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Native American literature has always been uniquely embattled. It is marked by divergent opinions about what constitutes authenticity, sovereignty, and even literature. It announces a culture beset by paradox: simultaneously primordial and postmodern; oral and inscribed; outmoded and novel. Its texts are a site of political struggle, shifting to meet external and internal expectations. This Cambridge History endeavors to capture and question the contested character of Indigenous texts and the way they are evaluated. It delineates significant periods of literary and cultural development in four sections: “Traces & Removals” (pre-1870s); “Assimilation and Modernity” (1879-1967); “Native American Renaissance” (post-1960s); and “Visions & Revisions” (21st century). These rubrics highlight how Native literatures have evolved alongside major transitions in federal policy toward the Indian, and via contact with broader cultural phenomena such, as the American Civil Rights movement. There is a balance between a history of canonical authors and traditions, introducing less-studied works and themes, and foregrounding critical discussions, approaches, and controversies.
Born Callie Russell Porter in Indian Creek, Texas, Katherine Anne Porter cultivated an elaborate fiction of genteel southernness: she adopted the name of her Kentucky-born grandmother, along with an apocryphal genealogy of illustrious ancestors and landed gentry. Yet Porter, who rarely lived in the South or even in Texas, would claim other home spaces throughout her life - or, more accurately, her stake in a southern narrative would emerge only circuitously, by way of alternative geographies and narratives in which she identified variously with the elite and the dispossessed. She eventually imported a nativist southern identity that bore the traces of a much deeper American chronicle and called frequently upon an Indigenous motif to both account for and ameliorate the anxieties of dispossession. In Porter’s fiction, an Indigenous frame narrative provides a tempting window onto a reorienting, and finally mythical, humanity unscathed by modernity’s ills. Her long career would bear the traces of an entwined southern-Indigenous imaginary steeped in the lessons and vexations of early American settler colonialism.
Hannah earned extravagant praise from both fellow writers and critics, who were collectively bedazzled by his prolific and profound universe and his inimitable prose - at once brilliant and bizarre, gorgeous and grotesque. Even Hannah’s greatest fans admit to occasional “disgust” - he never shied away from violence, and its recipients were often women or racial others. It is into this desperate, violent world that Hannah compulsively deposits his Indians as not just inept but decidedly corrupt guides to a redemption that will not come. A pioneer of so-called “Grit Lit,” Hannah’s work rejects romanticism and nostalgia - conceits that typify and bedevil Indigenous and southern cultures simultaneously. There, the Indigenous motif poses not just as guide but at times as lingering fetish, drawing its subjects toward a narrative of fulfillment, albeit one based on hurt and horror rather than transcendence. For his primarily white southern male characters, the lessons of Indigenous conquest become a contemporary parable for the self-defeating desires, vacancies, betrayals, and violence of both southern history and modernity’s insidious bequests.
Most readers agree that Faulkner’s Indian characters are romanticized, if not grotesquely stereotypical; the author himself readily admitted that he “made them up.” Indeed, neither Faulkner nor his critics seem able to conceive of his Indian as anything more than a static, romantic, obsolete trope, despite the fact that Natives appeared frequently and suggestively at the margins of his world, and that they reappeared in his fiction as self-buttressing concepts sited uncannily between reality and fantasy - an imaginary supplement or alter ego that presents a compensatory and destabilizing fiction for the white southern subject. This chapter argues that we need to acknowledge how very intimate and “real” this Indian is in order to fully appreciate the significance of their symbolic transubstantiations. There are Indians hidden in plain sight throughout Faulkner’s career in ways we have hardly begun to notice, and their “disappearance” is the product of an unspoken collusion between Faulkner’s stated method and our symptomatic critical misprision. His Indians are finally there and not-there at the same time, mirroring an uncanny vacancy in the white southern ego that both desires and rejects their supplemental knowledge.
This conclusion offers a new template for approaching the apocalyptic landscape of contemporary advanced capitalist America, where environmental, political, racial, and class crises tend to simmer in silos, and where both Indians and southerners occupy outdated and discrete categories of stereotype. Gesturing toward new texts in the realm of virtual reality, this closing chapter demonstrates that Indigenous exceptionalism lingers in the American imagination as a confounding contradiction between the concealed horrors of national origins and the transcendent virtues of wisdom, catharsis, and deliverance. The Indians are always doomed, and yet they always manage to rise above as well - a paradox that the American narrative desperately needs and clings to, particularly when basic concepts like humanity and reality have become the slipperiest of conceits. Despite how acutely we might want to rescue the Indian from the heterotopias of modernity, these texts remind us again and again that these imaginative sites are the beginning and the end of our realities.
Tropes of Indigeneity both conceal and expose the tangle of land, labor, and race in the American southern context. This introduction poses Indian Removal as the underacknowledged historical thunderclap, akin to the Civil War, after which the South struggled permanently to regenerate its self-conception. In the narratives of modern and contemporary white southerners, the story of the southeastern Indian is inextricable from the white South’s story about itself - a structure built on preoccupations with loss, dispossession, sovereignty, and community. The Indian motif marks the passage from the white southern specular self to its socially constituted version, and the maintenance of that self is, in many ways, dependent on the internalization of an elaborate Indigenous fiction. What that narrative both covers over and exposes is haunting in more ways than we have realized: it is, finally, a revelatory model of not just settler colonial extermination but of the vacancies, desires, and horrors of a modernity constructed on the twin phantoms of materialism and racialism.
Indians are everywhere and nowhere in the US South. Cloaked by a rhetoric of disappearance after Indian Removal, actual southeastern tribal groups are largely invisible but immortalized in regional mythologies, genealogical lore, romanticized stereotypes, and unpronounceable place names. These imaginary 'Indians' compose an ideological fiction inextricable from that of the South itself. Often framed as hindrances to the Cotton Kingdom, Indians were in fact active participants in the plantation economy and chattel slavery before and after Removal. Dialectical tropes of Indigeneity linger in the white southern imagination in order to both conceal and expose the tangle of land, labor, and race as formative, disruptive categories of being and meaning. This book is not, finally, about the recovery of the region's lost Indians, but a reckoning with their inaccessible traces, ambivalent functions, and the shattering implications of their repressed significance for modern southern identity.