"Across every border": Nationalism, cosmopolitanism, tribal sovereignty, and contemporary Native American literature

Matthew Dale Herman
Dept. of English, State University of New York at Stony Brook
August, 2006


This dissertation assesses the status in theory of contemporary Native American literature in relation to recent debates over the comparative value of nationalism, cosmopolitanism, and tribal sovereignty. The Native American literature mainstream audiences recognize today rose to prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the emergence of novelists like N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, and James Welch, and since that era, its appeal and notoriety have spread globally. Alongside this proliferation of texts and audiences, the study of Native American literature has followed primarily a culturalist line of inquiry in keeping with the anthropological roots of academic approaches to indigenous aesthetics. In recent years, however, political criticism has taken hold within Native American literary studies, reconceptualizing both the nature and the function of the Native American literary text. Among these new perspectives, disagreement is rampant. Some critics see contemporary native writing as a nation-building "literature of resistance," some see a "cosmopolitan" capitulation to metropolitan cultural values, some see the creation of a new "American" voice, and some see the literature of a global indigenous sovereignty movement.

To assess these new perspectives on Native American writing, my project consults theories on nationalism, cosmopolitanism, and tribal sovereignty across a range of academic disciplines and intellectual traditions. The first charter interrogates theories of the nation and cosmopolitanism from within Marxism, postcolonialism, subaltern studies, cultural studies, American and Canadian multiculturalisms, "cosmopolitan democracy," and Native American studies. Chapters two, three, and four develop contemporary case studies within Native American literary studies. Chapter two takes up what I call the Krupat-Warrior Debate, a series of contentious exchanges over literary canons, cultural propriety, and the cultural politics of Native American literary criticism. Chapter three re-examines the Silko-Erdrich Controversy by considering the episode as a watershed event that uniquely broaches the aesthetics and politics question on the terrain of literary style. And chapter four considers the status of culturalism, cosmopolitanism, and literary value in the work and career of Sherman Alexie.