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Remedial Course in Indian History

My review of Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian for The New Inquiry.

For most non-Natives, Indians exist first in the imagination and then in the historical past. But every once in a while, the North American public is compelled to confront the living Indian in the material world. Last winter, for instance, the Idle No More movement brought large numbers of Indians into places associated with the modernity and mobility of white citizens: shopping centers and highways. These actions forced people who might not have thought of themselves as settlers to witness the grievances of Indians who consistently refuse to disappear. Another kind of testimony about the actuality of Indians emerged at the same time as Idle No More, also aimed at the unaware settler. Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America seeks to enlighten the settler by dispelling the fog that so often hangs around Indians and their relation to the nation-state. First published in Canada where it has become a national bestseller, the book seems written as a last chance for King, a respected public intellectual in Canada of Cherokee and Greek descent, to give his view of how Indians came to be, and what they will become. As a history of Indians told as one Indian’s conversation with himself, it is certainly a more illuminating and bold account of settler colonialism than the usual Indian history told as one white man’s conversation with his own desires.

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Review of Sister Mine

Check out my latest review for Canadian publication Briarpatch Magazine (Yay Canada, my soon-to-be home!)


If as Tolstoy famously said, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, the family of Nalo Hopkinson’s latest novel, Sister Mine, is unhappy in a way particular to a black family of sassy demigods and headstrong humans. A complexly layered urban fantasy, Sister Mine explores the space between the spiritual and material, and the murky pool where these worlds bleed together. In this meeting of the divine and earthly, family dramas take on cosmic importance. So it is with Abby and Makeda, twin sisters, born conjoined and later separated, of a “celestial” father and a “claypicken” mother, who are sent on a treacherous mission to find and save their father’s soul.

Exuding threatening mafia undertones, the “Family” are divine beings, spirits who lurk in the crevices of the visible world, shuttling souls between life and death, controlling natural forces, and imbuing certain places and people with magic, shine, or mojo. “Claypicken” is the demigod term for humans, who are considered little more than meat puppets by most celestials. Abby and Makeda’s mixed celestial-claypicken heritage is complicated by the fact Abby seems the only sibling born with special powers.

The power difference between the sisters is a source of endless bickering and deep-seated resentments, as is the sisters’ very existence for the Family, who look down on celestial-claypicken couplings. In exploring the sisters’ relationship to their heritage, Hopkinson also addresses the nature of mixed-race identity. Belonging to two different cultures often means navigating between different worlds, a metaphor that is quite literal for Makeda and Abby.

Though both sisters struggle to find their place in the spirit and material world, Makeda in particular feels lost in her mixed identity because of her lack of powers. As we might imagine of a racist white family, demigods look down on their claypicken counterparts as beings meant only to serve and then be discarded. Raised around this kind of discrimination, Makeda develops a self-deprecatory shield, calling herself a “crippled deity half-breed,” while grasping at any connections to mojo she can find within herself.

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Sexual Violence and the Struggle for Self-Determination

On December‭ ‬27th,‭ ‬a‭ ‬36-year-old First Nations woman was walking to the store in the Ontario city of Thunder Bay when two men pulled over,‭ ‬forced her into their truck,‭ ‬beat her,‭ ‬strangled her and raped her while telling her Indians didn’t deserve treaty rights and threatening to rape other First Nations women.‭

‬Because of the rapists‭’ ‬references to treaty rights,‭ ‬many have seen the assault as a direct retaliation against the Idle No More movement.‭ ‬Idle No More began with four women educating the public about Canadian bill C-45,‭ ‬a budgetary bill that strips the protective status of tribal lands in order to make them more accessible to private corporations.‭ ‬Since it began as a social media campaign,‭ ‬Idle No More has spread into a global indigenous uprising that has seen round dances,‭ ‬protests and blockades pop up not just in Canada but all over the world.‭ ‬The movement was further galvanized when Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence began a hunger strike with the demand to meet with both the Canadian government and a representative of the Crown under which the treaties in question had been made.‭

‬It has also apparently inspired an opposing campaign motivated by hate and led by men who seek to destroy the heart of the movement by attacking Native women.‭ ‬These acts of sexual violence are not only hate crimes but acts of terror,‭ ‬meant to keep Native women and their nations in a state of silence and fear.‭

