By Joseph Bauerkemper
In American Indian literatures, Joseph Bauerkemper finds new images of nationhood.
Every Wednesday evening I descend into the basement of Scott Hall, where I join several dozen undergraduates enrolled in the U’s American Indian literatures course. Teaching this course is one of the most challenging and fulfilling opportunities I have been afforded. For me as well as for my students, the course is a productive vehicle for developing and sharing ideas. One session, devoted to Laguna Pueblo author Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, found us grappling with the novel’s powerful refutation of prevailing versions of U.S. history. In our discussion, we strove to wrap our minds around the text’s radical and all-encompassing vision of time, space, and community.
Silko’s work not only plays an important role in my teaching, but it also stands centrally in my dissertation research. Working with advisers David Noble and Carol Miller, I developed my dissertation, “Narrating Nationhood: Radical Traditions in Native Fiction,” after studying the devastating global history of modern nationalism. Throughout recent centuries, pervasive patterns of nationalism have relentlessly worked to divide and corral diverse peoples into rigidly defined national societies. These societies, in turn, have worked to supersede and exploit one another. I sought a research project that would explore the cultural, economic, and political destruction that nationalist sentiment brings to local and regional populations. But I could not stomach the idea of committing years of my life to a thoroughly negative rebuke of nationalism. For me, there had to be something to work for, not just something to work against.
Enter American Indian literatures. Native writers certainly resist and call into question the legitimacy and degradation of colonizing nationalisms. Yet at least as important are the alternative concepts of history and nationhood to which they give voice. My dissertation works to reveal the alternative views of historical experience and community that American Indian literatures often articulate. This project contributes to the potent rejections of nationalism that have become central to American studies. It also moves beyond nay-saying criticism toward the creative imagining of alternative community sensibilities.
My research has led to many remarkable finds. On a research trip made possible by the American studies department’s Mulford Q. Sibley fellowship, I spent several weeks at
Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, sifting through boxes in an extensive and largely unexamined collection of Marmon Silko’s personal papers. I read drafts of her novel Ceremony that shed light on the intensity and specificity with which she employs the power of language, as well as hundreds of news clippings that informed her creation of the characters, settings, and intertwining plots that make up Almanac of the Dead, her novel of apocalyptic prophecy, global revolution, international criminal operatives, and ancient Mayan codices.
Perhaps most significant, the archive included correspondence with friends, colleagues, and publishers that make explicit key aspects of Marmon Silko’s fiction—and that also corroborated many of my arguments about how Marmon Silko’s work both critiques and asserts historical and national narratives.
Besides provocative classroom discussions and revealing archival research, I also have learned much from my international excursions—across the sovereign borders of tribal nations—to present my research and receive feedback from indigenous communities. My dissertation work continues to yield insights and experiences that enhance and transform my understanding of the relationships between nationhood and narrative. Above all, my project provides focus for my goal as a scholar and teacher: to encourage creative and critical thinking toward imagining and enacting communities that might, in the words of Dakota writer Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, “encompass all of humanity, not just selected parts of it.”
Joseph Bauerkemper is a Ph.D. student from Austin, Texas. Besides teaching in the American Indian studies department, he is working this spring with writer Gerald Vizenor on a seminar through CLA’s Institute for Advanced Study.