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Voix éthniques, ethnic voices. Volume 2

Claudine Raynaud

Native American Voices

Articulate Silence and the Mythic Eye in Ray Young Bear and Leslie Silko

David L. Moore

Texte intégral

"To believe otherwise,"
as my grandmother tells me,
"or to simply be ignorant,
Belief and what we were given
to take care of,
is on the verge
of ending..."
Ray A. Young Bear
from "The Significance
of a Water Animal."

1Is Young Bear saying that "belief... is on the verge of ending" or that "to believe otherwise... is on the verge of ending"? As he forces the English language to follow the uneasy valences of his experience, where is the poet, a native speaker of Mesquakie, in relation to either of those options?

2Leslie Silko writes:

Thought-Woman, the spider,
named things and
as she named them
they appeared.

She is sitting in her room
thinking of a story now

I'm telling you the story
she is thinking.

3How does Silko's voice in this text move among vectors of agency within her Laguna myth? Like Young Bear, she deconstructs divisions between possibilities and impossibilities of Native American experience. Their that of the colonized other.

4The positions which Young Bear and Silko's voices discover for their characters and for their own literary personae are akin to Foucault's "strategic positions" (Foucault, 1980, 131) within the historically colonized discourse in which Native American artists find themselves. As Young Bear and Silko build positionality, they bypass the dualistic and teleological paradigms of the colonizing culture. They replace the mainstream metanarrative of erasure and dislocation with an identity built on a local, land-based, historical construct. Contradicting the models of Boelhower, Sollors, and other ethnicity theorists who valorize difference, they generate their own complex voices of identity against the structuralist model of Saussure's sign.

5We thus follow Foucault's "refusal of analyses couched in terms of the symbolic field or the domain of signifying structures" in favor of his "analyses in terms of the genealogy of relations of force, strategic developments, and tactics... not... the great model of language (langue) and signs, but... that of war and battle... [of] relations of power, not relations of meaning" (Foucault, 1980, 114).

6Reading Young Bear and Silko means seeing this battle emerging along a circular line of three principles: first, relationality without a center; second, agency without mastery; third, combining and locating the former two, positionality in a body without language.

Relationality without a center

7In Silko's novel Ceremony, Laguna myths weave allegorically through the personal and cultural healing of a mixed-blood Laguna Pueblo World War II veteran. The real stakes of Tayo's quest are to find an alternative to the destructive cosmology of dualism, represented by "the witchery", which sets white against Indian, contemporary against traditional culture, and thus Tayo against himself.

8Across time and culture, various relational currents of Indian history rise to the surface through Betonie, the Navajo shaman, in whom races, cultures, and generations interact. Indeed, changing cultural terms becomes Betonie's explicit role in the narrative, as he speaks of a process of colonial adaptation:

You see, in many ways, the ceremonies have always been changing... At one time, the ceremonies as they had been performed were enough for the way the world was then. But after the white people came, elements in this world began to shift; and it became necessary to create new ceremonies. I have made changes in the rituals. The people mistrust this greatly, but only this growth keeps the ceremonies strong. (132-133)

9Betonie's description and prescription deny autonomous cultures and autonomous individuals, while emphasizing how interactive identities of individuals and communities survive by their very interaction. That interaction is both material and mythical. In the narrative, Tayo's body is literally painted into the myth: "He sat in the center of the white corn sand painting. The rainbows crossed were in the painting behind him..." (148-149). And within that myth, as within the narrative, he has a particular dramatic role to perform.

10Ray Young Bear's poems in his second collection, The Invisible Musician, echo against a traditional musical framework of three Tribal Celebration Songs and four Mesquakie Love Songs which personalize the Mesquakie myth. The poems reveal an agonistic relation between Young Bear's ironic persona and his land, his culture, his Mesquakie people, and his American nation. Precolonial signs weave with postcolonial images: Mesquakie traditions, the stories of O Ki Ma, The Sacred Chief, the presence of a spirit in a whirlwind; these arise beside images of the Viet Nam War Memorial, a California campus, cartons of Marlboro cigarettes, scenes of highway driving. He expands himself, as Silko does with Tayo, into myth as he simultaneously draws the myth into himself.

