Monthly Archives: February 2012

Happy Birthday N. Scott Momaday!


I have decided to add a new feature here at Mixedblood Messages: birthday profiles for Native authors! This will be a small way to briefly introduce the work of important figures in Native American literature, and perhaps Native scholars and historical figures as well. Today, we kick it off with the man at the beginning of every Native American Literature syllabus, N. Scott Momaday.

 

Mr. Momaday, what a classy guy!

N. Scott Momaday was born into the Kiowa tribe of good ole’ Oklahoma in 1934. He did a lot of bouncing around Indian Country throughout his early years, especially in the Southwest, and became familiar with the Navajo, Apache and Pueblo tribes. It seems it was not long before he became convinced of the power of language and literature and started writing poetry and prose.

Momaday’s first novel, House Made of Dawn, was published in 1969 and basically blew America’s mind by being a modernist work written by a Indian. Suddenly aware that Native peoples are really good at writing, American critics were ready to declare an Native American Renaissance in literature and Momaday as the movement’s progenitor.

House Made of Dawn tells the story of Abel, an alienated WWII vet who returns to the Jemez Pueblo reservation where he was born and commits two of the ultimate sins: sleeping with a white woman and killing a “white” (actually albino) man. He then leaves the reservation for L.A. as part of the relocation program which began in the late 50’s and was designed to get Indians off their traditional homelands and into the American mainstream. While in L.A. Abel meets a variety of characters meant to represent the spectrum of the Urban Indian experience, such as the Priest of the Sun who performs peyote ceremonies and Ben Benally, recently relocated from the Navajo reservation, and Milly, a white social worker who becomes a mother figure for Abel. L.A. is full of drunkenness, alcohol-fueled bouts of violence and extreme loneliness for Abel. After being hospitalized by a brawl with a cop, Abel returns to the reservation to bury his grandfather and reclaim his tribal traditions.

This is one of the most common tropes in Native American literature: self-destruction in modern America followed by a homecoming. But while it may seem easy at first to categorize Momaday’s most famous book in the canon of predictable tales of the tragic Indian male, there is a lot more in there than that. When he isn’t playing the Kiowan Hemmingway or the overly-lyrical poet, he is taking on a much larger and more difficult project, trying to convey oral histories and sacred ceremonies in a written, English form. He not only works with Pueblo and Navajo stories but as Abel’s name implies, christian theology as well. The result is somewhat disoriented but all the better for conveying the penetrating mood of alienation.

Momaday’s book The Way to Rainy Mountain and his many collections of poetry also work across genres, histories and cultures both Indian and Anglo that all seek not only the individual’s power through language but the Indian peoples’ power as well.

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Riding Mixedblood on the Train


I am a person used to hiding. An ostrich out of sand. That’s why I like pockets, next best thing to a hole to hide inside. Inner coat pockets, secretly sewn in pockets, those are the best. That’s where I hide my flask. Gotta keep it somewhere the neighbors can’t see.  Don’t want everyone on the D train to know my secret, to know where I hide it– my flask of faces. It’s all about stealth, about fitting in, about slipping through the cracks of recognition. Who do I want to be now in the station? Who do I want to be at the next stop? The problem is I knock back so many hits, I forget sometimes myself what face I’m wearing. I’m riding mixedblood on the train and nobody, not even me, knows who I am.

Silently I will myself to shift, to become something people can understand, to feel I might actually belong here. If you look long enough the abyss at the bottom of a question mark might become the period of a definite statement. Or at least that is what I am hoping for. Except I am no master of illusions, more of a failing apprentice. No matter what face I might think I have put on, most are left guessing. What are you? Central Asian, Mexican, Ecuadorian, Peruvian, Pacific Islander, Vietnamese or just plain ole White.

