Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism

Craig Womack
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999
288 pp., $18.95 pb

Kathryn W. Shanley
Native American Studies

Everyone loves a good story--stories of who we are, where we've been, what matters in life, and simple things like how we got through the day. Craig Womack's Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism is about how stories function in the making and remaking of ourselves.

As ordinary, even obvious, as that may sound, nothing about the book is ordinary or obvious, let alone universalizing. Writing from the perspective of a Creek-Cherokee, Womack presents a theoretical framework for reading Native American literatures, particularly Creek tribal literatures, as vitally interconnected cultural expressions that open-endedly speak of and from their national centers.

Interweaving Creek history, literature, religion, and politics, Womack breaks the false barriers of genre and categorical thought to argue that a "vanishing mentality" has captured the cultural imagination of Indian and non-Indian alike making us believe in our own diminishment as cultures and cultural beings. Many of my Anglo students think of themselves as having little or no culture, and many of my Indian students think of themselves as having less culture than their ancestors. At heart, Red on Red is a deeply political work, a work that celebrates oral as well as written cultural expressions--in a wide range of what would be thought of as "genres" (myths, tales, journalism, fiction, etc.)--because Womack ultimately does not see speech/writing as separate and does not see orality as prior to writing. Neither does he see religious thought and action as set apart from political thought and action.

The text revolves around the idea that "the oral tradition has always been a deeply politicized forum for nationalistic expression" (52), and that literature is a primary form through which cultural nationalism voices itself. An overview of Creek history in the first chapter forms the basis of understanding the formative experiences and cultural principles of Creek worldview, making sensible a wide variety of written and spoken literary pieces--all offered to demonstrate how cultures generate their own theories and analytical approaches. Distinct from the objectifying methods of ethnographic inquiry, Womack synthesizes familiar binaries under headings of "Pure" and "Tainted": oral tradition/writing, performance/print, original language/translation, precontact/postcontact, Indian religion/Indian Christians, and Indian culture/Indian politics. Both nationhood and traditionalism take on textured reading; as Womack asserts, "The concept of nationhood itself is an intermingling of politics, imagination, and spirituality" (60). Reminiscent of Benedict Anderson's notion of imagined communities, the Creek nationhood of which Womack writes speaks through literature and always has a nationhood that predates and otherwise exceeds federal definitions as set down by Congress and the courts. Recovery of Native language texts will require the familial tongue of Native speakers and the ear accustomed to looking for political meanings among the religious and vice versa.

A comparative reading of a Creek oral tale about how turtle got his pieced-together shell comes after the historical and theoretical framework and nicely illustrates how being Creek changes the reading of "traditional" literatures. Womack compares a contemporary telling of the tale with archival version collected by John Swanton, amply demonstrating how truncated stories in ethnographer's collections can be. Elements that are sexual and/or humorous lose their cultural basis for understanding, as do elements that are political. The strength of that particular chapter in the text calls for a new sort of criticism, a "local" reading invested in understanding cultural resistance and endurance.

The chapters which follow discuss writers such as Alice Callahan, the first Native American woman novelist; Alexander Posey, Creek nationalist writer and author of the Fux Fixico Letters; Louis Oliver, Creek poet and elder; Joy Harjo, renown contemporary poet and musician; and Lynn Riggs, gay Cherokee playwright and author of Green Grow the Lilacs, which later became Rogers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma. Womack's readings contribute in significant ways to contemporary literary study and to how we conceive Native American and Ethnic Studies vision and methods. While it may seem that topics related to Native American histories and cultures are everywhere, the truth is much more needs to be done. Joy Harjo may receive critical attention--her work is taught in Native and Wornen's Studies classes across the country--but texts like Wynema, which are more of historical than aesthetic interest, or works by poets such a Louis Oliver suffer from too little attention. Similarly, many anthologies by gay American Indian writers and works on the cultural particulars of other-gendered Native peoples ought to be celebrated; readings such as Womack's on Lynn Riggs are rare.

Best of all, the text contains conversations and letters and stories in response to the content that goes before and after. Humorous and sometimes scathing in their commentary on Creek life, these breaks from conventional criticism synthesize in memorable ways the "parts" of the whole. It is not often that we are privy to such nuanced readings and sensible theory for understanding the academic enterprise of making meaning of literary productions. Although Craig Womack's book is addressed to Creeks, the rest of us should count ourselves lucky to eavesdrop on the conversations between author and tribal texts.

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