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Laura Coltelli Interview with Wendy Rose (1985)

LC: In The Third Woman, you have written, 'It is my greatest but probably futile hope that someday those of us who are ethnic minorities will not be segregated in the literature of America." Will you elaborate on that?

ROSE: Well, anywhere in America, if you take a university-level course on American history or American literature, particularly in literature and the arts, it only has the literature and the arts that are produced by Americans of European heritage, even then largely Northern European. We are left out of the books. Black people are left out; brown people are left out; Indian people are left out. So you get the impression, going through the American education system, that the only people here are white people. It's not just a cultural matter, but it's a political matter. There is a reason for a society to be that way, that has the literary capacity and the technological capacity that America has; there's no excuse for the people being so blind, for the people to be wearing a blindfold that way. The only possible reason it could happen is because it's not an accident; that it's planned. Somebody is benefiting by having Americans ignorant about what non-European Americans are doing and what they have done; what European Americans have done to them. Somebody is benefiting by keeping people ignorant.

LC: Describing one of your trips, from California to Arizona, you write that "a half-breed goes from one half-home to the other." Could you talk on your "half-breed" identity?

ROSE: My father is a full-blood Hopi from Arizona. He lives on the reservation. My mother is mostly Scots and Irish, but also Miwok, which is an Indian tribe from the area near Yosemite National Park here in California. I've always thought in terms of being a half-breed because that is the way that both sides of the family treated me. The white part of the family wanted nothing to do, not only with me, but they were even angry that at one point my mother married a man who was Welsh. Even being Welsh was too exotic for their taste.

The Hopi side of my family is more sympathetic to my situation, but our lineage is through the mother, and because of that, having a Hopi father means that I have no real legitimate place in Hopi society, I am someone who is from that society in a biological sense, in what I like to think is a spiritual sense, and certainly in an emotional sense, but culturally I would have to say I'm pretty urbanized: an urban, Pan-Indian kind of person. I grew up with Indian people from all over the country, all different tribes. Some of them had lived on reservations and some of them had spent their whole lives in the city. I was born in Oakland, which is of course a big city. So there was always the sense of not really being connected enough to any one group. A lot of Indian writers have written about that. I think in fact it was James Welch who put it in one of his novels; at one point the protagonist is asked if being a half-breed meant that he had special insights and special privilege into both groups, and in fact to paraphrase his answer, he said what it actually means is you don't have enough of either group. I can understand that; I know what he means.

LC: Is your most recent book, The Halfbreed Chronicles and Other Poems, a new image of the "half-breed"?

ROSE: In The Halfbreed Chronicles I come to terms with that halfbreededness I was talking about earlier. Half-breed is not just a biological thing. it's not just a matter of having one parent from one race and the other parent from another race, or culture, or religion, or anything of that nature. But rather it's a condition of history, a condition of context, a condition of circumstance. It's a political fact. it's a situation that people who would not normally be thought of as half-breed in a biological sense, might be thought of this way in another sense. For example, some poems that are in The Halfbreed Chronicles are addressed to people like Robert Oppenheimer. Nobody would ever look at him in a racial sense as a half-breed person, yet at the same time he was in a context and at a time, and made choices in his life, that for me apply the metaphor of half-breed to him. And when people hear the poems from The Halfbreed Chronicles, very often people of all races and of all backgrounds, come up to me afterward and say that they can identify with The Halfbreed Chronicles. To me that means it worked, because that's the intention. We are in fact all half-breed in this world today.

LC: What Happened When the Hopi Hit New York is a kind of journal of your trips to various states. What's the "Indian invisibility" you talk about?

ROSE: There are two ways to look at that. One way is the invisibility that is imposed on Indian people, and that gets back to talking about the American system of education, in which Indians are deliberately made invisible, in which people can grow up in an area surrounded by Indian people who have maintained their culture, who still practice their religion, who live on federally administrated reservation land, and the non-Indians do not know it. That non-Indian people there can be unaware of that is one form of invisibility. Another form of invisibility is that which is self-imposed by the Indian person: in a context of conflict especially, very often in a confrontational or in an uncomfortable situation, an Indian will turn into a potted plant, if you know what I mean. An Indian person may withdraw and become part of the furniture or part of the wall. That's also another form of invisibility. It's protective coloration, like camouflage. It's a survival trait.

LC: Could you talk about your work as an anthropologist?

