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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Native American Literature

Deep Waters: The Textual Continuum in American Indian Literature by Christopher B. Teuton (University of Nebraska Press)

Weaving connections between indigenous modes of oral storytelling, visual depiction, and contemporary American Indian literature, Deep Waters demonstrates the continuing relationship between traditional and contemporary Native American systems of creative representation and signification. Christopher B. Teuton, associate professor of English at the University of Denver, begins with a study of Mesoamerican writings, Din sand paintings, and Haudenosaunee wampum belts. He proposes a theory of how and why indigenous oral and graphic means of recording thought are interdependent, their functions and purposes determined by social, political, and cultural contexts.

Deep Waters introduces a theory of Native American signification organized around three interrelated theoretical concepts: the oral impulse, the graphic impulse, and the critical impulse. This book demonstrates how crucial twentieth- and twenty-first-century literary texts develop a sustained and illuminating critique of the relationship between tradition and modernity through their conceptual and thematic explorations of indigenous traditions of oral and graphic forms of communication. Native American literature, according to Teuton, continues a sophisticated Indigenous critical practice that explores the roles of the individual and the community in the context of survivance, balance, harmony, and peace, among other tribally specific values. The center of Deep Waters consists of extended readings of four texts that embody this critical and cultural project in different ways. Two of the writers, N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa) and Gerald Vizenor (Anishinaabe), are well known to students of Native literature, while Ray A. Young Bear (Meskwaki) and Robert J. Conley (Cherokee) have received relatively little critical attention.

The critical vocabulary of Teutons study critiques and decenters the standard definitions of orality and literacy that provide a structuring binary common to Native American literary studies. After exposing the ideological nature of oral-literate theoretical definitions of orality and literacy, he draws on the work of Jacques Derrida to critique the way writing as recorded speech has been valued as the most technologically advanced, clearest, most efficient mode of signifying. As Derrida argues convincingly, no form of communication is inherently more clear, present, or truthful than another. The privileging of writing as recorded speech has led to the perception that context-dependent forms of signification, such as Native American oral and graphic traditions, are less culturally advanced. This privileging has contributed to the historical and political subjugation of Native communities by characterizing them as oral, nonliterate peoples. In doing so it has blinded scholars to the ways oral and graphic traditions function in inter-dependent ways in the expression of indigenous knowledge. Seen in this context it is not surprising that the writers Teuton studies view the theoretical issues surrounding orality and literacy as a central concern of their work.

As a starting point Teuton explores the ways oral and graphic forms of communication functioned relationally in three Indigenous cultures. Building on an interdisciplinary body of scholarship, he argues that Native cultures and literature share three basic commitments: (1) to develop new knowledge in relation to a dynamically changing group experience; (2) to maintain necessary knowledge for posterity and to share that knowledge; and (3) to critique both the contents of and the process leading to that knowledge. As Native signification critiques the relationship between what he calls the oral impulse and the graphic impulse, it draws on a sensibility, which he refers to as the critical impulse, which is not dependent on a particular form of expression.

Deep Waters begins with an extended discussion of the origin and significance of the three impulses. The oral and graphic build on the premise that oral discourses are living forms of cultural knowledge, kept alive in the memory of members of a group; graphic discourses record tradition for posterity, to live beyond the lives of those who record them. The oral impulse emphasizes a relational and experiential engagement with the world through sound-based forms of communication. Although oral modes of communication are not inherently more present than graphic forms, they offer the potential for a more direct social engagement, if only because a speaker and a listener must be within earshot of one another. The oral impulse is the impulse communities and individuals feel as the need to create and maintain knowledge in relatively direct response to one another and to a rapidly changing world. The graphic impulse, on the other hand, expresses a desire for the permanent recording of cultural knowledge in formats that will allow for recollection and study. In contrast to oral discourses, graphic discourses aspire to be expressed in lasting formats. Graphic discourses change in time, as do oral discourses, but they do so more slowly and in response to the oral discourses with which they engage.

