MALS Introduction

American Indian Literature and Cultures

English 558


Week Two: The Southwest

Reed College, Portland OR
Professor Laura Arnold


Readings: Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony
History: Duane Champagne, Portrait of the Peoples pp. 129-60
Essay: Paula Gunn Allen, "Kochinnenako in Academe" (The Sacred Hoop, pp. 222-244; also pp. 9-50 recommended) E98 W8 A44 1992
Artwork: Lee Marmon, photographs; Architecture (on line)
Folklore: Yellow Woman Stories (see Allen's essay, pp. 222-44)

Writing Assignment: please bring a one to two page reader response of Silko's Ceremony to class. The suggested topic is a brief comparison of one aspect of Silko's novel to Black Elk Speaks or a close reading of a brief passage; however, if you are inspired to write on another relevant subject, please feel free to do so.

Focus: Our Goal for this week will be to examine the way healing ceremonies (and healing books) from a matrilineal culture such as the Pueblos differ from that of the Sioux. We will investigate what the differences is between feminism and "tribal feminism," and we will continue our discussion of the importance of the oral tradition by looking at a new narrative cycle--Yellow Woman Stories.

Click on any of the following topic for more information and relevant links:

I.Why Use A Feminist Approach

II. Feminist Criticism: an Overview

III. Tribal Feminism: Gender Studies and American Indian Literature

IV. Yellow Woman

V. Pueblo Culture Today



I. Why Use a Feminist Approach?

In her book The Sacred Hoop Paula Gunn Allen makes a rather bold statement about the position of women in American Indian cultures: she argues that "Traditional [American Indian] tribal lifestyles are more often gynocratic [i.e. governed by women] than not, and they are never patriarchal" (Allen 2). Other scholars have refuted aspects of this statement (for example people have argued that the Sioux and other Plains tribes were in fact patriarchal). However, it is clear that Allen's statement is incredibly important for understanding American Indian communities such as the Pueblos that were matrilineal (i.e. traced descent through the maternal line) and/or matrifocal (fenale-centered). Allen and others have argued that it makes sense to pay attention to the way gender functions in texts by writers from gynocratic communities since gender is constructed differently in such communities than in mainstream American culture. As you read Ceremony, you might want to ask yourself how gender is being constructed in this novel. How does Tayo compare to traditional Euro-American male icons (e.g. John Wayne) or even to Black Elk? How do the female characters compare to female cultural icons in American culture ? (Choose your favorite icon and compare them.)

Even as it is useful, such an approach begs a few questions. First, if not all American Indian cultures were gynocratic, why would Allen say that they were? There are a number of possible answers to this question. One possible answer is that Allen does not know that this statement is not technically correct. Perhaps, as a Pueblo, she thinks that all Indians are like the Pueblos. I find this answer unlikely since Allen has both indicated elsewhere that she has a wide knowledge of other American Indian cultures, and she has acknowledged that her statement that "Traditional tribal lifestyles are...never patriarchal" is a white lie (no pun intended). But why would Allen deliberately construct a falsehood? This is what I would consider an instance of what Gayatri Spivak calls "strategic essentialism."

The best way to understand strategic essentialism is to see it as an appropriation of the notion of essentialism by oppressed groups. Essentialism is the philosophical theory that ascribes to the belief that groups of people (or races) have essential qualities, properties, or aspects. Most nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century racial theory is based on this idea: for example, see Joseph Simms' Physiognomy Illustrated; or, Nature's Revelations of Character: A Description of the Mental, Moral, and Volitive Dispositions of Mankind, as Manifested in the Human Form and Countenance (1891) and V.G. Rocine's Heads, Faces, Types, Races (1910). Although strategic essentialism also argues that groups have "essential attributes," it differs from regular essentialism in two key ways: first, the "essential attributes" are defined by the group itself, not by outsiders trying to oppress the group. Second, in strategic essentialism, the "essential attributes" are acknowledged to be a construct. That is, the group rather paradoxically acknowledges that such attributes are not natural (or intrinsically essential), but are merely invoked when it is politically useful to do so. Moreover, members of the group maintain the power to decide when the attributes are "essential" and when they are not. In this way, strategic essentialism can be a powerful political tool. For example, Allen's statement "Traditional tribal lifestyles are...never patriarchal" has had important political ramifications within the academy, since it has gained her many feminist allies, who--as a consequence of her "white lie"--have seen their own project as intrinsically connected to supporting American Indian studies. Strategic essentialism has also been crucially important for Pan-Indianism and for Ethnic Studies in general.[1] One of our goals in this class will be to take note of what authors and critics are proposing are the "essential attributes" of American Indians in general and of certain tribes in particular. I would also like you to think about the political ramifications of their portraits. What, in general, are the possible benefits (and drawbacks) of strategic essentialism?

