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Engaged Resistance

Engaged Resistance
American Indian Art, Literature, and Film from Alcatraz to the NMAI

Profusely illustrated with more than one hundred images, this is the first book that focuses on how Native Americans have used artistic expression to both engage with and resist Anglo culture while asserting deeply held ethical values.

Series: William and Bettye Nowlin Endowment

April 2011
This book is out of print and no longer available.
297 pages | 8.5 x 11 | 147 color and b&w illus. |

From Sherman Alexie's films to the poetry and fiction of Louise Erdrich and Leslie Marmon Silko to the paintings of Jaune Quick-To-See Smith and the sculpture of Edgar Heap of Birds, Native American movies, literature, and art have become increasingly influential, garnering critical praise and enjoying mainstream popularity. Recognizing that the time has come for a critical assessment of this exceptional artistic output and its significance to American Indian and American issues, Dean Rader offers the first interdisciplinary examination of how American Indian artists, filmmakers, and writers tell their own stories.

Beginning with rarely seen photographs, documents, and paintings from the Alcatraz Occupation in 1969 and closing with an innovative reading of the National Museum of the American Indian, Rader initiates a conversation about how Native Americans have turned to artistic expression as a means of articulating cultural sovereignty, autonomy, and survival. Focusing on figures such as author/director Sherman Alexie (Flight, Face, and Smoke Signals), artist Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, director Chris Eyre (Skins), author Louise Erdrich (Jacklight, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse), sculptor Edgar Heap of Birds, novelist Leslie Marmon Silko, sculptor Allen Houser, filmmaker and actress Valerie Red Horse, and other writers including Joy Harjo, LeAnne Howe, and David Treuer, Rader shows how these artists use aesthetic expression as a means of both engagement with and resistance to the dominant U.S. culture. Raising a constellation of new questions about Native cultural production, Rader greatly increases our understanding of what aesthetic modes of resistance can accomplish that legal or political actions cannot, as well as why Native peoples are turning to creative forms of resistance to assert deeply held ethical values.


Awarded 2012 The Beatrice Medicine Award for Scholarship in American Indian Studies by the Native American Literature Symposium.Beatrice Medicine Award for Excellence in American Indian Scholarship

  • Acknowledgments
  • Prologue
  • Chapter 1. Engaged Resistance: Alcatraz
  • Chapter 2. The Cartography of Sovereignty: Jaune Quick-to-See Smith's Map Paintings
  • Chapter 3. The New American Indian Novel: A User's Map
  • Chapter 4. The Cinematics of Engagement, the Politics of Resistance: Naturally Native and Skins
  • Chapter 5. Word as Weapon: Visual Culture and Contemporary American Indian Poetry
  • Chapter 6. Compositional Resistance: Genre and Contemporary American Indian Poetry
  • Chapter 7. Celluloid Alexie: Postindianism in Smoke Signals and The Business of Fancydancing
  • Chapter 8. Narrative Resistance: Leslie Marmon Silko's "Storyteller"
  • Chapter 9. Roofs, Roads, and Rotundas: American Indian Public Art
  • Chapter 10. Engaged Resistance: The National Museum of the American Indian
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index

Dean Rader is Professor of English at the University of San Francisco. He is the coauthor (with Jonathan Silverman) of The World is a Text: Writing, Reading, and Thinking about Visual Culture and (with Janice Gould) Speak to Me Words: Essays on Contemporary American Indian Poetry. His book of poems, Works & Days, won the 2010 T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize.


I have never been a huge fan of lengthy introductions to scholarly books. With eleven chapters, this book is long enough as it is. So, instead, I offer this short prologue—with its roots in oral discourse—in hopes that the chapters both stand and speak for themselves. Also, since there are many intertextual and intrachapter paths connecting ideas, genres, and themes, I prefer to let the reader map her own way through the terrain of this text without me laying out a route that is either overdetermined or too pedestrian.


This is a book about texts. It addresses, of course, many other things, but its main goal is to provide some new ways of looking at, thinking about, and making sense of recent American Indian art, literature, and film. It takes as its controlling metaphor the notion of engaged resistance, which I see as a fundamentally indigenous form of aesthetic discourse that engages both Native and American cultural contexts as a mode of resistance against the ubiquitous colonial tendencies of assimilation and erasure. American Indian writers, filmmakers, and artists participate in engaged resistance through creative work and cultural production as a means of defiance but also as a source of connection to tribal ways of telling stories, representing images, and animating the world.


