language (a real performance poetics), glyphs, and pictographs. Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds has several textual pieces, some graffiti-like, some utilizing block text to give dual meaning readings. T.J. Snow presents prose that questions the nature of writing, using different sized text that attempts to dislocate the sensibility fostered by the continual association we have with writing. I would have liked to have seen more from both of them. Hopefully, the editors and publisher are planning Visit Teepee Town Volume Two.