On "Looking for Judas "
In “Looking for Judas,” Adrian C. Louis conflates Native American and Christian myth, binding them together through the central imagery of the poem. Louis’s poem begins when the speaker of the poem kills a deer and hangs it in the barn, and as he reflects on the body, the image of the “five-point mule” recalls Christ’s crucifixion: “Gutted, skinned, and shimmering in eternal/ nakedness, the glint in its eyes could/ be stolen from the dry hills of Jerusalem.” After he imagines the deer as a Christ-figure, however, the speaker tries to return to a time before “the white man/ brought us Jesus” in order to tell the story of the way in which Native Americans once communed with the spirit of the “Deer People.” These two narratives are brought together dramatically in the penultimate line, in which the speaker says that the deer’s “holy blood became ours.” In both myths, the “holy blood” symbolizes intimate connection and communion, a union between physical and spiritual realities. The narratives that Louis weaves together are both stories of a death that leads, presumably, to communion, rebirth, and regeneration, and yet the history of the “white man’s” genocide of Native people makes such an easy communion unthinkable.
As the speaker continues to regard the deer that he has just killed, he attempts to place himself and the deer within the context of the story of the Native people’s connection to the Deer People. Though the speaker includes himself in the “we” of the story, his repetition of the phrase “They say” makes it clear that he has already distanced himself from his narrative, relying on hearsay or on another’s discursive authority:
They say before the white man
brought us Jesus, we had honor.
They say when we killed the Deer People,
we told them their spirits
would live in our flesh.
The “They” of the poem remains necessarily ambiguous and nebulous; the speaker cannot identity the “They” as a familiar person or as a particular group of storytellers with whom he can personally relate. Rather, he views one of the central stories of his own culture as if he were an outsider looking in on the narrative. The co-existence of the two cultural myths in the poem reveal that the speaker cannot remember or speak of a time “before the white man,” so that the “They” of the poem not only refers to his Native ancestors, but also to the white people who have appropriated, fixed, and disseminated the stories of his people. Through movies, television shows and novels, American consumers have become familiar with the “white man’s” version of stories about Native people’s relationship to the land and to animals, and it is impossible for Louis to tell this story without echoing the white stereotype of the “noble savage” whose intimate connection with nature make him seem both more and less than human. Therefore, Louis is necessarily alienated from his own story, unable to find “honor” in a narrative that has been appropriated by the very people who systematically destroyed his culture.
After constructing his narrative, however, Louis adroitly dismantles the story through the mockery of his last line: “Or something like that.” With its swift disruption of the reader’s expectations, Louis’s last line is a brilliant use of irony that transforms everything that precedes it. The speaker’s final statement reclaims the narrative from the nebulous “They” that had seemingly controlled it, thereby restoring the speaker’s discursive authority. By seizing control of the story, Louis skillfully undermines the white stereotype of the noble savage; the self-mockery and irony of the last line makes it clear that he is deeply aware of the way in which his story has been appropriated by white culture. Even though this last line reclaims the speaker’s authority, the implications of the speaker’s mockery are fairly devastating, quickly severing any hope that the speaker might find some mythic connection with the deer and, therefore, with his own culture.
If the deer is a symbol of Christ, then the title of the poem, “Looking for Judas,” leads us to ask who, exactly, is the great betrayer. “Judas” cannot simply be identified as the speaker of the poem because Judas himself did not physically kill Christ; the betrayal, then, lies not in the central action of the poem, but rather lurks behind it. If we read the text of the poem through the title – that is, read it “Looking for Judas,” – then the words “the white man/ brought us Jesus” take on an entirely new meaning, suggesting that the white man “brought [them] Jesus” in the same way in which Judas brought Jesus to the Romans, using the Christian religion as a means to satiate their avarice and lust for power. Read in this way, the focus of the Christian myth as it is played out in America is not redemption, but rather a betrayal rising out of an unpardonable greed, and the guilt of Judas is no longer contained in one man, but rather disseminated among the population.
Deeply aware of the way in which his story has been appropriated, Louis uses irony to dramatize the speaker’s alienation from himself, from his history, and from the deer, whose spirit never “live[s] in [his] flesh.” However, because the Native and the Christian narrative are so inexorably linked within the poem, the failure of communion between the speaker and the deer reverberates out through the Christian myth. Through the title of the poem and his use of Christian imagery, Louis shows that the “white man’s” history of greed and deceit has likewise alienated them from their own central narrative of salvation, revealing them as the betrayers of Christ rather that his messengers—casting them as strangers in the house of their own myth.
Copyright © 2004 by Christina Scheuer
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