How contemporary southeastern Native writers work to repossess homelands that they rearticulate not as “the South” but as Native ground.
This essay argues that mainstream, familiar concepts of a bordered South and a recognizable southernness, however permeable and flexible, are mostly dysfunctional when it comes to American Indian literatures. “Native southern ground” can nevertheless be located and described. For example, captivity narratives written before and during Indian removal, though narrated by Europeans or Euro-Americans, reveal non-utopian ways in which “the South” works as Native ground. From a pointedly sovereign Native perspective, contemporary Native texts such as Shell Shaker (2001) by LeAnne Howe (Choctaw) reaffirm what various Indians in early captivity narratives say and “say” and do as they work against the impositions of a proto-regional colonial demarcation. In radically repossessing the very experience and practice of captivity, removing it from its western generic place and casting it as primarily a tribal affair conducted on Native ground, Howe stands with various other contemporary southeastern Native writers in working to repossess homelands that they rearticulate not as “the South” but as Native ground.
I borrow only my title from Alfred Kazin’s 1942 study On Native Grounds, an influential reading of modern American prose in which Kazin never, by “Native,” means American Indian writing from any region of the Americas. My new book project, On Native Southern Ground, sets out to demonstrate that the South has long been a thriving locus of American Indian thinking and writing. I hope to supplement but also expand the field of Native Studies, which did not exist in 1942 and in which the vast majority of critical work today (including my own first book) resists regionalism but often homes in on Native writers and texts associated with particular regions, whether the American Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, or the Plains. It is true that Native southern writers often choose to “talk about the South” tacitly, casting aside notions of a bounded southern region or culture area and embracing a sense of home place that they define in their own terms as Native southern ground. But this point does not adequately explain why Native and Southern Studies are such strangers.
Neither does my next point, which is that American Indians are in no way relegated to “the South before ‘the South.'” Native southern ground is not lost (or preliterate) ground, not simply a mistily nostalgic pre-southern place, situated in some other culture’s bracingly chronological order and largely defined against the canonical non-Native South, the post-southern non-Native South, and the most recent manifesto-driven incarnation, the New (but still pretty much non-Native) South. Instead, I argue that the South before the South remains very much a living presence, a transcultural complex that, geographically as well as rhetorically, operates on Native ground.
Why, then, do Indians continue to be mostly absent from the critical and institutional conversations about southern literature? In a 1991 study that comments on the relationship between Native Studies and American Studies, Lucy Maddox begins to articulate one of the major reasons why these fields—and, by extension, subfields such as Southern Studies—have not converged as richly and productively as they might: “It is still difficult . . . to find a place for the Indians in the ‘civilized’ texts we [i.e. non-Natives who do American Studies] produce as critics; and the alternative to finding a place there is still, it seems, removal” (178). But there are other alternatives; for one, American Indians are perfectly capable of finding places for themselves—and for non-Indians—both within and beyond the confines of academic structures.
But as Maddox’s observation perhaps inadvertently points up, these places are not necessarily accessible to non-Natives. For example, American Indian literature and criticism that has to do with the South often does without “the South” as an explanatory category, focusing instead on particular southeastern tribal nations or on intellectual paradigms—such as Native American literary separatism—that, for obvious reasons, do not rely on non-Native notions of regionalism. Maddox is right, in other words, to see removal as a crucial, vexing part of the institutional and intellectual problem she discusses; but more attention needs to be given to the diverse, creative, at times subversive ways in which American Indian literatures and cultures of the South devise countercolonial strategies that help them find places for themselves in relation to the South.
As it turns out, American Indians have not only been made separable from the South, very much including its literature; American Indian literature of the South also makes itself both separable and inseparable from southern literature and “the South.” Native theories and practices of intellectual sovereignty, self-determination, and literary separatism emphasize Native cultural identities, looking to Muskogee Creek, Cherokee, Osage, and other tribal-national southern homelands and, in the process, operating as a form of strategic counter-removal. In these and other ways, this body of indigenous literary work continues to speak indigenous truth to colonial power, giving the lie to any suspicions that anti-Indian colonialism, persistent as it is, has succeeded in silencing, assimilating, speaking for, and otherwise colonizing Indians out of existence in the South, however broadly defined and whomever does the defining.
