David Treuer’s Rebellious New History of Native American Life [NewYorker.com]

 

A book attempts to counter a narrative of tragedy by examining the past.

In the 2006 book “Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual,” by David Treuer, the novelist and academic describes an assignment that he gave to students in a Native American-fiction class. They read a short story by Sherman Alexie, in which a character is described shedding “Indian tears.” What, he asked his students, might “Indian tears” signify? The students responded with confidence, “as if unearthing whole mastodons from the soil of their imaginative backyards.” One wrote, “They show what it feels like to be dispossessed of everything”; another, “Indian tears are for pain and suffering at the hands of the white man—just like the tears of the African American man in the ghetto.”

In his book, Treuer recalls these answers with sarcastic amazement. He laments “the legendary mist of Indian misery” that his students found in Alexie’s story (and their quickness to group together experiences of historic oppression). “How does one escape this all-pervading thing, exoticized foreknowledge?” he writes. “User’s Manual” was in part a provocation—a younger writer’s critique of established Native American writers like Alexie, Louise Erdrich, and Leslie Marmon Silko. His claim that Native American writing was read more for its cultural authenticity than as literature—he calls Alexie’s “Reservation Blues” “a curriculum designed for an outsider”—at times came off as hubristic takedown. As Alexie once protested in the Times, “What he’s saying is that the identity of the writer doesn’t count.”

Now, in a new book, “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present,” Treuer hopes to counter the narrative of tragedy from a historical perspective.

To continue reading this review by Emily Witt, go to: https://www.newyorker.com/book...native-american-life

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