No never, white. I can’t be white. Please, God, don’t let them think I’m white. How ironic for a mixed blood Navajo, an indigenous survivor, to be paranoid of playing the part of white invader. I see those other white folks on the platform staking their claim to young hipness further and further down the line. Am I like them? I glance over quick to the bearded man and his waif-like girlfriend. They seem nice and all but I look away fast lest anyone take my eye contact as some sort of secret agreement of understanding, part of the conspiracy of coolness. I am not like them. Please, God, don’t let anyone think I am like them.

Because I remember all too well that day, that horrible day, when the whole train, what seemed like the whole world turned to me and saw only whiteness. It was winter, my most pale season. I got on the 1 train at 116th St-Columbia University and stepped right into my own nightmare. A busker was sitting in the middle of the train, strumming a guitar and ad libbing little tunes at the expense of the strap-hangers around him. It was all jokes and merriment. Until, he turns to me and launches into a ditty entitled “White Lady.” I can’t recall most of the lyrics. Something about me wearing a scarf and going to college, which is all true. I couldn’t really hear anything except “white lady” over and over again as people nodded along, laughing to themselves and to each other with great elan. I laughed too. What else could I do? I didn’t want to be that white person, the stiff, upper crust Columbia student who couldn’t take a joke. So I blushed and I laughed and I looked around desperately searching for a hole to disappear into. Should I have told the musician I wasn’t white? Would he have believed me? If everyone thinks you’re a white lady, does that mean you are?

Don’t get me wrong. This is isn’t some, “Oh god, life is so hard when people think you’re white” story.  Being read as white once in a while may be an existential crisis, but it is not a day-to-day struggle to overcome prejudice, dismissal and violence. That is the reality reserved for Native people who are read as Native. This is a story of much smaller problems. This is the story of never being seen as who you are…to the point that you disappear. There is a violence there, the forceful removal of an identity, but it is a violence much less severe than being dragged from you car and beaten by baseball bats because you are a Native woman in a reservation border town.

No, to be a light-skinned mixedblood is not usually physically painful, but it is to feel everyday that you are disappearing into an gaping emptiness in the center of your being. And even though that emptiness may sometimes be replaced by the blankness of a white identity, it hardly ever sticks.  To be granted that white privilege, to pass through the world unquestioned and secure is passing only in the transitory sense. For it is a conditional privilege and conditional privilege is never the same as privilege unqualified. Yet, the thing is you could exhaust yourself, and many do, chasing that conditional privilege trying to make it real.

I call it The Last Temptation to be White. That temptation hung in front of me most of my life. I didn’t want to have to explain my eyes or my superb summer tan. I didn’t want to feel exotic or sexualized. I wanted to be left alone. I wanted that carefree look of arrogant ignorance. I wanted that to be snow blind from the sun reflecting off my glistening, unmarked skin. The thing is I might pull it off in the dead of winter if you’re looking to be fooled. But the rest of the time my whiteness fails. I may have the privilege of racial ambiguity and relatively light skin, but it’s not too long before the impurities come to the surface.

Why it happened just last month, when once again and as always riding on the D train, I had the poor fortune of sitting beside a group of four from New Jersey. They were a gregarious group, first chatting up a intrepid IKEA shopper and then in their masochistic need for small talk, they turned to me.

“Excuse me, excuse me,” the pretty one asked, “What NATIONALITY are you?”

I wasn’t in the moods for games. I didn’t feel like taking out my American passport and saying, “Does this answer your question?” because it  wouldn’t have. Like any mugging on the subway, I looked down and gave her what she asked for.

“Erm, um, Navajoirish,” I stung together my words trying to make the awkward clash of civilizations sound as quotidian as “German” or “Taiwanese-American”.

“What?!” the pretty one screeched nearly falling out of her seat with bulging eyes of amazement.

“NAVAJO-IRISH,” I enunciated every letter so as not have to repeat this trial a second longer.

“Oh ma god, that is soooooo cool!”

“Shut up, you don’t even know what that is,” the beefy one protested.

“Uh yeah I do. It’s Native American. You know I love Native Americans.”