ROSE: I told Joe Bruchac when he was asking the same question about that in another interview--I told him I was a spy. He thought I was kidding and he repeated the question, and I repeated, "I am a spy." He laughed and figured, okay, that's all he was going to get. But I don't think he realizes to this day that I literally meant, I am a spy. But not in any cloak-and-dagger kind of way; I'm not out to hurt anthropologists. But the fact is that the only academic department at Berkeley that would deal with my dissertation, which involves Indian literature, is the anthropology department. Comparative literature didn't want to deal with it; the English department didn’t want to deal with it, in fact the English department told me that American Indian literature was not part of American literature and therefore did not fit into their department.

LC: You talked in the interview with Carol Hunter about your struggle to protect the burial grounds. You said that you acted as a kind of mediator between AIM [American Indian Movement] and the archaeologists, who didn't accept your training as an anthropologist as valid, since you aligned yourself with AIM.

ROSE: They didn't really believe that an Indian person would have studied archaeology. They didn't take seriously the fact that I had actually trained in it. I spent five years doing that kind of work, partly to experiment with the idea that if Indian people go into it maybe there will be some control. If, for example, you found a human burial in an archaeological site, if there were an Indian archaeologist there it would be handled differently. People wouldn't just bring up the remains, and so on. It didn't work; I realized after being there for years that archaeologists are just as capable of lying to Indian people as anyone else. There were some very ugly situations where archaeologists were calling up Indian activists and making threats on their lives at one point, in the Bay area, in San Francisco, in Marin County, in particular. When I talk about protecting the burial grounds, it is both a literal fact and a metaphor. The metaphor is to protect Indian people through, in some instances, trying to neutralize the very weapons that are being used against Indians, by mastering those weapons and then in a sense breaking them from within. it is also a literal fact in the poem by that name, "Protecting the Burial Grounds." That poem was in fact written in front of a bulldozer, on top of an Indian cemetery, where we were sitting to prevent the bulldozer from just going through and ripping up the Indian graves. The mayor of San Jose, which is the city this occurred in, actually called out a swAT team, which is the Special Weapons and Tactical squad, the people with the big guns, who wear the army-type uniforms and are associated with the city police departments. They all came out and they had been told that there was an Indian riot, that Aim was rioting out there in the cemetery. So they came with their m i 6s or ml 5 s or whatever, those big rifles-they came nmning out past where we were. They were looking for the riot. We were the riot and we were just sitting there. So then finally they left, and we succeeded. We did manage to save that burial ground. It was in fact preserved.

LC: Does it happen very often?

ROSE: Unfortunately, it doesn't. Unfortunately we usually don't find out that a burial ground has been desecrated until after the fact, because developers know that if the Indian people are in an area, and non-Indian people who sympathize with these concerns know that a burial ground is to be dug up or something like that, they will protest. So they go in, in the middle of the night, and the next morning everybody gets up and it's already done.

LC: Speaking about the "system," graduate schools, academia, do you feel that "there is a line which cultures do not cross," and that every day "you are bumping into that line," as you once said? Is there any way to bridge that gap? Can you see the mixed-blood as a mediator between two cultures?

ROSE: I think there is a way. Certainly individuals can cross the line, or can live on the line. I guess what happens is they live on the line, rather than trying to cross from one into another culture territory. When I said that, I was feeling betrayed because of friendships that I had for many years with a number of non-Indian people; all of a sudden the fact of my being Indian became too much for them to bear, and suddenly it just became a big issue with them. And similarly with Arthur, my husband, who is Japanese-American, same thing. His being Japanese-American suddenly became too much for them and they began acting in a racist way toward us, and we thought they were our friends. And it happened that that quotation was about that time, and we were both feeling pretty bitter about what had happened at that point. Sometimes I do feel pretty pessimistic about it like that, but I also think that even though nobody can ever completely cross over into another person's culture, no matter how big a barrier there seems to be or how different the cultures seem to be, there is a way that some people can transcend that, just as human beings--as long as they don't try to ignore the fact of the culture, as long as they respect the fact that those cultures are different and that they're there and that they're important, that they are important parts of the identities of both those people, no matter how different they are. If they can meet on that ground, then I think there is a way to cross that barrier.

LC: You are a poet and an accomplished painter as well. Is there a kind of interrelated technique between the two media that you use in your poetry and in your painting?

ROSE: It feels the same doing them. It feels the same way inside—to do a painting as to write a poem. It feels like the same impulse. The main difference is, and I don't know how to explain this, the main difference is that with poetry I feel like I am tough enough to take the criticism, but if someone doesn't like my paintings, I just fall to pieces. I'm more professional about poetry, and less so about the paintings I think.

