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Indigenous Modernities

Introduction: Developing Thoughts on Indigenous Modernities and Modernisms

This cluster explores how we think about Indigenous lives, literatures, and cultural productions in North America from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and considers some of the possibilities and challenges that Indigenous studies and modernist studies present to one another. It originated from a panel entitled “Indigenous Modernisms” at the Modernist Studies Association’s 2018 conference in Columbus, Ohio. Chaired by Stephen Ross, the panel was composed of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars of modernist studies and Indigenous studies in the United States and Canada in response to what I had recently characterized as modernist studies’ “Indian problem.”[1] After surveying a representative sample of monographs, anthologies, and journal articles published since the field’s turn toward multiple modernisms in the mid-2000s, I noted that with few exceptions, “American Indians are conspicuous not in their recovered presence made possible by these democratizing critical shifts but in their ongoing absence from these conversations” (“American Indian Modernities,” 290).[2] Contrary to these contemporary critical erasures—and despite being popularly positioned in their own time as antitheses of both modernity and modernism—Indigenous peoples were deeply engaged in the differential arrivals of modernity to their communities. While many continued to work locally to defend their lifeways and homelands from ongoing settler colonial violence and expropriation, others organized regionally, nationally, and internationally to challenge popular attitudes about Indigenous people and to effect substantive changes in US-Canadian policy. Questions of self-representation and conscious engagements with discourses of modernity and progress were central to these projects, and, as the contributions to this cluster attest, Indigenous writers, artists, intellectuals, and activists worked across a diverse array of venues, genres, and forms, adopting and adapting to their own ends the modes of representation and discourse through which their lives, lands, and futures were being decided, a process that Leech Lake Ojibwe scholar Scott Richard Lyons terms “rhetorical sovereignty.”[3]

Expanding upon the theoretical and methodological challenges laid out in that essay, papers by Robert Dale Parker, Alana Sayers (Nuu-Chah-Nulth), Deena Rymhs, and Jonathan Radocay (Cherokee Nation) interrogated the disciplinary and aesthetic boundaries between modernist and Indigenous studies; explored the conceptual tensions between modernity, race, colonialism, and Indigeneity; and expanded the ever-growing archive of Indigenous “moderns” doing similar work in their own historical moments.[4] Delivered to a packed room, the panel generated enough interest to spur a thematic “stream” of panels on Modernism and Indigenous Studies at the 2019 Modernist Studies Association conference which enriched what we hope continues to develop into a vigorous, and ongoing, conversation. Reflecting the breadth and depth of those panel discussions, this cluster amplifies some of the concerns highlighted recently in expanded essays by Parker and Radocay and extends the conversation into other areas of Indigenous culture and politics in newly commissioned pieces by Sayers, Christine Bold, and Michael Taylor. An afterword by Stephen Ross, which explores the theoretical possibilities and methodological challenges that Indigenous studies poses for modernist studies, rounds out the collection.

Reflecting the dynamics of the original panel and subsequent gatherings, the contributors to this cluster hail from both Indigenous and settler/immigrant backgrounds and have been variously cross-trained in American/Canadian, modernist, and Indigenous literary and cultural studies. Our decision to privilege Indigenous studies in the essays offered here reflects our respective commitments to the histories, frameworks, and approaches that animate Indigenous studies and which inform our own intellectual work. More than a function of our own training, however, this move also marks a concern that modernist studies not simply take up Indigenous writers and texts as “new” objects of study within existing frameworks. Rather, we invite modernist studies scholars to engage in substantive terms with scholarship in Indigenous studies that’s been exploring the intersections between indigeneity and modernity (if not always modernism) for quite some time now. While the project we’re advancing in this particular venue might strike some readers as a new “turn” toward “Indigenous modernities and modernisms,” it is grounded at once in longstanding histories of Indigenous innovation, adaptation, agency, and survivance that both precede and respond to ongoing settler colonial violence, and in an ever-expansive body of Indigenous studies scholarship that continues to bring those dynamics to light.

