Native North American Authorship

Text, Breath, Modernity

by A. Robert Lee (Author)
©2022 Monographs XII, 352 Pages


Can it now be doubted that Native American/First Nations literary voice has become other than an established, and hugely compelling, compass? Native North American Authorship takes bearings, a roster of close readings yet situated within the wider latitudes and longitudes of timeline, place, memory. The emphasis falls throughout upon imagination, the "breath" within given texts be they fiction, poetry or self-writing. This is also to emphasize Native writing as modern (and in some cases postmodern) phenomenon, for sure rooted in tribal particularity, oral tradition, and trickster lore, but also given to reflexivity, the writer looking over his/her own shoulder. The authorship involved is now a literature equally of the city and indeed of geographies encountered beyond North America. The aim is to avoid suggesting some Grand Synthesis or to replay battles of reservation/off reservation ideology. The account opens with two purviews: the scale of Native written texts from early Christian-convert witness to contemporary verse and story by names like Tommy Pico and Eden Robinson, and the fuller implication of a category like Native American Renaissance. Key author portraits follow of N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, James Welch, Gerald Vizenor, Sherman Alexie and Louis Owens. New longer fiction and anthology stories invite their respective chapters as do the story-collections of Diane Glancy and Stephen Graham Jones. Poetry assumes focus in the accounts of Joy Harjo and her contemporaries and Simon Ortiz and his contemporaries, with specific chapters on Jim Barnes, Linda Hogan and Ralph Salisbury. The epilogue adds further context: "Native" as cultural etymology, the role of site and space-time, and the affinities of Native authorship with other Native arts.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Text, Breath, Modernity
  • Part I: Bearings
  • 1. Native American Renaissance: Timelines, Texts
  • 2. Modern Native Life Writing: Telling You Now
  • Part II: Novel
  • 3. Wordwalker: N. Scott Momaday Tryptich
  • 4. The Full House in Her Hand: Leslie Marmon Silko
  • 5. Web and House: Later Erdrich, Earlier Erdrich
  • 6. Cross-Worlds: The Sight and Sound of James Welch
  • 7. Storier: Postindian Trajectory in the Novels of Gerald Vizenor
  • 8. Fiction Off and On Center: Sherman Alexie
  • 9. Memory Theatre: The Fictions of Louis Owens
  • 10. Changing Points of Compass: The Novel 1990s-2020s
  • Part III: Short Story
  • 11. Story Panorama: Anthology, Author Collection
  • 12. Whole Parts: Scripting Diane Glancy’s Short Fiction
  • 13. Dark Illumination: The Noir Story Collections of Stephen Graham Jones
  • Part IV: Poetry
  • 14. Poetry Remembrance: Joy Harjo, Wendy Rose, Diane Glancy, Luci Tapahonso, Kimberly Blaeser
  • 15. A Native Sense of Existence: The Poetries of Simon Ortiz, Ray A. Young Bear, Tommy Pico
  • 16. Oklahoma International: Jim Barnes and the Sites of Imagination
  • 17. Two Handed: Self and Habitat in the Poetry of Linda Hogan
  • 18. Electronic Computer and Stub Pencil: The Writing-in of Ralph Salisbury
  • Epilogue: Native, North American, Authorship
  • About the Author
  • Index

←vi | vii→


My gratitude to writers of Native and First Nations heritage comes first.


To read the authorship of Native America and First Nations Canada is an enlightenment and always and at the same time a privilege. That remains the essential acknowledgment, especially venturing as a visitor into literary terrain an Atlantic away from my own origins.

I thank Gerald Vizenor for past friendship and for writings which have been of consequence in modern Native authorship. Latterly his views of empathy towards literature and good editorship could not have been more instructive. Our collaborations include Shadow Distance: A Gerald Vizenor Reader (1992), Postindian Conversations (1999), and Loosening the Seams: Interpretations of Gerald Vizenor (2000).

Other creative writers to whom I owe debts, whether in person or correspondence, notably include Louis Owens with whom I was working on a book of interviews provisionally entitled Outside Shadow at the time of his death in 2002.

I would also want to recognize the consequential poet who features in my Salt Companion to Jim Barnes (2009).

