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Memory & Magic:
What Do Native American Authors Have to Teach Us About the Past and Place We Live In?

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A Few Assertions About the Nature of History
  1. History is not independent of interpretation.  Facts are always placed within a framework.
  2. History is both objective and subjective.  It has "a factual impact".  Certain historical records, occurrences, and data exist independent of us and do guide and shape the way we interpret, yet history also has a personal shape; different people ask different questions and end up with differing observations about what the facts mean.
  3. History is a narrative: 1) it often focuses on individuals, their identities, and their relationships with institutions; 2) it has a certain sequence and contingency with a narrative pattern -- one thing "follows" another for a reason; 3) it has a "story-worthiness" that explains why we are concerned with it; 4) it often has a certain "trajectory of culmination," a certain end or purpose that the historian feels it is leading up to.
  4. History may also have a deep sense of connection with the teller: it helps explain who we presently are. (e.g. The Exodus, Christ's resurrection)
  5. History, from a Christian perspective, includes an account of God's actions in the past.  History, therefore, also shapes our faith: we better understand what we believe on the basis of what God has done for us.

[Some of these ideas are from Frykenberg, Robert Eric. History & Belief: The Foundations of Historical Understanding. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.]

Momaday and Place

"I tried to express the notion first that the Native American ethic with respect to the physical world is a matter of reciprocal appropriation; appropriations in which man invests himself in the landscape, and at the same time incorporates the landscape into his own most fundamental experience. That suggests a dichotomy, or a paradox, and I think it is a paradox. It is difficult to understand a relationship which is defined in these terms, and yet I don't know how much better to define it."

"Secondly, this appropriation is primarily a matter of the imagination. The appropriation is realized through an act of the imagination which is moral and kind. I mean to say that we are all, I suppose, at the most fundamental level what we imagine ourselves to be.  [. . .] Rather, he is someone who thinks as himself in a particular way and comprehends his relationship to the physical world. He imagines himself in terms of that relationship and others. And it is that act of the imagination, which I think constitutes his understanding of the physical world."

"Thirdly, this imagining, this understanding of the relationship between man and the landscape, or man and the physical world, man and nature, proceeds from a racial or cultural experience. I think his attitude toward the landscape has been formulated over a long period of time, and the length of time itself suggests and evolutionary process perhaps instead of a purely rational and decisive experience. [. . .] I mean that the Indian has determined himself in his imagination over part of his understanding. He understands himself more clearly than perhaps other people, given his situation in time and space period."

-- N. Scott Momaday, "The Native American Way of Seeing" [italics mine]

Questions on "The Way to Rainy Mountain"

  1. What is Momaday's view of the Oklahoma landscape in general and Rainy Mountain in particular?  How does this place express who he is and who his people are?
  2. How is Kiowa history tied to the Plains Culture?  How does it shape their sensibility?
  3. How is Momaday's grandmother, as well as Ko-sahn, tied to this place and memory?
  4. In what way does the Kiowa past shape their present?
  5. What view of history is present in Momaday's interpretations of the Kiowa stories?
  6. What does Momaday's view of place and history have to say to Christians?

Erdrich and Some Aspects of Magical Realism

  • magical realism: "an unexpected alteration of reality [. . .] an unaccustomed insight that is singularly favored by the unexpected richness of reality or an amplification of the scale and categories of reality" (Alejo Carpentier)
  • More specifically, magical realism achieves its particular power by weaving together elements we tend to associate with European realism and elements we associate with the fabulous, and these two worlds undergo a "closeness or near merging."
  • This takes two forms: an epistemological one, where "the nuances stem from an observer’s visions" and an ontological one, "in which America is considered to be itself marvelous" (Wendy Faris). In other words, magical realism can achieve its effects by either making marvelous a certain character's perceptions and/or by making the setting itself marvelous.
  • Magical realism a tendency to defamiliarize the scene for readers; readers learn that they have not come entirely ready to understand the situation, that what we thought we knew is found to be strange, for it has something entirely unexpected to teach us.
  • Magical realism’s readers learn "border skipping" because they must move between fabulism and European realism (Rowland Wilson).

Questions on "Fleur"

  1. How does the narrator ask us to move between naturalism and magical or supernatural viewpoints?
  2. Is the "magical realism" of this story more epistemological or ontological?
  3. Who (or what) is Fleur?  How does Pauline the narrator describe her?  How are we to view her power?
  4. What is Fleur's relationship to Native American myth and tradition?
  5. How are we to view the men who work at Koska's Meats?  Do they deserve what happens to them?
  6. What does Lily's battle with the sow represent?
  7. What is Pauline suggesting at the end of the story by observing, "The blood draws us back, as if it runs through a vein of earth"? (2394)
  8. Why when the old men retell the story of Fleur do they "only know they don't know anything"? (2394)
  9. How would you compare and contrast Erdrich's "Fleur" with Harjo's "The Flood"?

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding