If you're a product of the typical American education system, you might have trouble naming a prominent Native American author besides Sherman Alexie. But there's a wealth of great narratives out there from Native writers and activists–they just need to be sought out. In University of Montana English professor David L. Moore's book, That Dream Shall Have a Name: Native Americans Rewriting America, he draws from dozens of Native voices, many of whom might not be well known outside of Native Studies departments, to examine how they navigate identities and try to heal wounds inflicted by centuries of genocide. His sources include Pequot Methodist minister William Apess' 1830s work, late-1800s Northern Paiute activist Sarah Winnemucca, Depression-era Salish/Metis novelist D'Arcy McNickle and modern Laguna novelist Leslie Marmon Silko. (Moore also acknowledges that he's a "eurowesterner," aka white guy, and that his intent is to be "descriptive," and not "prescriptive," and so I should disclose that I am also a white person with the same intent.)
Moore says Native literature's first goal is often just to assert that tribal cultures still exist and have a right to, despite a long history of oppression from the ruling American class. Even well-meaning movies and history books mistakenly erase contemporary Native existence-just think of the "last" part in Last of the Mohicans. "This American literary prototype does not acknowledge that an Indigenous presence remains after Leatherstockings, or Shane, or the Lone Ranger, or he who 'Dances with Wolves' rides off into the sunset," Moore writes.
Native narratives, Moore says, break down binaries like "civilization and wilderness," "indigenous and colonial." All those influences mingle together. In the book, Moore uses an interview Alexie did with "60 Minutes" to illustrate the point. "So I just try to write about everyday Indians," Alexie said, "the kind of Indian I am, who is just as influenced by the 'Brady Bunch' as I am by my tribal traditions."
- That Dream Shall Have a NameDavid L. Moorepaperback, University of Nebraska Press488 pages, $45
Moore identifies five themes running through American Indian stories, past and present: sovereignty, community, identity, authenticity and humor. It's that last ingredient that's often the delivery method for messages about the rest; while we're laughing at frybread jokes, we're empathizing with the heavy stuff behind the punch lines. Moore says Native humor can be the "in-group tease," asking, "Can you shed your ego to identify with the community?" and, more broadly, the "out-group tease: America, can you shed your story to identify with reality?"
Moore points out that Native narratives will always reveal a truth about America that makes many people uncomfortable-our country, founded upon a lot of high-minded talk about liberty and equality, has often provided anything but for indigenous people. "Their centuries-long claims to natural justice have reminded America of both its wrongs and its ideals," Moore says. Perhaps this discomfort is part of why mainstream American literary education often excludes important Native writers, and that it's controversial when it does, like all the protests against Alexie's work.
I came to That Dream hoping that it would be a primer to an area of literature that I would like to know more about, but it's a heady text that assumes the reader is already well-versed with the authors Moore discusses. It's probably fine for an upper-level Native Studies course, but the average reader would be better off finding the individual authors first. D'Arcy McNickle's 1936 novel The Surrounded, an early hallmark of modern Native literature, depicts a young half-Salish man's struggles on the Flathead reservation. Leslie Marmon Silko's 1976 Ceremony, which explores the healing process of a WWII veteran, is an important classic. And it's beyond the scope of Moore's book, but these days there's a lot of great Indian writers on the internet dissecting modern culture, like Adrienne K. of the Native Appropriations blog.
While That Dream may be a lot to wade through if you're unfamiliar with Moore's sources, it's still an important addition to the ever-growing field of Native literary discussion. Tribal identity continues to evolve, and so does the discussion about it.
UM professor David Moore reads from That Dream Shall Have a Name: Native Americans Rewriting America at Shakespeare and Co. Tue., Feb. 11, at 7 PM. Free.