Kathleen Tigerman’s Wisconsin Indian Literature: Anthology of Native Voices

I don’t think there can be too many anthologies of American Indian writings. That, of course, is personal opinion, but I think I have strong support in both the Native and academic communities, especially where those two overlap. Kathleen Tigerman’s collection of writings by those nations inhabiting the state of Wisconsin, both now and in the past, is therefore a welcome addition to the literature. She has included representative writings from those groups currently resident in Wisconsion, no matter their places of origin. This has the result of providing not only a picture of the historical context of those tribes “native” to the Upper Midwest (and I use that term advisedly – North America was no less subject to migrations of peoples than any other continent), but those who arrived later in history. The nations represented, then, are a mix of “Midwestern” groups, resident in the area in pre-Columbian times (Menominee, Ho-Chunk, Potawatomi), and later migrants, mostly from the eastern seaboard (Ojibwe, Oneida, Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican, and Brothertown).

What makes this collection particularly rewarding is that in addition to the more or less standard roster of creation stories and tales of mythic heroes, Tigerman has included a series of orations, polemics, poetry and drama by Native writers which serves to bring the narrative into the present and also gives an indication of how diverse the Native voice is. I was especially struck by the way some selections resonate with strands of thought one might think far outside the concerns of Native writers. The poem “The Long Parenthesis,” by Roberta J. Hill (Oneida), for example, immediately called to mind Paul Mariah’s “Quarry/Rock: A Reality Poem in the Tradition of Genet.” Both are cast in prison settings, both deal with a territory beyond despair, and both portray, in bald, uninflected diction, the terms of life for those disfavored by society.

A very different reality comes through in “Interview with a Midwife,” by Carol Cornelius (Oneida/Mahican) and Katsi Cook (Mohawk), which is about corn. I don’t think I’ve read anything that brings home better the status of corn as not only a staple but a metaphor for the life of the North American Natives. It’s a dialogue that explores science, medicine, the traditional role of women, communities and society at large and is, in its final effect, surprisingly powerful.

And, speaking of the traditional role of women, one of the most interesting inclusions is a section of the Great Law of Peace of the Iroquois Confederacy. Titled “Matriarchy,” it covers those sections dealing with the power of women over the councils of the Confederacy: the General Council of Women appointed the Chiefs and the War Chiefs and also removed them for cause. The right to vote on such questions passed within the maternal line, as did lineal descent as a whole – status was inherited from one’s mother. Women were the progenitors of the nation, and owned the land. The prominence of women’s voices among Native activists, writers, and politicians, then, is really no surprise.

Also in this excerpt, of interest to those concerned with the origins of our own brand of representative democracy, are sections dealing with how decisions are made, how the powers of the various councils are apportioned, and the role of the people in making decisions – “the will of the people” is not something that sprang full-grown from the brow of James Madison or Thomas Jefferson (which, all things considered, I would find highly unlikely anyway). While there is some debate about the origins of our national institutions, given the lack of such mechanisms in European societies of the time it seems more than a little possible that the seeds of our own democracy had first sprouted among the Iroquois. It’s of more than minor significance, I think, that this form of government had been in existence in North America for at least two hundred years before the first Continental Congress.

This is, as much as anything else, a political document. I think anyone interested in the Native heritage of this country enough to pursue a volume like this is going to be aware of it, but the way abuses are detailed in these selections is, I think, new. This strand starts in the excellent forward by Dr. Jim Ottery, with its explication of a broad meaning of “literature” that comes to include oral and written traditions, stories, tales, and the rhetoric of public discourse. Tigerman’s own Introduction reinforces the narrow focus of the anthology – Wisconsin only – but there are some comments that I can’t credit. The statement that this collection is “the first of its kind” makes sense only if we are limiting the discussion to anthologies of Wisconsin Native literature. As for redressing the “silence in the Americanist canon regarding Native literature,” I find that somewhat deceptive, if not downright mistaken. There have been a number of notable anthologies of Native writings by both Native and non-Native writers and editors, beginning with the work of Earnest Goudge in the early part of the twentieth century (which itself built on a long Muskogee literary tradition) and including the groundbreaking work of Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz, making use of original sources from the nineteenth century on, including many recorded by Erdoes and Ortiz themselves. There are many more things in archives waiting for publication, but this hardly counts as “silence,” considering the work that has been and is being done in this area. And, as far as “writing by” as opposed to “writing about,” aside from Goudge and scholars such as Jamake Highwater, one need only look at contemporary poetry, fiction, and even polemic to discover vital and unique voices that bring the Native point of view to the larger cultural pool: Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, Hyemeyohsts Storm, Vine Deloria, Jr., are just the ones that occur to me on the spur of the moment.

However, when all it said and done, and academic overreaching notwithstanding, this is an excellent addition to the literature, bringing the humor, passion, and dignity of the Native voice to, I hope, a very wide audience.

(The University of Wisconsin Press, 2006)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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