Craig Womack, “A Single Decade.”

Citation: Womack, Craig S. “A Single Decade: Book Length Native Literary Criticism between 1986 and 1997.” Reasoning Together: The Native Critics Collective. Eds. Craig S. Womack, Daniel Heath Justice, and Christopher B. Teuton.


This is a very dense and often disorienting chapter.

Womack’s shockingly long introduction puts developments in Native literary criticism along events in American politics that occurred during the 1980s and into the 1990s. Broadly, he is calling for – and demonstrating – a political-ideological reading of Native literature, in part because Indigenous literature is often looked to for what it is meant to reveal about authors.

Scope/Organization/Main Points: Womack’s work is implicitly opposed to the sorts of compartmentalization that Coulthard is concerned with, particularly in regards to the work that art is meant to do. Problems in Indigenous communities are to a large extent the product of “loss of land” which is “a grim prospect in light of the unlikelihood of land reform in America. A major dilemma for the Indian artist, then, is commenting in one’s art on social policy and articulating community strategies for increased health, while keeping the work artful” (8).

Putting literary work alongside politics results in a “materialist theory” (9).

I like his discussion of Louis Owens, who “examine[s] the themes of the novels of the 1920s and 1930s in relation to a kind of cloud of uncertainty about the Indian future that hangs over these works” (17).  “Some Native critics are frustrated to find out that just when they might finally have an audience for their side of the story, the non-Indian world has discovered that all stories are subjective. This might strike some as a little too convenient, another abdication of responsibility – in short, a further manifestation of colonialism” (41).  Womack describes how his students sometimes “despair” at the approach that close reading and critical thinking require. On the contrary he encourages to think otherwise: “The idea is a self-awareness of our own role as readers in shaping what we encounter and a resistance to reading where we talk back to texts, where we ask questions, rather than view the texts as the authoritative final word that has come down to us in some pure form” (55). Here he at once totally clashes with Keavy Martin, with her assessment that Inuit texts require certain conventions, including withholding of certain questions – the maintenance of an etiquette, in other words – as well as implicitly equalizing purity with authority.  

His discussion of Elizabeth Cook-Lynn’s book, Why I Can’t Read Wallace Stagner, is particularly useful, as he emphasizes the need to contextualize rather than ask questions about an author’s identity, an approach necessitated by the fact that tribal perspectives are often construed as “isolationist” (75).

Points of Importance/Interest:

  • His analysis of Cook-Lynn stands out because she suggests that literary theory must include “land redress […] as a central tenet” (74). By extension, one might get the sense that literary theory not cognizant of land is part of the problem with regards to ways of thinking that divorce Indigenous creative production from its political import.
  • Womack demonstrates how contextualizing literature alongside politics and the evolution of cultural studies can reveal something bigger about just what is going on the in the world. He sums this up nicely, stating, “I am interested in the culture of theory, the places it lives in, the people it hangs out with” (7).      



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