Monday, December 19, 2011

Author Interview: Joy Porter on 'Land and Spirit in Native America'

Q: What prompted you to write Land and Spirit in Native America? What "message" do you want to communicate?

A: Like most books, this one started from a mixture of concern that these issues were so infrequently discussed and from a desire on the author’s part to educate herself through the process of writing. One of the nice things about creating this book was the number of colleagues from outside of my discipline who were keen to help and give backbone to its arguments- from Alaskan anthropologists to scientists working on how radioactive and other risks are evaluated by the public.

The point of the book is to make clear how different various indigenous American approaches to land and spirit have been from Euro-American ones and to argue that those ideas have a special pertinence today as we fight to overcome inertia and address the causes and consequences of climate change. The book makes a point of dispensing with “Indians-as-eco-warrior” rhetoric but it does take very seriously the Indian experience of colonialism and the long record of Indian interrelationship with land and its vital and ongoing spiritual dimensions.

Q: What was the highlight of your research? In the course of your research, what discovery surprised you the most? What surprises readers/others the most about your research?

A: A lot in this book is likely to upset certain preconceptions. For example, Indian peoples are associated with ideas about balance within wilderness environments. That connection is not without validity but the larger picture shows Indian peoples to have been at the forefront of modernity and to have been forced to cope first with the environmental despoliation that modernity has brought about. Thus Land and Spirit has a chapter that deals with American Indian forced migration so as to make way for the nation’s “wilderness” parks and a large chapter on environmental justice and the complexities of Indian life in the nuclear southwest. Rather than conflating everything Indian with some woolly sense of the ecological, the book asks that we confront revealing truths about how some of America’s most disadvantaged communities have faced environmental stress within capitalism.

In fact, it was finding out more about the history and meaning of nuclear power and nuclear weapons and their Indian connections that surprised me most when writing this book. On one level, we should all recognize that everything American owes a great deal to what was or is Indian, but I had no idea how central Indian land, Indian mining effort and Indian suffering was to the growth and perpetuation of nuclearism in terms of national power and national defense. Like quite a few Indian people, I’m not simplistically anti-nuclear, but the more one reads the more one gains a dread-filled respect for this particular tiger we have caught by the tail. For what is good about nuclear power and particularly in terms of the containment of nuclear waste, the world owes Indian peoples a great debt.

Land and Spirit is an unconventional book. It does not confine itself to the tramlines of conventional regional or thematic history, instead it leaps across time and across disciplinary boundaries linking Native American Indian art, history, literature and philosophy to mainstream histories and up-to-the-minute debates. Part of the reasoning behind writing it was to bust Native American criticism and history out of its intellectual corral. It’s hard now to write about American literature without taking on board Native American Indian writers, but too often when issues like the environment, nuclear power and the history of the life of the spirit on American soil are discussed Indian people and Indian thinking gets ignored.

Forthcoming, 2012

Q: How did your research change your outlook on this subject?

A: I learned a lot about how urgent the need for change is when it comes to the environment and a lot about why it might be that we aren’t making those changes more quickly. In a world of 7 billion plus that is increasingly being torn apart by the legacy of recent global financial mismanagement, the need for new thinking is urgent. Land and Spirit argues that we need to look at our spiritual understanding of the earth and at the sometimes ugly truths of our history in order to find a popular and sure-footed path forward. The book does not set forth prescriptive answers, but it puts aspects of Indian experience center stage and it demands that we think about what’s “wild” on this earth in a new way.

Q: How have people reacted to your book and/or the ideas you set forth? Is it what you hoped for, or is there more work to be done?

A: This interview is happening when the book is only just in production but those few who have read it have used words like fantastic and amazing. They do owe me money though, now I come to think of it…only joking! One thing is clear though, much more nuanced work needs to be done on nuclear power in Indian country across disciplines. Also, we need to wrest debate about climate change away from mostly literary environmental writers and away from scientists who communicate primarily in the language of maths. These folk are obviously pivotal but so are other voices and other understandings. I hope this book encourages other writers on Indian themes to take Native American Indian Studies in an inclusive manner into productive communion with other fields and other disciplines. Indian history and Indian thought is too valuable not to be widely thought about and debated at the interstice of today’s most pressing arguments.

Q: What's next for you?

A: I am finishing another book for The University of Toronto Press about a poet who claimed to be Iroquois and who fought in the first world war. It’s called The American Indian Poet of the First World War: Modernism and the Indian Identity of Frank “Toronto” Prewett, 1883-1962. Prewett was a fascinating character who was the lover of Seigfreid Sassoon and got published by Virginia Woolf. The project is being supported by the UK Arts & Humanities Research Board. Aside from his illustrious Bloomsbury literary connections, Prewett is interesting because of his response to war. He suffered severe shell-shock. His experience and his writing says something meaningful, I think, about modernity and about primitivism and what it meant to have voice at the beginning of the twentieth century.

After that I am working on another project, this one supported by the British Academy. It too will be a new book, The American Presidency and Tribal Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century. It addresses the most important question in twentieth-century Native American politics--how decisive were personal tribal relationships with individual American presidents? Answering that could alter fundamentally not only our existing understandings of the presidency but also how we conceptualize relationships between “small nations” and dominant powers more generally.

JOY PORTER is Senior Lecturer & Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Humanities at The University of Swansea, Wales, UK, author of To Be Indian: The Life of Seneca-Iroquois Arthur Caswell Parker, 1881-1955 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), co-editor with Professor Kenneth Roemer (University of Texas, Arlington), of The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature (University of Cambridge Press, 2005), editor of Place and Indian History, Literature & Culture for Peter Lang (2007) and coauthor of Competing Voices in Native America (2009).

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