Hazel Hertzberg’s influential early study The Search for an American Indian Identity: Modern Pan-Indian Movements (1971), for example, brought attention to the early twentieth-century work of the Society of American Indians (SAI) and its “Red Progressives,” connecting the organization’s more nationally oriented political activism and discursive work to the emergence of the Peyote religion and Native American Church, which operated in more localized, rhizomatic contexts. Subsequent studies such as Robert Allen Warrior’s Tribal Secrets: Recovering American Indian Intellectual Traditions (1995), Thomas W. Cowger’s National Congress of American Indians: The Founding Years (1999), Frederick E. Hoxie’s Talking Back to Civilization: Indian Voices from the Progressive Era (2001), Philip J. Deloria’s Indians in Unexpected Places (2004), Lucy Maddox’s Citizen Indians: Native American Intellectuals, Race & Reform (2005), Tom Holm’s The Great Confusion in Indian Affairs: Native Americans & Whites in the Progressive Era (2005), and John Troutman’s Indian Blues: American Indians and the Politics of Music, 1879–1934 (2009) (among others) have recovered the multiple contexts and strategies—secular and spiritual; legal and literary; public and private; local, national, and international; tribally specific, pan-Indian, and trans-Indigenous—through which many Indigenous peoples navigated the challenges of settler modernity as it moved unevenly across their communities at the end of the nineteenth and throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Recent texts in Indigenous literary studies—from Shari M. Huhndorf’s Mapping the Americas: The Transnational Politics of Contemporary Native Culture (2009), James H. Cox’s The Red Land to the South: American Indian Writers and Indigenous Mexico (2012), Beth Piatote’s Domestic Subjects: Gender, Citizenship, and Law in Native American Literature (2013), and Kiara M. Vigil’s Indigenous Intellectuals: Sovereignty, Citizenship, and the American Imagination, 1880–1930 (2015) to Lyons’s edited collection The World, the Text, and the Indian: Global Dimensions of Native American Literature (2017), Adam Spry’s Our War Paint is Writer’s Ink: Anishinaabe Literary Transnationalism (2018), my own Stoking the Fire: Nationhood in Cherokee Writing, 1907–1970 (2018), and Philip J. Deloria’s Becoming Mary Sully: Toward an American Indian Abstract (2019)—employ both tribally-specific and Indigenous transnational frameworks to make sense of the diverse politics, formal devices, literary strategies, and networks of influence—both Indigenous and non-Indigenous—that inform Indigenous literary and cultural production from this period. Situated squarely within these critical currents, Michael Taylor’s and Christine Bold’s contributions to this cluster, and across their work more broadly, further open our eyes to the vast networks of relationship through which Indigenous peoples worked collectively toward common goals within and across tribal differences. As Taylor writes, attending to such materials makes visible an “alternative Indigenous modernity” defined not by alienated individuals and marginalized communities victimized by the juggernaut of modernity, but by the maintenance of “networks of Indigenous solidarity against all odds through collectivist approaches to literary and land-based activism.”

As a result of such recovery and revisionist efforts, our understandings of the possibilities of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Indigenous intellectual, literary, and cultural productions have expanded dramatically. Where once stood a handful of figures from this period—a group that includes Arthur Parker (Seneca), Carlos Montezuma (Yavapai), Charles Eastman (Dakota), Gertrude Simmons Bonnin/Zitkála-Šá (Dakota), Pauline Johnson (Mohawk), Mourning Dove (Salish), John Joseph Mathews (Osage), and D’Arcy McNickle (Cree/Salish)—we now know of dozens of others (if not hundreds, as Bold’s essay on Indigenous performance suggests) from all across Indian Country working in a diverse array of venues ranging from public policy, education, journalism, anthropology, and international politics to social commentary, art, literature, philosophy, music, and popular culture. Work by Huhndorf on Indigenous-settler relationships in Alaska, by Noenoe Silva on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Kanaka Maoli literary resistance, and by Joyce Pualani Warren on Indigenous modernities across the Pacific makes visible a transnational array of “modern” Indigenous networks at once aligned with, but also distinct from, the settler colonial contexts of the United States and Canada.[5]

Variously addressing intellectual, popular, and local Indigenous audiences, Indigenous writers and cultural producers from this period spoke on and wrote about everything from settler Indian policy, educational reform, and resource management to race relations, citizenship, economic theory, and international politics, to issues of representation and knowledge production. Reflecting this diversity of interests, and looking forward to Choctaw writer and theorist LeAnne Howe’s notion of tribalography, they also employed a variety of genres and forms, from more conventional literary modes of autobiography, narrative, poetry, and drama; to academic histories, ethnographies, and folklore; to public speeches, editorials, legal arguments, and Congressional testimonies; to emerging forms of communication and performance such as newspapers, periodicals, film, and radio.[6] Radocay’s recovery of the “geospatial” poetics informing the work of Winnemem Wintu writer Alfred Gillis, Bold’s excavation of an expansive series of global Indigenous performance networks, and Taylor’s work on Indigenous literary and political collectives evidence the breadth, depth, and diversity of this ever-growing archive.

As the scope of the archive has expanded, our understandings of the politics of this period have also been rendered more nuanced and complex. Where scholars once understood this moment on a narrow spectrum between assimilationist resignation and accommodationist ambivalence—resulting from the devastating effects of federal policies on one hand and the chaotic pendulum of liberal reform and conservative retrenchment on the other—we now identify a diverse array of political commitments at work throughout the early twentieth century. From strategic performances of noble savagery and navigations of modernist primitivism to denunciations of colonialist stereotypes and racist attitudes; from tribally specific defenses of Indigenous lands and resources to intertribal efforts to protect treaty rights and the political status of Indigenous nations; from calls for strategic acculturation and accommodation to explicit critiques of settler policy and international demands for political autonomy; from syncretic adaptations of intercultural practices to the emergence of grass-roots recovery and revitalization efforts; and from enthusiastic endorsements of the promises of modernity to intense anxieties about its impacts on Indigenous communities, the “political arrays” of Indigenous literary and cultural politics across the modern(ist) period are as complicated and diverse as the multiple writers, communities, and locations from which they emerged.[7] Just as recent scholarship in modernist studies insists on the existence of multiple modernisms responding to multiple modernities articulated by a diverse array of writers within both popular and “high” aesthetic forms, so might we now identify multiple Indigenous modernities, and their attending aesthetic modernisms, operating in tribally specific, trans-Indigenous, cosmopolitan, transnational, and other contexts across both “traditional” and “Western” aesthetic forms.[8] Though such terms have until recently been conceptualized apart from or in opposition to each other, Parker reminds us herein that all these categories of knowledge are inextricably tied one to the other. There is no civilization without the savage, no modernity without the primitive, no modernism without tradition (or convention), no modern subject without its cultural, racial, temporal, geographic, and historical Other. Indigenous literary and cultural production from this period forces us to contend with the messy complexities of these relationships as well as our own implications in them. To read this work is, as Stephen Ross and Christine Bold affirm, necessarily to be unsettled—intellectually, disciplinarily, and, at times, personally. That is part of the transformative potential of Indigenous modernities and modernisms.