Locating Native Ground in Southern Texts
To the extent possible, I look at “earlier” Native southern ground through the lenses developed by contemporary American Indian literary critics and theorists; but I acknowledge that such ground can be very difficult to locate, geographically as well as textually. The consequences of Indian Removal are far-reaching: to remove entire cultures from their home places is to remove and forever change many different though overlapping national literatures. Today, the majority of Native writers affiliated with the South live and work elsewhere. And many of the earlier texts I examine are composed by non-Native authors; these texts include a body of neglected pre-1850 captivity narratives that concern themselves with Natives both menacingly present and uncannily absent (depicted as memories, ghosts, or otherwise removed peoples). These narratives, in which Indian captors (sometimes with African American allies) remove white (and sometimes African American) people, are in fact a steady presence throughout pre-1850 southern literature. Though narrated by white Europeans and EuroAmericans, and in a few instances by African Americans, these texts reveal non-utopian ways in which “the South,” in various ways and in spite of Indian removals, can be understood as Native ground.
As Indian removal gets underway in the early 1830s, captivity narratives situated in the southeast continue to be produced, though the genre begins to show signs of exhaustion as its authors find it more and more difficult to convincingly present captive, dispossessed southeastern Indians as captors trading in and on white identity. Some of these narratives, like Mrs. Mary Godfrey’s An Authentic Narrative of the Seminole War (1836), work as none-too-subtle Jacksonian propaganda; others, like the Narrative of the Life and Sufferings of Mrs. Jane Johns (1837), also set in Florida, commodify white women’s suffering and white male grief in startlingly explicit ways. And both elide captivity altogether (though these texts continue to be generically categorized as captivity narratives) opting instead to depict local Indians as gangs of all-consuming homicidal psychopaths who need to be removed. That is, “Indian captivity” comes to signify “Indian removal.”
As such, the Jane Johns narrative (like various others) does not magically make American Indian political or other perspectives newly visible or audible. It does not offer a clearly delineated map of Native southern ground. What it does do, though, is situate southeastern Indians and white women alike in ways more complicated than the above phrase (“gangs of all-consuming homicidal psychopaths”) suggests. Jane Johns is first introduced in embryo, as an “unconscious participator” in an ambiguously labeled “first act of Indian tragedy,” by which the narrator means Indian attack against her parents. And, later, her own pregnancy is inseparable from the Indians’ most grievous attack against her, her husband, and their house. When shot and scalped and burned, she is left with wounds that provoke her doctor to exclaim “Merciful God!” Jane Johns’s life history appears to be inseparable from Indian attacks.
And even though this inseparability is presented as regrettable and even horrifying, it also fails to clarify the differences between Indian men and white women. The narrative contains two tellings of the Indian attack on the Johns place; the second telling comes to us more or less from Mrs. Johns’s perspective, though in the form of a third-person narration that suppresses her voice just as it suppresses Native voices. In this narrative, one black man has allied with eight Seminole Indians, who speak “good English;” we are also told that Mrs. Johns knows at least one Seminole phrase, and that any negotiations that take place can be done in a common language. When Mrs. Johns is found by her father-in-law and his friend, she is so badly wounded that she looks nonwhite: they think she is an Indian, and they almost shoot her. All in all, this brief narrative focuses on female desire in the face of suffering and loss—including loss predicated on frontier confusions of racial identity.