In the panicked wake of the crime,‭ ‬women in Thunder Bay were told to travel in groups and First Nations students returning to school from the winter holiday were given personal alarms to carry with them.‭ ‬Unfortunately,‭ ‬the fear cast over Thunder Bay is an all too common shadow in Indigenous people’s lives.‭

In fact,‭ ‬the Thunder Bay assault of December‭ ‬27th has become one dots of hundreds on a map of every sexual violence crime committed in Canada since 1975 to the present compiled by the group Anonymous as part of what they are calling Operation Thunderbird.‭ ‬The map also documents the large number of missing and murdered Native women cases many of which have gone unsolved.‭ ‬This operation is one of the ways the larger Idle No More movement is carrying on after the end of Chief Spence’s hunger strike.‭ ‬It is an important direction for the movement to take.‭ ‬One of the most inspiring aspects of the Idle No More movement has always been the central role of women leaders.‭ ‬While Chief Spence’s hunger strike was a motivating force for Idle No More and solidarity actions around it,‭ ‬perhaps it is time to place not just one woman but all the Native women who put themselves on the line for Indigenous nations at the center of the movement.‭

‬Sexual assaults like the one that took place in Thunder bay demonstrate how vulnerable Native women are when Native people as a whole raise their voices.‭ ‬However,‭ ‬Chief Spence and countless other women leaders in Native communities have also proven it is the women who can be the most powerful leaders.‭ ‬A Northern Cheyenne saying that has been repeated often since Idle No More began states that‭ “‬A nation is not defeated until the hearts of its women are on the ground.‭”‬ It is acts of sexual violence that seek to destroy Native women’s hearts and the nations they empower.‭ ‬As a movement led by women,‭ ‬Idle No More has a real responsibility to incorporate the goal of ending violence against women into its demands for tribal sovereignty.‭

‬Though Idle No More began as a response to a Canadian bill,‭ ‬as an Indigenous Nationhood Movement it resonates deeply with Indigenous peoples across many borders who are resisting unceasing attempts to exploit their land.‭ ‬Exploitation of the land is often coupled with the exploitation of Indigenous bodies.‭ ‬Here in the United States,‭ ‬Congress’s failure last year to pass the‭  ‬Violence of Women Act is an insidious show of support for such violence.‭ ‬Although VAWA has been in place since‭ ‬1994‭ ‬and regularly renewed since,‭ ‬last year’s additions to the act were rejected by the GOP-majority House because it gave what they consider too many concessions to LGBTQ,‭ ‬immigrant and Native American populations.‭ ‬One of these concessions would give tribal courts the power to prosecute non-Natives who sexually assault tribal members on tribal lands.‭ ‬Up until now,‭ ‬these cases have been handled by the FBI which has a history of under-investigating and failing to convict non-Native sexual offenders.‭

Last week at the start of the new Congress,‭ ‬the Senate once again approved VAWA,‭ ‬though certain measures meant to afford undocumented immigrants more protection were taken out.‭ ‬With the tribal jurisdiction measures still intact,‭ ‬it remains unclear if the bill will pass in the House.‭ ‬The Heritage Foundation,‭ ‬an influential far-right think tank,‭ ‬has spearheaded a campaign of misinformation to make sure it does not.‭ They claim that VAWA would give unconstitutional federal power to tribes thus violating the civil rights of alleged rapists and abusers. However, VAWA clearly states that any non-Indian prosecuted in tribal courts maintains all of their rights under the US constitution. With their bogus claims, The Heritage Foundation‬ is tapping into the ever-present fears that allowing tribes to protect their communities is a menace to American individual’s freedom. But the only freedom VAWA actually threatens is the freedom to rape and abuse women without consequence.‭

These persistent oppositions to VAWA are indication that the conservative government has no interest in protecting Native women or giving them further means to protect themselves.‭ ‬Because the government will not protect them and tribal governments feel they are not able to,‭ ‬Native women know the brutal reality of being seen as easy targets for sexual predators.‭ ‬According to an Amnesty International report,‭ ‬Native women in America are more than twice as likely to be raped than the general population and eighty percent of the rapists in those cases are non-Native.‭ ‬These statistics are even more alarming when we consider the number of cases that do not get reported for fear of retaliation.‭ ‬VAWA would allow tribal nations to address this epidemic of sexual violence on reservations through the tribal courts.‭ ‬But for now it seems that as long as the US government passes legislation to take more natural resources from tribal land,‭ ‬the longer they will block legislation that gives tribes more control over that land.‭

