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Laura Coltelli Inteview With Wendy Rose Essay, Research Paper
LC: In The Third Woman, you have written, ‘It is my greatest
but probably futile hope that someday those of us who are ethnic minorities will not be
segregated in the literature of America." Will you elaborate on that?
ROSE: Well, anywhere in America, if you take a university-level course
on American history or American literature, particularly in literature and the arts, it
only has the literature and the arts that are produced by Americans of European heritage,
even then largely Northern European. We are left out of the books. Black people are left
out; brown people are left out; Indian people are left out. So you get the impression,
going through the American education system, that the only people here are white people.
It’s not just a cultural matter, but it’s a political matter. There is a reason for a
society to be that way, that has the literary capacity and the technological capacity that
America has; there’s no excuse for the people being so blind, for the people to be wearing
a blindfold that way. The only possible reason it could happen is because it’s not an
accident; that it’s planned. Somebody is benefiting by having Americans ignorant about
what non-European Americans are doing and what they have done; what European Americans
have done to them. Somebody is benefiting by keeping people ignorant.
LC: Describing one of your trips, from California to Arizona, you
write that "a half-breed goes from one half-home to the other." Could you talk
on your "half-breed" identity?
ROSE: My father is a full-blood Hopi from Arizona. He lives on the
reservation. My mother is mostly Scots and Irish, but also Miwok, which is an Indian tribe
from the area near Yosemite National Park here in California. I’ve always thought in terms
of being a half-breed because that is the way that both sides of the family treated me.
The white part of the family wanted nothing to do, not only with me, but they were even
angry that at one point my mother married a man who was Welsh. Even being Welsh was too
exotic for their taste.
The Hopi side of my family is more sympathetic to my situation, but our lineage is
through the mother, and because of that, having a Hopi father means that I have no real
legitimate place in Hopi society, I am someone who is from that society in a biological
sense, in what I like to think is a spiritual sense, and certainly in an emotional sense,
but culturally I would have to say I’m pretty urbanized: an urban, Pan-Indian kind of
person. I grew up with Indian people from all over the country, all different tribes. Some
of them had lived on reservations and some of them had spent their whole lives in the
city. I was born in Oakland, which is of course a big city. So there was always the sense
of not really being connected enough to any one group. A lot of Indian writers have
written about that. I think in fact it was James Welch who put it in one of his novels; at
one point the protagonist is asked if being a half-breed meant that he had special
insights and special privilege into both groups, and in fact to paraphrase his answer, he
said what it actually means is you don’t have enough of either group. I can understand
that; I know what he means.
LC: Is your most recent book, The Halfbreed Chronicles and Other
Poems, a new image of the "half-breed"?
ROSE: In The Halfbreed Chronicles I come to terms with that
halfbreededness I was talking about earlier. Half-breed is not just a biological thing.
it’s not just a matter of having one parent from one race and the other parent from
another race, or culture, or religion, or anything of that nature. But rather it’s a
condition of history, a condition of context, a condition of circumstance. It’s a
political fact. it’s a situation that people who would not normally be thought of as
half-breed in a biological sense, might be thought of this way in another sense. For
example, some poems that are in The Halfbreed Chronicles are addressed to people
like Robert Oppenheimer. Nobody would ever look at him in a racial sense as a half-breed
person, yet at the same time he was in a context and at a time, and made choices in his
life, that for me apply the metaphor of half-breed to him. And when people hear the poems
from The Halfbreed Chronicles, very often people of all races and of all
backgrounds, come up to me afterward and say that they can identify with The Halfbreed
Chronicles. To me that means it worked, because that’s the intention. We are in fact
all half-breed in this world today.
LC: What Happened When the Hopi Hit New York is
a kind of journal of your trips to various states. What’s the "Indian
invisibility" you talk about?
ROSE: There are two ways to look at that. One way is the invisibility
that is imposed on Indian people, and that gets back to talking about the American system
of education, in which Indians are deliberately made invisible, in which people can grow
up in an area surrounded by Indian people who have maintained their culture, who still
practice their religion, who live on federally administrated reservation land, and the
non-Indians do not know it. That non-Indian people there can be unaware of that is one
form of invisibility. Another form of invisibility is that which is self-imposed by the
Indian person: in a context of conflict especially, very often in a confrontational or in
an uncomfortable situation, an Indian will turn into a potted plant, if you know what I
mean. An Indian person may withdraw and become part of the furniture or part of the wall.
