American Indian Literature and Cultures

English 558


Week Six: Oregon

Reed College, Portland OR
Professor Laura Arnold


Readings: Craig Lesley's Winterkill
Artwork: Pendleton Blankets, Cowboy Images, Wannabe Indian Art (on-line and slides)
Poems: From Warm Springs Reservation (see end of handout)
History: Duane Champagne, Portrait of the Peoples pp. 273-300 (cont.)
Articles: Silko, "An Old-Time Indian Attack," Erdrich, "Where I Ought to Be," "Snyder, "The Politics of Ethnopoetics" (all short; see end of handout)

Writing Assignment: there is no one page paper due this week. Your rough draft is due on Friday 7/25 outside my office door. Please make sure that you have picked a poem for week 7 by 7/22.

Focus: This week we will be investigating the boundary between American Indian literature and literature about American Indians. We will continue our discussion of ethical treatments of American Indian materials by considering whether it is possible for white writers to write about American Indians without colonizing their cultural property. We will also expand upon our earlier discussion of powwows by looking at the issue of performing American Indian identity through textiles, dress (e.g. Pendleton Blankets) and Rodeos. We will refine our selection of passages for close readings.

Click on any of the following headings for more information:

1. Wannabe Indians

2. Cowboys and Indians

3. Rodeos and Performance

4. Cowboys and Gender

5. The Language of the Robe

6. How to Pick a Passage Ripe for a Close Reading


1. Wannabe Indians

Can a non-Indian writer write about American Indian materials and not be either a "wannabe" Indian or an "Indian-killer"? Non-Indian writers such as Craig Leslie and Howard Norman are often recognized as writing about American Indians in a "valid" way. How would you define "valid" and what is the basis of your criteria? How does Lesley's approach compare to that of the other authors we have read? In her article, Silko is attacking "Imitation" Indian literature; what does she imply makes literature authentic? Could white writers ever write "authentic" Indian literature according to Silko's criteria? What is Snyder's response to Silko's perspective in "The Politics of Ethnopoetics"? You might want to compare both Silko's and Snyder's notion of the core of identity to Erdrich's in her article "Where I Ought to Be."


2. Cowboys and Indians

Craig Lesley's story about a Nez Perce rodeo rider is based partially in historical record--one of the famous early rodeo stars (Jackson Sundown) was in fact a Nez Perce Indian. While we often tend to think about American Indians and cowboys as at odds with one another, there is some overlap between contemporary American Indian culture and "cowboy" culture--including dress, hats, songs, and work. This is due in part to the fact that American Indians sometimes worked as cowboys. As scholar Blake Allmendinger notes,

Native Americans often took jobs as vaqueros [Mexican cowboys] or were sometimes enslaved by Spaniards and Mexicans and forced to tend mission livestock in what is now California.....Indians usually remained in their tribes instead of becoming part of the cowboy group, but when cowboys and Indians encountered each other they seldom interacted as depicted in "westerns." (Allmendinger 13).

Although traditionally Indian cowboys have been left out of the U.S.'s literary tradition, some famous literary examples of Indian as cowboys or cattle hands occur in Silko's Ceremony, James Welch's Winter in the Blood, and Frank Norris' The Octopus (Allmendinger 13, 134). What are the ramifications of Lesley's choice of American Indian characters as rodeo riders?


3. Rodeos and Performance

One of the critiques made about rodeos is that they stage work as entertainment or art (Allmendinger 106). They also transform the "spectacle of the match between man and beast into an art form" (Allmendinger quotes the Texas State Prison, 105). Perhaps even more importantly, rodeos, like Roman arena shows, stage violence for the benefit both of the performer's self-image and the public's self image. In Regeneration Through Violence, historian Richard Slotkin argues that

The first colonists saw in America an opportunity to regenerate their fortunes, their spirits, and the power of their church and nation; but the means to that regeneration ultimately became the means of violence, and the myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience (Slotkin 5)

Rodeos, like other instances of staged violence (such as action films or westerns), ritually perform this violence for the American public, reasserting this myth of regeneration. Notably, most instances of American violence involve liminal (or frontier) spaces: the protagonist crosses a boundary, encounters a violent other (in the rodeo the other is bestial, but often the violent other is of another race), and returns renewed or regenerated. This understanding of the frontier is tied to what Americans perceive as the legacy of American Indians for American culture. Kenneth Rexroth suggests

Our memory of the Indian connects us with the soil and the waters and the nonhuman life about us. They take for us the place of nymphs and satyrs and dryads--the spirits of the places. They are our ecological link with our biota--the organic environment which we strive to repudiate and destroy....the flooding tide, full of turmoil and whirlpools, of the unconscious, or the id, or the "dark forces of the blood"--the actual, savage environment that reason and order and humane relationships can penetrate but cannot control (Slotkin quotes Rexroth 17).

I think that it is fairly obvious that Rexroth is not discussing real Indians here, but the way they have been constructed in the white imagination (what Robert Berkhofer has called the "White Man's Indian"). What is crucial, though, is that imagined encounters with "Indians," like the ritualized displays of violence in rodeos, regenerate the mental traveler. Moreover, historians from Frederick Jackson Turner on down have argued that such encounters are in fact the "core" of what makes us American.


What is being "performed" in Winterkill? In light of this history of the frontier, what does it mean that Lesley uses a Nez Perce rodeoman as his main character? What does the book tell us is true about American Indians and, ultimately, about ourselves?


4. Cowboys and Gender

Cowboys have often been used as a symbol of the quintessential American male. What sorts of associations do you have with cowboys and which of these does Lesley invoke and to what effect? Many cowboy stories deal with the threatening intrusion of women into this macho space. (See the poem by Baxter Black called "The Oyster.") What role do women play in this novel?

5. The Language of the Robe

In addition to being famous for its rodeos, Pendleton is famous for its trade blankets. In the book The Language of the Robe, Patrick Houlihan points out that although American Indian trade blankets were originally made by European settlers, they have become as much a part of American Indian dress and non-verbal communication as trade beads. That is, in spite of its European origins, the trade blanket has been "recast by its Native American users to meet the needs and acceptance of these new owners" (Kapoun vii; see the on line page from this book for examples of ways that robes were worn in order to communication different emotions and gestures--

/language.html) From the late 1800s onward, Oregon has been an important site for the production of these blankets, whether in the Oregon City Woolen Mills or in the more famous Pendleton Woolen Mills. Part of Pendleton's success has been due to their well-run advertising campaigns. For example, the first catalog in 1901 included an illustration of the famous Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph wearing a Pendleton blanket, and the brochure contained The Story of the Wild Indian's Overcoat (Kapoun 123). Located near the Umatilla Reservation, the mills used descriptions of American Indian traditions as well as illustrations of famous leaders part of its advertising campaign. The recent HOPE series put out by Pendleton ( continues this tradition by marketing American Indian designed blankets whose proceeds benefit the American Indian College Fund (AICF). While Pendleton blankets were sold on Indian Reservations, such campaigns were mean in large part for a growing audience of white consumers. You might want to compare the below advertisements from 1900-1910 to those on-line at the AICF website. What is each saying about American Indians? What do they imply is the relationship between the consumer, the object, and the artist? How do trade blankets help "perform" an identity for the wearer?[1]


6. How to Pick a Passage Ripe for a Close Reading

Last but not least, as you read Winterkill, I would like you to continue your work on close readings of passages. The purpose of this section is to comment upon the ways people have traditionally used passages and to differentiate passages which are good for close readings from other types of passages.


A. Emblematic Passages

An emblematic passage is a passage that summarizes the main ideas of the text. These kinds of passages are useful for remembering key ideas about texts and are the kinds of passages that would be on a quote test. Here is an example from Greg Sarris' Mabel McKay:


I saw clearly. Things came together. It wasn't just her story she had wanted me to know. While trying to help her story, I traced my own.


This passage summarizes the main idea of the book and, not too surprisingly, comes at the end of Sarris's work. Emblematic passages can come at the beginning of texts as well (e.g. to set up a main idea): for example, I would consider "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" an emblematic quote for the Gospel of John since it raises the crucial issues of the text's main source of authority and could be used to summarize the main differences between John and the Synoptic Gospels. In some cases, emblematic passages can be useful for doing a close reading, but in many cases they aren't: if the passage answers a question, rather than raising it, it probably is not going to be a good passage for a close reading. (Emblematic passages are useful, though, if you need evidence to support a large basic assertion about a text.)


B. A Launch Pad Passage

A "launch pad" quote is a passage that points to an issue which you would like to discuss but which doesn't actually give you clues to address that issue. On some level, a launch pad quote has more to do with HOW you use a passage than its actual qualities. Launch pad quotes are like epigrams in book--they are witty or intriguing thoughts that get us going, but usually are not analyzed in great detail in the argument we are constructing. For example, if I wanted to begin a discussion on postmodern anthropology I might use a quote from Clyde Holler's Black Elk's Religion which says

The only invalid interpretation is one that claims to be right. [Actually this is a paraphrase on Holler.]

Although I might unpack what I want people to get out of this quote in my paper, I am really just using Holler's phrase to discuss an issue which interests me. While this is certainly a valid way to use a quote (and a popular one) it is not a close reading of the quote. Moreover, the sort of catchy passage that makes for a good epigram is not necessarily the kind of passage that is useful for a close reading.


C. A Rich Passage for Doing a Close Reading

When you are asked to do a "close reading" of a passage you are basically being asked to explicate it. To "explicate" comes from a Latin word meaning to unfold. Thus, the purpose of an explication is to unfold the significance of a text. Explications pay close attention to the parts of a text in order to support a larger argument about its overall impact. The following are some of the most common attributes people look for in passages and how they might use a close reading of such details.


1. Figurative Language (e.g. metaphors, similes): Metaphors and similes usually try to explain an abstract idea by comparing it to something concrete. In this sense, a metaphor or simile is a short hand for how the author wants you to understand an idea. By trying to decide why two things are being compared, you can unpack fundamental themes and associations in the book. For example, when we discussed Ceremony in class, we looked at the phrase "The gray stone was streaked with powdery yellow uranium, bright and alive as pollen" (246). Here the simile says that the uranium is as "bright and alive as pollen" (similes compare using like or as). In class we asked why uranium and pollen were being compared. This helped us answer why yellow woman was in a story about nuclear destruction.


2. Character Sketch: Sometimes people use close readings of passages to get at the essential attributes of a character. Thus, if you wanted to get more information about a character, you might look closely at a passage which gives you detailed information about him or her. For example, when we were reading the Bingo Palace, we looked at the description of Fleur on pages 143-44 and picked apart the description of both Fleur and the boy. This helped us determine if Fleur was a gambler figure.


3. Style and Diction: sometimes a passage stands out because of the way in which it was written or the type of language that it uses. For example, when Jody read the passage from Greg Sarris' Keeping Slug Woman Alive to us in which Sarris recounts Mabel telling a story, she was using it to show how different Mabel's style of storytelling was from Greg Sarris'. If you were going to do a close reading of such a passage in order to get at how and why they differ you might want to consider their choice of words (academic, colloquial, pidgin, etc.) as well as the way that the words were put together. For example, Mabel says "What happened, a man poisoned. See, them girls' grandmother, -----'s mother, she got fixed that way. How it happened, a man poisoned her" (Slug Woman, 25). When you read this passage, you probably noticed that Mabel is using nonstandard phrasing (we'd most likely say, "so what happened was a man poisoned her" or something along those lines) as well as non-standard word choice ("them girls" instead of "those girls"). In his article on "The Verbal Art of Mabel McKay," Sarris uses such details to point out the hallmarks of Pomo storytelling. You might use such details to show how a character is speaking in "traditional" (or stereotypical) Indian English.


For next week, I would like you to put a star next to a passage in Winterkill that you think would be rich for a close reading. Please make a brief note in the margin of what you think is significant about the passage and what sorts of larger questions it might help you answer. Please be ready to volunteer these passages during our class discussion. For more writing tips see the Doyle O.W.L.--Reed's on-line writing lab.



Allmendinger, Blake. The Cowboy: Representations of Labor in an American Work Culture. NY: Oxford U.P., 1992. (PS 271 A43 1992)

Berkhofer, Robert F. The White Man's Indian : Images of the American Indian, from Columbus to the Present. New York : Vintage Books, 1979. (E98.P99 B47 1979)

Buan, Carolyn and Richard Lewis, eds. The First Oregonians. Portland: Oregon Council for the Humanities, 1991. (E 78 O6 F5 1991).

Kapoun, Robert. The Language of the Robe: American Indian Trade Blankets. Salt Lake City, Peregrine Smith Books, 1992. (E98.C8 K36 1992)

Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan UP, 1973.