‬So what does VAWA have to do with Idle No More‭? ‬The question may more broadly be posed as what does sexual violence have to do with self-determination‭? ‬The answer is simple.‭ ‬Everything.‭ ‬When people fight against the former,‭ ‬they are fighting for the latter.‭ ‬

In her very important,‭ ‬everybody-needs-to-read-it-right-now book‭ ‬Conquest:‭ ‬Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide,‭ ‬Andrea Smith states that‭ “‬attacks on Native women’s status are themselves attacks on Native sovereignty.‭” ‬Through her study of genocidal practices such as forced sterilization,‭ ‬environmental contamination and rape,‭ ‬Smith articulates the deep connection between interpersonal violence and state violence.‭ ‬When non-Natives sexually assault Native women,‭ ‬they do so with the understanding that those lives are inherently worth less in the eyes of the American government.‭

It is necessary they appear worth less if America is to make conscionable the genocide of millions of Native people on which this nation is founded.‭ ‬They must continued to be seen as worth less if non-Natives are going to continue to benefit from living on that stolen land and its many resources.‭ ‬Settlers perpetuate this image of worthlessness in acts such as the rape committed in Thunder Bay.‭ ‬Like the soldiers at Wounded Knee who stretched the uteruses of their female victims across their hat bands,‭ ‬non-Native men use sexual violence to intimidate Natives into subjugation.‭ ‬It has been a tool of colonialism as long as colonialism has existed.‭ ‬It is time to understand then that resistance to colonialism’s destructive reign over Native lands must also be resistance to sexual violence.

Recent remarks by Florida Senator Marco Rubio indicate just how ingrained the issues of sovereignty and sexual violence are.‭ In justifying his opposition to VAWA, Rubio says he has concerns “‬regarding the conferring of criminal jurisdiction to some Indian tribal governments over all persons in Indian country, including non-Indians.” This quote reflects the problem most Americans have understanding tribes as sovereign nation.‭ ‬When an American citizen enters the borders of any other nation,‭ ‬it is generally understood that they must abide by the laws of that country.‭ ‬If they break one of those laws,‭ ‬they will be prosecuted according to the laws of that nation.‭ ‬Thus,‭ ‬it would hold that when entering the borders of an Indian nation,‭ ‬you are beholden to the laws of that particular Indian nation.‭ ‬Statements such as Rubio’s and those coming from The Heritage Foundation reveal the conservative’s‭  ‬view that tribal nations are not worthy of full nationhood.‭

‬If we put ourselves in the settler’s shoes,‭ ‬especially the shoes of the paranoid white Republican who constantly bemoans America’s fall from greatness,‭ ‬recognizing tribal nations as sovereign is a truly terrifying prospect.‭ ‬Self-sufficient tribal nations would operate on forms of governance the predate and challenge colonial power.‭ ‬These alternative forms of governance,‭ ‬often based on radically different precepts on human relationships to the land and each other,‭ ‬are a serious blow to the heart of American exceptionalism,‭ ‬the discourse that poses America as a country on a god-ordained mission to make the world in their image.‭ ‬Acknowledging alternatives to America’s liberal democracy is a dangerous concession for a nation intent on spreading that democracy around the world.‭

‬Laguna Pubelo scholar Paula Gunn Allen claims the genocide of Native people has always had at its root‭ “‬a fear of gynocracy,‭” ‬or societal rule by women which is widespread in tribal nations throughout North America.‭ ‬Allen’s claim illuminates why many in the government would have vested interest in maintaining the epidemic of violence against Native women.‭ ‬If America is invested in subjugating a society that recognizes the power of women,‭ ‬it must also be invested in subjugating individual women.‭ ‬Thus sexual violence becomes again a tool to attack the nation through the person.‭ ‬The very bodily presence of Native people is a constant political reminder of the ultimate failure of America,‭ ‬Canada,‭ ‬and every colonial government at total conquest.‭ ‬As long as Native people continue to exist and assert their right to live,‭ ‬the settler government will constantly have to argue the legitimacy of their claims to land and power that was not given to them.