That’s also another form of invisibility. It’s protective coloration, like camouflage.
It’s a survival trait.
LC: Could you talk about your work as an anthropologist?
ROSE: I told Joe Bruchac when he was asking the same question about
that in another interview–I told him I was a spy. He thought I was kidding and he
repeated the question, and I repeated, "I am a spy." He laughed and figured,
okay, that’s all he was going to get. But I don’t think he realizes to this day that I
literally meant, I am a spy. But not in any cloak-and-dagger kind of way; I’m not out to
hurt anthropologists. But the fact is that the only academic department at Berkeley that
would deal with my dissertation, which involves Indian literature, is the anthropology
department. Comparative literature didn’t want to deal with it; the English department
didn’t want to deal with it, in fact the English department told me that American
Indian literature was not part of American literature and therefore did not fit into their
LC: You talked in the interview with Carol Hunter about your struggle
to protect the burial grounds. You said that you acted as a kind of mediator between AIM
[American Indian Movement] and the archaeologists, who didn’t accept your training as an
anthropologist as valid, since you aligned yourself with AIM.
ROSE: They didn’t really believe that an Indian person would have
studied archaeology. They didn’t take seriously the fact that I had actually trained in
it. I spent five years doing that kind of work, partly to experiment with the idea that if
Indian people go into it maybe there will be some control. If, for example, you found a
human burial in an archaeological site, if there were an Indian archaeologist there it
would be handled differently. People wouldn’t just bring up the remains, and so on. It
didn’t work; I realized after being there for years that archaeologists are just as
capable of lying to Indian people as anyone else. There were some very ugly situations
where archaeologists were calling up Indian activists and making threats on their lives at
one point, in the Bay area, in San Francisco, in Marin County, in particular. When I talk
about protecting the burial grounds, it is both a literal fact and a metaphor. The
metaphor is to protect Indian people through, in some instances, trying to neutralize the
very weapons that are being used against Indians, by mastering those weapons and then in a
sense breaking them from within. it is also a literal fact in the poem by that name,
"Protecting the Burial Grounds." That poem was in fact written in front of a
bulldozer, on top of an Indian cemetery, where we were sitting to prevent the bulldozer
from just going through and ripping up the Indian graves. The mayor of San Jose, which is
the city this occurred in, actually called out a swAT team, which is the Special Weapons
and Tactical squad, the people with the big guns, who wear the army-type uniforms and are
associated with the city police departments. They all came out and they had been told that
there was an Indian riot, that Aim was rioting out there in the cemetery. So they came
with their m i 6s or ml 5 s or whatever, those big rifles-they came nmning out past where
we were. They were looking for the riot. We were the riot and we were just sitting there.
So then finally they left, and we succeeded. We did manage to save that burial ground. It
was in fact preserved.
LC: Does it happen very often?
ROSE: Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Unfortunately we usually don’t find
out that a burial ground has been desecrated until after the fact, because developers know
that if the Indian people are in an area, and non-Indian people who sympathize with these
concerns know that a burial ground is to be dug up or something like that, they will
protest. So they go in, in the middle of the night, and the next morning everybody gets up
and it’s already done.
LC: Speaking about the "system," graduate schools, academia,
do you feel that "there is a line which cultures do not cross," and that every
day "you are bumping into that line," as you once said? Is there any way to
bridge that gap? Can you see the mixed-blood as a mediator between two cultures?
ROSE: I think there is a way. Certainly individuals can cross the
line, or can live on the line. I guess what happens is they live on the line, rather than
trying to cross from one into another culture territory. When I said that, I was feeling
betrayed because of friendships that I had for many years with a number of non-Indian
people; all of a sudden the fact of my being Indian became too much for them to bear, and
suddenly it just became a big issue with them. And similarly with Arthur, my husband, who
is Japanese-American, same thing. His being Japanese-American suddenly became too much for
them and they began acting in a racist way toward us, and we thought they were our
friends. And it happened that that quotation was about that time, and we were both feeling
pretty bitter about what had happened at that point. Sometimes I do feel pretty
pessimistic about it like that, but I also think that even though nobody can ever
completely cross over into another person’s culture, no matter how big a barrier there
seems to be or how different the cultures seem to be, there is a way that some people can
transcend that, just as human beings–as long as they don’t try to ignore the fact of the
culture, as long as they respect the fact that those cultures are different and that
they’re there and that they’re important, that they are important parts of the identities
of both those people, no matter how different they are. If they can meet on that ground,
then I think there is a way to cross that barrier.