What this and an array of emerging work makes apparent is that Indigenous peoples were never the isolated, alienated, tragically vanishing figures of romantic settler imaginaries. Neither were they culturally pure, “authentic” modernist primitives, untouched, unpolluted, and uninfluenced by the social and material conditions of US-Canadian modernities. As White Earth Anishinnabe writer and theorist Gerald Vizenor reminds us, these were Euro-American simulations—literary, cultural, and philosophical abstractions whose presence mark the absence of actual Indigenous peoples, communities, and nations with their own distinct histories, languages, cultures, and literary-intellectual traditions.[9] Though many might have considered such “Indians” as “unexpected” presences in the distinctly “modern” venues in which they moved, the essays in this cluster recover them as active producers of the multiple modernities that informed their lives with an eye not simply on Indigenous survivals but also on striking pathways for themselves and their communities into a variety of self-determined futures.[10]

To acknowledge the diversity, complexity, and agency of this expanding archive isn’t to romanticize the conditions of its existence or to ignore the contexts of violence, dislocation, dispossession, and loss out of which it emerged and to which it often was responding (and not always successfully). From early genocidal campaigns against Indigenous nations in the early colonial period, to the total war campaigns of the post-revolutionary era, to the multiple forced removals, dispossessions, and confinements of the mid-nineteenth century, to the eliminationist policies of allotment and assimilation at the turn of the twentieth (documented by Sayer in this collection), to widespread assaults on Indigenous resources, lands, and bodies in our own moment, Indigenous peoples have experienced intense and sustained assaults from the moment of contact to the present. As Potawatomi philosopher and environmental studies scholar Kyle Whyte notes, the dystopic sense of imminent catastrophe and loss—whether in the modernist period or in our own—isn’t anything new.[11] Rather, it is a defining characteristic of settler coloniality itself. From this perspective, the isolation, alienation, dislocation, and angst expressed by metropolitan modernists facing the collapse of the Enlightenment project and the broken promises of modernity were all too familiar to Indigenous peoples. To borrow from the title of Whyte’s essay, those writing from Paris, London, New York, and other centers of metropolitan modernist production had only come to recognize the beginnings of “our ancestor’s dystopia now.”

Within such contexts, as Scott Lyons has argued, writing and representation from this and other periods must be seen as thoroughly colonized and mediated spaces defined by grossly inequitable, often coercive, power relations that set strict limits on sites of Indigenous agency and movement.[12] To restrict agency isn’t the same thing as foreclosing it entirely, however. As evidenced in writing, performance, and activism across this period, Indigenous people like Alfred Gillis, Raymond and Gertrude Bonnin/Zitkála-Šá, Frank Loring, Will Rogers, Esther Deer and so many others appropriated these colonized and mediated spaces to speak back to colonial power and to negotiate with it, to mediate Indigenous interests and “Indian” difference for settler audiences and to refigure settler ideologies from within Indigenous contexts. Most importantly, they used them to articulate a diverse array of self-determined visions of themselves, the worlds they inhabit, and their aspirations for the future. Though both a product of and rationale for the violences and dispossessions that define settler-Indigenous relations, modernity—understood here as a discourse of social development, a category of knowledge, and a set of social and material conditions—isn’t something just acting upon Indigenous peoples from the outside. It also presented for some a variety of venues through which to refigure and reinterpret the circumstances, technologies, discourses, and forms of settler modernity into and out of explicitly Indigenous frames of reference—grounded at once in the people, places, and experiences of their births as well as the larger contexts and relations that came to influence their lives and work. As Lyons has observed, Indigenous literatures and the contexts in which they’re produced and consumed “are themselves always already ‘global’ in character” and if as scholars—whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous, whether from modernist studies or Indigenous studies backgrounds—we don’t attend to these contexts in all their complexities, we “could miss out on a story that deserves to be told, and the story [we] do tell could very well be incomplete.”[13] In these and a host of other ways, Indigenous moderns not only negotiated but often actively embraced the conditions of modernity as they attempted to put their own “x-marks,” to borrow Lyons’s term, on a rapidly changing, thoroughly modern, yet, for them, still-Indigenous world.[14] That is a story that deserves to be told.

