Comparing Indigenous Literatures in Canada and the United States

Katja Sarkowsky

Approaching Native North America

As with any framework of comparison, setting out to compare Indigenous literatures in North America poses the question of what is being compared and on what grounds.1 The seemingly simple answer—Native American literatures in the United States and First Nations' literatures in Canada—is immediately complicated by the colonial histories that underlie the categories Native American and First Nations. "From an indigenous point of view, the border between Canada and the United States doesn't exist," writes Muscogee poet Joy Harjo in a commentary on one of her early poems titled "Crossing the Border." "It is an imaginary line imposed by invader nations with governing laws that are arbitrary. Many tribal nations are slashed by the border. . . . Crossing the border is always hazardous for Indians. We are singled out and searched, detained, and questioned" (Harjo 2002, 205). Harjo's comment (which similarly applies to Chicana/Chicano experiences and literatures in the borderland between Mexico and the United States; see ch. 10) points to the paradox of national borders from an Indigenous perspective. On the one hand, these borders are colonial impositions, overriding and overwriting earlier tribal inscriptions of space and separating, as one of the border guards in Thomas King's short story "Borders" puts it, Canadian Blackfoot from American Blackfeet (T. King 1993b, 135). From this point of view, the border does not exist—it is irrelevant for Indigenous conceptions of North American space.2 On the other hand, as Harjo's comment and countless texts by Native American and First Nations' authors also document, national borders are at the same time extremely powerful in their affirmation of categories and their effect on reality. Like other colonial spatial inscriptions, they not only regulate mobility, but also impact identity and identification. Being Blackfoot on the "Canadian side" may be different from being Blackfoot on the "American side"—the "Blackfoot side" (T. King 1993b, 136) has over the course of colonial history become an increasingly imaginary location.

Nevertheless, while imposing restrictions on and legal definitions of Indigeneity, national borders—or rather, the nations they circumscribe—offer alternative or supplementary identifications. The pride many Dine (Navajo) display in the role played by the code talkers during World War II or the situational identifications as Canadian taken up by many of the Indigenous characters in King's novels and short stories attest to a variety of layers of identification in both contemporary Native fictions and realities. As different as these examples are, they include national borders and the category of the nation-state in the construction of complex political, cultural, and identity formations, both historical and contemporary.

The complicated, multilayered constellations between and across borders, national policies, and individual and collective identities have been termed "Native North America."3 "'Native North America,' with all its connotations," Renee Hulan writes, "is affirmative: it repudiates the borders of nation-states, encircles a community of diverse cultures, and describes something that is geographical, physical, psychological, spiritual" (Hulan 1999, 9). The term "refers to this continent as experienced variously by Native North Americans, not to an abstract 'Nativeness'; the term is intended to describe the constant interplay of similarity and difference that gives lived experience meaning" (11)—a lived experience that is shaped by multiple historical and contemporary frameworks and that is being explored in myriad ways in Indigenous writing.

Given this complexity, Native North America poses a challenge to both national and disciplinary boundaries. Not only is the larger field of Native Studies per se a transdisciplinary one with important implications for literary studies too, but the very concept of Native North America also questions the national categories that both implicitly and explicitly continue to dominate much of current research in the field. Thus a comparative approach to Native writing in North America poses a methodological problem: the paradox formulated in Harjo's comment quoted in the beginning—the irrelevance of the borders of colonial nation-states in North America for Natives on the one hand and their effectiveness and power on the other hand—has had an impact on how Native literary studies have been conducted. Ulrich Beck has warned against methodological nationalism and categories that take the nation for granted (Beck 2008), and the very field of Indigenous literary studies in a North American context seems to offer itself to transnational approaches. Nevertheless, when looking at the study of Anglophone Indigenous literatures in North America, the transnational turn as discussed most recently by, for instance, Paul Jay (2010) is often more manifest in the literatures themselves than in studies on these literatures.4

Indigenous literatures in North America, in the narrow sense of literatures being transmitted in alphabetic writing, go back to the eighteenth century. Understood more broadly to encompass oral forms of storytelling as entertainment, community practices, and processes of meaning making, they go back thousands of years. Scholars have highlighted the various functions of literature. They insist on a close link between literature, the corporeal aspects of life, and survival, as in Ottmar Ette's UberLebenswissen (2004);5 they understand literature as a transmission of cultural memory and thus as constituting and perpetuating community (Assmann 1995; Booth 2006); and they conceptualize literature as a form of knowledge production, allowing for and emphasizing a variety of categories of knowing that exceed and challenge the categories of rationality. In Native North American contexts, all of these functions come into play, including the understanding of literature as a "healing power" that addresses and helps deal with historical trauma (Episkenew 2009, 76) and as a form of (necessarily hybrid) cultural self-assertion, as in Gerald Vizenor's concept of "survivance," which is "more than survival, more than endurance" (Vizenor 1998, 15) and describes "an active sense of presence over absence, deracination, and oblivion; survivance is the continuance of stories, not a mere reaction, however pertinent" (Vizenor 2008, 1). Given the background of colonization and the struggle for self-determination and cultural as well as Native political sovereignty, literature is thus necessarily political (Teuton 2008). We may therefore regard literature as a form of intervention, as part of what political philosopher Seyla Benhabib calls "democratic iterations" (Benhabib 2004 and 2008). As such, literature can be regarded as a part of the societal negotiations of those whose histories and contemporary situation have to be thought of in conjunction to one another, and, more generally, of how power structures, group relations, and the position of the individual are imagined and conceptualized in society.

Indigenous Anglophone writers in North America participate in these negotiations in manifold ways. Referring to diverse social and cultural frameworks, they address not only the relationship between Indigenous communities and individuals and society, but also the interactions and conflicts in Aboriginal communities as well as Native positions within transnational and global frameworks. They do so against a history of cultural interactions shaped by growing power imbalances and against a history of immense violence, both physical and discursive. Contemporary Indigenous writers in both Canada and the United States insist on the creative or even the materially effective power of the word (e.g., Silko 1997; Momaday 1969; Maracle 2007; T. King 2003).6 Thus literature is a central part of how community and society are imagined, questioned, and perpetuated, culturally and politically.

I want to argue for understanding comparative Native literary studies in North America as a highly contextualized undertaking that necessarily refers to frameworks exceeding the comparison between Canada and the United States. Therefore, I will first look at how Indigenous literatures in North America are studied, at the role played by national categories in these studies, and at approaches that seek to transcend national (and occasionally nationalistic) paradigms. In a second step, I will focus on the border in Aboriginal writing itself, taking the crossing of national borders and the political questions connected to this crossing as paradigmatic for other kinds of boundaries addressed in Indigenous literatures and thus as crucial for discussing Indigenous Literary Studies as a transnational field. Since the very categories of comparison determine the focus of analysis, and even create the very field they set out to study (P. Jay 2010, 73), I will conclude with a discussion of positionality, reading practices, and categories of knowledge.

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