I’m unsure what her opinions on the Irish were but it was good to know she loved part of me for who I was.

Then it was time for all four of them to inform me what they had previously been guessing my nationality was. This is my favorite part. It reveals the question of my daily torment, the burdensome mystery of what others think of you.

“Yeah, I thought you were Spanish or something.”

“Mmhm, you definitely have that Spanish look, like Puerto Rican maybe.”

“But you can see it, the Navajo. It’s in your eyes,” one of them spoke outlining in the air that ineffable quality of Indian, apparently lying somewhere around my pupils.

“Mmm, definitely,” the chorus rang nodding and staring at me, along with every other stranger on the train.

The beefy one chimed in again with a surprisingly specific guess, “I would say you look like Peruvian or maybe, like, from Northern Chile.”

I felt like  I was a Cash Cab-inspired show called What’s My Nationality?, in which people start with $1,000 and lose 100 every time they incorrectly guess my nationality. I would really like to make that show, but on the subway and somehow I get to keep all the money.

Odd thing is, there had been many times I wished someone would ask. Many times I wish I had an excuse to could come right out and lay out my whole genealogy on the lap of someone I am delusional enough to believe is as obsessed with my identity as I am. But, such behavior would have me promptly labeled as unstable and possibly in need of medication. All I can say is, thank God for the internet.

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The Tale of the Misguided Western Author and His Overblown Saga


One of the more elaborate panels in Habibi and also one of the many scenes of smoking hookah in the harem.

In 1997, Craig Thompson wrote his coming-of-age graphic memoir, Blankets, dutifully fulfilling an indulgence required of every up-and-coming cartoonist. With that one checked off the list, in 2011 he moved on to the other obligatory task of the young artist, the overly-ambitious epic. The result of this experiment was Habibi, a behemoth of a book that took seven years to complete. Having read the memoir Blankets during my wintertime binge of graphic novels, I was familiar with some of Thompson’s… quirks, if you will. For one, he is obsessed with the concept (or delusion) of purity* and with the bible. He also has serious repressed sexual trauma which often manifests itself in a pessimistic view of male perpetuated violence against women. While I found these themes bearable when related to his own life, they become  disturbing when played out in the author’s Arabian fantasy land.

And alas, that is what the reader must endure, for six-hundred-and fifty pages at that. The book tells the saga of two slaves who try to stick together and survive in a world filled with predators and poverty. Dodola is the pretty, young thing married at a very young age and then inexplicably captured by slave traders. She spends most of the book nude and in prostitution. Her kindred spirit, Zam, is a black baby abandoned by his mother and taken in by Dodola as a son, brother, partner, baby- the two have a weird relationship.  After spending many years huddled together on a boat stranded in the desert sands, the two are separated and spend many, many years lost in a world of filth and loneliness. When not following the seedy tales of the two’s misadventures, the book retells stories of the Quaran and theories of Arabic philosophers.

Before we go any further, I will address the elaborately adorned elephant in the room. That elephant, being ridden by thirteen veiled concubines of the Sultan, is Orientalism. I haven’t read much of Edward Said’s book, and I’m no expert on the subject. Nevertheless I feel pretty confident that “An Illustrated Guide to Orientalism” could very easily be the subtitle of this book.

It begins with the extreme sexualization of the main female character. If you flip open Habibi to any random page, the chances Dodola will be naked on that page are probably about one in four. One of the most ridiculous illustrations has Dodola covered in a shawl but with her body conveniently drawn in with a dotted line, lest we go more than five frames without seeing her backside. She also spends most of the book being taken advantage of by gross, brutal men. The survival sex work she performs to keep her and Zam fed is consistently portrayed as violent rape and lasts for over several frames . I understand that this a reality endured by many survival sex workers, but the amount of times and the graphic intensity with which it is portrayed is excessive. Thompson seems less concerned with relating the suffering of women, and more with depicting Arabic men as fat, sleazy villains and Arabic women as constantly abused, weak instruments of pleasure.