The failure to renew VAWA in the US points to all the reasons for the government’s reluctance to give tribes more jurisdiction over their own land.‭ ‬However,‭ ‬it might also be motivation to seriously consider how to solve the problem of sexual violence against Native women in ways that do not reinforce government control over Native lives.‭

In a post entitled‭ ‬VAWA—A Black Feminist’s Dissent,‭ ‬blogger Computerblu takes a critical look at how VAWA as‭ “‬law-and-order legislation‭” ‬supports a criminal justice system with a long history of hurting as many survivors as it helps.‭ ‬Instead of supporting such a problematic system,‭ ‬Computerblu hopes‭ “‬feminist advocates would promote a politics grounded in racial justice that address the profound structural conditions that help drive domestic and sexual violence for so many of us.‭” ‬For Native peoples these structural conditions are inextricably tied up with the colonial government that seeks to control Native bodies.‭

By seriously investigating how internalized colonial notions of patriarchy and justice have allowed sexual violence to reign terror over women’s lives,‭ ‬tribes may find it is their communities and traditions that hold the real power to overcome this problem.‭ ‬In the words of one of Andrea Smith’s favorite maxims,‭ ‬it might motivate tribes to‭ ‬take power by making power.‭ ‬Many Native people have supported VAWA because it‭ gives tribes power to prosecute sexual violence cases but what if Native people‭ ‬instead‭ ‬took that power by creating their own responses to crimes that do not rely on recognition from the US government.‭

These considerations are important when we consider that any power of jurisdiction given to tribes by Congress is only permissible in a framework that mirrors the American justice system.‭ ‬This fact not only reveals the absurdity of Conservative claims that non-Natives would lose their constitutional rights in tribal courts,‭ ‬but also raises questions about how sovereignty can be practiced when it is granted by the colonial government.‭ ‬Why should tribes lend legitimacy to a system that has historically supported the theft of their land‭? ‬Why should tribal courts send more people into a prison system that incarcerates Natives at‭ ‬a rate‭ ‬38%‭ ‬higher than the national rate‭? ‬Is this the model tribes want to support in the name of self-determination‭? ‬Can tribes really be said to have more sovereign power when their exercise of that power plays directly into the oppressive institutions of the settler nation-state‭?

More importantly,‭ ‬what if tribes stop seeing sovereignty as something that needs to be given back‭? ‬Tribal nations have their own forms of governance,‭ ‬they simply need the courage and strength to enact them.‭ ‬The name Idle No More suggests this reversal from passively requesting tribal rights be respected to asserting those rights.‭ ‬This realization is the rumbling at the center of every round dance flash mob:‭ ‬that tribes will no longer be ignored.‭ ‬First Nations are no longer asking the Canadian government but demanding they meet them at the negotiation table as equals.‭ ‬And all around the world other Indigenous peoples are making the same claims to recognition and respect.‭

‬Idle No More speaks to people around the world because it is more broadly about Native peoples revolutionizing their relationship to colonial power.‭ ‬It speaks to Indigenous people around the world who know treaty violations are one among the many violations committed against Native people’s bodies and the lands they are so intimately connected to.‭ ‬It has begun a conversation about how Native people can begin to take control of their lands,‭ ‬resources and lives.‭ ‬It challenges tribes to consider how to solve the problem of settler violence instead of waiting for a government that has little interest in helping them.‭ ‬The lack of enforcement on reservations in America and the appalling number of missing women in Canada whose disappearances fade into bureaucratic obscurity are signs of the settler nation-state’s total dismissal of Native lives as equal to those of settler lives.‭ ‬We begin to fight back by refusing to see ourselves the way they see us.‭ ‬We begin to fight by testifying to the strength of our traditions,‭ ‬our relations,‭ ‬our mothers.‭

The case in Thunder Bay should be a wake-up call for those who would wait to address settler violence against women until after the revolution.‭ ‬There is simply no way for an Indigenous nationhood movement to succeed without its women.‭ ‬And by empowering tribal women,‭ ‬respecting their place at the forefront of the battle for nationhood,‭ ‬Native communities will already deliver a blow to the colonial notion that a Native woman is insignificant.‭

As the movement moves forward,‭ ‬we must never forget the women who brought us to this historical moment and the history of sexual violence that has worked to stop them.‭ ‬In remembering them,‭ ‬we remember what makes us not only survivors but fighters as well.‭


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Hello legions of loyal readers,

Just wanted to let you know that the vast expanses of silence between posts will continue probably until December. I am currently applying to PhD programs and it is a huge drain on my time and energy.