In his now-famous essay "Toward a National Indian Literature: Cultural Authenticity in Nationalism," Acoma writer Simon Ortiz makes a strong case for the importance of creativity and language in American Indian resistance: "It is entirely possible for a people to retain and maintain their lives through the use of any language. There is not a question of authenticity here; rather it is the way that Indian people have creatively responded to forced colonization. And this response has been one of resistance; there is no clearer word for it than resistance" (10; emphasis added). Protecting indigenous identity is inseparable from protecting indigenous cultural values, and, for Ortiz, these have survived in large part because of the ability of Native creative productions like literature and art to resist erasure, bind communities, and articulate a discourse of survivance.


Engaged Resistance: Contemporary American Indian Art, Literature, and Film from Alcatraz to the National Museum of the American Indian is a contextual examination of the many ways that American Indian languages—both visual and verbal—respond to and resist American cultural machineries by framing how Native artists, writers, and filmmakers participate in engaged resistance that engenders and defends Native identities. Since Ortiz articulated the role of language and creativity in Native resistance in 1981, virtually no one in either the academic world or the mainstream press has looked closely and comprehensively across disciplines at the aesthetic texts American Indians have made to "creatively responded to forced colonization." This book seeks to fill that gap.


Three main engines drive Engaged Resistance. First, the book demonstrates that Native-produced texts like poetry, fiction, movies, paintings, and sculpture are fundamental products and processes of American Indian sovereignty. Second, it explores how Native cultural expression comprises a strategy of aesthetic activism fashioned by Natives for both Native and Anglo publics. Third, the study moves across genres, situating Native art, literature, and film in context and in conversation with one another to create a cross-genre discourse of resistance, what I refer to as "indigenous interdisciplinarity." Within these frameworks, Engaged Resistance poses and responds to a new constellation of questions about Native cultural productions, such as: What work does Native aesthetic resistance do? What is the role of resistance in Native cultural identity? To what degree are creative forms of aesthetic activism also ethical stances? What can aesthetic modes of resistance accomplish that legal or political options cannot? How do these cinematic, literary and artistic texts fit within the larger sweep of Native studies? When Native art, literature, and film are read together, what sort of contextual conversations emerge across genres? And why are creative forms of resistance so important to Native peoples?


Part of the project of this book is to expand the notion of resistance beyond mere defiance to include simple notions of strength and substantiality. Résistance in French connotes power, an inability to be torn asunder or ripped apart. The pièce de résistance is the main course of a meal, a prize item, or the most important part of an event. Too often, the discourse of resistance gets pigeonholed as crankiness or recalcitrance, but from a cultural and etymological perspective, resistance is, at its core, about more than rebuttal. It's about ability, capacity, energy, and authority. For me, aesthetic resistance is a demonstration of fortitude and an ultimate form of engagement. My project moves away from considering these issues solely from the vantage point of formal criticism, opting instead to explore the ethical values and ethical strategies of Natives themselves—as embodied in art, film, and literature—whose themes assert survivance, renewal, hope, egalitarianism, autonomy, and engagement. Ultimately, I argue that for these artists, forging their own artistic language is not simply an aesthetic but also an ethic—not merely an idea but an assertion of Indian autonomy.


As Sherman Alexie and others have argued, critical responses to Native American discourse tend to focus on the same themes—the oral tradition, nature, myths, and storytelling. These approaches, while valid, can encourage a perspective of isolation and provincialism in regard to the effects and aspirations of Native texts by relegating Indian creativity to the past. Few scholars address how American Indian texts interact with current mainstream American culture or how they work in the two different (and often antagonistic) worlds of Native and Anglo realities. This project examines provocative Native texts that access both worlds through the door of resistance. It may seem contradictory at first to think of resistance as a door or window, but there is a long history of Native activism that is ameliorative.