Much, too, is owed on my part to Native writer-scholars like Kimberly Blaeser, Betty Louise Bell, Robert F. Gish, Diane Glancy, Gordon Henry, Linda Hogan, ←vii | viii→Carter Revard, Kathryn W. Stanley, Clifford E. Trafzer, Irene Vernon, Terry P. Wilson, Billy S. Stratton, Gary Strankman, and the late Patricia Clark Smith.

Debts to co-editors from the USA, Britain, Europe, Canada, Japan and Taiwan are likewise considerable: Gerald Vizenor: Texts and Contexts (2010), with Deborah Madsen, The Native American Renaissance: Literary Imagination and Achievement (2013), with Alan R. Velie, Louis Owens: Writing Land and Legacy (2019), with Joe Lockard, and Ralph Salisbury, Transmotion, Special Issue (2020), with James Mackay.

Equally it is a privilege to have contributed to Transatlantc Voices: Interpretations of North American Literatures (2007), Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence (2008), Native Authenticity: Transnational Perspectives on Native American Literary Studies (2010), Aspects of Transnational and Indigenous Cultures (2014), Mediating Indianness (2015), The Routledge Companion to Native American Literature (2016), Native American Survivance, Memory, and Futurity (2017), and The Cambridge History of Native American Literature (2020).

Across the international span the scholar list further includes Hans Bak, Elizabeth Bair, Helmbrecht Breinig, Susan Castillo, John G. Cawelti, Feng Pin-chia, John Gamber, Linda Lizut Helstern, Hsinya Huang, Elaine Jenner, Min Jung Kim, Arnold Krupat, Chris LaLonde, Iping Liang, Kenneth Lincoln, Tom Lynch, David Mogen, David L. Moore, David Murray, William H. New, Barry O’Connell, Yukiko Oshima, Simone Pellerin, Elvira Pulitano, Bernadette Rigal-Cellard, A. Lavonne Brown Ruoff, Colin Samson, David Stirrup, Rebecca Tillett, Cathy Covell Waegner, Ingrid Wendt, Hertha D. Sweet Wong and Shamoon Zamir.

Spain, my base this past decade, gives every reason to relish the creative good friendship of David Walton and Andy Sotiriou, together with that of Juan Antonio Súarez, Natalia Carbajosa and Estíbaliz Encarnación-Pinedo. In Valencia there has been the similar benefit of Carme Manuel Cuenca, Anna María Brigido Corrachán and Paul Scott Derrick. Madrid has meant especially Félix Martín Gutíerrez and Isabel Durán Giménez, and Barcelona, Gloria Montero and Jared Lubarsky.

I am grateful to the following journals for allowing my Native American literary-critical work into their pages: American Book Review, Immigrants & Minorities, Journal of American Studies (UK), Konch Magazine, Modern Language Review, Studies in American Indian Literatures, Tamkang Review, Third Text, Transmotion, and Weber Studies.

These and other writings arise from a career spent at the University of Kent, UK (1967–1996), and Nihon University, Tokyo (1997–2011). Equally it has been ←viii | ix→a major asset to have held frequent visiting appointments variously in the departments both of English and of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado and the University of California, Berkeley. Other year-long and summer teaching invitations have been essential, at Princeton University, University of Virginia, California State University, Northridge, Bryn Mawr College, University of Louisville, Northwestern University, University of Colorado, and University of New Mexico, together with a Newberry Library Summer Fellowship which allowed me access to their Native and Herman Melville holdings.

Subject position inevitably comes into consideration. I write as neither Native American nor, indeed, as any kind of American, but rather as a white Britisher albeit with a long university career teaching American Studies and Literature. Among many American literary interests has been the dynamics of multicultural imagination which I have sought to explore in studies like Designs of Blackness: Mappings in the Literature and Culture of Afro-America (1998, 25th Anniversary Edition, 2020), Multicultural American Literature: Comparative Black, Native, Latino/a and Asian American Fictions (2003) and Modern American Counter Writing: Beats Outriders, Ethnics (2010). These, and Native American Writing (2011) as the one multi-set alongside African American Writing (2013) and US Latino/a Writing (2014), intend reminders of the plurality of American literary voice. They also attest to how the multicultural has had to outflank well enough known exclusionist obstacles and so help the changing perception of American/Canadian literary canons.

