Beginning as far back as 1927 with Mourning Dove's novel, "Cogewea: The Half-Blood," American Indian writing in this century has been primarily the realm of the mixed blood bent on articulating an identity within the tense no man's land that lies between cultures. In "I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers," Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat have collected previously unpublished reflections by 18 contemporary Native American poets and fiction writers in a volume that underscores the complexity and difficulty of such a search for identity.
Here are authors such as Mary Tall Mountain, a Koyukon Athabascan poet and fiction writer from a remote village on America's last frontier, who declares, "Literally, I grew up with Shelley, Wordsworth, Keats; Dickens, Trollope, the Bronte sisters. . . . Especially I loved Wordsworth." Here is Carter Revard, who writes wryly about his bootlegging and bank-robbing uncles riding the crest and trough of Osage tribal oil money and depression poverty, about listening to Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys and about going to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. Revard remembers his Uncle Gus, a great war-dancer who introduced fancy dancing to the pow-wow circuit and who, in Revard's words, "stepped through this door from 1491 to dance for us, came out with eagle wing and vision."
Present in this gathering of voices, in addition to Tall Mountain and Revard, are Ralph Salisbury, Maurice Kenny, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Jim Barnes, Jack Forbes, Duane Niatum, Paula Gunn Allen, Jimmie Durham, Simon Ortiz, Joseph Bruchac, Barney Bush, Linda Hogan, Wendy Rose, Gerald Vizenor and Joy Harjo.
Among this pan-tribal group, several writers seem ill at ease with the task of autobiography, a form of expression counter to traditional Indian emphasis upon community. Chickasaw author Linda Hogan, for example, sidesteps into surprising didacticism, a fault rare for this most eloquent of storytellers, while others such as Shawnee poet Barney Bush and Klallam author Niatum choose to fancy-dance away from autobiography in favor of discussions of language and aesthetics. The results pale before such a piece as Laguna Pueblo writer Paula Gunn Allen's sketch of her own mix-and-match heritage defined wonderfully as "multiethnic cowboy, with a strong rope of liturgy and classics tied to the pommel, a bedroll of dreams tied up behind, and a straight-shooting pistol packed along."
With equal metaphorical dexterity, Chippewa novelist and poet Gerald Vizenor also takes on the question of his mixed-blood identity here, declaring exuberantly that "mixedbloods loosen the seams in the shrouds of identities." In a very different voice, Choctaw poet Jim Barnes describes his return to a sacred place in Oklahoma: "Only recently have I had the courage, and the reverence, to penetrate the gnarled clump of trees in the middle of the meadow. . . . Sitting there, I tried to grasp something I could not name, something I knew was gone forever. I could not invoke it. I did not know its name." Barnes' perception might well stand as epigraph to this volume. The "something" gone forever haunts this collection, as do the courage and reverence necessary to attempt such penetration into the divided self.
While Swann and Krupat deserve much praise for what they have accomplished, readers familiar with contemporary Indian writing will miss a number of significant voices. Absent are not merely such luminaries as N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Silko and Louise Erdrich but also less widely recognized but important writers such as Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso, Yuki poet William Oandason, Coeur d'Alene novelist Janet Campbell Hale, Cheyenne poet Lance Henson and Sauk and Fox poet Ray Young Bear.