In the meantime, you can read the piece I wrote last year about Native American Heritage Month.

See you on the other side of application madness!

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Re-Discovering Discovery Stories

It has been quite some time between part one and two of my review of Annette Kolodny’s great work, In Search of First Contact. I could cite any number of excuses for the long delay but nobody much cares anyway. I have been urged to complete part two by the coming of Columbus Day and all the discussion this national holiday generates around the “discovery” of America by a man many consider a criminal and promoter of genocide. While these are all valid discussions, I would like to focus more on Native stories of contact, while first covering those who in the 19th century ardently attacked Columbus as worthy of the title “discoverer.”

You may have been wondering during part one where all this talk of the Vikings leaves the great American hero (and despised villain of the Natives). The argument over whether it is the Norseman or the Italian that Americans should pay tribute for their stolen land strikes at the heart of what Kolodny calls the “Anglo-American anxiety of discovery.” Because not long after being very insecure about their own immigrant status (from whence the need for Viking-American ancestors came), Americans soon became very angry that there were other, newer immigrants, namely Italians. It is not a coincidence that many of the most ardent advocates for honoring America’s Norse ancestry, were vehemently anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant and hence, anti-Italian.

The push to honor Vikings over Columbus did gain traction in many places, leading to a number of statues memorializing Leif Erikson’s voyage.

One of the most vocal amongst those looking to throw off the crown of Columbus was the scholar Marie Brown. The name of her first book, The Icelandic Discoverers of America, or, Honor to whom Honor is Due, is a neat summary of her beliefs on the Lief Erikson vs. Christopher Columbus question. Brown was primarily concerned with feminist issues and had turned against the Catholic church for what she perceived as a conspiracy against women. She saw in the Norsemen a model of democratic freedom wherein women were both powerful and equal to men. To Brown, Columbus’s trip to America was part of the long-term plan of the church to enslave the world, most of all women (strangely, she fails to acknowledge the indigenous inhabitants who were literally made slaves).

Herein lies the plasticity of the Viking in America. He could be at one time symbol of America’s original religious mission or a progressive freedom fighter rebelling against the church’s constraints.

Brown’s ideas are interesting if not a little simplistic. Her conception of women’s role in Norse culture was informed more by her desire to see feminism than an actual presence. However, her attack on Spanish exploration as the means to conquest brings out the liberal belief that founding of new nations on “new” land is legitimatized as long as the founding ideals are good ones. This is one of the oldest tenants of American exceptionalism: that America is and always has been a city on the hill, the place of principle amongst a world of savagery and darkness. Brown thought that in honoring the Norse, America could live up to this image and by honoring Columbus, the country aligned itself with the shadowy oppressor of the church.

After spending three-fourths of the book discussing the Euro-American narratives around contact, Kolodny dedicates the last sections of her book to Native perspectives, specifically the Mi’kmaq and Penobscot stories of their first encounters with white men. It is a strong start in an academy that so rarely incorporates Native voices into the issues that have Native peoples at the center. How much have we heard about Columbus, even in all our attacks of him, and how little have we heard about the people he encountered? As Kolodny finds in her own research, much of this silence is attributed to the genocide, which killed not only millions of people but their memories as well, but much of it is also the fault of deaf ears who refuse to listen to Native accounts that de-center and unsettle Western notions of history.

Despite the widespread death and destruction brought on by European settlement, there are still many Native stories containing pieces of the people’s memory. Much like the Icelandic sagas, these stories leave traces of time and place more than exact points. Unfortunately the situation was not helped by missionaries such as the minister Silas Tertius Rand who translated Mi’kmaq stories in the 1860’s but also destroyed the originals in the Native tongue. Thus one of the most oldest written records of Native contact narratives exists only in English and with Rand’s editorializing confusedly intermixed.