Other debts.

A major thanks to Brian Donahue for the cover photography and appreciation of the Little Earth of United Tribes urban community in Minneapolis from where the images are taken.

An especial xie-xie to Lisa Yinwen Yu, both in Taiwan and the University of Arizona, for immense library and bibliographic help.

Philip Dunshea gave generous welcome at the outset for this book and has been hugely supportive throughout. My every appreciation.

As on previous occasions I thank Jacqueline Pavlovic at Peter Lang and the team at New Gen, most especially Charmitha Ashok (Production)

More personally, and infinitely to my good fortune, there has been Josefa Vivancos Hernández. Quite simply she has made this collection and its author possible.

←x | 1→

Introduction: Text, Breath, Modernity

Native North American Authorship. You alight upon N. Scott Momaday’s Kiowa-authored House Made of Dawn (1968) and enter a world of Native breakage and healing at once the wartime Pacific, postwar Los Angeles, and the mythic southwest pueblo called Walatowa. Turn to Louise Erdrich’s Chippewa-Ojibwe Love Medicine (1984), teasingly poised between novel and story-cycle, and the fare is a dark-comic wheel of Upper Midwest mixed-blood dynasty. Read a line from the Acoma Pueblo writer Simon Ortiz’s poem “Even the ‘Indians’ Believed” in his collection Out There Somewhere (2002) and you are faced with the query “Indians are made up?” Think First Nations Canada and a writer like Beth Brant (Bay of Quinte Mohawk), descendant of Chief Joseph Brant, and whose posthumous collection A Generous Spirit (2019) gives tribute to her gay and feminist life and the ancestry behind a poem like “For All My Grandmothers.”

Whether non-Native, or even Native reader, you might well ask in good faith where you are located. In this regard, and at each first mention, I have given tribal affiliation – which is in no way to engage in the nag of controversies about blood quantum. That lies well beyond my credential. Rather, to meet the authorship of Momaday, Erdrich, Ortiz or Brant, and others of the literary generation of Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo), Gerald Vizenor (White Earth Chippewa-Ojibwe-Anishinaabe), James Welch (Blackfeet/A’aninin),Thomas King ←1 | 2→(Cherokee), Joy Harjo (Muscogee-Creek) or Sherman Alexie (Coeur d’Alene), account needs to take on a range of forerunners and successors.

What historic pasts or sense of the present, what geographies, lie within the fashioning of these writings? Step back in time and Native American and Canada’s First Nation literary-scriptural history generally has been agreed to start from the late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century. The Christian-convert evidentiary writing of Samson Occom (Mohegan), William Apess (Pequot) and the Canadian-born George Copway (Mississaugas Anishinaabe) supply usual pointers. Step forward to a contemporary sweep and you encounter a novel of Native urban life centered in Oakland through the dozen galleried voices of There There (2018) by Tommy Orange (Cheyenne-Arapaho); verse landscapes of inner spirit in Dissolve (2019) by Sherwin Bitsui (Diné/Navajo); a gay-themed New York city poem of selfhood’s volatility amid welters of life and media information like Feed (2019) by Tommy Pico (Kumeyaay Viejas Reservation); or the trickster novel-trilogy launched with Son of a Trickster (2017) by the First Nations author Eden Robinson (Haisla-Heiltsuk). Early, late, or in-between, and however slow recognition, the texts aplenty are not to be denied.

Text. How, between then and now, to take full cognizance of these Native and First Nations writings, literary beginnings through to the writings published in the present Obama-Trump-Biden century? How as fully as possible to meet a tradition whose self-inscriptions run from codices and pictographs, through quill and page-print, to digitalization and global cybernetics? Whether one or many, genre or cross-genre, the texts at hand require attention as much to craft as vision, the sense of design as much as history.

