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I know that we invent what we need to be true, imagining and re-writing until there is some kind of a text that gives us back a self.
--Louis Owens, "Finding Gene"
THE PHRASE "INDIAN GIVER" HAS LONG BEEN A PART OF OUR AMERICAN English vocabulary, along with its derogatory connotations. Originally, "Indian giving" simply referred to what struck European settlers as an odd gift-giving ritual, wherein a Native American expected his offerings to be reciprocated in a gesture of appreciation and respect. (1) After repeated experience with whites--who assumed gifts to be unidirectional grants and beyond the standard economy--Indians began to resent the affronts to their goodwill and in disappointment appeared to want to take back their offerings. Thus, the "Indian giving" idiom has literal weight but disturbing layers of ironic implications: not only were Natives' earliest contributions of skins, husbandry, and agricultural tutelage unreturned but their very lands formed a gift-wrapped package of lucrative opportunity for waves of European settlers who continued to take and take until virtually nothing was left for the exploited "givers." Nonetheless, in a classic twist of colonial rationalization and hypocrisy, America's own most extraordinary and reluctant givers of an entire continent earned this disparaging idiom for ungrateful and covetous behavior. The evolution of this idiom typifies strikingly the pattern of stereotype formation still operative in contemporary America, in which Indians are often figured as greedy loafers demanding unreasonable reparations from the federal government in the form of free services, economic aid, and the license to develop casino dynasties. It is high time to begin theorizing ways in which Indians and indigenous literature are reterritorializing this concept in efforts to take back contaminated notions of culture, community, and identity long appropriated by the discourse and practice of American society and academia.
Misconceptions about Indian greed have been especially common in the South, where the stubborn Natives who remained after the sweeping Removal efforts of the 1830s seemed to white Southerners to receive "unnatural, even scandalous special treatment from the federal government" (Martin 144). This misleading notion increased as the post-Civil War South's own economic woes mounted. It makes for a revealing coincidence, then, that the term "Indian giver" first appears in common usage only in 1860, a date--centuries after the first European-Indian encounter--that coincides with the eve of the Civil War and the South's decisive loss of its plantation economy. These amnesiac renditions of irrational greed and vindictiveness virtually erase Anglo America's responsibility for Indian poverty, neglect, and exploitation. Moreover, they downplay the very real and cruel circumstances that caused indigenous dispossession and need and led to the federal government's inept and prejudicial policies and bureaus formed to deal with such matters (mainly by ignoring or deferring them). (2) Southern whites' own perceived sense of victimization and loss has historically trumped all other claims to persecution in the region. African Americans and women, for instance, have only in the post-Civil Rights era been accorded attention equal to that bestowed on white male Southerners by the region's literary critics. Native Americans have suffered an even more prolonged absence in Southern studies; the vast majority of scholarship on Southeastern Indians, concerned only with pre-Removal tribes and societies, helps to solidify the popular notion that the Native South was evacuated in the 1830s and remains so today.
While references to Indian histories and figures abound in works emerging from the region, they tend to memorialize a bygone age in typically nostalgic Southern fashion. Worse, many Southern writers co-opt the trauma of Indian resistance and removal as an analogy for their own suffering. It is a well-known paradox that while the South seems empty of Indians, it is nevertheless full of Cherokee princesses who populate the distant branches of every third or fourth family tree. Joel Martin explains this ironic cultural phenomenon as a feature of the South's larger obsession with history, nostalgia, and defeat. But indigenous genealogical claims in particular seem designed, at least in part, to authenticate assertions of white nativism. (3) In its evocations of Indian ancestries and histories, the South has long fashioned itself as the forsaken party whose economic and social wealth has been usurped by an enemy nation. Throughout I'll Take My Stand (Twelve Southerners), the Nashville Agrarians (who champion their own version of regional nationalism apart from and against the industrial, imperial North) in fact ally themselves with Native Americans as a group similarly victimized by America's material aggressions. (4) In a region where the removal and eradication of Indian tribes was particularly sweeping, this analogy is at the very least problematic. (5) The white South can appropriate the role of bereft, dispossessed party only by obscuring the Indian predecessors they themselves had unhomed.