In one of the stories Rand heard from Josiah Jeremy, a young girl dreams that a small floating island is approaching the shore with many strange men on it. The next day, a ship arrives with men not unlike the ones in the girl’s dream. A man who in the dream was dressed in rabbit-skins turns out instead to be a priest dressed in white. Kolodny provides a fascinating close reading of the story, explaining not only the importance of Rabbit, as trickster in Mi’kmaq culture but the color white as well, which represents East on the medicine wheel. The young girl’s dream and the appearance of the priest “portray more than just the arrival of previously unknown foreigners” but are also “warning signals of some impending disruption.”

The story as told by Jeremy states this priest arrived in a time “’when there were no other people in this country but Indians’” suggesting that this is the initial contact between the Mi’kmaq and Europeans if not all Indian peoples and Europeans. In trying to puzzle out who exactly these Europeans are, Kolodny attempts to mingle her previous cultural interpretation with historical interpretation. She switches from close reading to digressions on Viking clothing and conjectures about what they would have appeared like to Natives. She is convincing but also perhaps over-anxious to change the story from metaphorical to literal and back again to suit the story she herself wants to tell about Vikings and the Mi’kmaq. To be fair, Kolodny acknowledges how “tantalizing” her own reading is, while freely admitting that Viking, Basque fishermen and French explorers all had similar clothing when seafaring. But, in the end, her most persuasive prose is put behind the Norsemen as those original harbingers of chaos into a pre-contact Mi’kmaq society.

Joseph Nicolar was an elder of the Penobscot Nation who published his work on his people’s history and culture the year before his death.

In the Penobscot stories Kolodny recounts, taken from Joseph Nicolar’s The Life and Traditions of the Red Man (1893), again the white man is seen in prophecy before reality. True to the prophecy revealed to Klose-kur-beh by Creator, the arrival of white men coincides with a famine due to strange natural phenomena. The men are said to arrive in a great white swan but they are driven away by an old woman who changes between human and loon form. After this first ominous encounter, many years later men arrive who are different from the first groups of strangers in skin color and hairiness. Kolodny interprets these stories as identifying the different periods of contact, beginning with Northern Europeans earlier on and Southern explorers later.

After relating these initial encounters, Nicolar’s story shifts away from any concern with white men to recountings of the wars between the Algonquians and the Iroquoians. Nicolar closes out his narrative after the “wars among the red people” by relating the tribe’s conversion to Christianity and a brief anecdote serving to confirm Klose-kur-beh’s initial warnings that the European newcomers will try to take all the land for their own comforts. It is telling that initially the white men provide only a suspicious side story while the majority of the tribe’s stories center on the world of “red men.” Even when white men have come to have greater control over Penobscot people, whose land base and livelihood was decimated by encroaching settler, these stories refuse to put white people at the center of their world. Their stories are for them, for preserving the past in order to have a future.

The many theories and tales surrounding first contact certainly make for a intriguing intellectual mystery, both those put forth in these oral histories and those Kolodny puts forth herself. But when the puzzling is over perhaps all we really need to know is what the tprophecies foretold: men came from the East and disrupted the world. Whoever the first were, they certainly weren’t the last. What Kolodny’s comparison of contact narratives most shows is that while Americans are obsessed about how they came to this country, for Indians what really matters is how bad it has been ever since. Americans told and re-told stories of contact to re-shape their image to the needs of their empire; Natives have told these stories to preserve memory and also to preserve an-ever present warning against the “invaders,” wherever they may have come from.

Book I Talked About:

In Search of First Contact, by Annette Kolodny. Duke University Press, 2012.

Also, for all my NYC-based readers, Professor Kolodny will be speaking at Brooklyn College on November 10.


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The Fantastic Plastic Viking and the Indians that Scared Them Away, Part 1

These days the only time Vikings and Indians (spoken of in slurs) are mentioned in the same breath is during the Monday Night Football pre-game show. Yet these two groups and the mythologized contact between them was once a cornerstone of American identity. Annette Kolodny’s magnum opus, In Search of First Contact, is a fascinating and often times brilliant look at the tales and theories , sometimes resembling tall tales themselves, surrounding the Vikings and the Native people they found and called Skraelings (the first Anglo-slur against Natives meaning “wretches who screech”).

Where exactly these Vikings landed and who exactly they were calling dirty names is and remains a contentious issue. Everyone wants to imagine that theirs is the settlement once graced by great Scandinavian adventurers. New Englanders have been especially vehement in their claim to the Vikings, men they imagine as freedom fighting self-starters. But for many years, the supposed site of Viking exploration and brief colonization was L’Anse Aux Meadows, now a fishing village on the coast of Northeastern Newfoundland.