More recently, Native writers, artists, and filmmakers have turned that spirit of resistance to realms of creative expression and cultural production in their attempts to contravene Hollywood images; correct incorrect histories; counter decades of captivity, romance, and Wild West novels; refashion public perceptions of Indians; participate in the linguistic coding of American discourse; and reshape the social, geographic, and cultural map of America. "We find it effective to challenge the white man through our use of the mass media," asserts Hock E Aye Vi (Edgar Heap of Birds), "the survival of our people is based upon our use of expressive forms of modern communication. The insurgent messages within these forms must serve as our present-day combative tactics" (I Stand in the Center, 30). As Heap of Birds correctly notes, the new battlefields exist on screens, online, in the media, and—perhaps most importantly—in how the presence and absence of Indians in these spaces gets downloaded onto America's cultural hard drive. This book chronicles examples of engaged resistance that capture the public's imagination, gives a creative language to resistance, and shows how Native texts engage with American culture in order to change it.


Engaged Resistance also foregrounds sites of resistance that confront easy assumptions about Indians, assimilation, and tribal expression, and it discusses indigenous texts that have catalyzed resistance into powerful change, such as the Indian occupation of Alcatraz from 1969 to 1971, and in particular, the poems, paintings, and public documents produced during the occupation. By painting on the exterior walls of prison buildings, riffing on antiquated treaty laws, comparing the decrepit state of the then-defunct Alcatraz to Indian reservations, and writing poems about the justice of Natives' seizing government land, these activists made a profound statement about the sophistication and determination of Native resistance. I argue that Alcatraz marks a movement away from cultural segregation in favor of cultural engagement, enabling Natives to reclaim identity on their own terms. By "cultural segregation," I mean not only reservations but also various other ways of marginalizing Indians and even rendering them invisible or dead. The occupation of Alcatraz enables not only reclamation of identity but also public, visible, rhetorically sophisticated performances of this reclamation for both Native and non-Native audiences.


The various modes of engaged resistance seen in the cultural expressions produced on Alcatraz serve as a microcosm for the rest of the book, not simply as a framing mechanism but also as a model of indigenous interdisciplinarity. While much has been much written about Native fiction, and somewhat less about traditional Native arts, little has been said about recent, edgy Native cultural production. The rest of the book works through myriad genres and a vast array of topics in order to paint in broad strokes a polyvalent portrait of recent American Indian aesthetic resistance. The chapter on Salish artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith's stunning series of paintings of U.S. maps looks at the way Smith uses the iconography and semiology of maps to remind the viewer of land reclamation, broken treaties, name changes, and relocation. Sticking with cartographic metaphors, I also sketch a broad map of the new Native American novel (dating from 2001). This chapter places nine novels in conversation with one another, ultimately suggesting that together they can be a mechanism for preserving nonlinear, historical modes of storytelling, tribalography, and identity formation. In a chapter designed to be particularly pedagogical, I go übertextual and devote the entire space to Leslie Marmon Silko's popular and influential story "Storyteller." I read the story as an example of compositional resistance, and I frame the chapter around how one might teach the theories in the book via Silko's text. If the chapter on the new Native novel is a sweeping macro study, this chapter on "Storyteller" stands as a focused micro study.


I also devote two chapters to poetry, which, as most scholars of Native studies know, gets very little critical attention. In one chapter, I show how three writers (Alexie, Louise Erdrich, and Wendy Rose) use the lyric poem as a modern weapon to combat the colonizing gestures of American media, in particular, visual culture. In another, I argue that American Indian poetic genre bending and genre blending enact what I call compositional resistance. Perhaps the most theoretical piece in the book, this chapter suggests poetic genre is a metanarrative that Indian poets seek to deconstruct through their inventive and irruptive engagement with and resistance to genre. In both chapters, I argue that poetry, usually seen as an abstract or distancing genre, becomes a means of aesthetic activism that asserts cultural sovereignty.


Similarly, in two distinct but complementary chapters, I look at both popular and independent Native films in an attempt to show how recent movies participate in but also subvert standard Hollywood genres and constructs. In one chapter I posit that two nearly opposite films (Naturally Native and Skins) locate resistance in similar places, and in another chapter, I read Alexie's two movies, the wildly popular Smoke Signals and the far less popular The Business of Fancydancing against and through each other by way of Gerald Vizenor's theory of "postindianism." When placed in context, Alexie's two movies offer a balanced and interdependent form of engaged resistance, and when the two film chapters are read together, they provide a brief history of resistance in recent Native film.


