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.”
The articles gathered in this cluster will, I hope, provide the necessary spark to blow open the continuum of (settler) colonialist methodologies in modernist studies today. Extending the work of scholars such as Robert Allen Warrior, Christopher Teuton, Beth Piatote, Shari Huhndorf, Scott Richard Lyons, Philip Deloria, Daniel Heath Justice, Sean Teuton, Jodi Byrd, Lisa Brooks, Jace Weaver, and others, they challenge the unthought settlement upon which modernist studies has been revolutionizing itself for decades now. Together, they constitute an ethical demand that mainstream modernist studies scholars revise how we work. As they make plain, it’s time to face up to modernity’s—and thus modernism’s—ineluctable relationship to settler coloniality.
The modernist period is a milestone in Canadian history, notably for playing an integral role in Canada’s identity formation as an independent settler colonial state. Since its inception as a nation, Canada has been shaped by the modern/unmodern binary (with the Indian on the “unmodern” side), as explicitly articulated in the Indian Act, 1876. Canada is reliant upon the Indian Act to claim its modernity as a nation, as it refuses to exist alongside sovereign Indigenous nations. The Indian act was used to create the unmodern Indian subject in order for Canada to justify the legal controls and assimilation it has used to achieve its main goal: to maintain illegitimate control and authority over Indigenous nations and lands. The Indian Act has never been, nor will ever be, about Indians. It is about the Canadian state attempting to establish itself as legitimate.
The beginning stanzas of Winnemem Wintu journalist and poet Alfred C. Gillis’s “To the Wenem Mame River” have many of the conventional features of a romantic lyric. A solitary, wandering speaker walks along the banks of a river and lyricizes the natural landscape around her. The speaker hears the “river’s roar” and watches “[its] raging waters plunge and sleep.” She surveys the land’s “ancient mountains” as they rise and “point their columns to the skies” (“To the Wenem Mame River”). In its conventionality, “To the Wenem Mame River” resembles many other lyric poems about rivers and certainly draws on a long Anglo-American tradition of river odes.
What is the impact of remapping one site of mass entertainment—in this case, vaudeville—on wider assumptions and conversations about modernity? And what are the challenges to a settler scholar of popular culture—in this case, me—contributing to the return of Indigenous figures in this historical venue to broader visibility?
On February 5, 1927, a delegate of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, Reverend Samuel G. Davis (Haida), wrote to the founding President of the National Council of American Indians, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, seeking solidarity. Writing on Alaska Native Brotherhood official letterhead, Davis tells about his family and then thanks Bonnin for her ongoing work on behalf of American Indian peoples. He writes, “I am very Proud of you for your work,” and expresses his commitment to “do the same thing here in Alaska.”
American Indian literary studies and mainstream modernist studies haunt each other. But for the most part, neither dares to face its ghost in the mirror. This essay sets out to provoke more thinking about the relation between American Indian literary studies and modernist studies and to invite critics to reconsider both fields in light of their parallel languages and polemics. As modernist studies begins to face the indigeneity it has neglected or trampled over, critics risk overlooking 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.
What is this thing called modernist studies? And what does it look like when viewed from the—for most—faraway islands of Aotearoa/New Zealand?
In 1936 Dodd Mead published D’Arcy McNickle’s novel The Surrounded. Set on the Flathead reservation in northwestern Montana, the novel entered the field of literary culture as a doubly regional work. Firstly, for American publishers Montana was part of a marginal region associated with popular genre fiction. Secondly, the Flathead reservation was not widely known outside of Montana because it had not attracted popular curiosity like the reservations of the southwestern U.S.