However, Kolodny, who in a rare show of rigorous scholarship actually worked in conjunction with Native peoples, conjectures the viking settlement was actually much further south in Nova Scotia or possibly Maine. In the end, the record is inconclusive and Kolodny chooses to focus on what the Viking colony “became for Euro-Americans in the nineteenth century, that is a geographical site that was transfigured into an imagined landscape for the projection of dreams.”

This makes much more sense as Kolodny is not an archeologist or even a historian. She is instead a literary critic with expansive curiosity and an understanding (so often lacking in discussions of literature) of the sociopolitical repercussion of the stories we tell and re-tell. This wide-angle view of literature is how Icelandic stories from the year 1000 ended up on her American literature syllabus. She argues that some of the earliest contact stories of North America are The Greenlander Saga and Erik’s Saga, known collectively as the Vinland sagas, Vinland being the name of the brief Viking settlement on North American shores.

Both sagas tell the story of Erik the Red and his descendents who were the first Norsemen to settle Greenland. Erik’s son Leif is the first of these new Greenlanders to set foot on lands even further West. After Leif’s initial and lucrative season in Vinland, his brother Thorvald also sets sail for the new land. It is Thorvald who first encounters the indigenous people, and proceeds to kill all nine (who Kolodny postulates to be Algonquian people of either the M’kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy or Penobscot tribes) immediately without provocation. Bad idea, Thorvald. The Indians come back in greater numbers soon after and kill him.

While later expeditions would have some luck trading cloth for pelts with the tribes, the relationship eventually devolved into conflict. Sensing such battles would outweigh the timber and other resources the Norsemen had cultivated in Vinland, they went home to Greenland never to return. I have grossly reduced the substance of these sagas, which Kolodny interprets and explains in much greater detail, touching upon the special role of women and supernatural elements in the text which were fascinating. Having never before been even remotely interested in medieval Icelandic literature, I found Kolodny a persuasive guide not only to their cultural and historical interest but their artistry as well.

But as interesting as these feats of imagination were, much more pressing for the purposes of this review are the imaginative theories that followed from them. The Vinland sagas were to become the starting point for a whole, complex web of ideas about America’s past and future, and the fate of the Indian was inextricably linked to these ideas.

In the 1800s Americans became hungry for a sense of history, craving an antiquity they found by playing Indian and memorializing the Viking. Carl Christian Rafn, a Danish philolgist who never stepped foot in America, started the Viking craze with his 429-page tome on Norse landfalls in Massachusets, Antiquitates Americanae, published in 1837.

It was not long before the American people seized on this sense of an ancient Norse ancestor and took pride in being the descendents of such a strong, colonizing stock. But of course, American identity is and never has been stable. As the country developed from rebellious colony to expansionist empire, so too changed the role of the Indian and the Viking in American history. Soon it was not enough just to have the sense of history, they needed a sense of total ownership.

In Search of First Contact dedicates a considerable section to the racist notions many American scholar began injecting in their work: foremost among these that Europeans had settled this land long ago and were the rightful, Christian predecessors to the Americans. To corroborate these theories, the giant mounds of the South Eastern Indian tribes, carved and smelted artifacts of artistry and the rock inscriptions of Algonquian peoples in the North became ascribed to the Norse. It was obvious to Americans that they could not acknowledge any sense of history or culture to the people they needed to justify killing and displacing.

Two divergent but similarly harmful theories arose. If you were of a more charitable ilk, the Indians were an ignorant people who had existed on the continent without culture or religion and they were no match to the descendents of the Norse who had returned to fufill the past mission of a prosperous Christian nation. If you were of the blood-thirsty (often slave-holding) class, Indians were very much the Skraelings who had driven off a superior European race who had planted the seeds of a grand civilization on untamed land.

It is no coincidence that concurrent with the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of the Cherokees to Oklahoma, southern writer William Simm was writing about “an earlier even more horrific aggression” namely the expulsion of the noble Norsemen by the savage Redmen. With the pretense of defense and vindication, the now victimized white southerners were in the moral right.

