Tag Archives: oral history

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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Whose Stories? Our Stories: Taking Back Diné Identity

The Navajo delegation to Washington D.C. in 1874. Juanita and Manuelito are seated front row center with Manuelito’s son sitting next to them, second from the right. Source: UNM.edu

An indigenous person looking to investigate their past comes up against many strange ironies, greatest among them that the dominant culture, which has tried to eradicate and replace indigenous cultures, has  also been the largest producer of the histories about those cultures. In order to control an indigenous past, conquerors have often found it necessary to control what is accepted as the indigenous past. These sanctioned accounts are whitewashed yarns that talk briefly of injustices committed against the indigenous population, before focusing on the inherent, unavoidable indigenous penchant for tragedy, all the while building up to a cheery, enlightened end in multicultural assimilation.

While this is the history most widely heard, it is certainly not the only history that is told. As Jennifer Nez Denetdale shows in her book Reclaiming Diné History: The Legacies of Chief Manuelito and Juanita, indigenous people, in this case the Navajo, have always maintained through oral history their own version of the past and what it means for the present.

Denetdale came upon the topic for her book after discovering photos of her great-great-great-grandmother Juanita, one of Navajo Chief Manuelito’s four wives but widely reported to be his favorite and constant companion. They appeared to have been taken by George Wharton James, a collector of Navajo textiles and lecturer on Indian cultures of the Southwest. “Like many other white Americans of his generation, James has imposed his own meanings on Juanita’s life and on Navajos in general.” Denetdale argues that photos such as James’ “reinforce reductionist representations while masking the unimaginable historical traumas Navajos have survived.”

In the case of Navajo women, such as Juanita, Jame’s photos enforce the image of a Navajo woman as a weaver. This image fit into the burgeoning arts and crafts market which was emerging in Santa Fe and depended on a strict criteria of Indian authenticity. Although Juanita was never well-known for her weaving abilities, James is quick to classify her as a weaver and shows her exhibiting blankets and surrounded by weaving devices. Photos such as these and ones which show Juanita with Manuelito and children frame her as a traditional mother type who does typical women’s work. They fail to capture Juanita’s skills outside the domestic sphere and the fact that traditional Navajo families are not nuclear nor patriarchal.

While the photos of Juanita’s as well as her role in negotiating with the US government have long been obscured, Manuelito’s life and image have been widely known.  He is the most famous of the Navajos both in his time and still today. Dentedale describes the official American narrative about Manuelito as one that emphasizes the military defeat of a noble leader, an Indian unable to acclimate to reservation life who tragically succumbed to alcoholism. While Manuelito’s descendents’ accounts rely to some degree on American accounts to fill the gaps of their collective memory, few are simply willing to accept the official story  about their people and history as the whole truth.

For Navajos, the most defining characteristic  of Manuelito’s life is his promotion of education as a means of tribal advancement. His name graces the tribal scholarship fund that assist many young Navajos, myself included, in funding college and graduate school. He is known to have said that education was the ladder that would lead the Navajo people to a better life. He is also memorialized as a staunch defender of Navajo people and land not only against the American settlers but also the Mexican slave raiders who targeted Navajo women and children until the early 20th century. This side of Manuelito and Navajo life reflects histories that are never acknowledged in American accounts such as American assistance with slave raiding in an attempt to seize Navajo land and the fact that many Navajos were not trapped in the past but willing to seek new ways to create a future.

Unfortunately, the hugely disruptive events that have torn Navajos from their homeland, known as Diné Bikéyah, have been catastrophic for keeping histories intact. Dentedale experienced this first-hand while conducting her research into precarious and tumultuous lives: “The first response to my queries about our grandparents included a litany  of answers like ‘I don’t know,’ ‘We didn’t ask questions,’ and “We should have listened when we were told stories of our grandmother.’” Many of the relatives she talked to were sent to boarding schools and had few opportunities to unearth memories many wanted to forget.

Memories from before 1868 are especially unstable. In 1863, the Navajo were finally subjugated by  a series of slave raids and attacks on their fields. They were forced to relocate to Bosque Redondo a prison camp far from the Dine homeland where Navajos would remain for five years. The journey to the squalor and disease and starvation that awaited the Navajos there is called The Long Walk.

The Long Walk continues to pervade Navajo stories as the central struggle defining the people’s ability to overcome hardship to reach a place of reconciliation. In the latter half of Reclaiming Dine History, Denetdale explores how this aspect of stories told about the past reflect the first story told by the Navajos, the creation story. In doing so she shows not only how the creation story is a kind of history but also how each time Navajos tell their history they experience again the process of creation. That is why Navajo-based accounts of the Navajo past are so important. They not only tell a fuller picture of what happened but also reinforce the traditions that draw a people together as a tribe.

My own story is an example of how often that does not happen, and how a person descendent from the one of the first four clans that originally classified the first Navajo families in the Southwest can lose touch with all that has drawn those clans together. Such occurrences are rarely by choice and often through trauma.

There is only a single afternoon I can truly count as spending time with my great-grandmother. My mom, my mom’s cousin, and I followed her through the rooms of the house she was staying in as she walked sideways through time. She kept asking where her children, my mom’s dad and his siblings, were though they had grown up and left decades earlier. Though we were introduced several times, I don’t think she even knew who I was. And I knew very little about her– only that she had her first child when she was thirteen or fourteen, that she was very old now and that her hair was still so black I could hardly believe it was real. She died not long after that and we never talked together.

My middle name is Catherine. I was supposedly named for my grandmother, my mother’s mother, who died when my mother was only four years old. After that, my mother was sent to live with white people, old white people who are not often talked about but who are not described as very nice people, not very nice people at all. It was not until a couple years ago that my mom found some official document with her mother’s name on it. Her name was not Catherine, but there’s no changing mine now.

Our broken, untold histories are a part of us, sometimes more so than the linear and factual narrative. What little we can remember, what we have cobbled together from what we were told and what we told ourselves to get through– that is what becomes real, that is what becomes who we are, what we call ourselves.

This is not to say that we are only our broken memories and fractured past. It is only to say that we must acknowledge the silences and gaps that spot the terrain of our consciousness as a people and resist  Western accounts that fill in what they need to believe and what they want us to believe about ourselves.  Indigenous scholars such as Jennifer Nez Denetdale provide a model for doing so by investigating her own past with the techniques of both the Western academy and the Navajo oral tradition. She is one amongst what I hope is a growing number of Native scholars rising up to uncover the traces of tribal truth and uproot the lies that have grown too long like invasive weeds in our perceptions of the past.

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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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