In the two final chapters, I focus on art projects—Native public art and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI)—in an attempt to show how dynamic Native aesthetic production asserts claims on "public" space and structures. American Indian public art is an area that has received almost no critical attention, but it is a topic ripe for analysis. Here, I trace the history of public sculptures and statues of Indians—especially on federal lands and buildings—and explore the complicated boundaries of resistance and assimilation these objects indicate. I also draw attention to contravening artists who abrogate flat and facile Indian images. Finally, I return to the beginning by offering a reading of the new NMAI through the lens of the occupation of Alcatraz. The NMAI is replete with art, film, and literary texts and functions as the standard for publicly accessible Native interdisciplinary work. I argue that despite its shortcomings, we can read it as an aesthetic (and activist) text.


This is a book about texts, which also means there are many writers, artists, concepts and genres it does not cover. It is not, for example, a history of Indian resistance (though it positions itself as a kind of history of recent Native aesthetics). It is also not a biography of important Native American figures (though it does, at times, home in on certain artists and writers). It is neither a tribalography nor a study in nationalism (though it contains elements of both of these projects). It is not a monograph of critical theory (though it both pulls from theoretical perspectives and advances its own theories of reading and interpretation). It is also not a book about music, drama, or dance, despite the obvious merits of all three genres. I opt instead to focus on the genres of Native discourse most commonly written and talked about. I look forward to future studies that will do what I have been unable to.


Rather than hitching its wagon to one theoretical horse, Engaged Resistance employs a wide-ranging assortment of critical and theoretical methodologies. Neither Native writers nor Native tribes have ever been particularly wed to monolithic ways of looking at the world. Indian communities have distinguished themselves by making polyvocality, multiplicity, and interactivity part of their ontology. This book takes this synthetic approach to reading and being in the world and applies it to reading and being in these texts—all of which invite the reader or viewer inside. Indeed, it acknowledges that American Indian creative texts are created for an audience. All the texts I write about here intend to be read, digested, enjoyed, discussed, and used. Poems, movies, paintings, and novels are made for people, about people. They are human endeavors. The critical approaches I take in this book try to accentuate that humanity, underscoring not just how Native texts engage American culture but equally (and even more importantly) how they engage Native cultures.


If this book situates Native texts in conversation with one another, it also, at least to some degree, contextualizes my conversation with other writers and critics, some of whom I would like to honor here. First, I want to acknowledge Paula Gunn Allen's notion of the "word warrior," which she deploys in The Sacred Hoop. Though she uses that term more evocatively than prescriptively, her grouping of writers who weaponize words to defend Native self-determination has resonances in these pages. I am also indebted to LeAnne Howe's collative theory of tribalography. For Howe, tribalography is, at its core, interdisciplinary and multigeneric. Combining personal and tribal experiences, she argues, enables her and other Native writers to tell particularly inclusive stories to both Native and non-Native audiences. Two of the Ws—Robert Warrior and Craig Womack—have also informed my approaches. In Warrior's case, his articulation of sovereignty within literary texts is critical to my readings. Similarly, Womack's theory of "Red Stick" criticism ("the assumption that Indian viewpoints cohere, that Indian resistance can be successful . . . that subverting the literary status quo rather then being subverted by it constitutes a meaningful alternative") has influenced how I think about successful forms of resistance (Red on Red, 12). More than once I avail myself of the concept of "reinventing the enemy's language," the title of Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird's fine anthology of Native women's writing, which chronicles how Indian writers have made a new language out of imperialist discourse.


I also talk frequently about survivance, a term given a specifically Native meaning by Gerald Vizenor. It finds its most frequent utilization in the final chapter (on the NMAI), but it works its way into many other chapters as well, especially because of its emphasis on activism, creation, and invention. Lastly, I like talking about the "cultural work" a text does. Coined by Jane Tompkins, the term refers to the actual influence a text has within a context. In order to better understand how a text affects people, Tompkins argues, we must move away from the elite master texts and see literature "as attempts to redefine the social order," because these marginal texts offer better "examples of the way a culture thinks about itself" (Sensational Designs, xi). In these pages I alter her term, stretching it to fit the expanse of nonliterary texts.


