Recently I was at the Denver Art Museum to see the Jeffrey Gibson exhibit, Like a Hammer. More than once in the artist’s commentary, he expressed a feeling of not belonging in the fine arts tradition or having the same access to contemporary styles that white artists seemed to assume without hesitation. Meanwhile, common materials used in Indigenous arts were typically relegated to the realm of “crafts,” the implication being that such crafts were not “fine art.” While I was walking through the exhibit, a young boy (maybe seven or so) asked his mother how “they” had access to the plastic beads and other obviously modern materials used in the various pieces. It was clearly a revelation to the boy that these pieces had been made in the last decade, in his lifetime and that “they” was a living, breathing, fully modern and Indigenous artist. This boy had no idea Indigenous people were still living and that, as we were in Denver, he had likely passed several that day already (myself included).
And so we come to Daniel Heath Justice’s Why Indigenous Literatures Matter—an introductory critical text, part literary criticism, part philosophy, with a dusting of (necessarily simplified) Indigenous history, culture, and cosmology to entreat the novice of Indigenous studies and/or literature to enter the conversation. The work centers around four guiding questions: 1. How do we learn to be human? 2. How do we behave as good relatives? 3. How do we become good ancestors? and 4. How do we learn to live together? What does literature have to do with such existential labors? “We know ourselves only through stories,” Justice writes, and the stories we tell matter.
The certainty with which Justice makes his claims as he attempts to answer these questions almost insists upon being debated by the reader. In the preface alone, Justice declares that all art, including poetry, must be political if it is to be relevant and not merely narcissistic. To be sure, the questions around that which the work centers beg a philosophical engagement with the literature surveyed. But are all literatures truly capable of bearing such weight? Must they? Should they? And yet how else do we know ourselves but by the stories we tell, and more importantly, particularly in the case of Indigenous youths, the stories others tell about us? With one claim Justice makes I agree entirely: “the single story is inherently an expression of power.” And what else is Indigenous literature but a “challenge to centuries of representational oppression”? In this way, stories become political tools capable of manipulating the audience and reducing an entire people’s humanity. This is particularly true of the misconceptions many people hold today regarding Indigenous peoples and their history, both before and after European contact.
Literature is capable of imagining and introducing new realities, and poetry is especially suited to “confronting the ruptures of history and the fragmenting effects of settler colonialism,” as Justice points out. But it’s important that we get those stories right, and particularly when representing minorities, who is telling the stories becomes equally as important as what stories they are telling. Why Indigenous Literatures Matter raises awareness of problematic claims of indigeneity and the history of “playing Indian” to exploit resources or advance one’s reputation on the premise of false credentials. More than that, Justice highlights the complexity of identity and the argument for an inclusive definition thereof, as opposed to unrealistic, settler-imposed “ideals.” While Justice does include analyses of Indigenous texts to demonstrate shared themes in Indigenous literature, it is his discussion of these complex and ever-current issues in which those new to Indigenous literature truly benefit. Such conversations have equally shaken the literary and visual arts lately, and often the controversy stems from a lack of awareness of the issues contemporary Indigenous peoples face today. Even within the Indigenous community, identity is a contentious topic, with reasons rooted in a history of attempted erasure. And yet, Indigenous literature is in itself a political act of resistance to those efforts. (I guess Justice was right in his introduction after all.)
Despite the author’s insistence on the very real and modern presence of (diverse) Indigenous peoples and writers specifically, his examples are often somewhat dated or draw primarily from First Nations writers in Canada. In his introduction, Justice admits that he is far less interested in the aesthetics of the work than the ideas communicated therein, which of course is impossible to separate in poetry today, and leaves out many exciting Indigenous poets who would prefer to be identified as poets (no adjective), just as any other non-minority (white) writer. And indeed, his dismissal of Native Americans in the US as “much less prominent in and thus less threatening to the national consciousness” than the First Nations peoples of Canada only serves to further erase Indigenous people in the US, whose affirmation would equally be “anathema to colonial apologists.” (No mention is made at all of Indigenous peoples south of the United States.) It is especially remarkable that Justice would be so careless with his language while in the very act of claiming that “words carry meaning far beyond themselves.” In a sociopolitical climate in which Native Americans are killed by police at higher rates than African Americans, and in which the murders and disappearances of thousands of Indigenous women has yet to make waves in mainstream media, such carelessness is dangerous. Words do indeed matter.
As an introductory survey to Indigenous literature however, besides illuminating oft-shared themes found throughout the category and the contemporary issues that shape them, perhaps the next most valuable part of the text is in the appendix: A Year of #HonouringIndigenousWriters, which provides a bibliographic entry for a different Indigenous writer every day for an entire year. Three hundred sixty-five Indigenous writers, all compiled into one place. Following this, Justice’s bibliography for the work at hand is presented as a bibliographic essay, providing useful annotations for scholars wishing to build on his work, and a valuable roadmap for anyone developing their own Indigenous literature curriculum.
Beyond literature, this text is a concise introduction to a broader sociopolitical analysis of our contemporary Western society at-large, and in this awareness it is a critical text, not just for the field of Indigenous literature, but any student in the humanities. No single tome can answer the questions set forth by Daniel Heath Justice here, but this work is a very good place to begin the conversation.
About the Reviewer
Abigail Chabitnoy earned her MFA in poetry at Colorado State University and was a 2016 Peripheral Poets fellow. Her poems have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Boston Review, Tin House, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, LitHub, and Red Ink, among others, and she has written reviews for Colorado Review and the Volta blog. She is a member of the Tangirnaq Native Village in Kodiak, Alaska, grew up in Pennsylvania, and currently resides in Colorado. Her debut poetry collection, How to Dress a Fish, is forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press.