11In addition to elements expressed through the shamanic figure of old man Bumblebee, the poet's strong persona is potent throughout the collection, generating textual complexities quite distinct from Silko's fiction. More authorial than Silko's, his poetic persona is pained, contemplative, incisive, in a steady voice that swells with held emotions. His unusual diction builds rhetorical dimensions; for example Young Bear often evokes a discursive, polysyllabic tone to create ironies against his informal, intimate imagery. The comic force of figures like Bumblebee animates these qualities, and the impression is autobiographical, immediate, and contemporary, while being mythic, traditional.

12Like the exemplary shaman Betonie in Ceremony, Young Bear's Bumblebee is a figure who explicitly and ritually navigates between issues of identity and agency. He carries relationality into a postmodern mode. The reader is never certain whether he is human or insect, and that is the point. Bumblebee could be clothed in either denim overalls or an exoskeleton. Either way, in the poem "Drive to Lone Ranger", he "confesses that he sleeps/with earphones attached to his apian body" (32). Like Betonie, he locates a claim to the symbiosis of a native present and a native past, of history and myth, of time and timelessness.

13Relationality in Young Bear is not simply a celebration of interaction, but a complex entangling interdependence and painful responsibility with inevitable loss and risk. Like the apocalyptic ramifications of the witchery narrative in Ceremony, Young Bear's mythic relationality even threatens a nuclear confrontation, a sort of ultimately homogenizing relationality. In the same poem, "A Drive to Lone Ranger", old man Bumblebee voices an ambivalent prophecy:

In time we'll become prosperous,
or else we'll become martyrs
protecting the vast resources
of the Well-Off Man Mountains...
The force that placed us here
cannot be trusted. (34)

14These assertions, while increasing the sense of drama, decrease the feeling of nostalgia in the poems.

15Such dangerous interaction between myth and materiality, between animal and human, between past and present, extends to cultures and cultural identities. James Clifford, in The Predicament of Culture, makes visible such a continuum, contrasting two conceptions of culture, one dichotomous, the other relational:

Stories of cultural contact and change have been structured by a pervasive dichotomy: absorption by the other or resistance to the other. A fear of lost identity, a Puritan taboo on mixing beliefs and bodies, hangs over the process. Yet what if identity is conceived not as a boundary to be maintained but as a nexus of relations and transactions actively engaging a subject? The story or stories of interaction must then be more complex, less linear and teleological. (343)

16Clifford's alternative "nexus of relations and transactions" considers history "from the standpoint of groups in which exchange rather than identity is the fundamental value to be sustained" (343).

17Negotiating such exchange, Young Bear's and Silko's histories of contact and resistance set in doubt the assimilation processes for non-Western subjects, as they multiply conceptions of identity and culture. Silko speaks of "No boundaries, only transitions through all distances and time." Marking the risks of such relational structures, Young Bear writes:

"To believe otherwise,"
as my grandmother tells me,
"or to simply be ignorant,
Belief and what we were given
to take care of,
is on the verge
of ending."

18Foucault describes such a conceptual shift towards a diversity of structures as an event which yields new "visibilities."

19Using a psychoanalytical logic to these questions of relational subjectivity, Kaja Silverman's discussion of the Lacanian gaze helps us conceive the dynamics of a necessary centerlessness to this relationality, necessary because of the primacy of relationality. She suggests a "nexus" of identity which specifies and reads differently what Peter Clifford offered in his view of interactive cultural identities.

20In her analysis of Fassbinder's film, Silverman differentiates between "the look and the gaze" of Lacanian subjectivity. Lacan's definitions place the "gaze" as the received "look," with subjective identity suspended between these two functions as an "image" on a "screen." Specifically, the "look" is associated with a dominating subject; the gaze with an object as a dominated subject. The gaze is located in, and thus locates the object, whereas the look is located in the subject. Thus the look projects the subject's desire onto an object, while the gaze receives that desire on behalf of the object.

