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Mapping the Transnational in Contemporary Native American Fiction: Silko and Welch


Revisiting the terrain of the 2012 JTAS Special Forum, “Charting Transnational Native American Studies,” this essay argues both that the transnational is a valuable, productive lens for understanding Native American literature, and that a consideration of Native American texts is indispensable to the “transnational turn” in Americanist literary scholarship. The essay argues that Native American literary texts engage the transnational in three ways: affirming “America” as transnational cultural space from its inception by staging ways Native cultures “dis-identif[y] with the nation”; affirming the transnational complexity of Native cultures; and registering Pan-Indian and indigenous transnationalisms vitally alive in the present. The essay advances these claims through readings of two recent historical novels by major Native American authors: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Gardens of the Dunes (2000), and James Welch’s The Heartsong of Charging Elk (2001).  Both novels are set in the late nineteenth century, a critical period in Native American history, especially in the American West; and both novels map complex itineraries for Native American characters who travel abroad, scripting transnationalism in diasporic terms. The essay argues that Silko’s novel portrays transnational encounter as global transindigeneity, casting the transnational as a vehicle to awaken and activate feminist and especially ecofeminist transindigenous solidarities, while Welch employs the form of the transnational bildungsroman to make visible tribal processes of cultural adaptation and transnational dimensions of tribal cultures at “home.”

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