Breath as part of the half-title for the book equally invites explanation. One helpful pointer is to be found in the poem “Turtle” by Linda Hogan (Chickasaw) in which the turtle becomes figuration in dreamed creation-story:

←2 | 3→

Hogan has her poem go on to situate her reader, Native and non-Native, among a spectrum of living things: fish, animals, eyes, women as birth-givers. The turtle, in any number of tribal-community figurations, serves as world-genesis avatar, the ancestral bearer of creation, its breath from under and then out of water carried into life’s all-encompassing domain. “The world never leaves the Turtle’s back” says Thomas King, Cherokee-heritaged, California-born but long resident in Canada, in The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative (2003).2 He, too, shares the trope, one of Native/First Nations creative breath and its continuance. At the same time, and in step with any number of compeers, King writes as a wholly modern author, well aware of debates as to textuality, the writer looking mirror-like over his or her or their own shoulder. Native/First Nations literal breath, so to say, elides cannily into Native/First Nations literary breath.

Modernity coequally needs its gloss. What indeed is it to write as modern for Native authors, whether reservation-centered or living in the cities? Arizona or Wisconsin or Oklahoma yield today’s Indian Country but so, too, are there the Urban Indian domains of Los Angeles, Minneapolis or New York. What, to invoke Canada, has it meant to give new written idiom to First Nations experience, whether writers accorded governmental status or non-status and across the spectrum of Abenaki, Cree, Haida, Kwakiutl with discrete recognition of the Inuit and Métis populations, and yet again to life in the cities and across the provinces from Toronto to Vancouver?

Certainly Native/First Nations authorship has been adventuresome: urban and speculative fiction, ventures into new gothic and the postmodern, open-form verse, changing styles of life-writing, newly slanted story-cycle, two-spirit and LBTQI+ gendered texts, reflexive stage performance, and writings that might be called Native international.3 Tommy Orange, in a 2021 interview with fellow debut contemporary David Heske Wanbli Weiden (Sicangu Lakota) whose Winter Counts (2020) itself makes new ground for a reservation crime and drugs thriller, offers the following observation about There There:

I wanted the book to feel urban and have its characters reflect on urbanity, technology, and modernity as an act of resistance against all the ways we’ve been frozen in time.4

Text, Breath, Modernity. These each filter into the present study. They are meant as footholds, rungs.


←3 | 4→

Other perspectives bid for regard. In “A Discussion about Indian Affairs” Geary Hobson, contemporary writer-poet and Oklahoma professor of mixed Cherokee, Quapaw and Chickasaw descent, has his poem laconically ponder continuing gaps:

“I wondered if we’d ever have anything to say to one another.” What losses would be entailed were that always the case? To more immediate purpose, what writings would have gone un-read or risked continuing not to be so?

In the first part of her title-poem for the collection Indian Singing in Twentieth Century America (1990) Gail Tremblay, poet, visual artist, long a resident teacher in Evergreen State University, Washington, and whose New York lineage looks to both Onondaga-Micmac and French dynasty, has the issue revolve upon “two worlds” and upon who does, or does not, “explain[s] us”:

We wake; we wake the day,

the light rising in us like the sun –

our breath a prayer brushing

against the feathers in our hands.

We stumble out into streets;

patterns of wires invented by strangers

are strung between eye and sky,

and we dance in two worlds,

inevitable as seasons in one,

←4 | 5→

exotic curiosities in the other

which rushes headlong down highways,

watches us from car windows,

explains us to its children in words

that no one could ever make sense of. 6


XII, 352
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (September)
Native First Nation Novel Poetry Life Writing Modern Postmodern Imagination Image Memory Timeline Geography Native North American Authorship Text, Breath, Modernity A. Robert Lee
New York, Berlin, Bruxelles, Lausanne, Oxford, 2022. XII, 352 pp.

Biographical notes

A. Robert Lee (Author)

A. Robert Lee, a Britisher with degrees from the University of London who taught for three decades at the University of Kent, UK, was Professor in the English Department at Nihon University, Tokyo (1997-2011). His Native American work includes Shadow Distance: A Gerald Vizenor Reader (1994) and with Gerald Vizenor, Postindian Conversations (1999); Multicultural American Literature: Comparative Black, Native, Latino/a and Asian American Fictions (2003), which won the American Book Award in 2004; editor, The Salt Companion to Jim Barnes (2009); Modern American Counter Writings: Beats, Outriders, Ethnics (2010); the four-volume set Native American Writing (2011); and, editor with Alan R. Velie, The Native American Renaissance (2013). His Designs of Blackness: Mappings in the Literature and Culture of Afro-America, 25th Anniversary Edition (2020) is also a Peter Lang publication.


Title: Native North American Authorship