21Useful as they are for film criticism, these terms could help us focus on a particularly salient aspect of Native American imagery and identity. Through a diagrammed discussion of the interpenetration of each of these poles, Silverman, via Lacan, finally locates identity between them on a perceptual "screen." An identity, chez Lacan, resides neither in the object of the gaze, nor in the subject of the look, but suspended between them on the screen, as the look and the gaze both empty onto that projected image. The screen is the intersection of identities, on which subject and object can both project their respective gaze and look. There is no center to the interaction.

22Such photographic terms are especially appropriate for a discussion of Native American identity, as it wrestles against the political ramifications of stereotypes promulgated by American media, whether in the images of nineteenth-century dime novels, or on Hollywood's screen (and fostered in the eighteenth-century by Rousseau's "noble savage"). Now the postcolonial project has been largely to reverse the look and the gaze.

23Silverman further identifies this project which applies to a number of Native American writers: "The possibility of 'playing' with these images then assumes a critical importance, opening up as it does an arena for political contestation" (Silverman, 76). "Playing," in Foucault's and Lacan's terms, suggests creating literary events which open up new visibilities, new images and screens, often by reversing the power relations in the look and the gaze. Such cultural and artistic play in relationality without a center thus envisions a politics against the autonomous subject, this politics built around that very relational subject construction as its trigger and its target. The emptying subject allows for play in the social and artistic performance of new visibilities by relational subjects without a center.

24For Silko's Tayo, emptying subjectivity takes place through the performance of a ceremonial art. Gradually he discovers his relationality without a center as "no boundaries, only transitions through all distances and time." Like Betonie, he eventually finds agency in the discovery of centerlessness, of an emptying cultural subjectivity: "in many ways, the ceremonies have always been changing." So, he is culturally free to contribute to that change.

25Young Bear's short poem, "Debut of the Woodland Drum", where he explicitly addresses the startling juxtapositions of that decentered relationality across space and time. The poem's title refers to Young Bear's Woodland Drum Group, his troupe of traditional drummers and singers who perform on the national pow-wow circuit. They are driving to a pow-wow.

At the place
where Midwestern glaciers
supposedly came to a stop,
having created the last
buttes and stone cliffs
along the Mississippi
(which would one day remind
extraterrestrials of home planet
and thus establish a colony
in the name of Scandinavia),
we listened to Debra Harry
of Blondie sing ATOMIC
four hours from Oneida,
Wisconsin. (60)

26By avoiding explicit reference to images of what might be expected commonly in the media to convey "Native American" experience, Young Bear claims these geologic, sci-fi, colonial, pop, and small-town-American realms for himself and his traveling group of traditional native musicians. Only his voice and his silent self-reference carry the irony of his "look" at these images. By framing the scene in geologic time, he asserts an indigenous claim to the stage. By equating Scandinavian immigrants and settlers with extraterrestrials, he exaggerates their secondary claim. By juxtaposing Blondie with such geology and history, he summons the pastiche which places the whole scenario on the edge of uncertainty and meaninglessness. And by his ruminating tone, he gives it all a sense of import, if not meaning.

27By silence, with no reference to the observing native eye, he avoids the language trap of a dichotomous subject/other, an antinomial trap sprung by the absorptive pressure of colonial history. He allows the speaker's subjectivity to remain empty, emptying onto the landscape of images which empty into the speaker's look. Connections thus can proliferate, in directions both of lively hope and stultifying despair, on the basis of a relationality which proliferates without a center.

28Such a world may raise laughter through juxtaposition of the apparent incongruities of midwestern glaciers, Blondies, etc. But Young Bear's jokes complicate even the laughter in his poems. A surreal sense of incongruity mixes laughter into his mythic persona, but in the relational world which he constructs, that laughter becomes multiple, laughing at the idea that people would laugh, that readers would find his leaping associations incongruous. Because his relationality disavows standard disjunctions, it is the opposite of incongruity, which operates by disjunction. The laughter plays on the irony that what he ultimately posits as relationality seems at first to posit incongruity, and he exercices his poetic will by transforming incongruities into relationalities, challenging his reader to follow him. His laughter is thus integral to his positionality built of relationality and agency.