With its emphasis on cultural and geographic mobilities, dynamics of cultural conflict/influence/exchange, and a diversity of aesthetic and formal responses to the uneven conditions of modernity, modernist studies affords useful frameworks for thinking through how Indigenous peoples variously understood, adapted to, or engaged with modernity across the diversity of social, political, cultural, historical, and geographic contexts that impacted their lives. Many, for example, toured throughout the globe as individual speakers/performers; as ensemble members in Wild West shows and Chautauqua/Vaudeville circuits; as constituents of both secular and religious civic organizations; as soldiers, diplomats, and laborers in war efforts and in international assemblies; and as students and adults pursuing educational and professional opportunities (sometimes coerced, sometimes voluntary) outside of their tribal-national homes. Additionally, multiple writers, artists, and intellectuals from the early nineteenth through the mid twentieth century understood themselves explicitly in relationship to the dynamics of US and Canadian modernities. Some—such as John Joseph Mathews, D’Arcy McNickle, Lynn Riggs, and, later, N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Silko, James Welch, and Louise Erdrich—explicitly experimented with modernist narrative, dramatic, and poetic forms. Many, like Riggs, Mathews, Bonnin/Zitkála-Šá, Luther Standing Bear, and others cultivated relationships and maintained correspondence with central figures and organizations associated with American literary and artistic modernism and with the “modernist sciences” of anthropology and ethnography.[15] Others writing in both popular genres (romance, Western, detective fiction, editorials) and academic forms (historiography, ethnography, folklore) self-consciously entered discourses and disciplines with long histories of misrepresenting Indigenous peoples, revising, critiquing, or refusing entirely dominant paradigms and conventions, often in venues with extensive readerships. Placing these and other figures not yet recovered from the archives, as well as those working in local, grass-roots contexts at home, within the contexts of modernism/modernity studies has the potential to honor the lives such figures actually lived and to re-presence/resituate them as central contributors and active co-creators of some of the most important political currents, aesthetic movements, and intellectual conversations of their time.[16]

Extending modernist studies into the critical geographies of Indigenous intellectual, literary, and cultural studies isn’t simply about centering this work within existing frameworks, however. This is not to say that postcolonial, global, geo, planetary, environmental, and other approaches have nothing to offer Indigenous studies; indeed, they have been crucial to my own entrance into modernist studies and have complemented my own tribal-specific and Indigenous transnational approaches to early twentieth century Indigenous cultural productions. At its most provocative, I think, it’s about refocusing and reframing modernist studies through the diverse contexts, geographies, experiences, and formal experiments that inform this expanding archive of work and Indigenous modernities more broadly—an intellectual project and reading practice that parallels Paul Saint-Amour’s provocation on the theoretical strength and disciplinary challenges of “weak theory, weak modernisms” as deeply embedded in the modernist project itself.[17] When looking east from Indian Country, for example, both modernity and modernism in North America possess multiple points of origin, some aligned with major shifts in US and Canadian settler-Indigenous relations discussed by Sayers here, others deeply embedded in the larger contexts that have always informed modernist studies. Under these frames, we might look not to the famed Armory Show of 1913 or the fallout of the War to End All Wars as central markers of modernity and modernism, but the Allotment Act of 1887, the Indian Act in Canada of 1874, the multiple Removal Acts of the nineteenth century, or, perhaps, the innumerable interactions and exchanges that have taken place in the Americas since contact or even before. (After all, contact, conflict, and exchange—and aesthetic responses to them—have been operating on Turtle Island long before Columbus got lost at sea and washed ashore in the Caribbean.)

Further, in its critical attention to the settler colonial contexts of dispossession and violence at the heart of the “modern condition,” Indigenous writing from this period reminds us that the destruction at the root of anxieties expressed in metropolitan modernisms took root long before violence arrived in market squares and on factory floors, years before the stench of blood and death filled the trenches of western Europe. Indeed, what many viewed as the material, social, cultural, political, spiritual, and ecological wastelands ushered in by settler modernity had already wreaked havoc on Indigenous lands, lifeways, cultures, and bodies for over four hundred years. If we follow Walter Mignolo, Patrick Wolfe, Jodi Byrd, Glen Coulthard, Aileen Moreton-Robinson, and others in understanding modernity at least in part as an explicitly racialized, (settler) colonialist, material and discursive project predicated on the elimination of Indigenous lives and lands, then it is impossible to understand either modernity or modernism in the Americas (and beyond) absent a legitimate engagement with the histories, geographies, literatures, cultures, knowledges, and intellectual traditions of the First Peoples of these lands.[18] Such conversations, I believe, can be incredibly fruitful for both Indigenous studies and modernist studies provided they’re done responsibly and with rigorous engagement across disciplinary boundaries.