In Search of First Contact illustrates an important lesson: even fields as supposedly objective as history are never not political. In this case, the somewhat innocent-seeming desire for a rich national past became a weapon with which to kill and dislocate Native bodies deemed either unfit or unjust residents of a land rightfully belonging to Europeans.

Stay tuned, in the next post, I will discuss Native narratives of first contact. Thanks for reading!

Book I Talked About:

In Search of First Contact, by Annette Kolodny. Duke University Press, 2012.


Filed under Book Review, Uncategorized

Where My Natives At? Building a Better NDN Literary Community

Having only a single day to spend in San Francisco, I put the City Lights Bookstore first on my list of places to visit. Carelessly wondering through winding streets of books, I found myself in the tail end of the fiction section and to my great surprise, there was a book by Gerald Vizenor (prolific Anishinaabe poet, writer, scholar)  I had never heard of.  I yanked the slim white volume, Chair of Tears, from the shelf and flipped to the copyright page. Published in 2012.

While I love the stumbling, gleeful discoveries of bookstore explorations, I was shocked and a little saddened that one of the most important Indian writers of our time had managed to release a new novel without a single mention of it reaching me before it was literally right in front of my face.

Like so many books by Native authors, Chair of Tears was published by a university press, the University of Nebraska imprint Bison Books (which puts out a lot of good books, check ’em out). This is perhaps one of the reasons it has escaped my notice, university presses generally making less of a splash for the non-academic reader than other big name publishers. Unfortunately, it seems all to often NDN authors can only find publication in academic presses, keeping their work esoteric and less accessible to larger groups of people.

The other, more glaring, reason is the lack of a thriving Indian literary community, which like most bookish communities these days would exist most likely somewhere in the cyberspace. It is this absent online community that would have been afire with news about the upcoming release and discussion sparked by robust reviewing.

So where is that community? It isn’t that Indians don’t read or aren’t interested in literature. Indians read…a lot. And a lot of Indians are on the internet. But not a lot of Indians are on the bookish internet.

Pause for definition: The Bookish Internet: A collection of people, blogs, websites, twitter accounts, authors, and publishing folks gathering together in cyberspace to share in the consumption and discussion of books.

Unlike the literati, the bookish internet is not always highbrow. But it is certainly nerdy. It chatters about J.K. Rowling’s new release as much as Dave Eggers and posts long winded cultural analysis of Icelandic crime thrillers as much as fangirl gushings of the same.

But most importantly for the purposes of this post, the bookish internet is insanely homogenous (i.e. white).

This is largely a reflection of the literary world, which is crazy disproportionate in writing about white, male authors with but a few nods to the many, great, important people of color and especially women writing today. There have been numerous posts on the bookish internet itself about the whitewashing of the current lit scene even in this supposedly post-racial, multicultural global village.

The Rumpus, more specifically contributing writer Roxane Gay, has been especially proactive in not only describing the problem but working to correct it. In June Gay conducted an in-depth look at every review published in the New York Times and found 65% of the reviews were of books by white authors and most of those male. American Indian authors didn’t even place a single percent.

It is incredibly depressing that even as brilliant and fierce writers of color pour out their stories and manage to get them published, they are silenced by the gatekeepers who refuse to acknowledge them.

As Gay points out, the establishment’s excuse for ignorance is the incredibly dimwitted assertion that there are simply less authors of color than white authors. In order to counteract this prevailing and poisonous idea, Gay compiled along with the help of the entire internet a working list of authors of color.

There is a small but strong presence of Native authors on that list. But still I think we need our own. So as of this moment I am sending out a call for a working list of NDN authors. Because who doesn’t like making a list? And it would make my little mixedblood heart swell to know you all care about Indian authors as much as I do.

If anything, we’ll at least have something to point to when some ignoramus says, “Well, there just aren’t as many good Indian authors out there.” Then you can say, “Psssh, here’s five from the White Earth reservation alone!”

Please leave a comment or e-mail me at with your suggestions for Native authors to add to THE LIST. Let’s stick to authors of fiction and literary non-fiction for now, please.

Of course THE LIST is only the first step, an introduction to the struggle to promote Native authors and the stories they tell. We may not have a place in the bookish internet yet, but we can make our own. If the gatekeepers turn you away, sometimes you just have to tear down the wall. It’s the only way we’ll ever be listened to on our own terms. Let’s get to work!

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