2012 Retreat Sessions on Indigenous Methodologies & Writers’ Block

by Kim Tallbear, Ph.D (Sisseton Wahpeton)

The Oak Lake Writers’ Society (OLWS) is holding our annual retreat again this late July and early August out at South Dakota State University’s Oak Lake Field Station near White, South Dakota. We come together for five days of conversation, writing time, and a Thursday evening reading that draws folks from Brookings, home of South Dakota State University, who are interested in Native American literature and the humanities. Our writers’ group is a mix of academics from state universities and tribal colleges, high school teachers, teachers working with youth in the criminal “justice” system, retirees, students, and activists—all members of Oceti Sakowin peoples, in English, the “Sioux Nation.” Our conversations range far and wide. We encourage and challenge one another. Some of us have more expertise dealing with the hierarchies and challenges of higher education, some of us more expertise dealing with the rigors of tribal politics, some of us more expertise in areas of traditional cultural production. But we are all “tribal voices” (to emphasize Cook-Lynn’s notion that it is necessary for such voices to engage key narratives and issues) within our broader cultural group. This is perhaps the chief thing I appreciate about this group in which I think it is safe to say we each feel challenged and nurtured: our diversity, our different life and professional choices, and our general tolerance for one another alongside our commitment to promoting Oceti Sakowin standpoints on history; contemporary tribal life; social justice and environmental issues; local, regional, and world events.

Today we had two great conversations. Our mentor this year, University of Illinois American Indian Studies (AIS) Associate Professor Jodi Byrd (Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma) (co-mentor with Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, our always mentor), sparked lively discussions about indigenous epistemologies in critical writing, and strategies for dealing with writers’ block.

On the indigenous epistemologies front, we discussed and debated the idea of the Great American Indian novel (or great tribal-specific novel), a conversation that was a bit over this social scientist-turned-creative-prose-writer’s head so I will not do it justice. Does such a genre exist? Is it an important literary form to be articulated? Should it be articulated and theorized at that pan-Native level or at people specific levels? (Comments are welcome from other writers who partook in that conversation who might clarify this summary.) Jodi noted that the (great) American novel was symbiotic (my word, not hers) with the rise of U.S. nationalism, a form of literary nationalism. This comment caused our group to think hard then on the merits of the great American Indian novel or tribal specific forms in the cause of tribal nationalisms. To quote our mission statement, our group exists for the very purpose of preserving and defending Oceti Sakowin cultures, oral traditions, and histories and to reaffirm our peoples’ political statuses. We seek to regulate and transform representations of our peoples and histories that are inaccurate and damaging. Thus we produce and promote works across genres in a manner that will bring about a greater understanding of our cultures, legacies, and lands.I’m not sure we came to any conclusions. As someone who does social studies of science and who thinks about the intersections of scientific knowledge production, colonialism, and Native American governance, I was reminded in this conversation of the symbiotic rise of scientific narratives and methods with federal policy and nationalist politics in the 19th century. These things are all connected. My fellow writers, almost all of whom have more knowledge about fiction than I do, reminded me in their animated conversation of my biological scientist friends with their will to categorize literary forms into genres, then in other moments they wrestled with the inevitable smearing of genres and fields that we encounter today.

The writers’ block conversation in the afternoon also revealed a key insight. As Native writers, we decided our blocks are less internal than external. We felt we have no end of topics to take up from our tribal standpoints (this conversation also came on the heels of a discussion about Said’s term “contrapuntal” thinking—that one must read against the larger imperial context that informs the emergence of text). Rather, for us, the challenge is often to narrow our work sufficiently for the piece at hand. And we struggle to find language and terms that are culturally/tribally grounded but yet also speak to non-native readers. A final key point of debate was how much do we care about speaking to non-tribal audiences and why or why not? What is the function of speaking to tribal audiences, and what is the function of speaking to non-tribal folks.