And it’s here, as an Indigenous studies scholar, that concerns remain for what this work might look like and how the two fields might productively speak to/with one another theoretically, methodologically, politically, and ethically. I’m caught, for example, between a desire for more scholarship on this energetic yet understudied period of Indigenous literary, cultural, and intellectual production and a concern that such work take seriously the tribal-specific and trans-Indigenous contexts that inform it. I worry that the enormous gains Indigenous studies scholars have made over the past two decades to carve out institutional and disciplinary space for Indigenous studies as a field of study in its own right might get lost in the race to ever-wider, ever-expansive critical frameworks. Relatedly, one of the most powerful shifts in contemporary Indigenous studies during the same time frame has been a return to its foundational mission to partner with and serve—rather than simply study or extract information (and build careers) from—Indigenous communities. As the essays by Bold and Radocay in this cluster demonstrate, this requires investments in meaningful, long-term relationships with the Indigenous peoples and nations our institutions occupy and with the communities and families of the subjects we study and write about. In what ways might (or should?) modernist studies adopt similar commitments? How might scholars in the field—and the field as a whole—leverage their research toward the needs and priorities of Indigenous nations, communities, and families?

Pushing further, while I’m mostly on board with scholarship at the intersections of Indigenous studies and modernity studies, I’m hesitant to use concepts like modern or modernist to describe Indigenous intellectuals, cultural producers, and work from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. I worry, for instance, that the application of such terms to all writers, intellectuals, and cultural producers might reinforce dominant expectations about Indigenous culture, identity, and authenticity in opposition to modernity, rather than productively troubling both sets of terms. As the brief sketch outlined in this introduction suggests, late nineteenth and early twentieht century Indigenous literary and cultural politics was as diverse and irreducibly complex landscape of competing and contested desires and visions for the future, including a range of decidedly antimodernist politics and explicit strategies of retreat and refusal. Any approaches that emerge from this developing conversation between modernist and Indigenous studies needs to be capacious and rigorous enough to account for the full range of responses to the multiple modernities Indigenous communities were engaging in and responding to.

In similar terms, though what constitutes the “modern” has been usefully complicated in both horizontal and vertical dimensions, it risks becoming so expansive as to engulf any moment of radical rupture and change leading to social, discursive, and aesthetic innovations into a universal “modern” (or “modernity”) applicable everywhere and under all conditions. Advocates and critics of the continued expansion of the field rightly caution against such moves, noting the crucial importance of remaining tightly focused on the specific (and adjacent) geographical, social, cultural, political, and aesthetic contexts out which writers and texts emerge and to which they’re responding, as well as the continued significant of close reading as a methodological backstop against totalizing theoretical approaches that risk gobbling up everything in their paths.[19] With these concerns in mind and from an Indigenous studies perspective, I approach questions of modernism and modernity more along the lines of Phil Deloria—as potentially useful heuristics less interested in identifying and defining whether a given writer, text, or cultural expression is modern or modernist than in what such expressions tell us about how Indigenous peoples variously understood their conditions of existence, the multiple visions of the future—whether hopeful or despondent, energetic or ambivalent—they were attempting to carve out for themselves and their communities, how those diverse visions found their way into aesthetic form, and what that work might offer us in our own historical moment.[20] What we call writers and texts, then, is less important to me than how we understand them and the work they did, and might still do, in the world.

Finally, I’m concerned that a too easy incorporation of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Indigenous literary, intellectual, and cultural productions into the “modern” or “modernity”—even in their more recently expanded and critically nuanced forms— by insisting on what Mark Rifkin identifies as their “coevalness” with the period risks occluding Indigenous knowledge systems, cosmological frameworks, and temporal structures that have long dealt with issues of disruption, schism, rupture, loss, alienation, migration, and other concerns attributed to both modernity and literary modernism.[21] To assert “the shared modernity or presentness of Natives and non-natives,” Rifkin warns, “implicitly casts Indigenous peoples as inhabiting the current moment and moving toward the future in ways that treat dominant non-native geographies, intellectual and political categories, periodizations, and conceptions of causality as given—as the background against which to register and assess Native being-in-time” (Beyond Settler Time, viii). The implications of Rifkin’s argument are profound. For instance, as Michael Tavel Clarke’s recent reading of N. Scott Momaday’s Way to Rainy Mountain attests, the book is structured around paradigms of alienation, schism, recovery, and reconstitution via both modernist and Kiowa aesthetics, narrative, and form. In Momaday’s text, both work together to present an idea of Kiowa history, identity, and community that is always in the process of becoming, always being made, unmade, and remade, from time immemorial to the present across multiple moments of rupture, reconstitution, and resurgence.[22] In like terms, Anishinaabe and Cherokee oral narratives of dislocation and migration, or Diné cosmologies of emergent worlds arising from the passing of others, constitute epistemological and formalist anchors every bit as relevant for understanding and responding to the violences, anxieties, and possibilities produced by the specific conditions of modernity as other frameworks. In Indigenous contexts like these, such experiences are neither “new” nor particularly “modern,” but deeply structured into longstanding knowledge systems and cultural practices that are themselves always changing, always adapting, in ways both large and small. As the authors of this cluster variously demonstrate, holding onto and centering such contexts will be crucial to how we continue to theorize the relationships between Indigenous studies and modernist studies and how we continue to work through the politics and possibilities of Indigenous modernisms and modernities.

