Autopoetics: Autobiographical Representations of the Indian and the Making of the Self [the following is an introduction to my Ph.D. Thesis. See also the entries on this site for Eleanor Brass, Maria Campbell, and James Tyman.]


Philippe Lejeune has called the discourse of subjectivity “the myth of our civilization.” The demise of this discourse, among a number of academics at least, seems all but complete. The work of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault has determined that the death of the subject is a matter almost of common sense among many (see, for instance, Foucault, “What is an Author?”, Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, Derrida “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”, Jacques Lacan, “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason Since Freud”.) However, there are theorists who are critical of postructuralist proclamations that the subject is dead, or that human agency is a fiction discursively produced. Leigh Gilmore reminds us that “it has been a crucial insight of many feminisms that it is a good deal easier to abandon yourself to disappearance and Nietzschean death if you already dominate all you survey. This insight is instructive, and yet among theorists of autobiography and biography, feminist or otherwise, there is no agreement over the question Does the “myth of our civilization” bear any political utility? Leigh Gilmore asserts that “writing an autobiography can be a political act because it asserts a right to speak rather than be spoken for,” and argues also that “politics is conceivable without a foundational subject”:

in fact, the condition of political agency lies in this conceptual refusal. The claim that “women” is a constructed category with varying histories and embodiments has not heralded the end of feminism or of the subject’s agency; rather, it has adumbrated the end of “women” as the previously totalizing name of our identities.

This quotation invokes a number of contended terms: agency, women, feminism, subject and identity. This study shall not attempt to enter into the contention; rather, the Gilmore quotations are introduced in order to present the debates currently involved in the scholarly production and study of autobiographical and biographical texts. The investigations of individual Plains Cree autobiographies and biographies will need to take into account ideologies of gender, individualism and race, but the central concern around which these ideologies shall be organised is the ideology of the subject—the myth, as Lejeune would have it, of our civilization. The subject is of more than theoretical concern in this study. The Canadian government spent most of the period 1880-1990 trying to civilise the Indian by turning him into a private (non-tribal) individual and an owner of private property; assimilation had as its goal the creation of bourgeois subjects. In biography and autobiography we can discern the development of this policy, as well as some Native responses. This is not however a history paper, so much as an examination of the textualisation of subjectivities within specific historical, cultural and ideological configurations. As I shall suggest in the next section, particular incidences of autobiography and biography are ritualised recreations of the cultural myth of subjectivity. It is with performance that this study is concerned—how the text operates rather than in what it “means.”


Both the writing and the reading of autobiographical and biographical narratives must be considered with careful attention to the context in which the texts are produced and consumed (or as Arnold Krupat puts the matter, “To speak of the mode of production of the signifiers is to historicize and materialise its composition and to permit comparison between the literary mode of production and the general mode of production in force at a given place and time…”). In other words, reading and writing need to be considered as contingent, contextually-determined performances. Here, the work of John Searle and J. L. Austin is invaluable, for speech act theory enables the critic to shift the question from ‘what is an autobiography?’ to ‘what is an autobiography doing?’—that is, what is the character of its performance? This is not a subtle recourse to an extratextual authorial intention, the performance of an agent existing beyond the narrative. Rather, speech act theory enables a critical approach to autobiography and biography that acknowledges the inseparability of textualised identity and the complexities inherent in language. An autobiography, for instance, is not merely a collection of locutionary utterances (indicative statements about an identity), but also and at once an illocutionary act (self-justification, for example). An instance of constitutive rhetoric which confirms a “self-authorising I,” the autobiographical text is a paradox, “neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a transformative process of naming what is happening” (Folkenflik). Speech act theory provides concepts necessary to understand the complexities of texts as performances.

In the “transformative process of naming” lies the allure of autobiography and biography. The author is assured that she is the cause of her life, for the discursive production of the I confirms the “scripted nature of life” (Gilmore) and offers “at least one remaining area of symbolic power over our destinies as individuals (Bruss). For Native writers, autobiography presents a “struggle in and for representation” (Emberley). Elizabeth Bruss argues that the institutions of autobiography and biography also “extend and develop” conceptions of individual identity, authorising certain narratives and their concomitant identities. The masculine tradition of autobiography represented by Augustine and Rousseau, for instance, authorises the cultural myth of the unique yet representative subject, whose identity transcends the accidents of culture and history. We must also keep in mind that the narrativised self presented in literary discourse partakes of the form of narrative. Both the narrative and the self it produces are paradoxically completed objects in their yet unfolding linearity. Bakhtin’s assertion that the literary tradition “enshrines at its centre the notion of the book as a sacred object” (The Dialogic Imagination) reminds us that the idea of the book informs the idea of the life, even of the concept of a “life” itself (See Jesse Gellrich, The Idea of the Book in the Middle Ages chapter one for a discussion).

There are however models of selves other than the masculine, literary selves of western literature. Some feminists for example distinguish “masculine” identity (as represented by Augustine and Rousseau) from “feminine” identity, the later supposedly “relational.” Feminine identity, the argument claims, is conceived in relation to others—husbands, children, lovers, fathers and mothers. Masculine models of the self however, according to this scheme, stress the independent nature of one’s identity, its self-determined, self-authorising character; therefore this model of selfhood may be termed “oppositional” to indicate an antagonistic relationship of the self to society. This masculine/feminine scheme risks an oversimplification of the matter, and assigns to specific formulations of identity specific gender traits, gender itself being a politically contentious and complicated concept. Arnold Krupat, in an article entitled “Native American Autobiography and the Synechdochic Self,” attempts to describe differing conceptions of the self in the terms of western rhetoric. This approach articulates the models of selfhood brought forward by the masculine/feminine models, but without the troubling implications of gender categories. Krupat suggests that “the West’s traditional fourfold rhetorical division of elocutio and poesis into metaphor, metonymy, synechdoche, and irony (antiphrasis)…may provide terms for a theory of self-conception and self-situation as these appear in texts we call autobiographies (Krupat):

If, for example, there are indeed peoples who actually do conceive of themselves as in some very real sense interchangeable with their ancestors and their posterity (Geertz’s Balinese, perhaps?), then we might expect any stories they tell about themselves to show a metaphorical concept of the self, one that constructs identity paradigmatically, along the vertical axis of selection. Metonymy and synechdoche involve relations of part-to-part and part-to-whole. Thus, where personal accounts are marked by the individual’s sense of herself predominantly in relation to other distinct individuals, one might speak of a metonymic sense of self; where narration of personal history is more nearly marked by the individual’s sense of himself in relation to collective social units and groupings, one might speak of a synecdochic sense of self, both of these constructing identity syntagmatically, along the horizontal axis of combination.

Krupat argues that Western autobiography has been “essentially metonymic in orientation,” wheareas “Native American autobiography has been and continues to be persistently synecdochic (Eakin). This synecdochic sense of self he attributes to orality, a “technique of information transformation” that places the individual in relation to collective social units and groupings.

Postructuralism offers yet other models of the self, models that resist racial and gender essentialism. Postructuralist theory advocates not “the counterfeit integration of the subject” (to cite Barthes’s phrase), but the creation of a plurality of subject positions. Francoise Lionnet formulates “an art of transformation and transmutation, an aesthetics of the ruse that allows the weak to survive by escaping through duplicitious means the very system of power intent on destroying them.” Drawing upon the term métis in its Greek, French and even mythological senses, Lionnet articulates autobiographical writing not as a series of statements about an identity, but rather as a play of signification that empowers the writing/written I even as the deferral of that same I forestalls co-option by racist and sexist ideologies.


David Murray, examining Native American biography and autobiography in Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing & Representation in North American Indian Texts, argues that

autobiography has long had a special importance for underprivileged and underheard groups in America, partly because of its documentary and political potential for making public the conditions of many lives by its recounting of one typical life, partly because it seems to be the least elitist or specialized in form, but also because of the way the writing of an autobiography can act out and confirm the development of an identity (66).

David Brumble has suggested a number of reasons for which Native American peoples have chosen to have their lives documented. In Canada, as in the United States, Autobiographies offer an important vehicle for Native peoples wishing to engage in pedagogy and political activity. Native biographical and autobiographical writing can convey and therefore preserve traditional indigenous ideals, values and knowledge, and thus can work toward a consolidation of the Native community for the purpose of political activity. Most nineteenth and early-twentieth century Native Canadian biographies and “as-told-to autobiographies” of Indians were produced however by white anthropologists, whose own cultural assumptions and agendas often worked at odds with the aims of their subjects. Arnold Krupat has described the “bicultural composite composition” of the collaborative, bi-culturally produced autobiography, a composition further complicated by the absence of a “prior model [of autobiography] in the collective practice of tribal cultures” (Krupat 1985, 31). Despite whatever disadvantages this absence may have conferred, autobiographical narratives were found to be useful by Native peoples and were produced in great number, often in response to white initiative but certainly also according to the agendas of the Native subjects. As a result of these cross-cultural initiatives, many texts that purport to tell the mere story of an individual Indian life (that is to say which occlude motives beyond ostensibly “disinterested” ones) yield to careful study historically-determined assumptions, political agendas and cultural discourses in conflict. David Murray has shown this to be true not only of biographies written be anthropologists, but also of autobiographies authored by literate Natives. Autobiographical texts are the site of contentions between ideologies, agendas, individuals and cultures.

The production of Euro-Canadian Indian biographies has often involved complex cultural and institutional involvement. In the earliest year this study considers, 1880, biographies and as-told-to autobiographies would have been produced almost invariably by white anthropologists working on behalf of a university or the government. These early studies were intended by the fieldworkers to capture the Indian way of life before it disappeared forever, for the disappearance of indigenous cultures was regarded as inevitable. As Krupat has noted of American 19th century Indian biographies, the texts “function to affirm the central authority of American progressivist ideology, offering testimony to the inevitable replacement of “savagery” by “civilization.” This replacement of the Indian by civilization could be and was regarded variously by commentators, and yet the belief that civilization must inevitably displace the primitive was universal among whites. A desire to recuperate the Indian for posterity fueled the engines of textual production up until roughly the second decade of the twentieth century, when the emergence of Native political organizations made it apparent that the Indian was not in fact disappearing. Assimilation nonetheless continued to be the aim of the government. The first decade of the twentieth century saw the rise of the residential school and aggressive legislative efforts to “civilise” the Indian. While a Native language tended to be the mother tongue of Indians born in the first decade of the twentieth century , one result of the residential school is that Native peoples began to write their autobiographies in English. Not surprising, these texts often display the influence of the residential schools, and the schools themselves were embedded in the cultural assumptions of their time. Many Native authors, having learned the English language and having employed it to their own ends, internalized the cultural “heteroglossia” that had been earlier constituted by the collaboration of Indian subject and anthropologist.

By mid-century, there were a number of Native political organizations and publications in Canada. The 1960s brought the civil rights and feminist movements to the United States, and white interest in Native cultures increased. This interest derived from the supposed “enlightenment” of Indians, whose matrilinear societies and supposed oneness with nature served as useful models for white liberals disenchanted with patriarchy and late industrial capitalism. Biographies written decades earlier, in an age influenced by social Darwinism, were republished (or published for the first time) to meet the demand for the exotic and for indigenous wisdom. One can see, in Maria Campbell’s Half-Breed for example, the complex relationship that Native women have sometimes had with feminism and with the ecological movement.


Leigh Gilmore writes, “access to autobiography means access to the identity it constructs.” Women and ethnic minorities have recourse to autobiography and biography as a means of constituting and authorizing identities.

My principal aim is thus “political,” insofar as it derives from a concern regarding the relation of knowledge systems to social formations. As Terry Wotherspoon and Vic Satzewich have noted, “efforts at social action and social change do need to be based on wider theoretical understanding of the nature of inequality and oppression within capitalist societies.” While a comprehensive analysis of Native political economy is not the purpose of this discussion, considerations of political economy are nonetheless necessary. Again, to quote Wotherspoon and Satzewich, at the heart of a political economy analysis is “a concern for the ways in which people socially produce and reproduce the conditions for their existence,” conditions which include the social institution of autobiography.

Attention to textual detail must be balanced by attention to the complex relations of individuals to institutions, ideologies, and social dynamics (including familial and tribal affiliations). Here diverse theoretical insights have been brought to bear upon the details of the texts where considerations of race, class, gender, and the state are judged necessary. While there is an abundance of theoretical writing regarding matters of class, race, gender, and the state, there is nonetheless a daunting amount of complexity involved in the formation of subjects and subjectivity. Matters have been somewhat simplified by an attendance to the immediate concern with Native autobiography. The scope of this paper is thus restricted to a specific genre of writing — autobiography — as it is manifested in several historical and cultural instances. In each of these instances the socio-cultural and historical particularities of individual human agents interact with historically-grounded institutions, ideologies, and social dynamics to produce autobiographical narratives. These narratives offer to the literary critic insights into the complex matter of social formations, as well as into the relation of particular instances of autobiography to social, economic, and political institutions. These relations are the concern proper of the discussion.

Institutional dominance of postmodern ideologies has entrenched the view that the “individual” which emerges from an autobiographical narrative is a construct, a mere effect of language. Despite and perhaps because of this entrenchment, critics such as Paul Smith have emphasized the need to restore to literary theory the notion of human agency. In Smith’s view, the agent is “the place from which resistance to the ideological is produced and played out,” and is thus equivalent neither to the subject nor the individual. Smith’s principal contention is that ideologies and agents stand in complex relations one to another, that the character of these relations is not adequately theorized either in the concept of the subject or the individual. Following Smith I have chosen to give especial attention to the agent —that is, to the “resistance to the ideological” constituted by the institution of autobiography. I do not however wish this emphasis to be construed singularly as an argument “for” postcolonial autobiography, or some other such mode of narrative. In short, things are not so simple. The autobiographical genre constitutes a number of contending discourses, among which are both the subject and the individual. Subject here designates the usual multiple and paradoxical connotations. The subject is both a self-determining will and the object of determining forces, simultaneously “a subject to, and of, others.” Individual designates the illusion of a whole and coherent personal organisation. The historical agent however is never quite reducible to these constructs, and exists in a dynamic relation to them, a fact with which theorists of autobiographical narrative must struggle to come to terms.

The primary challenge to the theorist of autobiographical narrative is the messiness of the agent’s multiple domains: ideological, historical, cultural. The agent occupies a number of contesting and perhaps contested subject positions and negotiates a social identity among the intersecting data of class, race, gender, and tribal and national ideologies. Furthermore, the relation of the agent to social and political institutions (among Native Canadians principally the capitalist state) is complex, fluid, and inorganic. Complex designates the non-homogenous character both of the agent and of the state, fluid the non-static character both of ideologies and of historical agents, and inorganic the non-causal and dialectical relation of the agent to social forces. While the messiness of contradiction and multiplicity complicates the matter of analysis, it also constitutes the social dynamics without which historical change would be impossible. Though autobiographical narrative may tend toward the textual reification of the historical agent, by producing an individual subject, it also implicates in its project the contradictions and paradoxes which are that agent’s propre. Perhaps then the efforts of the literary theorist of autobiography may best be employed in the service of discursively analysing the textualisation of what I have termed the agent’s “multiple domains.” Such an approach acknowledges both the historical vitality of the agent and the current theoretical grievances over the subject/individual.

At the centre of this dissertation is the near-overwhelming historical dominance of the Canadian capitalist state in the affairs of Canada’s Native peoples. The state has played a decisive series of roles in the ongoing historical effort to assimilate Canada’s aboriginal people. One element of this historical effort concerns this discussion especially:

Native life has been shaped by a dialectic of domination and resistance constituted … through the emergence and transformation of capitalist social relations. The Canadian state, as signified in the actions of its agencies and officials, has intervened actively, both directly and indirectly, in aboriginal societies in order to produce particular kinds of individuals or subjects as required within particular phases of capitalist development and state formation.

State capitalism’s imperative to form “particular kinds of individuals or subjects” discloses the ideological terrain on which the agent and state share and contest one another’s prerogatives. Autobiography is thus an especially-situated genre for a consideration of the relation of the agent and the state, involved as it is in the “dialectic of domination and resistance” by virtue of its shared investments with the state in the production of the individual subject.

The dialectic of domination and resistance underscores both the subjection of Native peoples—the transformation of Native peoples into Indian subjects—and their persistence as historical agents. Native autobiographical narrative is complicated by the same dialectic, which reinforces eurocentric ideologies of the subject within an act (writing) confirming human agency and the “self-authorizing I.” Considered as an instance of textualized Native subjectivity, the autobiography is a contradiction in terms. This complicates considerations of the ideological status of Native autobiography, “ideological status” here designating the relation of an autobiographical narrative to dominant notions of Indian subjects and subjectivity. To posit an autobiography as “contestory” is to imply a reactionary mode of discourse, an implication which simplifies the character of autobiographical discourse. Considerations of dialectical social and ideological relations at least acknowledge that Native peoples have shaped the social forces which have shaped them. The Native autobiographical subject is thus neither a site of mere domination nor an authentic voice speaking from beyond the ideological contaminants of white misconceptions. Rather, as I hope to show, Native writers negotiate from among diverse (and often contradictory) ideological resources both the rules and the content informing their self-representations. Indeed, the complex challenges posed by these negotiations constitute the thematics of much Native autobiography. As a site of negotiation, Native autobiography complements and extends the inter-cultural bargaining, exchange, and trafficking which have been familiar features of Native life since the arrival to Canada of Europeans. Nor has the bargaining always tended toward the advantage of the Europeans.

Liz Stanley reminds the critic of autobiography that the “ordinary and extraordinary material world exists and is prime.” The autobiographical subject may be a textualised fiction, but this judgement neither nullifies nor exhausts the “meaning” of the autobiographical I. Genres, as Frederic Jameson has pointed out, “are essentially literary institutions, or social contracts between a writer and a specific public.” The meaning of the subject of autobiographical narrative is itself socially negotiated in the “ordinary and extraordinary material world.” In this world, autobiography constitutes “an institution which offers us at least one remaining area of symbolic power over our destiny as individuals.” For this reason, autobiography has been employed by Native writers to achieve explicit political ends. This emphasis on the primacy of the material world in the production and consumption of literary texts suggests a need to consider both the relation of texts to agents and the social utility of literary discourse. Autobiographical production lends itself well to an investigation of the ways in which ideology is used by social agents, both as author and audience. Here the emphasis of the critic may fall upon the text as a speech act, a strategy which posits the institution of autobiography among its implied interlocutors. By interlocutors I intend not only persons but also the ideological and institutional spectres which haunt autobiography and with which the autobiographical text enters into an imaginary dialogue.

The recourse to considerations of the material world which I am suggesting is vulnerable to several attacks. One possible attack would involve postmodernist scepticism and would organise itself in relation to epistemological issues. In short, it would propose the dubious relation of the material or “real” world to theories about that world. According to this view, theoretical recourses to the material world are themselves constructs, part of the ideological superstructure rather than the material base. Jacques Derrida summed up the matter with the words: “there is nothing beyond the text.” From a differing theoretical base, the charge may be made that emphasis upon the material world constitutes a proto-Marxist fetish. This criticism deems invocations of the material to be sleights-of-hand; accordingly it casts it judgements upon a putative attempt to confer upon literary theory the authority of the sciences. These criticisms challenge the theorist who wishes to analyse the relation of texts to social, historical, and economic contexts. At this historical point in the development of literary criticism, there is a crisis of legitimacy whose symptoms are evident in the vicissitudes of literary theory and in conflicts over means of analysis which are mostly void of concomitant considerations of ends. Within this environment, theory has increasingly functioned as a means of self-justification; that is, it has become an end in itself. Hence in a sense not intended by Derrida, there is indeed nothing beyond the text. The real material world for the literary critic is in many cases a superstructure founded upon the institutional arrangements which themselves derive from the dominance of theory.

My contention is that an analysis of the agent’s textual production and reproduction of his or her material conditions is an analysis of the material setting of that agent. This is due not to the transparency of texts, but rather to their character as a speech act. The Native autobiographical text manifests a dialectic of ideological domination and resistance. Following Louis Althusser, we may regard ideology itself less as a camera obscura (as Marx designated it) than as a necessary component of social reality. The subject of the autobiography is a negotiated fiction in which are inscribed the complex and contradictory exigencies of the agent as well as of the particular social formations it inhabits. Ideology constitutes subjects for particular material conditions, but ideology itself is the shared and contested prerogative of the agent and state apparatuses. The material and ideological are furthermore co-determinating, each one shaped by and shaping the other. We may therefore speak of the autobiography both as an aesthetic artefact and as a social institution, as a text which fulfils ideological functions and as a commodity grounded in the dominant modes and forces of production.

In the end, my aim is to write in an honest manner about the production of Native autobiography. Thus my interest in class, race, and gender — which may appear to have been determined by their current fashionability as explanations of social reality — is motivated by a conviction that these things matter to the authors under consideration. Only after years of research did I begin to grasp the profound manner in which the state shapes Native subjects and subjectivity. The role of the capitalist state in the modern and contemporary history of Native peoples is I think impossible to overstate. This leads to nagging questions about Native self-government which are related to but beyond the scope of this discussion. I have chosen instead to limit myself to considerations of the “poetics” of autobiography, by which I mean the various and dynamic elements which go into the making of an autobiographical text. The guiding question, How does the autobiographical text function?, has led me by necessity to a consideration of related questions about the institutional character of autobiography and the status of Native peoples as “subjects” (in every sense of the term). The metaphysical status of the term subject has been amply theorized. Less considered has been its complementary political meanings within the social formations of industrial and global state-capitalism. From a consideration of these arises my concern with the character of the capitalist state and the practical relation of autobiography to political struggles within the material conditions partially constituted by that state. The strategic appropriation of autobiography by Native peoples on behalf of social action and social change indicates that Native authors well understand these matters. Thus an honest approach to autobiography is an approach that attempts to take seriously the experiences of Native peoples as human agents, rather than as the mere subjects of ideology and observation. By the former we may be taught; the latter we may perhaps study to death.

As I have suggested elsewhere, the gender, class, and race constituents of subject-positions are dominant concerns in each of the autobiographies under investigation. Implicit, and at times explicit, these concerns involve the reader in critical apprehensions of language deployed in the articulation of Indian-ness. I intend critical in its etymological sense —to discern— for class, race, and gender ideologies intersect in the narratives and together constitute the dynamic representation of Indian subjectivity; nonetheless, there are discreet reflections upon the proper character of each. James Tyman reflects principally upon the racial constituency of Indian subjectivity, while Maria Campbell appears to be concerned especially with gender-specific conditions of Metis identity. (I have tried also to show that Eleanor Brass’s narrative is germaine to considerations of class, but here the formula admittedly would be forced.) I do not wish merely to suggest the “obvious,” that subjectivity is informed by race, class, and gender ideologies. Rather, I am attempting to clarify the nuances of the texts and to argue that Indian subject-positions are both arbitrary and bound by rules, that the subject is subject both to the capricious outcomes of intersecting race-class-gender dynamics (not to mention the other accidents of personal and collective histories) as well as to the structural logic of discourse. This distinction corresponds roughly to Althusser’s discernment of ideologies and Ideology-in-general, the former designating particular ideologies and the latter the transhistorical structural features which they commonly bear.

Considerations of ideology which insufficiently regard the distinctions I have outlined above tend to emphasize the oppressive character of ideology. In such a case the task of the literary critic typically involves damning ideology and/or arguing that ideology is textually deconstructed, subverted, or otherwise resisted. Despite the differing approaches of these strategies a common assumption informs them, that ideology is an oppresive tool in the control of a dominant entity, often the state. The disagreement between those who damn absolutist ideology and those who proclaim its textual subversion lies in the purported extent of ideology’s power to constitute and control subjects. Missing from these strategies are the perhaps banal observations that ideologies are also used by historical agents and that they are no more or less in the control of the state than other circulating currencies, observations well understood by Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. I have therefore taken due caution in my analyses and have attempted to resist characterizing the texts in-whole as either subversive or enthralled. If Althusser is correct about the utility of ideologies, neither escape from nor slavery to it are tenable. Rather, ideologies are indispensable and dynamic social apparatuses with which subject-positions are constituted for particular societies. This determines the broad structural and functional features which ideologies share, but does not necessarily settle matters of substance. The content of these subject-positions and the sort of society in which they should be placed are contested and contestable. Such matters are the province of political discourse in general, and of Indian autobiography in particular.

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