A brief word about my own terminology. I often distinguish between "contextual resistance" and "compositional resistance." The former refers to modes of resistance on the thematic level, while the latter denotes resistance on the structural one. By "compositional," I mean how the text is composed: the materials the artist uses, the organization or plot structure of a film or novel, or the inversions of Western poetic genres. Conversely, "contextual resistance" occurs when a text's message indicates defiance, even if its formal qualities do not. A perfect example: many of the poems written during the Alcatraz occupation assert sovereignty, reclamation, even revolution, but are rendered in very traditional rhyme and meter. All of the Native-produced texts I examine here embody one of these forms of resistance—many engage both.


I also use the phrase "aesthetic activism" to describe a manner of political and social activism that finds representation in the artistic realm. Unlike marches, sit-ins, or other forms of physical protest, aesthetic activism implies social action on the plane of artistic discourse, such as poetry, painting, and film.4 Similarly, I ground much of my study in my theory of interdisciplinary activism—a form of aesthetic activity that gains its strength, significance, and synthetic energy from Native cultural expression's embrace of the polyvocal and multigeneric. We see examples on the writerly level in figures like Howe and Alexie, who work across genres but also in larger projects, like the occupation of Alcatraz and the NMAI, that rely on the semiotic, the symbolic, and the literary. As for terms like "Romanticism," "postmodernism," "metanarrative," and "modernism," I intend their standard literary and theoretical definitions. A concept that arises often—perhaps in every chapter—is semiotics. My use of it has roots in its linguistic past, but in general I intend its visual associations—the study of the signifier (the sign) and the signified (the meaning of the sign). One last word on this topic: I use Native American, American Indian, and Native interchangeably, though I evince a preference for "Indian." In this manner, I take my cues from other Indian writers and critics who have paved the way for this study and the putative vocabulary this field.


Also taking a cue from Native structures is the very structure of the book itself. Influenced by the patterns and composition of Native texts, Engaged Resistance is designed to be circular. By this, I mean it can be read in just about any order: from the last chapter to the first, or spiraling out from the middle. Whatever the starting place, the same pattern of generic subject matters will be encountered in the chapters. I like the way the various genres speak to one another this way. Film becomes an entrée to poetry, and fiction an entrée to art. Rather than making the works feel disjointed, this structure, in my eyes at least, augments the ability of Native texts to signify across boundaries, genres, and chapters of American history.


Speaking of history, Engaged Resistance, ultimately, tells a story. It tells a story of creation and defiance, resistance and participation, engagement and survivance. It is a historical narrative. It chronicles creative expression in the era since 1969, when American Indian creative discourse began in robust ways to speak truth to power. As mentioned above, this book never pretends to be a comprehensive historical study, but it does function—both in scope and scale—as a kind of genealogy of Indian aesthetic activism. It focuses a lens on a historical moment to show how that moment has shaped how we see Native cultural production. To this end, I offer a series of detailed snapshots of the diversity of important and innovative work being done by both well-known and lesser-known Native writers, artists, and directors. I want to historicize and contextualize the kinds of conversations that these revolutionary artists are having with the key narratives that compose American and Native American high, popular, and tribal cultures. Unlike histories that purport to show a linear progression of events, this history moves back and forth within time and across genres. Its manner and direction of historicity take their cues from the novelists, winter counts, and mapmakers it describes. This study narrates these histories by attempting to map the healing power of art; the possible interplay among literary, artistic, and cinematic texts; the necessity of creative expression for oppressed peoples; the ecstatic joy of perseverance; the proactive, procreative resistance to colonialism; and the significant contribution of Native artists to the wide record of human achievement.


Well, so much for a short prologue. The good news, though, is that I now get to write in the final sentence of this piece what LeAnne Howe says at the end of many of hers: Whee, that's enough. I can tell you no more today!




“"[Rader’s] insightful readings of Native texts and symbols are sensitive and accomplished. . . . Engaged Resistance performs important cultural work by bringing new attention to Native American artists, authors, and filmmakers, whose contributions remain marginalized and under appreciated in popular culture.””
Western American Literature