Exploring different aspects of these and other dynamics in US-Canadian/Indigenous contexts, contributions to this cluster take up the following questions:

  • How are we to understand the relationships between Indigenous literary, intellectual, and cultural production from this period and the multiple modernities it variously engages, embraces, resists, or critiques?
  • What ideas of modernism, modernity, and “the modern” have emerged from the 500-year maelstrom of chaos, change, dislocation, resistance, resilience, and resurgence wrought by settler colonialism?
  • Through what formal strategies or aesthetic techniques do Indigenous moderns appropriate, resist, rearticulate, or refuse modernist (or other) aesthetics on their own terms and from their own communities and experiences?
  • What might a tribal-specific, trans-Indigenous, transnational, or global Indigenous modernism (or modernist studies) look like?
  • What is the relationship of this work to other aesthetic responses to modernity broadly “captured” under the rubric of modernism?
  • If the history of modernity and aesthetic responses to it is also the history of imperialism and settler colonialism, in what ways might an extended engagement with this energetic and ever-growing archive, and with Indigenous studies more broadly, productively complicate the organizing terms, methodologies, and frameworks of the field?
  • Drawing upon critical Indigenous studies’ commitments to partner with—rather than merely study—Indigenous peoples, communities and nations, what might an ethical relationship to the writers, artists, intellectuals, peoples, histories, and lands that we study and on which we go about our work look like? How might the field—and the humanistic project more broadly—“give back” as it were to something other than itself?

“Modernist Literary Studies and the Aesthetics of American Indian Literatures” by Robert Dale Parker explores how modernist engagements with Indigeneity risk neglecting how theories of modernism are already embedded in the theories and criticism of American Indian literatures. In that context, modernist studies risks recovering an indigeneity that reproduces the modernism we already know. Written from the perspective of a scholar of US modernist and American Indian fiction and poetry, Parker’s essay asks what we can see in American Indian literary modernism that modernism has not already absorbed into its colonialist fantasy of cultural manifest destiny. Specifically, Parker argues for an approach that links an intersectional combination of Indigenous and modernist aesthetics with Indigenous land and Indigenous people. In that way, Parker asks us to see Indigenous aesthetics not as prediscursive gold or minerals, ripe for more appropriation and theft, but instead as alternative survivances in a post-contact landscape of ongoing and inevitable intersectional exchange.

Situated against the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887, Michael Taylor’s essay “‘Indians MUST Organize’: Reconstituting Indigenous Modernity through the Writings of the National Council of American Indians” argues that what happened to Indigenous lands at the turn of the twentieth century, also happened to Indigenous literatures. Modernist literary ideologues individualized Indigenous literatures away from collective practices of artistic, literary, and political conception into commodities to be consumed by a non-Indigenous academy and public. Although modernist studies have begun to celebrate the individual artistry of many recovered Indigenous writers, the focus has remained, albeit unintentionally, on ostensibly exceptional Indigenous individuals and their mastery of largely single-author, eurowestern literary genres. This essay turns to the constitutional writings of Gertrude Bonnin and her Husband Raymond Bonnin to shift the focus toward collectivist texts and the extensive networks of Indigenous solidarity that existed across the Americas in the first half of the twentieth century. Within this framework, Indigenous modernity emerges as a nexus of longstanding Indigenous networks of knowledge and relationships presented in both Indigenous and imported literary genres.

Extending Indigenous networks into the realm of popular performance, “Vaudeville, Indigeneity, Modernity” by Christine Bold recovers an extensive web of globetrotting Indigenous performers who took full advantage of what popular cultural studies understands as a “central engine of modernity between the 1880s and 1930s.” Vaudeville was the first international system of mass entertainment; it was the incubator of modern media; its rhythms responded and accommodated audiences to the fast-changing environment of urban industrialization “at popular prices;” and it constituted a significant stage for ethnic and racial play. Until now, however, most scholars have failed to consider vaudeville as a site of Indigenous performance. Indigenous communities and archival traces tell a different story. This piece briefly sketches the hundreds of Indigenous and Indigenous-identifying entertainers who went on global vaudeville circuits from the 1880s-1930s. It considers the implications of this emerging network for understanding the landscape of popular culture and the making of modernity. It also importantly considers the responsibilities, obligations, and methodologies assumed by non-Indigenous scholars in contributing to the recovery of such hidden histories.

In “Winnemem Wintu Geographies and Modernist Literary Form,” Johnathan Radocay (Cherokee Nation) explores the “Wintu geospatial poetics” at work in the poetry of Wintu poet Alfred Gillis in the early 1920s. Grounded in a consideration of the sacred geographies and place-worlds that constitute Wintu lifeways and that form the basis of Wintu cultural and political sovereignty, Radocay reads Gillis’s “conventional” lyric poems as an extension of Winnemem Wintu storytelling practices continuing into the present moment. Specifically, Radocay discusses how centering place-based knowledges, geographies, and Indigenous sovereignty raises questions about how we read Native lyric poetry vis-a-vis modernism and modernity. By prioritizing Winnemem Wintu lyric poetry, relationships to the land, and questions of sovereignty, Radocay contributes to an alternative politics of recognition that helps render visible Winnemem Wintu and California Native history and claims to the land that have remained illegible under concepts of sovereignty articulated through federal and state recognition politics.