Putting aside questions of "truthfulness," the second question raised by Allen's argument about gynocracies and feminism is how would a feminist approach to gynocratic cultures differ from patriarchal ones? The rest of this handout and the secondary readings for this week from The Sacred Hoop are designed to help you answer this question.


II. Feminist Criticism: an Overview

In order to assess how a feminist approach to gynocratic cultures differs from the way we approach patriarchal cultures, it is worth reminding yourself what we, as members of a patriarchal culture, mean by "feminist analysis." For some of you, the following information will be review; if so, please feel free to skim read this section.


The Three Stages of Feminism as told to us by Julia Kristeva

According to Julia Kristeva (a French feminist) the feminist struggle "must be seen historically and politically as a three-tiered one, which can be schematically summarized as follows:"

1. Women demand equal access to the symbolic order. Liberal feminism. Equality.

2. Women reject the male symbolic order in the name of difference. Radical feminism. Femininity extolled.

3. (This is Kristeva's own position.) Women reject the dichotomy between masculine and feminine metaphysical. (Moi 12)


How does Paula Gunn Allen define feminism and the feminist struggle in her article "Kochinnenako in Academe"? What is the goal of her article?


Complicating Those Stages: American Feminism vs. French Feminism[2]

A. American Feminism (usually associated with what Kristeva calls "liberal feminism")

1. Gender is a social construct, not a biological difference

2. "Sameness": in so far as women are like men, they deserve equal rights. Political focus on obtaining the vote, reproductive rights, equal pay, etc.

3. In literary criticism: a focus on the constructions of gender in texts, representations of women, integrating women into the canon

4. Key Figures: Sherry Ortner, Adrienne Rich, Bell Hooks, Nancy Chodorow, Gerda Lerner, Mary Daly

B. French Feminism (usually associated with what Kristeva calls "radical feminism")

1. For biological and cultural reasons, women are different from men.

Women are more "moral, nurturant, pacific and philosophically disinterested, where males are competitive, aggrandizing, belligerent and self-interested" (Cott 50)

2. Because of their (superior) differences, it is essential that women have "equal

access to education, work and balance society with their characteristic contribution" (Cott 50)

3. In literary criticism: a focus on feminine utopias, the search for a "feminine" aesthetic and language, the body, how to escape a male bias, poking fun at phallocentrism & the phallus.

4. Key Figures: Simone de Beauvoir ("woman as other"), Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Margarite Duras, Monique Wittig (Kristeva & Wittig are particularly concerned with stage 3 above)


III. Tribal Feminism: Gender Studies and American Indian Literature

A second key step in assessing how a feminist approach to gynocratic cultures differ from a feminist approach to patriarchal cultures is to develop an understanding of what Allen means by "tribal feminism" and how this differs from feminism in general. Which of the above general feminist strategies does Allen use in her article? What does Allen mean by "tribal feminism"? How does it differ from the above definitions? Choose a passage from Silko's novel that deals with gender issues and interests you in particular. What would a feminist reading of this passage look like? What would a tribal feminist reading of this passage look like? How do the two readings differ?


IV. Yellow Woman

In addition to providing us with a definition of tribal feminism and several models for reading American Indian texts, Allen's article gives us another version of a Yellow Woman story--an important narrative cycle for the Pueblos. What characters, elements, and themes are present in Yellow Woman stories? Which does Silko use? Why, do you think, does Silko include this story in her novel? What is the purpose of the Yellow Woman story? What is the purpose of her novel? How does Silko update the story? What is the role of the oral tradition in general in Ceremony?


V. Pueblo Culture Today

Please don't forget to check out information about contemporary Pueblo life and culture on line at Ceremony Home Page for this week.The page will be posted by Friday June 20th.



Allen, Paula. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. (E98 W8 A44 1992)

Banta, Martha. Imaging American Women: Idea and Ideals in Cultural History. NY: Columbia UP, 1987.

Cott, Nancy, "Feminist Theory and Feminist Movements," What is Feminism? ed. Mitchell.

& Oakley. NY: Pantheon, 1986

Marks, Elaine & Isabelle de Courtivron. New French Feminism. NY: Schocken, 1980.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London: Routledge, 1985.

Spivak, Gayatri, "Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography," The Spivak Reader: Selected Works of Gayatri Spivak, ed. Donna Landry and Gerald MacLean. NY: Routledge, 1995.


Other Useful Resources:

* Silko, Leslie. Yellow Woman, ed. Melody Graulich. (PS3569 I44 Y4 1993)

* Silko, Leslie. Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit : Essays on Native American Life Today (R59 P45 S55 1996)

* Silko, Leslie. Storyteller. (PS3569 I44 S8 1981)