In Beauty I Walk: The Literary Roots of Native American Writing
Edited by Jarod Ramsey and Lori Burlingame
395 pages, softcover: $27.95.
University of New Mexico Press, 2008.
"Appreciation" is a slippery word, especially when applied to culture. More shallow than understanding, but deeper than mere pleasure, you might describe it as knowledge lite. Perhaps that's why In Beauty I Walk: The Literary Roots of Native American Writing, which emphasizes the "appreciation" of Native texts, leaves you feeling like you've brushed against something far more tangled and complex than the soothing, earth-toned cover would suggest.
The selections range from traditional creation myths, stories, songs and poetry to modern short stories and plays. Contributors, including Sarah Winnemucca, Mourning Dove and Lynn Riggs, address themes many people are familiar with as history but not necessarily as narrative -- betrayals of trust between white settlers and Indians, assimilationist boarding schools, failed interracial marriages.
Editors Jarold Ramsey and Lori Burlingame provide background for and analysis of most of the writings, even while noting the controversies involved. The inherent problems of critiquing Native literature through a Eurocentric lens have inspired some strong pushback from Native scholars and writers. Unfortunately, this recognition, while admirable, also gives In Beauty I Walk a stilted feel at times.
The book includes many rarely published selections. Here, for example, is a retelling of the life of Jesus, recorded in 1912, that sounds almost like parody:
"The first people were much oppressed and preyed upon, and so much evil prevailed in the world, that the Chief sent his son Jesus to set things right ... After He had returned the Chief looked over the world and saw that things had not changed much for the better. Jesus had only changed a few things. He had done more talking than anything else ... Now, the Chief said, 'If matters are not improved, there will soon be no people.' Then he sent Coyote to earth to destroy all the monsters and evil beings, to make life easier and better for the people, and to teach them the best way to do things. Coyote did a great deal of good, but he did not finish everything properly. Sometimes he made mistakes, and although he was wise and powerful he did many foolish things."
Analysis aside, In Beauty I Walk is a tantalizing collection. The stories stand alone -- the juvenile humor of Coyote, who fends off enemies by farting, the poignancy of the "lost wife" stories that explain the origin of death and suffering, and the restorative power of traditional songs and chants are engrossing no matter how well you understand the deeper cultural context.