“Canadian Indian Act Modernism” by Alana Sayers (Hupacasath and Kipohtakaw First Nations) expands the focus of the cluster north of the Medicine Line, highlighting the emergence of legal and political discourse in Canada as a literary technology of Indigenous dispossession. Arguing that there can be no independent Canada, no “modern” Canadian subject or Canadian literature absent their “Indian” Others, Sayers documents in detail the means by which the Canadian state marshalled international and domestic law to legitimize its claims as a “modern” nation-state against the presumably “savage” or “primitive” state of Indian cultures and peoples. Whether in outlawing potlatch ceremonies and cultural practices, eliminating legal and political “status” via marriage and education laws, removing Indian children from their families and communities, or defining legal personhood explicitly in opposition to Indigenous identities and cultures, the elimination of Indigenous nations is as fundamental to Canadian nation-statehood as the Confederation of 1867 and the Constitution of 1982. “The Indian Act has never been, nor will ever be, about Indians,” Sayers reminds us. “It is about the Canadian state attempting to establish its legitimacy as a settler state” against ongoing Indigenous resistance and refusal.

In his afterword, “Unsettling Modernist Studies,” Stephen Ross addresses many of the challenges the cluster highlights and explores, from a settler scholarly perspective, what substantive engagements with Indigeneity and Indigenous studies might look like, and the challenges they present to the field of modernist studies. Taking up questions of settler-Indigenous relationality and the deep histories of Indigenous presence that inform every aspect of life in the Americas, Ross interrogates what it means for scholars of modernism to confront issues of discomfort, displacement, awkwardness, and other ways Indigenous studies productively “unsettles” modernist studies.

The essays in this cluster don’t offer definitive answers to these questions; neither do they pretend to anything approaching comprehensiveness. More often than not, they open more questions than they answer. But this is a good thing, for we’re only now entering these discussions. Considering that everything that takes place in the Americas happens on what was, is, and always will be Indigenous lands, it’s a conversation that’s long overdue.


[1] See Kirby Brown, “American Indian Modernities and the New Modernist Studies’ ‘Indian Problem,’” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 59, no. 3 (2017): 287–318.

[2] Examples of substantive engagements with American Indian writers and texts, and with Native American and Indigenous Studies more broadly, from within Modernist literary studies include comparative ethnic studies by Christopher Schedler (2002), Rita Keresztesi (2005), Alicia Kent (2007), and Leif Sorensen (2016); individual chapters in anthologies by Justine Dymond (2005), Leigh Ann Duck (2005), Hsuan L. Hsu (2005), Keresztesi (2005), Rebecca Tillet (2009), and Robert Dale Parker (2012); and individual articles by Sorensen (2016) and Michael Tavel Clarke (2017). With the exception of Parker’s extensive archival work on poetry from across a diversity of Indigenous nations and Clarke’s essay on modernism and N. Scott Momaday, this body of scholarship focuses collectively on three Native American writers from the period: Mourning Dove (Okanagan), John Joseph Mathews (Osage), and D’Arcy McNickle (Cree/Flathead).

[3] Lyons defines rhetorical sovereignty as “the inherent right and ability of peoples to determine their own communicative needs and desires in this pursuit, to decide for themselves the goals, modes, styles, and languages of public discourse” (Scott Richard Lyons, “Rhetorical Sovereignty: What Do American Indians Want from Writing?” College Composition and Communication 51, no. 3 (2000): 447–68, 450, emphasis in original.

[4] I use “modern” here to signal the mutuality of indigeneity and modernity as co-constitutive concepts consistent with how Lyons defines and understands the “x-mark.” Lyons writes: “Making an x-mark means more than just embracing new or foreign ideas as your own; it means consciously connecting those ideas to certain values, interests, and political objectives, and making the best call you can under conditions not of your making . . . An x-mark is a commitment to living in new and perhaps unfamiliar ways, yet without promising to give up one's people, values, or sense of community. It's a leap of faith into the unknown: an irreducibly contaminated place where dreams of disconnection are impossible to realize, but having a place at the world's table is increasingly the stuff of reality” (Scott Richard Lyons, X-Marks: Native Signatures of Assent [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010],70, 169). When I speak of Indigenous “moderns,” I’m referring explicitly to those who embraced the conditions, technologies, and possibilities of modernity in both large and small, both enthusiastic and qualified, ways.

[5] See for example, Shari M. Huhndorf’s Going Native: Indians in the American Cultural Imagination (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001) and Mapping the Americas: The Transnational Politics of Contemporary Native Culture (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009); Noenoe K. Silva’s Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011) and “Hawaiian Literature in Hawaiian: An Overview” in Oxford Handbook of Indigenous American Literature, ed. Daniel Heath Justice and James H. Cox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 102–17; and Joyce Pualani Warren’s “Embodied Cosmogony: Genealogy and the Racial Production of the State in Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl’s ‘Hoʻoulu Lāhui,’” ed. Paul Lyons and Ty P. Kawika Tengan, special issue, American Quarterly 67, no. 3, (2015): 937–958 and “Theorizing Pō: Embodied Cosmogony and Polynesian National Narratives” (PhD Diss., University of California Los Angeles, 2017). See also Philip J. Deloria’s Indians in Unexpected Places (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004); Jace Weaver’s Red Atlantic: American Indigenes and the Making of the Modern World, 1000–1927 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); and Coll Thrush’s Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016).