Agency without mastery

29"Un autre savoir, un autre pouvoir." Foucault's modulation on the Baconian proverb, "knowledge itself is power", inserts an otherness which might fit a postcolonial politics. Those who occupy the "other" position in a relational, intercultural arena may find an "other power" in that very otherness, precisely via the visibility which otherness makes possible through political play between the gaze and the look. This redistribution of power is an engine of agency without mastery which we can trace in Ceremony and The Invisible Musician.

30In the ceremonial narrative of Silko's novel, both Betonie and Tayo invoke agency in choosing at various stages to change the ceremony or to re-enact it, and so to shape their relational world. "This has been going on for a long time now. It's up to you. Don't let them stop you. Don't let them finish off this world" (160). This freedom of choice has a complex effect on the cosmology as it qualifies any overarching determinism and amplifies the undecidability. By determining outcomes through Tayo's own ambivalent, grasping actions, Silko allows for indeterminacy and plays on the Derridean assertion that freedom requires undecidability. In a Derridean universe, because things are not predetermined, subjects can exercice a freedom in determining their own choices. At the climax, Tayo's freedom not only determines the immediate victory, but simultaneously confirms a larger indeterminacy:

It had been a close call. The witchery had almost ended the story according to its plan; Tayo had almost jammed the screwdriver into Emo's skull the way the witchery had wanted... Their deadly ritual... would have been completed by him. He would have been another victim, a drunk Indian war veteran settling an old feud... (265)

31That other outcome appears as just as likely, but for Tayo's choice. Yet his choice entirely sets the world in a new visibility. Silko sets the social construction of his optional role as "a drunk Indian war veteran" within a mythic construction of witchery, which feeds on antinomies of colonial dynamics, of Indian hating white hating Indian. The defeated myth of witchery incorporates historically destructive, dualistic dynamics of the EuroAmerican invasion, whereas Tayo works himself as a mythic event against that history. Thus the plot, his healing, and the mythic momentum all pivot in the climax around his decision not to continue "fighting with the destroyers" (134). His is a choice not to act within or between the antinomies but to move outside the dualistic model of resistance or absorption. He thus clarifies his individual will against the witches' own mythic antinomial structure which would dichotomize culture and identity. Within the web of his relationlity without a center, he exercices his limited agency.

32Yet there is no question of mastery on Tayo's part, any more than on Betonie's. Contingency and indeterminacy echo around their responsibility to the land. Offsetting his relative freedom, his nexus of choice against the witches' myth is contained within imagery of a greater myth in ever larger "concentric shadows" (125-126):

He had arrived at a convergence of patterns; he could see them clearly now. The stars had always been with them, existing beyond memory, and they were all held together there... Accordingly, the story goes on with these stars of the old war shield; they go on, lasting until the fifth world ends, then maybe beyond. The only thing is: it has never been easy. (266)

33If it had been easy, it would have been determined, and mastered.

34Young Bear's voice finds limited agency in a landscape with similar dominating forces, whether malevolent spirits or historical powers: "The force that placed us here/cannot be trusted" (34). Such a threatening field requires responsibility, choice, agency on the part of Bumblebee's protectors of the land. Through recognition of the limits of their power, they wield it carefully.

35The most immediate limit to subjective agency is marked in Young Bear by the colonial presence of an oppressive power. The middle section of his poem, "First Dimension of Skunk", evokes that presence:

Whoever constructed
the two railroad tracks
and highways through Indian land
must have planned and known
that we would be reminded daily
of what is certainty. (37-38)

36His irony in reducing certainty to invasive technologies pivots on the struggle for agency. On the one hand, the struggle is already lost if railroad tracks and highways are the only certain thing. On the other hand, the struggle has just begun if that one certain thing opens a dialectic field of collapsing binaries, of indeterminant outcomes which subjective agency can choose to effect. Such a suggestion plays again on the Derridean construction that freedom requires indeterminacy.

