ClassWrap 3: January 29

Pre-Wrap: On Google and the Power of Tagging

If you enter the search terms “Alexie” and “Autobiography” into Google, our course website comes up first.  This is because a number of you added those keywords to your reflections on Alexie.  So please: keep tagging your posts and raising the visibility of our site.  We’re doing good work here and producing usable knowledge—people should know about it!


At the end of week two, we concluded our theoretical wanderings with a contemporary piece of autobiography—Sherman Alexie’s “The Unauthorized Autobiography of Me.”  Bringing our newly acquired theoretical knowledge to bear on his brief essay, we uncovered much of what Alexie accomplishes.  First, we discussed how the author brilliantly complicates notions of audience by creating multiple and shifting audiences.  These include, of course, the reader, whom he addresses in variously aggressive and sentimental tones, and also the embedded panel audience that he uses as a kind dominant-culture straw man.  Additionally, Tiffany noted his awareness of the literary market and Alexie’s keen attention to how books by Indians or half-bloods or scholars about Indians are consumed and read, and how public tastes in turn shape what is written.

A number of you pointed out how Alexie complicates stereotypes of Native American culture.  In the snowball fight he is inevitably a warrior; in the school band he plays drums. But in the elegiac paragraph about his sister, she wears short skirts because “that’s what was expected of her,” and his mom, weaving a traditional quilt, sings not Spokane spirituals but top-40 radio hits.  Indeed, throughout the essay Alexie portrays Indian culture as experiencing this intense pressures from American pop culture—from the basketball game at the start, to the essay’s evolving soundtrack. Our wide-ranging conversation on these matters emerged from our initial focused attention to the complex opening anecdote—that vivid account of the basketball game that the Indian boys play to exhaustion before sundown.  In this scene, we realize, as Tiffany pointed out, the degree to which the game thematizes or becomes a metaphor for the “game” of writing, the “game” of American literature–a game Alexie plays, but that is not in some essential way his own.

In a key exchange later in his essay that gestures toward this very difficulty, a gentleman attending a panel on which Alexie is speaking asks the author about how his work relates to the oral tradition of Native American literature.  Alexie sardonically replies: “Well… it doesn’t apply at all because I type this. And I’m really, really quite when I’m typing it.”   Alexie’s precise response highlights the very real difficulty of returning to some untouched “oral tradition” before contact and contamination by Western society.  And yet, that is precisely what we attempted to do this week, beginning as close to the origins as possible with pre-contact Native American autobiography.

Beginning in such a way is difficult for a number of reasons. As Angela noted, it feels necessary to begin such broad overviews of American literature with Indian literature as a way of honoring a dynamic set of cultures. But it is also sad as we hold the knowledge that these cultures were increasingly and systematically displaced and decimated over the same historical period of the American Literature under review.  If such courses often have an ethically difficult start, they also offer a difficult start in a literary sense as well: we read “literatures” on the page that, in their own time, were not written but performed and sung, built and tattooed.  As we read such texts, it is helpful to remember the degree to which they arrive in our Nortons or on our computer screens through complex layers of translation, selective citation, editing, and overwriting.

Keeping these difficulties in mind, we nevertheless tried to re-imagine, through our reading of pre-contact and pre-literate Native American autobiography, a conception of self that existed prior to the Enlightenment and Humanist subject that too often seems self-evident.

Drawing Distinctions:

When Columbus arrived, he misnamed one of the most linguistically and culturally diverse conglomeration of people’s “Indians.”  They were the savage other opposed to the civilized European self.  Though each tribe and linguistic community had unique sets of cultural practices, we worked as a class to draw some broader distinctions that helped us understand how different Native American cultures would reframe the three key facets of autobiography: self (auto), bio (life), and graphy (writing).

In one of our readings for this week, Hertha Dawn Wong (in an excerpt from her book Sending My Heart Back Across the Years: Tradition and Innovation in Native American Autobiography) attends to pre-contact oral and pictographic forms of autobiographical practice.  These include pictographic details on robes and tipis, serial naming practices, coup tales, creation narratives, vision stories, and artisanal quill work.  Discussing her explorations of these and our additional reading of the Pima creation story, we drew the following distinctions between conceptions of Native American and Western/Humanistic selfhood:

  • In Native American work, the self’s connection to the community was more important than that which made them separate and distinct and unique. Personal ambition still pertained, but was more tempered by that broader group identity.
  • Narrative progress in longer works such as Native American Coup Tales is often anecdotal and episodic rather than strictly chronological in its narrative.
  • Native American autobiographical acts, rather than being written, are more often spoken or performed, painted or pierced, tattooed or worn, or even embedded in the serial revisions of one’s name.
  • Language itself was seen by Native Americans as sacred rather than as a tool; there was also an emphasis on verbal action rather than modes of being.
  • This sense of communal identity translates as well into how Native people interacted with both their natural environment and a with more spiritual environment. It seemed the the self was woven into the fabric of physical and metaphysical existence.  The distinction between the earth and the self, or waking and dreaming, was porous and spiritually charged.

On Wednesday we moved from pre-contact autobiography to what is sometimes called pre-literate autobiography as we discussed a sizable excerpt from “Two Leggings: The Making of a Crow Warrior.”  The story of Two Leggings, though it describes actions taking place late in the 1800s, reflects a world still largely uncontaminated by a rapidly expanding American society.  This doesn’t mean the account isn’t highly mediated–indeed, we discussed at some length the process of textual production that moved from the original tale to verbal translation, to written translation, and then the later overwriting and editing of the account that happened decades later.

