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James H. Cox on "Native American Renaissance"

Cover of "Native American Renaissance": Abstract Art

Kenneth Lincoln

Native American Renaissance

University of California Press, 1983
313 pages

Reviewed by James H. Cox

Kenneth Lincoln’s Native American Renaissance has the distinction of naming the era in American Indian literature that followed N. Scott Momaday’s 1969 Pulitzer Prize for his novel House Made of Dawn, and Lincoln’s designation of this era as a renaissance continues to shape the scholarship in the field. We speak of pre-renaissance and post-renaissance literature and of first and second wave renaissance writers, and we consistently remark upon and celebrate the dramatic increase in writing by American Indians that began in the 1960s and 1970s and continues unabated into the first decade of the twenty-first century. While there is some resistance to calling the era a renaissance as well as some anxiety produced by our tendency to allow Momaday’s novel and the Pulitzer Prize to stand as the era’s origin point, that a Native American renaissance emerged in the 1960s and 1970s remains an infrequently challenged axiom in the field. At least one of Lincoln’s primary assertions about contemporary American Indian writing—that we can find its origins in Indigenous oral storytelling traditions—also still resonates in much contemporary scholarship.

Yet reading Lincoln’s book twenty-five years after its publication is as much puzzling as it is rewarding. The book’s structure is particularly confounding. Sections of every chapter were published between 1975 and 1982 in an extraordinary range of scholarly genres. The book is a collection of lectures; introductions to special issues of journals, such as the American Indian Culture and Research Journal at UCLA; articles in journals, such as the aforementioned AICRJ and MELUS; review essays; book reviews; and forewords to collections of poetry published by UCLA’s American Indian Studies Center. Lincoln draws few explicit connections among the arguments that he makes in each chapter other than to reiterate that he is discussing American Indian authors who are both publishing during the same historical moment and translating Indigenous oral storytelling traditions into written western forms.

Indeed, Lincoln tends to assert the fact of the renaissance without providing any extended commentary on the literary, cultural, political, and historical implications of identifying this era as a rebirth or revival of Indigenous oral storytelling traditions in writing. The words in the provocative title appear infrequently in the book and almost exclusively at the beginnings and ends of chapters. The first statement in the introduction that defines features of the renaissance also includes one of the few attempts Lincoln makes to justify “renaissance” as the appropriate designation for the historical period under his consideration: “The Native American renaissance here targeted, less than two decades of published Indian literature, is a written renewal of oral traditions translated into Western literary forms. Contemporary Indian literature is not so much new, then, as regenerate: transitional continuities emerging from the old.” These “transitional continuities” make problematic the assertion that he is witnessing a renaissance. If American Indians have continuously maintained their storytelling traditions, the repositories of their tribal histories as well as cultural beliefs, values, and practices, then we have an extraordinary example of survival and endurance rather than a revival of various modes of artistic expression. This distinction between continuity and rebirth has potentially dramatic implications for those Indigenous people who must demonstrate an unbroken chain of cultural practice from the distant past into the present moment to gain federal recognition, and the attendant access to land and resources, from the United States government. In addition to the widespread regeneration or continuance of ancient storytelling practices, the number of Indigenous writers and the historical novelty of an interested non-Indigenous audience for them also characterize the Native American renaissance: “hundreds of tribal voices now facet a Native American renaissance: one pluralistic body of diverse peoples newly voiced in contemporary history.” Along with the previously cited passage, this statement on the last page of the introduction captures the entirety of Lincoln’s primary arguments about the renaissance.

The organization of Chapter 4, “A Contemporary Tribe of Poets,” demonstrates that for Lincoln the phrase “Native American renaissance” is a gesture that encapsulates the drama of a particular historical moment and that establishes and frames but does not drive his argument. “A Contemporary Tribe of Poets” is a review of the many anthologies of Indigenous writing, primarily poetry, that were published in the 1970s. At the beginning of the chapter, Lincoln refigures the assertion that he makes in the introduction about the characteristics of the renaissance: “tribal oral materials are now shaping the written word; for many American readers, these are the first Native American voices to be heard. The present generation of postwar Indian writers now publishes poems, novels, plays, essays, and treatises in English as a first language. Their literary breakthrough gives voice to the present Indian renaissance.” The breadth of the chapter—Lincoln considers at least ten anthologies—obstructs any movement toward critical nuance. The observations about the anthologies are sweeping and the comments on the poems brief and often cryptic. The final section of the chapter includes Lincoln’s observation that “of the hundreds of Indian poets anthologized and the thousands unpublished, the fifty or so discussed here make up an American Indian literary renaissance, perhaps better termed an emergence, as the Pueblos speak of coming up through layers of world-realities.” These two passages contain the only references in the chapter to a renaissance, and Lincoln does not return to the idea that we could identify the movement he describes in ways much more specific to contemporary Indigenous American contexts.

Yet Lincoln’s careful demonstration of the influence of oral storytelling traditions on American Indian literatures is still rewarding for contemporary readers. As he explains in the introduction, “tracing the connective threads between the cultural past and its expression in the present is the purpose of Native American Renaissance.” Chapter 5, “Word Senders: Black Elk and N. Scott Momaday,” and Chapter 7, “Blackfeet Winter Blues: James Welch,” make these connective threads between the past and present most visible, and Lincoln’s focus on the evocation of Blackfeet storytelling traditions in Welch’s poems and novels would provide satisfaction for contemporary scholars devoted to tribal nation specificity in their own literary critical practices. At the same time, Lincoln also considers the influence of non-Indigenous American writers on the three authors—Momaday, Welch, and Leslie Marmon Silko—to whom he devotes single chapters and on the many other American Indian authors who make appearances in his study. The frequent references to Homer, Thoreau, Twain, Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Joyce, Hemingway, Faulkner, William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, W. S. Merwin, Denise Levertov, and Jerome Rothenberg suggest the urgency of Lincoln’s attempt to continue legitimizing a field that at the time was only in its second decade.

When Lincoln was writing Native American Renaissance, Native American writers were far more numerous than Native literary studies scholars. As a catalog of Native writers and a broad survey of the issues that they raise, therefore, Native American Renaissance demonstrates an urgent need for more scholarship on the literature that Lincoln evaluates only in a cursory manner. Now, twenty-five years after Lincoln devotes single chapters to Momaday and Silko, we have entire books on both authors. While Lincoln is multi-tribal or pan-tribal as well as multi-cultural in his approach rather than tribal nation specific, we also now have entire books on the literary productions of authors from single tribes. With so many recovered writers (Samson Occom, Joseph Johnson, William Apess, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, S. Alice Callahan, Lynn Riggs, Todd Downing) now available and so much more scholarship on pre-renaissance writers such as Gertrude Bonnin, Charles Alexander Eastman, and Sarah Winnemucca, Lincoln’s contention that there was a renaissance appears a little less dramatic from an early twenty-first century perspective. However, Lincoln looks prescient when we consider the vibrant state of the field and the many award-winning writers (Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich, Thomas King) that followed the publication of his book. Much like Paula Gunn Allen’s The Sacred Hoop (1986), which has endured some recent criticism for misrepresenting Indigenous cultures and histories, Native American Renaissance stands as an important work of literary criticism and an invaluable contribution to the efforts to legitimize Native literary studies.