37These passages invoke that relationality and that agency to speak which can be traced through the postcolonial junkyard of self and other. They make visible in myth and material a different means to move across political uncertainties of self and other: to act, in other words, as a Mesquakie.

Positionality in a body without language

38If relationality without a center is an apprehension of interactive responsibility, and if agency without mastery is action within that pattern of relationality, what then is the subject who acts within this web? The term positionality points through the material presence, the body, which exercices agency by the phenomenon of its space and time in the relational world. Because of its power prior to cognitive speech, however, we find that definitions of "material presence" begin to take on non-material dimensions, both in terms of the body and of the land.

39Elaine Scarry's discussion of "the grounding of consent in the body" (Scarry, 1990, 867) is at the heart of this conception of positionality. In her analysis of the legal premises concerning the body in medical, political, and marital relations, she establishes the function of the body as the primary political locus, where consent, liberty, will, volition all reside:

... the body is here conceived of not simply as something to be brought in under the protection of civil rights, but as itself the primary ground of all subsequent rights. The substratum of all other political and civil rights is the relation of the person to her or his own embodied personhood. (869)

40I take "personhood" to consist largely of the intersection of relationality and agency. Scarry shows us that the primary presence of the body at this intersection predicates all subsequent political and civil rights. The body becomes the de facto ethical and political position in a system of relationality and agency.

41Scarry explains that "the will itself is couched in embodiment" (875), in the body which, for our purposes, sustains agency in a relational system, whether natural, cultural, or legal. Laws protecting the rights of bodies are thus cultural codifications of relationality and agency based in those bodies. (Agency without mastery would be thus an enactment of a sort of democratic relationality). This clarification of the body as the substratum of social or relational interactions and agencies follows Foucault's project of material and historical specificity. The body becomes not an ultimate ground, but a necessary and primary one.

42One particularly effective and subtle way to give the reader a sense of the body in the story or poem is by a structured silence. When other stylistic methods such as imagery, prosody, and pacing have suggested the bodily ground, the poet or novelists can open strategic gaps, elisions, tacit allusions — silences — to breathe life into that stylistic clay. A crucial silence performs this very function in Silko's novel and in a number of Young Bear's poems.

43The climax of Ceremony involves just such a "mute disposition of the body" as Scarry describes in her discussion of consent and agency. Silko positions Tayo's agency in a body without language. In her mythic context, the locus of meaning for this climactic scene is not so much rational insight, nor a cognitive epiphany, as it is bodily action unmediated by language. Again, in the horrific scene at the mine, Tayo observes but silently disengages himself from the oppositions which feed the witchery. His silence permeates even his mind, as active choices surface tacitly from Tayo's long-held cultural understandings, not from knowledge lost and rearticulated in his stream of consciousness. Only silence informs the action as, on the printed page, Silko places an extra blank space to shape this silence. I return to passages already partially quoted for a re-reading of this mediation by silence. Tayo, in horror and anger, has been watching the witches' ritual:

... But Tayo stayed on his knees in the shadows. Leroy had a knee on Pinkie's throat, and he could hear raspy choking sounds. Emo was laughing loudly, pointing at the body hanging stiffly, swaying a little in the gusts of wind, then pointing at Leroy kneeling on Pinkie's throat.

[extra empty space on page]

The moon was lost in a cloud bank. He moved back into the boulders. It had been a close call. The witchery had almost ended the story according to its plan; Tayo had almost jammed the screwdriver into Emo's skull the way the witchery had wanted... (265)

44Within the silence between these two paragraphs we soon find that the healing of the land and Tayo's place within it are accomplished. By leaving language out of Tayo's most significant act, she lets him avoid the defeating dualities of linguistic structures of self and other, and she lets the significance of his non-oppositional act resonate through his body, where his possibilities for relationality and agency reside.

