I Tell You Now
Most Americans probably believe that they know something about Indians, but a serious reading of I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers is likely to disprove even this notion. The clichés in our minds about Indians are false or worse than false. Michael Dorris, in his essay “Indians on the Shelf,” in The American Indian and the Problem of History (1987), has expressed this fact very well:For most people, serious learning about Native American culture and history is different from acquiring knowledge in other fields, for it requires an initial, abrupt, and wrenching demythologizing. One does not start from point zero, but from minus ten, and is often required to abandon cherished childhood fantasies of super-heroes and larger-than-life villains.
Dorris observes that for the non-Indian, discarding these clichés is accompanied by pain or a sense of betraying childhood fantasies; consequently, it is not a popular undertaking.
The differences among the eighteen contributors of I Tell You Now are extreme: Their origins range from the Eastern seaboard to the Pacific, from Alaska to the Mexican border. Jack D. Forbes includes a poem he wrote about the earth underneath the tarmac of the Dulles Airport in Virginia, once owned by his Powhatan ancestors, yet he grew up in South El Monte, a suburb of Los Angeles. To complicate matters, he is a mixture of many tribes and is also part African. Mary Tallmountain grew up in a bend of the Yukon River, while Simon Ortiz was reared in Acoma Pueblo near the Rio Grande. The ethnic origins of most of the writers are mixed; they are half-breeds. Perhaps this fact is not important, since full-bloodedness does not necessarily ensure full access to native culture: Wendy Rose’s father was a full-blooded Hopi, but he was unwilling to share a sense of culture or tribal lineage with her. “His Hopi people . . . trace their lineage through the mother and I could never be more than the daughter of a Hopi man.” Rose’s essay, entitled “Neon Scars,” is superb; it directly confronts the idea that she is “out of balance,” even crippled by her difficult life.
If “Neon Scars” is the most extreme statement of the clash inherent in the lives of Native Americans, the other autobiographies describe varying forms of the same conflict. Its existence is inevitable. Elizabeth Cook-Lynn states that she feels a basic timidity and lack of confidence because she cannot “speak for my people.” As a poet—especially a poet writing in English—she is only “self-appointed.” Who are the real Indian poets?The “real” poets of our tribes [are] the men and women who sit at the drum and sing the old songs and create new ones. . . . Thus, when I hear the poetry of the Crown Butte Singers, the Porcupine Travelers, and the Wahpekute Singers, I have every confidence that they speak in our own language for the tribes, Oyate.
Many of the writers in I Tell You Now feel a sense of betrayal when committing words to paper. Simon J. Ortiz seems to believe that there is no basic conflict between oral traditions and writing, and that they naturally flow into one another; others such as Ralph Salisbury are less optimistic, and believe that Indian writers can only express a conquered people’s awareness. Jimmie Durham states unequivocally that writing is always for whites: “Who reads all these things? The white folks. If we read—now here is a subtle point—if we read, we read like the white folks.”
Reading and what one reads go hand in hand; reading interacts with culture. Durham has harsh words for those whom he calls the “intelligentsia.” His statement clearly reflects a post-1960’s mentality: “Our intelligentsia, the writers and artists, are such a bunch of stuck-up, apolitical, money-grubbing, and flaky ripoff artists, and our political leaders are usually crooks and pretentious bastards or . . . somebody’s puppets.” The content of language stretches far beyond what is written,...
(The entire section is 1,971 words.)