The perception that Indians have simply abandoned their cultures and melted into American society is an enabling fiction that helps to erase the troubling savage in the nation's narrative. While white nativists needed Indians to be extinct in order to authenticate myths of Southern nationalism, we as scholars risk becoming complicit in this process if we continue to erase Native Southerners from our assessments of the contemporary South. No shortage of excellent work analyzes white Southern writers' fascination with Indian stories and characters, an attraction arising from what Faulkner called "blood guilt about the Indians" and which Welty denied an interest in altogether even though she returned to such themes and figures repeatedly throughout her career (Trefzer 421). A recent special issue of the Faulkner Journal was devoted to examining and problematizing Faulkner's Indians, (6) nearly thirty years after Lewis Dabney's pioneering work on The Indians of Yoknapatawpha. Recently, Annette Trefzer has probed both Faulkner's and Welty's ambivalent engagements with Indian issues. Elsewhere, I have examined Native figures and themes in works by Southern writers as diverse as Alice Walker, Dorothy Allison, Walker Percy, and Barry Hannah. (7) But what remains largely uncharted in both Southern and Native studies is a full assessment and appreciation of the contemporary Indian writers themselves who remain in the South, and of the exiles in whose work the South still functions as elusive, traumatic, or potentially healing "home." Our focus needs to shift from memorializing the irreparable trauma of Removal to ascertaining the degree and variety of tribal presence and creativity still extant in the region, and to interrogate boldly the ideological motives for continuing to suppress those vibrant populations.
Indians in the South are not the elegiac absences they have long been assumed to be. Many Indians resisted relocation by securing federal sanction, fleeing to the mountains or to pieces of less desirable land where they would be unmolested, and others "passed" or married into white and black communities. Today, mixed and full-blood Indians make up revitalized Catawba, Cherokee, Lumbee, Seminole, Choctaw, and numerous other bands (many unrecognized) throughout the Southeast. Yet a widespread sense of tribal eradication persists; as Tom Mould argues, one might today "visit Mississippi and ... have no idea there is a major American Indian community here. Live in Mississippi and the Choctaw could escape you as well" (xxii-iii). The silencing and erasure of Native Americans has pervaded the South's culture so deeply that little impact has been made by the feeble voices of academic conversations to date, or by the even more striking signs of Indians' real entrapment and suffering. In 2005, the devastation that Hurricane Katrina brought to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and to New Orleans was an astonishing wake-up call to the majority of Americans who had somehow missed the glaring indications of continued poverty and environmental racism in Deep Southern communities; in the weeks and months following the disaster, citizens were publicly chagrined at having overlooked the opportunities to act long before catastrophe intervened. Yet only the most progressive journals and blogs lingered for more than a split second over the tremendous damage done not just to the African American communities in New Orleans but to the tribal groups along Louisiana and Mississippi's Gulf Coast, and the unconscionable overlooking of these victims by the federal government's already inept aid initiatives. In light of such disastrous blind spots, the efforts undertaken by special issues of academic journals, otherwise considered of minimal potency in regard to "real" social affairs, take on increased significance. This essay, among the other voices in this issue, seeks to extend and strengthen an academic conversation that has for too long remained muted and somehow irrelevant to the general public, not just in the South but in America more broadly.
My comments here attempt to reunite two critical streams that have long been traveling in opposite directions: the new, inclusive Southern studies and the generally segregated (either by institutional mandate or indigenous preference) field of Native studies. As a scholar of both disciplines, I am invested in the benefits that such conversations might bring to each area of study. The innovative, globally-concerned New Southern studies seems poised perfectly to embrace such conversations; its critics are invested in expanding and hybridizing the black-white, binary categories of analysis that have long misrepresented the complexity and fluidity of actual Southern racial and cultural categories and contacts. In the introduction to Look Away/(2004), a groundbreaking volume of essays devoted to analyzing the South in relation to New World studies, the editors explain that their title encourages a turning outward of Southern studies' critical gaze, "away from ... nativist navel-gazing" (Smith and Cohn 13). But while New …