Engaged Resistance: American Indian Art, Literature, and Film from Alcatraz to the NMAI

By Dean Rader. 2011. Austin: University of Texas Press. 304 pages. ISBN: 978-0-292-72696-3 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Karra Shimabukuro, Independent Scholar

[Review length: 991 words • Review posted on January 16, 2012]


Dean Rader’s Engaged Resistance is an ambitious work that shows how literature, film, and art engage in resistance against Anglo ideals and power systems. He provides interesting ideas on how these artists are subverting these systems for their own purposes and how “storytelling becomes a form of sovereignty” (152), and he examines these works as represented by borders, maps, and frontier space.

Rader begins with the idea of storytelling as a form of sovereignty and with Alcatraz, stating that to understand the idea of resistance, the written word, the visual rhetoric of the graffiti, and the by-the-minute narratives of the poetry written during the occupation must be analyzed together; and that the intertextuality of these items must be examined. Rader begins with Alcatraz as he asserts it was the first place where text was used to invert “the ethos of colonialism by turning its condescending language back on itself” (14). The inclusion of these mostly unknown texts makes a welcome addition to the conversation about how Native rhetoric needs to be viewed and understood.

Rader returns again and again in the book to two seemingly separate ideas; that of borders, maps, and frontier space as well as the idea of Native artists subverting Anglo systems of conquest for their own purposes. This is clearly seen in “The Cartography of Sovereignty” that examines maps as “colonial constructs” (61) and analyzes the argument that these visuals make. His analysis of the work of Jaune Quick-to-See Smith illustrates the way that she has taken the map, a symbol of colonial and Anglo dominance and conquest, and used it to imprint “the stories of Indians over the storytelling device of America” (70). A similar technique can be seen in “Compositional Resistance” as Rader discusses writers whose poetry “doesn’t exist outside of form; it merely converts, reinvents, indigenizes form” (130). He states that the works of Esther Berlin, Joy Harjo, and Simon Ortiz “blur boundaries, cross borders” and resist definition as a single genre. This idea of subversion can also be seen in “Engaged Resistance” and its discussion of the National Museum of the American Indian in terms of how the NMAI has changed expectations, not only of how a museum can use form to fulfill function, but also how Native people feel that their work, history, and lives should be presented.

Rader’s emphasis on the circular nature of Native storytelling in stark contrast to the linear stories of Anglos is an important lens through which to view Native fiction, and the idea that “smaller conversations between books lead to a larger discourse on the micro level” (89) is one of the most interesting ideas Rader presents. Rader chooses nine Native novels that he says represent the twenty-first century, but he supplies no argument for why he chose these nine. This problem occurs again in “The Cinematics of Engagement, The Politics of Resistance” where Rader analyzes Naturally Native and Skins, where his only explanation for these choices is that they “remain two of the most interesting cinematic texts and two of the most important” (92) and that they illustrate “modes of resistance to and within the American systems” (110). The reader again wonders: aren’t all forms of Native film a form of resistance? In “Word as Weapon,” Rader examines the poems of Louise Erdich, Sherman Alexis, and Wendy Rose for how they “use the lyric poem as a mode of defiance that also participates in the cultural history of Native oral discourse” (114). One wishes Rader had provided more of a rationale for how he chose these novels, poems, and films over others, so the reader is not left with the idea that perhaps other works did not fit his argument. While the works he chose are certainly representative of Native artists, these artists are not the only ones producing work in the twenty-first century.

One of the few weaknesses in Rader’s argument is that he seems to want it both ways: he agrees that Native artists should be judged on their own merits, but he can’t resist constantly positioning these works as being in resistance to Anglo products. Rader quotes David Treuer, who requests us, with regard to the Native novel, “to stop reading them through a cultural lens and start looking at them, first and foremost, through a literary lens” (74) and then, rather than follow this advice to place Native novels in the larger conversation, he focuses on seemingly all the ways Anglo readers can’t understand these novels without a map. Again, in “The Cinematics of Engagement, The Politics of Resistance” Rader quotes Craig Womack that Native literary texts “deserve to be judged by their own criteria, in their own terms, not merely in agreement with, or reaction against, European literature and theory” (93). Rader argues that these two very different films represent “resistance to and within American systems” (110) which seems to analyze Naturally Native and Skins in the exact ways that Womack and Treuer state Native texts should not be viewed. “Word as Weapon” is another such contradiction as it speaks of how the work of writers such as Alexie, Erdich, and Rose “counters cultural canonization” while also works to “establish Natives as independent and interdependent communities” (125); but Rader again falls back on analyzing these works in opposition to Anglo works.

Situating Native arts, whether it’s film, art, prose, poetry or visual forms such as buildings and public art, within the larger context of these forms has always proved problematic. Where do these texts fit and how is the public supposed to view them? In the past, colonialism has been the standard lens through which Native work has been viewed. While Rader’s Engaged Resistance does not take a clear stance as to whether Native art should be taken on its own merits within the larger context of pop culture, or whether the lens of colonialism is still a valid one, his latest contribution to the conversation is a worthy one.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.