LC: You are a poet and an accomplished painter as well. Is there a
kind of interrelated technique between the two media that you use in your poetry and in
ROSE: It feels the same doing them. It feels the same way
inside—to do a painting as to write a poem. It feels like the same impulse. The main
difference is, and I don’t know how to explain this, the main difference is that with
poetry I feel like I am tough enough to take the criticism, but if someone doesn’t like my
paintings, I just fall to pieces. I’m more professional about poetry, and less so about
the paintings I think.
LC: American Indian writers and publishing–you have written an
article on that and about the difficulty in locating Native American literature in
bookshops, which, by the way, is also my own frustrating experience. It’s shelved under
"Anthropology," and as you said this segregation is not only philosophical but
economic, not to say political. Quoting Vine Deloria, as you did in the Coyote Was Here
interview, "the fact is that the interest in American Indians is a fad that comes
around every twenty years." Actually, in 1969, Momaday’s House Made of Dawn won
the Pulitzer Prize. In 1985, Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich, won the National
Book Critic’s Circle Award–and deservedly so. Of course, in between, scholars and writers
have been recipients of awards and fellowships, but I am just speaking about awards which
can appeal to a more general and wider audience. Can you see any significant, important
change having taken place in the past few years?
ROSE: As you can see, House Made of Dawn and Love Medicine are
approximately twenty years apart. The way a lot of us are looking at it now, Louise has it
now, we have to wait another twenty years. And she deserves it; both Scott Momaday and
Louise Erdrich certainly are accomplished writers who deserve it. But so is Leslie Silko,
so is James Welch, but their timing was wrong. They came in between fads.
LC: Considering the importance of women in many Indian societies, is
feminism synonymous with heritage for American Indian women?
ROSE: I would say not. There are a lot of Indian women, myself included, who
consider ourselves to be feminist, but we’re not feminist like non-Indian women are. We
come from a different base; we have a different history. If I’m on the Hopi reservation I
am not a feminist; if I’m in Fresno, California, I’m a feminist.
LC: Native Americans come from different tribal and cultural
backgrounds. Do you see, then, Native American literature as multiethnic as a result of
ROSE: It is of course in fact a multiethnic literature. And there are
certain tribal differences that scholars could pick out if they applied themselves to it.
The further back you go the more evident this is. If you go back to the 1930s, for
instance, you can see very profound differences between what a Pueblo person would be
writing and what someone who is Sioux would be writing. It’s not very new of course to
have all this published literature by American Indian people around. It’s not a brand new
thing; it didn’t just suddenly pop up with Scott Momaday. The Pan-Indian part of it, where
it is not exactly a multiethnic literature, is in the fact that–and this is speculation
on my part; I guess this is part of what I am looking at in my own doctoral
dissertation–most of the people that I perceive who become writers and who are thinking
in terms of actually publishing, and thinking of themselves as writers in the European
sense of a writer and a published work, are people who are in that Pan-Indian world. They
are people who are familiar with Indian people from various tribes. Now there are some
exceptions. Simon Ortiz is an exception. He has a distinctly Pueblo background, but as an
adult has become Pan-Indian, has traveled around. In fact, he’s addressed that fact in
some of his poems–Indians are everywhere. Ray Young Bear is very decidedly of one
particular tribal area and in fact has even expressed the feeling that he does not want to
deal with Indian people from other tribes, because he is concerned with people of
Mesquakie heritage. He considers his work to be an outgrowth of the Mesquakie heritage,
and to have nothing really to do with what the rest of us are doing. So there are
exceptions. But I think most Indian writers probably are more similar to each other than
they are to other members of their tribe who are not writers. I think, for example,
culturally I bear more similarity to someone like Maurice Kenny, a Mohawk from New York
City, or to James Welch for that matter, who of course is Blackfeet and Gros Ventre, than
I do to other Hopi women of my same age who are on the reservation. I have more
similarities with those other writers than with other Hopi or Miwok people.
