"I Tell You Now"

By Chris Bell

I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers
Edited by Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat.
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press/Bison Books, 2005.

The 1960s and afterward have been an invigorating and liberating period for Indian people. It has been only a little more than twenty years since Indian writers began to write and publish extensively, but we are writing and publishing more and more; we can only go forward (from Simon J. Ortiz’s “The Language We Know,” 194).

Originally published in 1987, and reprinted in this new edition along with an updated introduction and contributor biographical notes, I Tell You Now is a unique and, for the most part, refreshing collection of autobiographical ruminations by an immensely accomplished group of writers of Indian descent. I have intentionally chosen not to state “autobiographical essays” because many of these writers test the definitions of “essay,” a concern I address later. Likewise, I have rejected the titular appellation “Native American” in my opening sentence because that characterization might not be the most apt. Writing in their introduction, editors Swann and Krupat discuss issues of inclusion, noting that the phrase “American Indian” is used throughout I Tell You Now, but that the text is culled of contributions by Native Americans specifically and not, for example, First Nation Canadian Aboriginal individuals (xiii). This reviewer appreciates the clarification, but it seems somewhat lacking, although not necessarily contradictory, in its application. At the risk of being overly-analytical, it should be noted that the first contributor, Mary Tall Mountain, was born in Alaska in 1918. Alaska was not a state then, thus, even though Tall Mountain moved to San Francisco as a child and spent most of her life in the “lower 48,” her birthright, arguably, is not as an “American Indian” in the context which the editors identify it. Such an emphasis in defining the writers by use of a specific term does not strike me as capricious given the fact that Native Americans are, in my opinion, the most misunderstood, under-theorized and under-valued minority group in the United States. The importance of I Tell You Now cannot be over-emphasized in that regard; that is, the text’s focus on a group of individuals who are too often maligned if not outright forgotten.

One of the more palpable themes running through the text is one of coming to knowledge. Several of the contributors speak to the processes by which they became educated. These processes are all the more interesting when one considers that most of these individuals came to literacy by reading books by non-Native American authors. Consider:

Literarily, I grew up with Shelley, Wordsworth, Keats; Dickens, Trollope, the Bronte sisters … Especially I loved Wordsworth (from Mary Tall Mountain’s “You Can Go Home Again: A Sequence” [6]).

[After lamenting the tendency of contemporary college students to shun reading, the author states] On the contrary, I read everything: the Sears catalog, Faust, Dick and Jane, Tarzan of the Apes, The Scarlet Letter, the First Letter to the Corinthians, David Copperfield, “The Ancient Mariner,” Dick Tracy, “Very Like a Whale,” Paradise Lost, True Confessions, and much more. I went to whatever libraries were available as often as I went anywhere (from Elizabeth Cook-Lynn’s “You May Consider Speaking about Your Art…” [57]).

The summer after the war [World War II] I stayed over at Grandma Jump’s to help Uncle Kenneth, still having bad dreams from Iwo Jima, get the farm south of Pawhuska going again, and to get a break from shoveling oats one day I took a copy of Swann’s Way into the outhouse and good old Proust would have sniffled if he had seen how the red wasp with black wings, trapped in a black widow’s web down in the toilet hole’s semidarkness, interested me much more than Remembrance of Things Past. I have a little better sense now of what Proust was up to and may try again to read him one day. Not in an outhouse though – he still can’t compete in that league (from Carter Revard’s “Walking among the Stars” [74]).

Having read these excerpts, the question that immediately comes to this reviewer’s mind is: what does it mean/signify to grow up with/in a culture that does not reflect you back, even in its literature? Of course there have been individuals of Indian descent who have written for centuries. The issue is, to reiterate, whether those writings are constitutive of or considered as “literature.” Writing in “The Two Lives,” Linda Hogan shares how her maternal great-grandfather, W.E. Bower, kept a journal about his life between the years 1848-1934 (234). That journal is proof that these individuals were indeed writing. What this anthology underscores is the dearth of writing published by American Indians up until very recently, which, of course, is not the same as saying that there was a dearth of communication written by these individuals. One only needs to consider oral traditions as one form of communication practiced by Indians that was not privileged or canonized by mainstream cultures. Ralph Salisbury, writing in “Between Lightening and Thunder,” has a noteworthy way of referring to the education that occurred during his formative years:

As a child, I read whatever books were scattered around home and the one-room school I attended for several years – Ivanhoe, the World Book, Oliver Twist … whatever was there – but my most important literary experience came from my father’s stories and ballads” (21).

In this instance, the ostensible “classics” are listed first, tellingly, followed by the statement “but my most important.” Overall, in its gathering together of a series of voices of an infrequently acknowledged minority group, I Tell You Now questions why these voices are not as heralded as they could be, including the politics of valuation and canonicity.

In addition to coming to knowledge, another theme coursing throughout the text is that of lamenting that which no longer exists. For example:

Our houses did not last. When Uncle Woody and I drove down past the Osage Agency to the old Pawhuska cemetery to see the house where he remembered my being born, it was another vacant lot. “I be damned,” he said, “it was right in here” (Revard, 70-71). The author continues, noting that when they ventured to the other side of the town to view the hospital where various family members had been born, it too was gone. “No surprise, but strange, to see it had melted into air, into thin air…” (71).

I saw a lot that I loved destroyed – not only there but in El Monte del Sur, which became an industrial zone, and all over southern California, where freeways, smog, and development chipped away at a land that was still beautiful when I was a child (from Jack D. Forbes’s, “Shouting Back to the Geese,” 116).

…our doom is not so much history as an ongoing sense that our way of life has been stomped out and we will never be in the mainstream of society. Maybe the blacks feel this way, with the difference that they are removed from their land, while we are left on ours as a constant reminder of what we had (from Diane Glancy’s “Two Dresses,” 176).

In each excerpt, the sense of unrecoverable loss is unmistakable. This reviewer was struck by the poignancy by which the authors speak to that loss: its completeness, its irretrievability, and, yes, its widespread nature. But the way the authors speak to the loss is of note as well. A case in point is the aforementioned excerpts. While Revard characterizes the loss as “strange,” Glancy’s discourse about a possible similarity between that of her people and “the blacks” is troubling, smacking of structuralism, essentialism, or both.

As previously stated, the main strength of I Tell You Now is its providing a space for previously unacknowledged voices to be heard. As with most anthologies and collections, some of those voices ring with a little more passion and interest than others. A case in point is the entry from Elizabeth Cook-Lynn which is an undeniable gem. In it, she speaks to issues of disinvitation in writing, the erasure of culture history and the gatekeeping nature of the publishing industry. She does so with a vigor that is refreshing, making this, easily, the most compelling piece in the text. In contrast is Forbes’s entry which suffers from an over-reliance on poems. In a fourteen page essay, there is at least one poem on every page, sometimes more than one. Indeed, some of those poems take up the entire page. Perhaps anticipating the wonderment that comes from reading a series of poems that is characterized as an “autobiographical essay,” Diane Glancy offers her thoughts on the importance of Indian poetry:

Poetry should expose effulgence. Indian poetry, especially, should promote stability, precision, hope. It should be salve for the broken race which is enriched by its bloody suffering and permanent loss of a way of life … Our poetry should rise from despair. We should use our special “sight.” If our poetry is a vent for anger, it should also transcend (177).

This reader wonders if this assessment is as essentialist as her thoughts about “the blacks” in that it presupposes that all Indians share in a special “sight” based solely on their identity and identification as Indians. Whether or not said concept actually exists is not so much the issue as is Glancy’s choice not to parse the concept out, and the attendant presumption that her reader will automatically know what she is talking about.

In a similar vein, other authors speak to the problem of writing autobiographical texts as Indians. In “Neon Scars,” for example, Wendy Rose asserts:

Writing this autobiographical essay has been the most difficult, most elusive task I have faced as a writer. I work had to be less self-involved, less self-centered, less self-pitying. As readers and listeners have noted the angry or somber tone of my poems, I have struggled to lessen these things or, at least, keep them in proportion. I work toward balance and attempt to celebrate at least as often as I moan and rage. Everything I have ever written is fundamentally autobiographical, no matter what the topic or style; to state my life now in an orderly way with clear language is actually to restate, simplified, what has already been said. If I could just come right out and state it like that, as a matter of fact, I would not have needed the poetry (253).

Moreover, editors Swann and Krupat address this issue in their introduction, noting:

[O]ne writer whom we had invited to contribute wrote that after “months of agonizing over how to write an autobiographical essay,” she thought she was ready to begin. Nonetheless, as she wrote in a moving letter, “You should realize that focusing so intently on oneself like that and blithering on about your own life and thoughts is bery bad form for Indians. I have heard Indian critics say, referring to poetry, that it is best if there are no ‘I’s’ in it. I grew up and continue to live among people who penalize you for talking about yourself and going on endlessly about your struggles (xii).

Such statements shore up the originality of this text. Thus, in addition to troubling issues of canonicity and the politics of publishing, I Tell You Now speaks to the internal conflicts at heart in writing about the self for a race of people. Irrespective of whether or not the reader takes a position with regard to that conflict, the awareness of it troubles Simon Ortiz’s suggestion, as noted at the beginning of this review, that Indian people can only go forward.

Chris Bell is working on his doctorate at Nottingham Trent University

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