Dodola’s doe-eyed face of destroyed innocence is matched by the baby face of Zam. Zam, also the habibi of the title, is constantly perceived as a child (and even drawn as such) even when he is grown. He hardly speaks, he is always about to cry and he is so tortured by his awakening sexuality, he turns to castration so that he can avoid becoming a man. I couldn’t help but see this as part of the Western desire to infantilize people of color. From depicting Indians as children of the earth to calling even an old black man “boy”, infantilization seeks to categorize people of color as permanently unable to progress beyond inferiority. Keeping Zam, a black man, in a perennial state of childhood Thompson essentially robs him of meaningful character development, replacing it instead with a cycle of dependency.

He does a similar trick with the time period of the book’ setting, a mythic time where street slavery, designer sunglasses and urban industry all coexist. His intention may be to create the feel of a modern myth or an illuminated manuscript for today’s times. Instead he has made a bastardized A Thousand and One Nights for the Western reader who delights in an exoticized Middle East, a harsh place of excessive beauty stuck in an ancient past, even as it passes into the modern day.

Despite all these problems with the content of Habibi, I was repeatedly taken away by the sheer beauty of the work. Drawing on the art of calligraphy and littering his pages with myriad swirling details, the ink stroke artwork is frame-worthy. There is no denying that Thompson is a master of his craft; it’s a shame he uses that craft for such creepy ends.

*We (me) here at The Mixedblood Review of Books believe that purity is a false construct used to make people feel bad about themselves. In short, purity stinks.

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An Indian Finds Comrades in India


Arundhati Roy listening to members of the Maoist army she traveled with for weeks in Central India. Source: outlookindia.com

“[Columbus] was looking for you and he ended up with us. I think we should talk about that!” That’s what my favorite professor had to say on the subject of the infamous India/Indian confusion while also lamenting the lack of a real conversation between post-colonial and Native studies. The two disciplines focus predominately on very different historical contexts, British imperialism and American settler colonialism, but the stories they tell share a lot of the same suffering and critical analysis. In her newest book, Walking with the Comrades, Arundhati Roy calls for new ways to talk about the current fight for land and life in India, and in doing so, she makes space for the conversations my professor noticed weren’t happening.

The similarities struck me almost immediately. Though the specific geography of the situation Roy describes was new to me, the history reflected something I was all too aware of– the continuing American conquest of Indian Country. In fact, I think indigenous peoples around the world, struggling to survive under oppressive regimes, will recognize what is happening right now in the Dandakaranya forest as part of the same fight to keep the “progress” of capitalism away from their homelands.

As in the case of American settlement, the Indian government is destroying the livelihoods of people it claims to want to help, while simultaneously launching a military campaign against them. It has been an ongoing assault ever since the establishment of the Indian Constitution, which makes the Indian government legal custodians of tribal homelands. Suddenly in 1950, people who had been using the forests for generations were denied access. Though the government had essentially robbed them of their sustenance and livelihood, it did grant them the right to vote. Not to be repetitive, but…as in the case of American settlement, the government’s desire to make indigenous people part of the citizenry was really a desire to take land.

The Maoists reject this assimilation and refuse to participate in elections. A photo in the book shows a banner that we here in America, indigenous peoples and settlers alike, should heed. It reads:

Stop India from becoming the grazing ground of Imperialism. The Central Government has no right to ask for our votes. Do not vote for those millionaires who are getting rich by selling off our wealth. Fight for self-reliant, revolutionary development. Boycott the Lok Sabha elections.

The boycotting of elections is one of the Maoist’s biggest issues and one the Indian government consistently points to as a sign of the party’s illegitimacy. But as many in India already know, it is the elections themselves that are illegitimate. More than eighty billion rupees were spent on the last general election in India, much of that money going to buying off the media for pre-eclection “coverage packages.”