This confusion is mirrored by the narrative’s own confused generic identity. Ending abruptly with a supplication for money, this so-called captivity narrative turns out to be an appeal to readers’ charity, or, less kindly, a panhandle. And, strictly speaking, we see escapes from Indians and deadly attacks by Indians, but Mrs. Johns is never actually taken captive; so is it even a captivity narrative? Granted, as I’ve already suggested, captivities in general become less explicitly about captivity per se, especially in early to mid nineteenth-century southern narratives, in part because of the obvious difficulties of pitching Indians as the removers of white people in the South at precisely the time that white people are removing Indians. At the same time, the confusions of identity I’m describing counter, at least as much as they shore up, Jacksonian nationalist certainties. In standing uncertainly at best on Native southern ground, the Jane Johns narrative muddies the waters and, as Patricia Yaeger puts it, “make[s] the usual expectations strange.”
Let me turn, finally and briefly, to a contemporary Choctaw novel, Shell Shaker(2001) by LeAnne Howe. From a pointedly sovereign Native perspective, Howe both returns to and reaffirms what various Indians in early captivity narratives seem to say and do as they, in effect, work against the impositions of a proto-regional colonial demarcation. On the one hand, Howe works to decenter Indian removal—without repressing its lasting trauma—by thinking about it in the contexts of indigenous historical and political engagement in multiple “Souths.” (What removal sets out to remove, among many other things, is precisely this historical and political presence.) On the other hand, as Howe sets in motion a nationalist Choctaw resistance that begins in the sixteenth century and reunifies Mississippi Choctaws and Oklahoma Choctaws in the twentieth, she recaptures the very experience and practice of captivity, removing it from its western generic place and casting it as primarily a tribal affair, a concerted effort to repossess homelands that they rearticulate not as “The South” but instead as Native ground.
What is one to make, for example, of the captivity and removal of a Durant, Oklahoma, landmark and source of civic pride: the Big Peanut? Howe details the mysterious theft of “the sacred nut,” a “gray, four-foot-long heavy cast-aluminum statue” presented to the city by “a businessman who’d wanted there to be a downtown attraction that honored local peanut growers” (52). The iconic goober’s origins are well known and clearly explained, and its removal is not taken lightly by local law enforcement officials, one of whom ominously intones to Isaac Billy, the brother of one of the novel’s most important female characters and the editor-in-chief of a Choctaw newspaper, “Remember this: whoever steals art generally turns killer” (53).
Comic as this incident is, it functions as one relatively small plot point nestled within a larger, intricately tangled narrative that moves back and forth across centuries and connects twentieth-century Oklahoma Choctaws most explicitly with their sixteenth- and eighteenth-century Mississippi relatives and avatars. The Big Peanut turns up in the house of an elderly, Hamlet-quoting Choctaw woman who goes by various names, including Divine Sarah and Sarah Bernhardt, and acts in the movie Last Tango in Paris, but who is also the animal spirit Big Mother Porcupine. She has been alive for centuries, as she points out, and is therefore well able to connect present-day red-on-red and white-on-red Choctaw problems with analogous eighteenth-century red-on-red and white-on-red conflicts. Placed in these contexts, the miniature narrative of the Peanut’s removal and captivity is an indigenous narrative; just as the stolen Peanut is housed in a Native space, so too the larger narratives that Big Mother Porcupine and LeAnne Howe tell are situated on Native textual ground that includes, contains, frames, and otherwise houses various non-Native characters (including an IRA money runner who goes by the alias James Joyce), institutions (such as the Oklahoma Historical Society), and other entities (the Mafia).
Further, as Big Mother Porcupine and LeAnne Howe’s stories leapfrog back and forth between 1991 Oklahoma and 1738 Eastern District of the Choctaws (in present-day Mississippi), they leapfrog over the catastrophic traumas of the nineteenth century. Not until page 137 of this 222-page novel does the narrative directly confront and address Indian removal. The speaker is Shakbatina, a Choctaw Shell Shaker.