Aware of both the insights and the blindness of the oral and the graphic impulses, the critical impulse is always balancing, but never creating a static balance. The critical impulse is always undercutting, always making messes, always disrupting things when they seem to be functioning well enough. But it is precisely when things seem stable, seem natural, that they must be questioned by an infusion of knowledge from discourses that will undercut smug satisfaction. The critical impulse arises out of a context of community consciousness, and it responds to the oral and graphic communicative needs of a community for survivance.

The dynamic balance between oral and graphic discourses on the textual continuum was ultimately disrupted by Euro-American colonialism and the privileging of alphabetic writing. However, oral, graphic, and critical discourses continue to be expressed in Indigenous communities, just as wampum, sand-painting, and the Aztec calendar continue to serve their communities. Because writing is unrivaled as the discursive mode with which Native Americans have faced colonialism, it is through this very medium that graphic dominance is most actively disrupted. Writing has been a tool of both colonialism and survivance. By incorporating the oral impulse within a historically graphic mode of communication, American Indian literature negotiates the tensions between the oral and the graphic, inviting readers and their communities to enliven their own critical impulses in the process.

Deep Waters demonstrates through critical readings of key contemporary narratives that Native American writers have been identifying and exploring the effects of the legacy of imbalances between the oral, graphic, and critical impulses and their effects on Native American life. Embedding images of dialogue and storytelling (both key elements of the oral impulse) in their ostensibly graphic texts, the works of the writers he discusses explore the relationships between the oral and the graphic in ways that open spaces within which the critical impulse can flourish.

Chapter 1 explains the textual continuum in depth and offer examples of how the oral and graphic impulses have functioned in Native American traditions of signification. In the remaining four chapters Teuton addresses a diverse range of canonical and less well-known Native American writers and narrative texts, analyzing their self-conscious examination of the purposes and roles of oral and graphic traditions. Chapter 2 presents a reading of the classic The Way to Rainy Mountain, N. Scott Momaday's most philosophically and structurally complex work. Teuton demonstrates how Momaday's narrator confronts the colonialism of literate-based epistemological frameworks by reclaiming his Kiowa self in an embrace of Kiowa oral traditional knowledge. Chapter 3 offers a reading of another canonical work, Gerald Vizenor's controversial trickster novel, Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles. One of the most influential and least critically understood Native American texts, Bearheart, does not advocate the subversion of all values, but aims to invigorate the critical impulse as trickster discourse by undercutting graphically dominant value systems that evade the fluidity of oral epistemologies. Chapter 4 offers in-depth readings of Ray A. Young Bear's Black Eagle Child: The Facepaint Narratives and Remnants of the First Earth, two of the most conceptually erudite and culturally rooted narrative works of Native American literature ever published. Universally admired but virtually ignored by critics for the structural, mythical, and social complexity of his writing, Young Bear's paired prose works portray the act of writing as a form of artistic mediation, a heuristic through which his protagonist, Edgar Bearchild, works out complicated sociocultural changes in a Native community. Chapter 5 examines one of the most ambitious series of Native American novels, Robert J. Conley's Real People series. Charting Cherokee life from pre-contact times through forced removal to Indian Territory in 1839, Conley's works of popular fiction foreground the tensions between oral traditions and Cherokee writing while recreating historical narratives as a means of reclaiming tribal histories. Teuton argues that these writers and their texts are redefining the concept of literary interpretation from within social, community-based concepts.

Through their exploration of the discursive relationships between oral and graphic forms, the history of Native textual expression as well as contemporary American Indian literature have been teaching listeners and readers about the role of interpretation in American Indian experience. Interpretation, these works have been telling us, is not strictly an individualistic affair, but is also a socially located and socially constructed process on the textual continuum.

Deep Waters gives critics and other readers a chance to dive into deep waters. Through a textually grounded exploration of what Teuton calls the oral impulse, the graphic impulse, and the critical impulse, readers are shown how and why various types of contemporary Native literary production are interrelated and draw upon long-standing indigenous methods of creative representation. Teuton breaks down the disabling binary of orality and literacy, offering a cogent, historically informed theory of indigenous textuality that allows for deeper readings of Native American cultural and literary expression.



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