Tribal Secrets: Recovering American Indian Intellectual Traditions

May 15th, 1995 | By | Category: 7-1: Tribal Colleges Looking to the Future, Media Reviews

University of Minnesota Press, 1995
160 pages

Review by Gregory Gagnon

American Indian Intellectuals: Are They Above Reproach, or Easy Targets?

Robert Allen Warrior’s intent is to free American Indian critics from the self-imposed bondage of ethnocentric sycophancy or unbridled, personal viciousness when we set out to criticize the intellectual work of our fellow American Indians. Warrior contends it is time for us to draw upon the wellsprings of our cultural predecessors and our academic training to establish an effective exchange of criticism.

Unfortunately, current criticism has several distinct weaknesses. It eschews discourse about Indian writers’ strengths and weaknesses for the facile targeting of non- Indian society and writers. Indian critics do not even draw upon the critical literature which exists and many devote too much time to worrying about whether a writer is really an Indian. Too often, praise is unstinting for anything done by an Indian. Warrior offers his revised dissertation as an opening gambit in the path toward better criticism of Indian intellectuals by Indians.

Tribal Secrets focuses on the works of Vine Deloria, Jr. (b. 1933) and John Joseph Mathews (1894- 1979). Despite their impressive quantity of work, Mathews has been criticized by fewer than a dozen and Deloria has received less attention. This makes Warrior’s task more difficult for he has to summarize the major publications of Mathews and Deloria, provide a commentary on the history of American Indian intellectual traditions and offer a paradigm uniting the intellectual efforts of Deloria and Mathews. To complete his challenge to us all, he describes the needs for future criticism.

Although there were Indian intellectuals like George Copway and Elias Boudinot throughout American history, Warrior discerns four dominant “Moments” in American Indian intellectual history. The initial Moment begins with the generation of Wounded Knee and extends to about 1916. Representative writers include Charles Eastman, Carlos Montezuma and Gertrude Bonnin. This Moment features a unity of intent among these writers whose common theme was assimilation.

The second Moment extended from about 1925 to 1960. Since the Society of American Indians had become defunct, Indian intellectuals struck out on their own intellectual paths. No common theme gave unity to their work. John Joseph Mathews was prominent along with Will Rogers, John Oskison, Ella Deloria and this Moment’s well-known intellectual, D’Arcy McNickle.

Mathews’ best-seller was Wah’Kon-Tah: The Osage and the White Man’s Road {ml) and it was the first Book of the Month Club selection written by an Indian. These writers generally supported self-government and integrity.

Indian intellectuals returned to a thematic fold during the next Moment from 1961 (the founding of the National Indian Youth Council) to 1973 (Wounded Knee II). This Moment attempted to define “Red Power.” Clyde Warrior and others defined a nationalism rooted in Indian history amidst the turmoil of seeking sovereignty based on treaty rights. Vine Deloria, Jr. emerged from being executive director of the National Congress of American Indians to becoming the Moment’s dominant intellectual after writing Custer Died for Your Sins (1969). As the activism of American society waned so did this Moment fade into the next. Since 1973, the present Moment is marked again by diversity of intellectuals, great numbers of them, and acrimonious discourse.

Warrior ushers his readers through a comparative analysis of Mathews and Deloria. These sections offer information anyone interested in American Indian culture, history and the insights of intellectuals will enjoy. Eventually Warrior concludes that Mathews and Deloria share a common emphasis on intellectual sovereignty rooted in an attractive past but comfortable in the context of traditional and larger society. Each values traditional conceptions of land and community which provides an intellectual integrity and framework for understanding their intellectualism.

The remaining portion of this stimulating work amounts to an exhortation for Indian critics to focus on doing solid work rather than producing only tribal outcomes like unmitigated praise of all Indian unless we castigate them for not being real Indians.

The first time I read Tribal Secrets I thought it was fatuous and guilty of the sins it condemned. I could not even tease out implications of a balanced commentary about Mathews and Deloria. They were revealed as worthy occupants of an American Indian pantheon. The author’s use of current literary conceits (deconstruction, engagement, counter narrative, essentialized, etc.) was irritating. However, the second reading left a different impression.

Tribal Secrets needs to be read by those of us who occupy the niche of Indian intellectuals. Warrior speaks directly to us while challenging us to leave our praise or condemnation of our fellow “tribal” members behind. Some of his commentary is insightful and some is a mite superficial but almost all is intellectually stimulating. We need this. Robert Allen Warrior raises issues and provides information unavailable elsewhere. I found the jargon ceased to be intrusive and, in fact, was confined mainly to the introduction. I am still not comfortable with his hyperbolic criticism of Deloria and Mathews but this is probably just what he wanted.

Tribal college students might find this rough going because most are in general English courses. However, those who move on to Indian literature and advanced courses might benefit from this stimulation.

This tribal college teacher has certainly been informed by Professor Warrior’s work. I recommended it to my colleagues.

 Greg Gagnon is vice president of Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota. He is a frequent contributor to Tribal College.

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