In Two Leggings’s account, we noted much of what I noted above: a strong strong sense of communal identity, the deep and sometimes humorous significance of personal names, the symbolic importance of clothing.  We also discussed the remarkable prominence of male warriors in this culture–a prominence verified by the Crow creation story narrated at the start of the tale, and reaffirmed throughout if only in the singular focus on warrior culture in the tale.  We hear little of Two Leggings’s wife or children, and almost nothing about his life prior to or after he became a warrior.

We also noted, after Joe described its prominence, the remarkable role of the Crow people’s parallel dream world–a place where one could gain power and medicines, and discover knowledge about both present and future.  So much of what counted as “experience” for Two Leggings’s warrior culture occurred through the intersubjective seeking after, sharing, and comparative verification of what could be wrested from this dream land.  We noted as well how crucial embodiment was to this process: it was through the torture and deprivation of the body that one entered this dream land, whether that involved hacking of the tip of one’s finger or spending days on end in solitary fasting. If Two Leggings’s identity seems enormously circumscribed by the conventions of warrior culture, his story reminds us of the degree to which we all exist within similarly constraining cultural scripts.

Drawing Connections

Though it makes sense for us rigorously to distinguish Native American autobiographical practices from Western ones, that distinction breaks down at crucial points.  Throughout the semester, I will occasionally bring up what I call “contemporary connections” that will help us see precisely these similarities in autobiographical practice that persist through time.

In this class, for example the deep communal roots of Indian Autobiography illuminate the core concept of relationality that Smith and Watson highlight in Reading Autobiography.  Understanding how Native American autobiography is collective in nature we might also remember how the autobiographical act in any culture is necessarily collaborative, requiring notions of inter-subjective truth and agreed-upon conventions for relaying selfhood. We might also note similarities in serial naming practices—the evolving stories our names,  nicknames and titles hold.  And as NY Times’s ongoing “What I Wore” series reminds us, we tell our stories through the way we decorate and inscribe our bodies as well.

This notion of “contemporary connections” came to the fore in our discussion of H. David Brumble’s academic article “The Gangbanger Autobiography of Monster Cody (aka Sanyika Shakur) and Warrior Literature.” In Brumble’s wide ranging comparison of warrior cultures from ancient Greece to today, we recognized myriad similarities: the importance of naming; the power of reputation; the lack of emphasis on extra-warrior culture; the vivid and jarring relation of violence in the telling of coup tales; the way in which coup tales serve to educate novices; and the dedication to progressing up a hierarchical chain of achievement where one eventually becomes a Chief (in Native American warrior cultures) or, in contemporary gang-land, an O.G. or Original Gangster.


Given these remarkable similarities, what, Brumble asks, distinguishes Monster Cody’s contemporary Warrior Culture from that of Two Leggings?  Brumble writes: “So far I have concentrated on the ways in which Kody’s narrative is like other warrior culture narratives and the ways in which Kody’s conception of himself is like the conception of self that we find in other warrior cultures.  But there are ways in which Kody’s culture differs radically, even tragically, from other warrior cultures.  Yanomamo warriors, Crow, Sioux, Shuar, Montenegrin warriors, however individualistic they might be, however determined they are to achieved glory or revenge, are participants in while cultures “(177).  As Kody’s tale of alienation and anti-social violence reveals at nearly every turn, this sense of a whole culture is utterly missing from Kody’s world.

Looking Ahead & Blog Prompts:

Next week we turn from Native American autobiography to early American discovery narrative.  We will focus, in particular, on The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca. Please refer to the maps near the end of the introduction to familiarize yourself with the general geography.  Also, read just the first few pages of the Introduction to learn a bit about Cabeza de Vaca and about the extraordinary importance of his narrative.  You might also want to check out this timeline to get a better sense of where Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative falls within the broader history of exploration and ‘discovery.’

As for blogging, here are your options:

Critical Option: Turning once again to the “Tool Kit” and the more detailed explanation of key concepts in Smith and Watson’s Reading Autobiography (namely, their chapters on “Autobiographical Acts” and “Autobiographical Subjects”) discuss in detail how one concepts helps us understand Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative of exploration. Remember to adequately define or frame that concept with reference to RA, and make sure you quote liberally from Cabeza de Vaca as well.

Creative Option: While the critical options are largely bound to a given week’s reading, I consider the creative options cumulative.  Please feel free to return to the creative prompt from Classwrap 2, for example, and use Lopate’s essay “On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character” to compose a character sketch of yourself.

I have asked you to strive for a roughly equal balance of creative and critical responses. This “rule” is more for the creatively inclined.  If you prefer to write the vast majority of your responses as critical ones, that is perfectly fine.   Err, that is, on the side of the critical!

(1) Compose an autobiographical sketch in the second-person.

(2) Cabeza de Vaca’s prefatory letter to King Charles I of Spain, while it might seem extraneous to the story itself, is quite crucial.  We immediately understand the singular audience here–the dominant and original implied reader.  Compose a preferatory letter to your own unwritten autobiography addressing such a singular implied reader.

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