Native American Autobiography

Picture-Indian.com (originally Edward Curtis)

The scholar Arnold Krupat, who specializes in the study of Native American autobiography, has called Indian autobiography a “contradiction in terms” [For Those Who Come After, 30]. What he means is that the very concept of an autobiography–the story of a self, an individual, represented in writing, apart from her culture–does not exist in Native culture prior to contact with Europeans. Krupat thus defines Native American autobiography as necessarily bi-cultural and composite–a work that is translated between Native speaker (who doesn’t speak or write English) and a European-American writer (in the 19th c). As we see with Zitkala Sa and Momaday, both who learn English after being born into a Native culture, and who write in English, for an American audience, the bi-cultural and composite nature of the writing remains, though is located in one person.

With Zitkala Sa (Gerturde Bonnin) we see a “composite” that retains traces of ambivalence: the movement away from the native and the initiation into white culture is not easy. This reiterates a theme we have seen throughout our exploration of American autobiography. This comes to a head, in my reading, whe she writes of her early school experience, “I was again actively testing the chains which tightly bound my individuality like a mummy for burial” (443). Notice how the desire for freedom and for “individuality” appeals to a classic formula for American autobiography: this could be Franklin or Douglass or Wolff writing. And yet, in an interesting complication of the classic model–the chains to be broken are also American–the culture of the paleface. For Momaday, the composite composition–the ways his individual, Europeaninze story melds with the native–is there, though seems less ambivalent and problematic.

Consider the ways he opens the book with the following page preceding the Prologue.

My name is Tsoai-talee. I am, therefore, Tsoai-talee; therefore I am.

The storyteller Pohd-lohk gave me the name Tsoai-talee. He believed that a man’s life proceeds from his name, in the way that a river proceeds from its source.

In general my narrative is an autobiographical account. Specifically it is an act of the imagination. When I turn my mind to my early life, it is the imaginative part of it that comes first and irresistably into reach, and of that part I take hold. This is one way to tell a story. In this instance it is my way, and it is the way of my people. When Pohd-lohk told a story he began by being quiet. Then he said Ah-keah-de, “They were camping,” and he said it every time. I have tired to write in the same way, in the same spirit. Imagine: They were camping.

So we begin, generally, in a familiar place: an autobiographical account, in the realm of the I: I think, therefore I write, therefore I am. Indeed, Momaday echoes here two dominant voices in the Western philosophical tradition. The voice of self-identity given in the Hebrew Bible: I am that I am. And the meditation by Descartes, cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am, establishing reason in the individual. But more specifically–and this is not presented as a “contradiction in terms”–this historical accounting also begins in imagination, in story, and is written in that spirit. I imagine, therefore I am; and will try to write it that way. Does Momaday then set up his autobiographical “genesis” as a counter to the Hebraic or Cartesian tradition of the I? As a complement? As something before it? After it?

The answer, if we find one, may have something to do with how Momaday defines the experience of being an Indian. What’s Indian? At several points in his narrative, Momaday writes “that’s Indian.” What is your conception, or your image, of what’s Indian? One of my first images, near as I can recall: the ad below, the famous “crying Indian.”

Iron Eyes Cody, 1971 Keep America Beautiful

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