In 1831, throngs of ragged children, my descendants’ children, were forced out of Mississippi. Walking west with their stomachs in their hands, they were compelled to beg for food and water. I endured the songs they sang for the dead. There was no one left who could tell them the stories of how their grandmothers had once turned themselves into beautiful birds in order to fly to safety. There was no one who could conduct a proper funeral. No one to pick their bones, afterward. Imagine my agony.But their sweet remains, their flesh and blood, seared stories into the land that kept account of such things. Mother Earth would exact a price. Twenty-nine years later, the white people who pushed my children out of their homelands were driven insane. Witness the destruction of their Civil War and the decades of waste and ruin that ensued. Plantation children were turned into homeless beggars who would one day birth the Ku Klux Klan. Today, their descendants drive by the Nanih Waiya, our beloved Mother Mound, with their car windows rolled up for asylum trying to drown out the ghostly screams of Choctaw children who were walked to death on the road to the new promised land. But they cannot. Now they have seen what happens when Earth and spirit and story are reunited, and we pull stars down from the sky and cause a fifty-mile prairie fire. (137-138)
Perhaps this catastrophic wound is still too fresh for words. But Shakbatina indicates, near the close of this passage, that the effort to silence and remove Choctaw children fails: Choctaws cannot be removed, let alone extinguished. Rather, as Howe’s switch from first-person singular to a first-person plural pronoun signifies, she joins with Shakbatina to proclaim that Choctaws are still here “and we pull stars down from the sky and cause a fifty-mile prairie fire.” This passage, situated very near the center of Shell Shaker, leads to important questions and realizations for characters and readers of the novel. How can American Indians, very much including American Indian writers and the enterprises of American Indian literature and criticism, repossess dispossessed southeastern homelands and retell the stories of and from these home places? In what ways do indigenous people and stories take control of their own comings and goings? Perhaps one strategy is to insist that the Trail of Tears is one devastating and unforgettable part of a much larger story that comes both before and after removal and affirms lasting and complicated connections among Choctaws. Another is to undertake the cultural work of reunifying Oklahoma and Missisippi Choctaws in Mississippi, at Nanih Waiya, which Shell Shaker does, in ways that powerfully underscore the presence of Native ground, in both physical and textual manifestations.
All in all, “the Native American South” is ironically being radically repossessed as well as redefined by Indian writers such as Howe, in ways that pressure and even expunge the received term “southern” as well as the interestingly loaded “before” and “after” formulations applied to historical concepts of the “South.” Native southern ground can be as elusive as a captivity narrative without a captivity or without a self-determined Native narrative perspective or any sort of unmediated or even less mediated Native textual ground. And when Native stories about Native southern places are mostly absent, or at least inaccessible to me, is there any way that I can “claim” Native southern ground without taking it away again, in another act of colonialism? I am not temperamentally inclined to be that pessimistic, and Joy Harjo, in her poem “New Orleans,” does stay with the present tense when she says that “There are voices buried in the Mississippi/mud. There are ancestors and future children/buried beneath the currents stirred up by/pleasure boats going up and down./There are stories here made of memory” (43). But Native southern ground is also these buried voices, wreckage, ruins, trace memories, maybe the “Indian” name of a city or a river or maybe not even that. For these and other reasons I also want to be mindful of Robert Warrior‘s cautions against optimistic notions and practices of “inclusion” and his call for a Native American studies that has “a provocative presence in American studies, challenging old and new orthodoxies and demanding attention to the still-present realities of the foundational history of this continent” (686). I agree, and would only add that I would like American and Southern Studies to reimagine their own provocative presences and absences within Native Studies, to rethink—really rethink—the tenets and governing assumptions of these disciplinary “regions,” and to be mindful of their own non-Nativeness, the ways in which they remain settlers, assuming a southern sense of home but at the same time remaining, even today, far from home on living Native ground.
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Owens, Louis. Bone Game. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.
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Native Authors with Southeastern Connections
LeAnne Howe’s film Spiral of Fire
Stephen Graham Jones
Archives, Research Centers, Institutes, etc.
American Native Press Archives
Institute of Native American Studies (University of Georgia) Digital Resources
National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI)
Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures (ASAIL)
Society for the Study of Southern Literature (SSSL)
http://www.chickasaw.net/site06/indstyle=”font-size: small;”>Choctaw Nation (Oklahoma)
Mississippi Band of Choctaws
Muscogee (Creek) Nation
Seminole Tribe of Florida