Indigenous writers such as Gerald Vizenor propose a concept of tribal identity which stands in opposition to the western colonisers’ concepts of nation, sovereignty, and citizenship. Vizenor’s writings demonstrate de-territorialized notions of tribal identity while simultaneously expressing the persistence and resilience of a sovereign country strongly anchored in Anishinaabe homelands. “Guthrie Theater”, a poem from Vizenor’s poetry collection Almost Ashore, portrays the Anishinaabe’s fortitude and resistance against colonial authority that seeks to reject, denigrate, and wipe out a people’s sovereignty. The Anishinaabe people in Vizenor’s writings establish their own borders and provide their own notions of nationhood.
The Invincible Soul of the Indian: A Reading of Gerald Vizenor’s “Guthrie Theater”
The dominant Euro-American society has long sought to define the terms ‘Indian’ and ‘Indian identity’. Indigenous writers such as Gerald Vizenor propose a concept of tribal identity which stands in opposition to the western colonisers’ concepts of nation, sovereignty, and citizenship. Vizenor’s writings demonstrate de-territorialized notions of tribal identity while simultaneously expressing the persistence and resilience of a sovereign country strongly anchored in Anishinaabe homelands.
“Guthrie Theater”, a poem from Vizenor’s poetry collection Almost Ashore, portrays the Anishinaabe’s fortitude and resistance against colonial authority that seeks to reject, denigrate, and wipe out a people’s sovereignty. The iconic Guthrie Theater in downtown Minneapolis is used to show the disparity between the colonisers’ fabrication of the ‘Indian’ and the true figure of the Native American.
The American Indian in the poem is “forever wounded” (“Guthrie Theater” line 3) by “tributes/…invented names/trade beads/ federal contracts” (lines 4-10). The Indian in the poem is psychologically and physically injured. Broken treaties and false promises made by the white colonisers inflict psychic damage on the Natives. They have been duped by their savage colonisers’ devious schemes.
The Natives are “decorated for bravery” (line 47). In fact, they are forced to join the military by their white colonisers, not because they want to. To safeguard their tribal territory from the British, most Native American tribes allied with the British. Many Natives, however, were killed in battle, many died of famine and other war-related causes, and many were physically handicapped. Instead of improving their circumstances, they were even more mired in misery and poverty.
When their tribal lands became more vulnerable as a result of the conflict, indigenous people felt deceived. Native Americans who were instrumental in Britain’s victory felt abandoned and dependent on missionaries and charity. They are fooled by the whites’ false promises of a treaty and economic assistance made prior to the battle. Furthermore, as non-whites, they were now more subject to racial prejudice both on and off the reservation.
The growing colonial power has seized indigenous territory since its advent in the area. When gold mines were discovered in the native nation, Native people were forced to leave their ancestral lands. Reservations were formed to confine indigenous people to a certain geographic region and exert political and economic control over them. The 1887 land allocation program was designed to take tribal landholdings away. To assist them to become self-sufficient, natives were granted tiny pieces of land, but these plots were often unsuited for cultivation.
American Indians’ lives were rendered unpleasant by the loss of land and culture, as well as poverty, ineffective education, a lack of employment, terrible economic conditions, and poor health. The Great Depression of the 1930s and the succeeding Indian New Deal, which featured a variety of social and economic measures targeted at improving Native Americans’ circumstances, aided Native Americans. The federal Indian policy emphasised political and cultural tribalism, shifting its attention away from Native American assimilation and toward the creation of a multicultural country. This turn of events also contributes to stoking the indigenous people’s resistance fire.
The “invented name” (line 48) of the American Indian also inflicts a wound on him. The mainstream Euro-American literature and media have historically misrepresented Native Americans. Preconceptions about Indians are common, and they can have a detrimental influence on how they are perceived by the rest of the world. Despite the fact that the United States and Alaska have over 560 legally recognised Native American tribes, the phrase ‘Indian’ is used interchangeably. Native stereotypes, ranging from noble barbarian to wise elder to drunken Indian, have emerged in mainstream American literature in many ways. Vizenor observes, “The word ‘Indian’ is a convenient word, a misnomer to be sure, but it is an invented name that does not come from any native language and does not describe or contain any aspects of traditional tribal experience and literature” (Vizenor 120). Native writers such as Sherman Alexie, Vizenor, and others strive to defy the European colonisers’ inaccurate portrayal of the Indians.
The American Indian “limps past / the new theater // wounded Indian / comes to attention / on a plastic leg / and delivers / a smart salute / with the wrong hand” (lines 11-18). The actors of the Guthrie Theater rehearse the ‘invented Indian’ of the coloniser. The Vizenor’s veteran saluting with “the wrong hand”(line 18) symbolises the Indian’s rejection of colonial beliefs about the Native. At the same time, his action represents a kind of resistance against the colonial power.
In the Guthrie Theater, the scenes of the Wounded Knee were rehearsed “night after night / the actors / new posers/mount and ride / on perfect ponies / out to the wild/cultural westerns / hilly suburbs / with buffalo bill” (lines 54-62). Thus while the inside of the Guthrie Theater perpetuates the colonisers’ ‘Indian’, Vizenor’s veteran is a realistic representation of the Indian abandoned and deceived by the white masters.
Vizenor’s tales attempt to dispute non-Native authors’ representations of the natives. Vizenor refutes the characterization of the Anishinaabe people as multicultural people, depicting them as capable of establishing their own native identity and declaring their tribal presence in the face of colonial authority. The struggle of the Anishinaabe people is an attempt to restore their ‘presence’ and a voice that has been denied to them in dominant Euro-American narratives. Native Americans see colonialism as a continuous process that has impacted and continues to influence both communal and individual levels.
In Vizenor’s poem “culture wars / wound the heart / and dishonor / the uniform” (lines 38-41). Here, in contrast to the notions of the ‘vanished Indian’ or the ‘invented Indian’, the poet emphasises the power and defiance of the homeless veteran.
In the metropolis, the Native feels disoriented. Indian agents had defrauded him of his property. After losing his ancestral grounds, the Native feels rootless and displaced in the city. The city is shown as a racially divided environment in which the Native must contend with the erasure of his religion and traditional practices. It is true that the metropolitan area is unable to give him the quiet existence that he had been denied in the reservation due to his status as a colonised person. Despite this, the valiant Indian warrior manages to carve out a niche for himself. His strong will and indomitable spirit enable him to adapt to challenging situations.
Vizenor’s Indians resist by reframing the colonial concepts of tribalism and nationalism. Vizenor’s poetry proposes new ways of representing the indigenous reality. The colonial inclination to obscure conquest and naturalise control of the American Indians is exposed and criticised by the writer. The Anishinaabe people in Vizenor’s writings establish their own borders and provide their own notions of nationhood. They develop their own sense of transnational mobility and attachment to their country.
Ann Mary Raju
Asst. Prof., PG & Research Department of English
Mar Thoma College, Tiruvalla,
Pathanamthitta, Kerala – 689103.
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The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature. Edited by Joy Porter and Kenneth M. Roemer, Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.
The Columbia Guide to American Indian literatures of the United States since 1945. Edited by Eric Cheyfitz, Columbia University Press, 2006. Print.
Vizenor, Gerald. “”Guthrie Theater.” PoemHunter, 03 June 2016, https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/guthrie-theater/.
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