So, Roy asks, where does the money come from? When huge mining companies are set to rake in trillions of dollars off of bauxite deposits alone, it isn’t hard to find where the wealth resides in India. Like the capitalist democracy India is now competing with, there is little difference between the world of business and the world of government. The same people who sit on the boards of the  mining companies launch political campaigns for positions of power. The current Home Minister P. Chidambaram once worked with huge mining company Vebdanta, which is one of the largest stakeholders in the bauxite deposits on tribal mountain lands.

Because she is one of the few exposing this corruption to a global audience, Roy has stirred up some bad blood with the government and been labeled a Maoist supporter. But this not such a rare thing. Ordinary, non-best-selling author, people are labeled an enemy of the state every day. Any hint of being sympathetic to the Maoists is liable to lead to prison. This had made life in some towns a lot more difficult as grocery stores and pharmacies can only sell products in small amounts to prevent people from aiding the guerillas in the forest who are caught off from supplies.

The message from the government is clear: whether you are a Maoist or not, all tribal people will suffer until the mining companies get what they need. In order to help achieve that end, Israel recently sold thermal imaging equipment and drones to the Indian government and trained their military in how to kill guerrilla fighters. Roy is right to ask, how will these unmanned drones know the difference between a teenager running through the forest and a Maoist insurgent? Will the government even try to differentiate?

As far as I know Roy did not provide material support to the Maoist army and although she is sympathetic to their cause and looks upon her young travel companions with an adoring gaze, she is by no means uncritical. She also, like many of her left fellows, disproves of killing in the name of the party, likening the murder of women who wouldn’t boycott elections to the Stalinist Purges and Mao’s Great Leap Forward. She understands, however, that their violence may be necessary. How can people who the government is already starving off lead a successful hunger strike?

Though the armed resistance may be justified, Roy wonders if the protracted war can ever end. Will the Maoists, once they succeed in ridding the mountains of mining companies, become just another powerful oppressor, killing anyone who dares to disagree? How can the interests and self-determination of the tribal peoples be kept front and center without dissolving into the interests of the party? As  Roy walks with the Maoists, many of them starving, young people from local tribes, she witnesses an alternative model of society. Though held down by her doubts and the dire reality of warfare, she is lifted by the imagination to think outside of capitalism and outside the nation-state. This ability for a radical imagination is at the heart of all resistance. Though we may not be Maoists and even if we believe in non-violence, indigenous people worldwide (and  anyone whose mere existence is already a form of resistance) have comrades in the Dandakaranya forest of India.

Roy has only recently come to be known as a political writer. Most know her as the award winning  author of the novel every critic loved, The God of Small Things. Despite her recently adorned press badge, Roy still has the pen of a verbose lyricist. Hence there is tension, almost a confusion, in this work between form and argument, between authorial voice and the informants’ voices, between the beautiful statement and the informative sentence. The book doesn’t even contain an index, framing  the text more as a travelogue than a source of information. Instead of practical explications, the book relies on feelings and big ideas.

While this makes for engaging reading, it can also leave the in-depth analysis too much in the background. On a few occasions, Roy points to a deeper analysis of the military industrial complex or  feminism in the Maoist party, but then moves on leaving the larger connections frayed. And though perhaps a petty qualm, I also found the photo captions to be especially egregious. Instead of brief informed descriptions of what/who was in the pictures, there were excerpts from the surrounding chapters, sometimes completely unrelated to the content of the photo. This created the sense that the real subject of the book was the intrepid writer scrawling for justice, rather than the militant revolutionaries she traveled with.

Fortunately, even when Roy is exercising her literary rather than journalistic muscles, the results are illuminating. Her poetry can be provoking and precise, such as when she say, “We are watching a democracy turning on itself, trying to eat its own limbs. We’re watching incredulously as those limbs refuse to be eaten.” It may not tell you the facts of the situation, but it certainly stirs the imagination.

It raises the question of what exactly the literature that will change the world is going to look like.

Book I Talked About:

Walking with the Comrades, by Arundhati Roy. Penguin Books, 2011.

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