Intersections of Indigenous and Tribalistic Gothic

Amy Elizabeth Gore
Amy Elizabeth Gore

Two aspects of the Gothic that radically intersect with Indigenous literature are its predominant appearance in times of cultural transition and its complications of the abilities of language. In regards to the first, although the genre is marked by changing and various meanings, scholars agree that the Gothic flourishes in times of cultural transition, a status that many claims to be current for Native cultures. The ambivalence of the genre marvellously lends itself to both the nostalgic and anticipatory attitudes that accompany societal change. The Gothic novel skillfully negotiates liminality without attempting an agenda, leaving the critic with conundrums but the readers with the comfort of an ally in times of change. Due to the power of the genre, however, this ambivalence communicates itself as comforting as well as disturbing. It creates a space in which a projection into the future may be imagined safely and fictionally by an individual interpretation of the reader who may be enabled to “account for or deal with the uncertainty of these shifts.” Through the Gothic, then, the instability of cultural transition may be reflected in the familiar venue of literature, allowing readers the comfort of recognition and space for the projection of imagination.

As applicable to current trends in Native literature, the Indigenous Gothic synthesises neatly with modern and postmodern concerns with the failure of language. Within the criticism, this concern manifests in both concrete and abstract ways: the devastating decrease or loss of Native languages, and the theoretical unease as to whether the colonised, Other, or subaltern may possess a voice within the colonisers culture. Perhaps more than any other genre, the Gothic avails itself as a viable vehicle for these concerns. As Fred Botting proposes, “One of the principal horrors lurking throughout Gothic fiction is the sense that there is no exit from the darkly illuminating labyrinth of language.” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick concurs with this perspective, stating, “the difficulty the story has in getting itself told is of the most obvious structural significance.” Perhaps the turn to the Gothic in Indigenous literature has occurred because of its ability to both use and question language, specifically expressing a Native culture through the English language. Whether or not it is possible for the “Other” to successfully negotiate language in its own terms is outside the scope of this article, but the attempt that critics Louis Owens and Alan R. Velie see happening within the Indigenous Gothic to invert the Other to the Self might contain exciting possibilities for further research.

The etymological source of the word “Gothic” originally referred to a tribe, specifically the German “Goth” tribe according to the Oxford English Dictionary. This tribal culture apparently had no small impact on the British since the term collected several different usages from architecture to literature over the centuries. When Gothic became a reference to literature, the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “Barbarous, rude, uncouth, unpolished, in bad taste. Of temper: Savage.” It does not take a postcolonial critic to recognise the metanarrative of colonialism in this definition or the parallels to common derogatory terminology such as “savage” hurled at Indigenous people. With these kinds of commonalities of discourse, it seems only a matter of time before Indigenous writers and critics would reclaim the Gothic genre for their own political purposes, as has been the trend in Native literature since its Renaissance in the 1960s.

On a more positive association, Fred Botting also claims the influence of the Goth on British politics, arguing, “The native culture that it [the Gothic] referred to was one composed of those indigenous peoples and invaders whose occupation preceded the invasions of Romans. Any relics of a non-Roman past were taken as evidence of a native and enduring tradition of independence.” Depending on the politics of the eighteenth-century reader, the Gothic could have affirmative connotations related to enduring, independent tribal societies instead of negative associations of a “primitive” or “dark” past. This ambivalence provides an abundant opportunity for a redress of the Gothic treatment of the exotic Other, in this case, Indigenous peoples. On a different continent at a different moment in history, Indigenous writers play with new perspectives of the Gothic to create not merely a new subgenre, but a unique re-working of a genre steeped in racism.

Early tremors of an increasing interest in Indigenous Gothic literature came from critics Alan R. Velie and Louis Owens. Both published short essays in 1991 and 1993, respectively, focusing on the work of the preeminent Native American author and theorist Gerald Robert Vizenor. In ‘Gerald Vizenor’s Indian Gothic,’ Alan R. Velie approaches the Indigenous Gothic optimistically, suggesting that contemporary Native writers use the genre to work at “reexamining traditional American genres, myths, and themes from a different perspective, the Indian point of view.” His essay specifically examines the “frontier gothic,” a subgenre that Alan R. Velie defines and then inverts with the following: “If the frontier gothic is a romantic novel of terror set in the western wilderness with Indians playing the role of satanic villains, ‘Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart’ is the obverse: it is a novel of horror written from an Indian point of view […].” The rest of Alan R. Velie’s focus is limited to Gerald Robert Vizenor’s employment of the trickster for this inversion, ending with the conclusion that Gerald Robert Vizenor proposes a spiritual victory rather than a political one through his Gothic novel. Although Alan R. Velie’s reliance on the trickster (a hypersexual mischievous being used in many Native mythologies to affirm social mores) is dated compared to contemporary scholarship, Alan R. Velie offers a groundbreaking scholarship in his attempt to frame the burgeoning Indigenous Gothic genre.

Louis Owens’ essay, ‘Grinning Aboriginal Demons: Gerald Vizenor’s Bearheart and the Indian’s Escape From Gothic’ is far less optimistic than Alan R. Velie’s, although he too advocates for the subversive possibilities of the genre. He takes to task the American metanarratives in canonical literature for imprisoning Native people “as a static artefact within the discourse of the American myth.” Like Alan R. Velie, he chooses Gerald Robert Vizenor’s ‘Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart’ as the text in which to examine the Indigenous Gothic and the trickster as an avenue of subversion. Unlike Alan R. Velie, however, Louis Owens contextualises the Indigenous Gothic novel within the broader context of the American Gothic tradition while bringing into play the possibilities available to language within the genre.

Louis Owens’ strategy in his argument s first to delineate what he calls the “inherited paradigms of the American Gothic” in reference to the concept of “Indian.” He does this by first couching the term in the lens of language, “Indian” as a constrictive signifier within the discourse of American myth as quoted above. Louis Owens then proceeds to argue for the inversion of the Gothic as he sees happening within Gerald Robert Vizenor’s novel, namely an “act of deconstruction, freeing Indian/mixed-blood identity from the ‘shroud’ of the American metanarrative, inverting the gothic landscape, liberating language.” Notice again the emphasis made on language and the possibilities of the Gothic that Louis Owens asserts. He is claiming that the genre allows for a deconstruction of static signifiers, breaking boundaries not only of Self/Other perspectives but the terms themselves.

Louis Owens argument climaxes with the statement, “The gothic Indian, that imagined construct imprisoned in an absolut, untouchable past, is deconstructed, and the contemporary Indian is granted both freedoms to imagine him/herself in new and radical ways, as well as responsibility for that self-definition.” The Self/Other dichotomy in the frontier Gothic finds a reversal in Louis Owens analysis of Gerald Robert Vizenor’s novel, a setback that may be projected onto other Indigenous Gothic novels as well.

Both Louis Owens and Alan R. Velie provide valuable groundwork in evaluating the Indigenous Gothic. However, the critical study needs to move beyond evaluations of the trickster to further advance the scholarship of the genre. Many other authors than Gerald Robert Vizenor utilise the genre, and vital contributions regarding their novels would better reveal commonalities of the movement.

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