LC: Do American Indian writers have a large audience among Indian
ROSE: Increasingly so. The Indian communities are beginning again to
value those people who specialize in working with words. That of course was a traditional
value at one time. And as Indian people went to the boarding schools and were forced to
speak foreign languages and to worship foreign gods and so on, they also lost contact with
their own traditions involving the spoken or the written word. I think that’s being
rediscovered. Increasingly, I find, for example, that I probably give more poetry readings
as parts of powwows and tribal functions, grass-roots kind of functions, nonliterary
functions, for Indian people in a community now than I do for literary people. And I like
that. I enjoy giving poetry readings of course to literary people, too, and to urban
audiences and so on. But the feeling of being appreciated by that grass-roots community is
also very important to me. I think probably more important than the prestige or academic
part of it. And this is something that’s very important, I think–things like having poets
and novelists as keynote speakers at what had one time been strictly political and social
functions–at political rallies, at tribal chairmen banquets. At things of this nature,
which used to be completely nonliterary.
LC: Does literature develop a sense of Pan-Indianness?
ROSE: Possibly, yes. But it should be also made really clear that to
be Pan-Indian is not to become less tribal. To be tribal and to be Pan-Indian exist side
by side, and in fact Pan-Indianism is intended to protect those tribal identities, not to
replace them. So there is the Pan-Indian aspect to the literature, but with much of the
same excitement generated by the literature that is in the English language in the form of
the novel, or poetry. We then turn around in our own communities and can print things like
booklets for children of traditional stories; we can print things like language primers in
our own native languages, much of it with the impetus that originally came from writing
the poetry and the novels.
LC: In American universities there is an increasing number of American
Indian studies centers. What do you think of them?
ROSE: Well, I teach in one. It’s not in a university, but I have
taught in universities. I’m now at a city college, a two-year college. But I have taught
at the University of California at Berkeley, and I have taught at California State
University here in Fresno, in both instances in Native American studies, and now at Fresno
City College. I see it as something that at the moment is very necessary, as part of the
ethnic studies experience. It’s something that’s been left out of the curriculum, is still
left out of the curriculum, unless we go there and put it in. And the only way we can go
there and put it in is to concentrate on just those things. And if Indians are left out of
every other class on the university campus, even where they are pertinent–for example,
leaving Scott Momaday out of a class on twentieth-century American literature, something
like that–somewhere else there has to be a balance. There has to be someone somewhere
else who is going to emphasize Scott Momaday to the exclusion of the ones who are
emphasized in the other class. I hope that at some point that will become balanced. I hope
that pretty soon an American literature class will just automatically include someone like
Scott Momaday–and some of the other people: Charles Eastman, you know, the other writers
in our history. I also hope that there will continue to be some kind of program where
Indian people will be doing the teaching. If courses in Native American studies were to go
into the so-called mainstream departments, if Native American history were just taught
through the history department, it would not be an Indian person teaching it. Even if they
taught from the same cultural and political viewpoint, it would probably not be an Indian
teacher. So part of what we are doing in these ethnic-studies departments is building up a
core of professional academic people, a core of professional scholars.
LC: What’s the response you get from your students?
ROSE: Well, it ranges–I have very large classes for Native American
studies. Up at Berkeley you’re likely to have a class with ten people in it, but down here
it’s more likely to be fifty. It varies. At the two-year college I find that students are
much more receptive to the Native American studies than they were at the four-year
university in the same city, here in Fresno. At the four-year university I had students
who were calling me a squaw in class. I had students who, as I’d be walking across campus,
would yell rude things at me that would be racist in nature; I was told not to talk about
political controversy. They are among the reasons why I left the university, and I went to
the city college here. Where I am now, some of the students have difficulties with the
material primarily because they were brought up with a very narrow focus: if it isn’t in
the Bible it can’t be true. That is the major problem, which is not as much a problem as
just plain hostility.
LC: What do you think of non-Indian critics and
readers of your work?
ROSE: When non-Indian critics, generally speaking, criticize my work,
I find it useful. The critics that bother me are the ones who set out to review my work or
the work of some other Indian writer and state at the beginning of the review that they
can’t really do it justice because they haven’t taken enough anthropology. They drive me
bats, because when I write my books of poetry, they are in the English language. When I
use Hopi or other Native American terms, or Japanese terms, terms that are not in English,
I explain them. I use a footnote as a courtesy, with the assumption that most of the
readers of my work will be reading it in English. So with that assumption I use footnotes.
I wish that the academic poets I might be reading would have the same courtesy for me to
explain some of the culture-specific terms that they use. But they don’t.
LC: In Geary Hobson’s words the "white shaman" is a writer
who in his poems assumes the persona of a shaman, usually in the guise of an American
Indian medicine man. Would you like to add a few remarks on that?
ROSE: A few remarks. The term was coined by Geary Hobson. These are
not just people who take on the persona of the shaman in their poetry but are people who
actually even outside the realm of poetry take on a fabricated persona. The problem is one
of integrity, very simply. I have no difficulty with people taking on an Indian persona
and trying to imagine through their work what it would be like, for example, to be at the
Wounded Knee massacre, or to be a man or a woman in Indian society. Fine. As long as it’s
really clear that that’s what it is–an act of imagination. in my own work, if I put
myself into the shoes of Robert Oppenheimer, it clearly is an act of imagination. I’m not
going to pretend to people that I’m Robert Oppenheimer, or that I have some special
insight into Robert Oppenheimer’s mind. I’m going to imagine something about Robert
Oppenheimer and I’m going to express the imagination. It’s not an expression of him; it’s
an expression of me. If people who want to write about Native American spirituality or any
of those kinds of issues were to simply start it out by saying something like: this is an
act of my imagination; this is something I have been thinking about; this is something I
feel; this is how I see it. Fine. But what happens is, that we get people, and this is who
we call white shamans, people who say they have some special gift to be able to really see
how Indians think, how Indians feel; that when they do it, it’s real. One of them even had
the audacity one time to tell me that I could not write poems; in the particular instance
it was a poem about Tsu’hsi, the empress dowager of China; he told me I shouldn’t
write a poem about her because how could I understand the Chinese culture, but then he
said it would be okay for him to do it because it was easier for someone who was white to
put themselves into the shoes of other cultures, than it would be for other people.
LC: Can you see any evolution in your work?
ROSE: I hope it’s getting better. I don’t know. It isn’t really my job
to try to analyze my own work. I’m more comfortable analyzing someone else’s work. But I
try to improve. I hope that, like anyone else regardless of what they’re doing, I hope
that as I grow the work grows. I hope I am growing; I hope the work is growing.
LC: Could you describe your writing process?
ROSE: Well, I explained it one time, on radio, as the sensation of
being sick in your stomach, in that you suddenly have to throw up, suddenly, you have to
vomit. There is no way you can stop it. It has to happen. It’s a bodily process in which
the material is expelling itself from your body. That’s what it feels like to me in a
mental or emotional way. Suddenly it’s there and it has to be expelled. It’s going to come
out whether I want it to or not. If I don’t have something to write on, it comes out of my
mouth. It’s got to come out one way or another.
LC: Could you talk about your works in progress?
ROSE: There’s one book that is primarily political work, which is
looking back over the Indian movement for the twenty-five or so years that I’ve been
involved with it, which is going to be called "Going to War with All My
Relations." I don’t have a publisher for it yet, so there will be probably something
worked out about it pretty soon. There’s one book I have in mind that he (her husband]
doesn’t want me to do. That’s called, "How Come Arthur Isn’t a Cowboy?" A couple
of things like that are in progress.
Words: American Indian Writers Speak. Lincoln: Unviersity of Nebraska Press, 1990.
Copyright ? 1990 by University of Nebraska Press.
In Winged Words Laura Coltelli interviews some of America’s foremost Indian
poets and novelists, including Paula Gunn Allen, Michael Dorris, Louise Erdrich, Joy
Harjo, Linda Hogan, N. Scott Momaday, Simon Ortiz, Wendy Rose, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gerald
Vizenor, and James Welch. They candidly discuss the debt to old and the creation of new
traditions, the proprieties of age and gender, and the relations between Indian writers
and non-Indian readers and critics, and between writers and anthropologists and
historians. In exploring a wide range of topics, each writer arrives at his or her own
moment of truth.
Available wherever books are sold or from the University of Nebraska Press
(1-800526-2617) or on the web at www.nebraskapress.unl.edu
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