45A similar dynamic silence positioning the body echoes through Young Bear's short poem "Debut for the Woodland Drum" which we looked at earlier in terms of relationality. Although none of the identity claims of relationality and agency surfaces expressly in the language, the entire scene posits a positionality built of relationality and agency analogous to Tayo's climactic choice. Young Bear's scene is in fact an extension of such a commitment as Tayo has chosen for his own cultural identity. Where Tayo acts silently on behalf of the ceremony of relationality in a way which avoids the metanarrative and the antinomies of witchery, Young Bear's musical troupe is traveling on behalf of a similar cultural commitment to their music, and that action is the silent foundation of the narrative in the poem. This drive to a powwow in Oneida, Wisconsin is the debut of a cultural statement, a gift of music to a community of Native Americans who share a similar commitment. They are initiating the music which will express their Mesquakie life. Yet the poem, after letting the title open that small but significant historic space of transactional culture, fills it with silence framed in relationality. Young Bear does not speak of their commitment, but of the screen of images which those who enact that commitment observe.

46Young Bear allows the silent presence of the singers' bodies to speak for that positionality. Precisely by silence, Young Bear avoids Clifford's "pervasive dichotomy: absorption by the other or resistance to the other." The poem does not say, "We are not these things we see." Nor does it say, "We claim these things we see." Young Bear avoids absorption in that dichotomy by not using language to juxtapose his own cultural choices against this postmodern scene. Such a dualistic expression would invoke the pressure of antinomial history which absorbs the resistance of an articulated opposition.

47Instead, the narrative expresses a sort of Lacanian "look" of a Native American subject position as he reviews the trip to a pow-wow. The scene is in fact a "screen" on which an image of identity projects itself silently. Young Bear and his fellow drummers, singers, and dancers have chosen to form this musical group, and their choice empties out of the silence at the heart of this poem onto the images of buttes and stone cliffs, of Scandinavian communities, and of pop rock stars — onto the screen of their relational identity. That screen finds expression in the poem, indeed is the poem, but their steady commitment remains unspoken, hidden in the same silence behind the screen of language where Tayo's commitment enacted his climactic agency.

48A positionality in a body without language is thus a statement of agency and relationality, of possibility and visibility, by the redistribution of power across the obsolete categories of modern and traditional, of speech and silence, even of active and passive. These binaries translate into cultural boundaries such as civilization/savage, present/past, white/Indian. Rather than a set of articulable answers, a position thus can be a set of questions which sort through or stir up economic, political, philosophical, psychological binaries. Allowing such an inarticulable step in the construction of meaning and agency assumes an element of silence, and thus positionality finds itself again in a mute body on a silent land.

49This positionality suggests a continually reconstructed response to questions of the essential, autonomous, and imperial subject of EuroAmerican history. This process of reponse is the reflective practice, the responsibility, operating in Silko and Young Bear. The buoyant consciousness in Bumblebee's voice allows Young Bear to stake out a pragmatic redefinition of postcolonial self and other. The agonized struggle of Tayo to find a way not to fight against the witchery, but to let it destroy itself, dramatizes such a reflective process. Their mythopoetic literary expressions contribute to the reconstruction of a postmodern subjectivity.

50In sum, relationality is a web; agency the tug or casting out of a strand in that web; positionality, as an intersection of strands, is the locus of that agency in that relationality. Silko's web is stories, each listener and teller enacting the tale. Young Bear's web is music in language, cultural songs, Mesquakie love songs, the language of weather, the invisible musician. Against a dominant mentality driven by dichotomies, determinisms, and marginalities, Young Bear and Silko voice ways in which such relationality, agency, and positionality can work for Native Americans.



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Lecturer in the American Indian Program, Cornell University. He is the guest editor for a special issue of American Indian Quarterly on cultural property rights (Forthcoming in 1996) and the author of "Decolonializing Criticism: Reading Dialectics and Dialogics in Native American Literatures" Studies in American Indian Literatures. (Winter 1994) and "Myth, History, and Identity in Silko and Young Bear: Postcolonial Praxis," New Voices; Critical Essays on Native American Literatures, ed. Arnold Krupat, (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Press, 1993): 370-395

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1996

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