[6] Howe defines “tribalography” as an Indigenous narrative framework that integrate “oral traditions, histories, and experiences” across a diverse array of genres and forms into narratives that expand our identity, that “pull all the elements together of the storyteller's tribe, meaning the people, the land, and multiple characters and all their manifestations and revelations, and connect these in past, present, and future milieus” (LeAnne Howe, “The Story of America: A Tribalography,” in Clearing a Path: Theorizing the Past in Native American Studies, ed. Nancy Shoemaker (New York: Routledge, 2002), 29–48, 46, 42). This method isn’t simply about narrating Indigenous history and experience, but rather reflects “the Native propensity for bringing things together, for making consensus, and for symbiotically connecting one thing to another” (Howe, “The Story,” 42). See also LeAnne Howe, “Tribalography: The Power of Native Stories,” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 14, no. 1 (1999): 117–25 and the special issue on Tribalography in Studies in American Indian Literatures, vol. 26, no. 2 (2014).

[7] I draw this term from James H. Cox’s The Political Arrays of American Indian Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019) which documents the dynamic, complicated, and ever-shifting politics of American Indian literature across a variety of genres, forms, venues, and relationships from the nineteenth century to the present. As Cox notes, Native texts “resist efforts to read them as advocating singular political positions” but, rather, call on contemporary readers and scholars to contend with the “confounding but also generative collisions of conservative, moderate, and progressive ideas that together constitute the rich political landscape of American Indian literary history” (1).

[8] I use these terms explicitly in tension with one another to signify popular, racialized expectations of “authentic” Indigenous cultural expression on one hand and more conventional literary genres and forms associated with western modernity on the other. Within Indigenous studies and Indigenous communities, “tradition” might also mark a complex, adaptive matrix of cultural practices tied to customary ways of knowing and being informed by contemporary contexts.

[9] See for example, Gerald Vizenor, Manifest Manners: Narratives of Postindian Survivance (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999) and Gerald Vizener, Fugitive Poses: Native American Scenes of Absence and Presence (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998).

[10] For the foundational study of such dynamics, see Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places.

[11] Kyle Powys Whyte, “Our ancestors’ dystopia now: indigenous conservation in the Anthropocene,” in Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities, ed. Ursula K. Heise, Jon Christensen, and Michelle Niemann (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2017), 206–215.

[12] See Lyons, “Rhetorical Sovereignty,” 458.

[13] Scott Richard Lyons, “Introduction: Globalizing the Word,” in The World, the Text, and the Indian: Global Dimensions of Native American Literature, ed. Scott Richard Lyons (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2017), 1–16, 1, 7.

[14] See Lyons, X-Marks, 2–3. On these pages, Lyons frames an x-mark as an Indigenous accession to modernity under conditions not of one’s own making but with the hope that something new and even good might result.

[15] For a study of the relationships between literary modernism, human sciences, and the academy, see Paul Peppis, Sciences of Modernism: Ethnography, Sexology, and Psychology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[16] See Scott Richard Lyons, “Actually Existing Indian Nations: Modernity, Diversity, and the Future of Native American Studies,” American Indian Quarterly 35, no. 3 (2011): 294–312.

[17] See Paul Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Modernism/modernity Print Plus 3, cycle 3 (2018).

[18] See for example Walter D. Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); Patrick Wolfe, “Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (2006): 387–409; Jodi A. Byrd, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011); Glen Coulthard, Red Skins, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014); Aileen Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015); Jean M. O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010); and Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no. 1 (2012): 1–40.

[19] See for example Susan Stanford Friedman, Planetary Modernisms: Provocations of Modernity Across Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015); Laura Doyle, “Thinking Back Through Empires,” Modernism/modernity Print Plus 2, cycle 4 (2018); Jessica Berman, Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011); Mark Wollaeger, introduction to Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Thomas S. Davis and Nathan K. Hensley, “Scale and Form; or, What was Global Modernism?” Modernism/modernity Print Plus 2, cycle 4 (2018); Michael North, “The Afterlife of Modernism,” New Literary History 50, no. 1 (2019): 91–112; and Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory.”

[20] See Philip J. Deloria, Becoming Mary Sully: Toward and American Indian Abstract (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2019).

[21] See Mark Rifkin, Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).

[22] See Michael Tavel Clarke, “The New Modernist Studies, Anthropology, and N. Scott Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 59, no. 3 (2017): 385–420. Clarke also makes a strong argument against removing modernism entirely from its aesthetic/formal moorings and expanding its historical reach. In Clarke’s reading, Momaday’s text is “both distinctively modernist and distinctively Kiowa,” one that speaks less to cultural influence or diffusion than to a “synergistic convergence of cultures and aesthetics” (“The New Modernist Studies,” 401, 404).