Jace Weaver – Chapter 1, That the People Might Live

Citation: Weaver, Jace. “Native American Literatures and Communitism.” That the People Might Live: Native American Literatures and Native American Community. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 3-45.
_________________________________________________________________ Argument  

Weaver puts forth a neologism: communitism, which combines community and activism. Such thinking is necessary to go beyond notion of Indigenous essentialism, and Weaver sees Indigenous literature as having a role to play in communitism.

Scope/Organization/Main Points:

Weaver shines new light on N. Scott Momaday’s assertion that memory resides in the blood. He contends that “cultural coding exists finally beyond conscious remembering, so deeply engrained and psychologically embedded that one can describe it as being ‘in the blood’” (7). He also gestures towards complicating our idea of what blood denotes: is Indigenous identity embodied or learned through story, family relations, etc.? More importantly is the question of whether the distinction between those modes of being can really stand.

Perhaps problematically, Weaver states that Native Americans are “Indisputably an oppressed minority in the United States” (11) – an interpretation that naturalizes Indigenous peoples as subordinate to, rather than as separate nations.

Weaver discusses the importance of language to identity and culture at length, mentioning Quenah Tonemah’s assertion that students were “in large measure deracinated” (14). I’m curious about the connection between art and language, particularly if “to write about Indian experience and be published in English is inevitably to be involved in an ambiguous area of cultural identity” and supports Indigeneity being transformed into “yet another second-hand cultural identity” (14, citing David Murray).

Regarding the production of the Vanishing Indian myth, “viewing the Indian as vanishing and Indian cultures as disintegrating” meant that “it was impossible to view 20th-century Indians who refused to vanish as degraded and inauthentic and to contrast them with stereotypes of the ‘pure,’ ‘authentic’ bon sauvage or sauvage noble of the past and thus keep Indians safely in the basis box of the 19th century. […] An extinct people do not change. Their story is complete” (18).

Weaver notes that colonization works through forcing the  indigene to internalize the ideals of empire, while also hinting that stories and survivance can undo such psychological colonization (20). This is perhaps why Western scholars frequently claim that Indigenous orality is dying out. The colonizers are better able to recognize and respond to artifacts rather than living culture. He quotes Leslie Marmon Silko: “White ethnologists have reported that the oral tradition among Native American groups has died out because whites have always looked for museum pieces and artifacts when dealing with Native American communities… I great up in Laguna listening, and I hear the ancient stories, I hear them very clearly in the stories we are telling right now” (20-1 citing Silko, Storyteller, back cover).  Limiting the canon of “Native literature” to orature is a way of limiting who is recognized by the dominant culture – a “way of continuing colonialism” according to Weaver (23). It’s unclear whether he sees this is a  problem for internalized colonization or for recognition by the settler public. Nonetheless, such assessments of authenticity seem to have a temporalizing effect, keeping “American Indians from entering the 20th century and denies to Native literary artists who choose other media any legitimate or ‘authentic’ Native Identity” (23). Also, he does go on to note that Euroamerican judgment of a Native cannon is equally troublesome (23).  He references Ortiz, Tom King and Penny Petrone to note that form is important only insofar as it is an expression for experience: Indigenous writers use an assortment of forms, which “are different because form is only the expression of the fabric of experience and the experience of native writers has been different” (26, citing Penny Petrone, Native Literature, 183-4).  Towards the end of the chapter, he elaborates his neologism: communitism – a combination of “community” and “activism.” He argues that losing community for Indigenous peoples “is paramount to psychic suicide. It is to lose the self in the dominant mass humanity, either ceasing to be or persisting merely as another ethnic minority, drifting with no place, no relations, no real people” (43). Conversely, he offers a definition of Indigenous literatures that “relates to this sense of community and commitment to it” (43). Indigenous literature, then, “has a proactive commitment to Native community, including the wider community.” It allows its creators and its readers to “participate in the healing of the grief and sense of exile felt by Native communities and the pained individuals in them” (43). He cites Bhabha: “community envisaged as a project – at once a vision and a construction – that takes you ‘beyond’ yourself in order to return, in a spirit of revision and reconstruction, to the political conditions of the present” (43, Location of Culture, 3, original emphasis). He refers to Vizenor, Robert Warrior, and others, in order to argue that “Native writers speak to that part of us the colonial power and the dominant culture cannot (44) reach, cannot touch. They help Indians imagine themselves as Indians. Just as there is no practice of Native religions for personal empowerment, they write that the People might live” (45)   

Points of Importance/Interest:

  • Is communitism helpful for determining what makes Inuit art Inuit? (Here I’m thinking of Weaver’s reference to Thomas King’s discussion of what makes Indigenous literature) (8).
  • I wonder how Weaver’s discussion of the Vanishing Indian (18) works with the types of “presencing” that Andrea Smith talks about, and the presence that Inuit Art seems to assert. Art as a way to continuing the story, or artifacts of a story already told? Does recognition do something that seems to ameliorate the Vanishing Indian while also preserving its effects? A form of visibility that “the dominant culture cannot reach, cannot touch” (45).
  • I like his negotiating literature as a venue for personal experience versus literature that revealed a shared Indigenous experience. It makes me think about how Indigineity is somehow seen as ‘less-than’ if it describes its experience of colonization, as if Indigenous peoples’ experience of domination is less authentic than living “free.”

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