LC: American Indian writers and publishing--you have written an article on that and about the difficulty in locating Native American literature in bookshops, which, by the way, is also my own frustrating experience. It's shelved under "Anthropology," and as you said this segregation is not only philosophical but economic, not to say political. Quoting Vine Deloria, as you did in the Coyote Was Here interview, "the fact is that the interest in American Indians is a fad that comes around every twenty years." Actually, in 1969, Momaday's House Made of Dawn won the Pulitzer Prize. In 1985, Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich, won the National Book Critic's Circle Award--and deservedly so. Of course, in between, scholars and writers have been recipients of awards and fellowships, but I am just speaking about awards which can appeal to a more general and wider audience. Can you see any significant, important change having taken place in the past few years?

ROSE: As you can see, House Made of Dawn and Love Medicine are approximately twenty years apart. The way a lot of us are looking at it now, Louise has it now, we have to wait another twenty years. And she deserves it; both Scott Momaday and Louise Erdrich certainly are accomplished writers who deserve it. But so is Leslie Silko, so is James Welch, but their timing was wrong. They came in between fads.

LC: Considering the importance of women in many Indian societies, is feminism synonymous with heritage for American Indian women?

ROSE: I would say not. There are a lot of Indian women, myself included, who consider ourselves to be feminist, but we're not feminist like non-Indian women are. We come from a different base; we have a different history. If I'm on the Hopi reservation I am not a feminist; if I'm in Fresno, California, I'm a feminist.

LC: Native Americans come from different tribal and cultural backgrounds. Do you see, then, Native American literature as multiethnic as a result of this?

ROSE: It is of course in fact a multiethnic literature. And there are certain tribal differences that scholars could pick out if they applied themselves to it. The further back you go the more evident this is. If you go back to the 1930s, for instance, you can see very profound differences between what a Pueblo person would be writing and what someone who is Sioux would be writing. It's not very new of course to have all this published literature by American Indian people around. It's not a brand new thing; it didn't just suddenly pop up with Scott Momaday. The Pan-Indian part of it, where it is not exactly a multiethnic literature, is in the fact that--and this is speculation on my part; I guess this is part of what I am looking at in my own doctoral dissertation--most of the people that I perceive who become writers and who are thinking in terms of actually publishing, and thinking of themselves as writers in the European sense of a writer and a published work, are people who are in that Pan-Indian world. They are people who are familiar with Indian people from various tribes. Now there are some exceptions. Simon Ortiz is an exception. He has a distinctly Pueblo background, but as an adult has become Pan-Indian, has traveled around. In fact, he's addressed that fact in some of his poems--Indians are everywhere. Ray Young Bear is very decidedly of one particular tribal area and in fact has even expressed the feeling that he does not want to deal with Indian people from other tribes, because he is concerned with people of Mesquakie heritage. He considers his work to be an outgrowth of the Mesquakie heritage, and to have nothing really to do with what the rest of us are doing. So there are exceptions. But I think most Indian writers probably are more similar to each other than they are to other members of their tribe who are not writers. I think, for example, culturally I bear more similarity to someone like Maurice Kenny, a Mohawk from New York City, or to James Welch for that matter, who of course is Blackfeet and Gros Ventre, than I do to other Hopi women of my same age who are on the reservation. I have more similarities with those other writers than with other Hopi or Miwok people.

LC: Do American Indian writers have a large audience among Indian people?

ROSE: Increasingly so. The Indian communities are beginning again to value those people who specialize in working with words. That of course was a traditional value at one time. And as Indian people went to the boarding schools and were forced to speak foreign languages and to worship foreign gods and so on, they also lost contact with their own traditions involving the spoken or the written word. I think that's being rediscovered. Increasingly, I find, for example, that I probably give more poetry readings as parts of powwows and tribal functions, grass-roots kind of functions, nonliterary functions, for Indian people in a community now than I do for literary people. And I like that. I enjoy giving poetry readings of course to literary people, too, and to urban audiences and so on. But the feeling of being appreciated by that grass-roots community is also very important to me. I think probably more important than the prestige or academic part of it. And this is something that's very important, I think--things like having poets and novelists as keynote speakers at what had one time been strictly political and social functions--at political rallies, at tribal chairmen banquets. At things of this nature, which used to be completely nonliterary.

LC: Does literature develop a sense of Pan-Indianness?

ROSE: Possibly, yes. But it should be also made really clear that to be Pan-Indian is not to become less tribal. To be tribal and to be Pan-Indian exist side by side, and in fact Pan-Indianism is intended to protect those tribal identities, not to replace them. So there is the Pan-Indian aspect to the literature, but with much of the same excitement generated by the literature that is in the English language in the form of the novel, or poetry. We then turn around in our own communities and can print things like booklets for children of traditional stories; we can print things like language primers in our own native languages, much of it with the impetus that originally came from writing the poetry and the novels.

LC: In American universities there is an increasing number of American Indian studies centers. What do you think of them?

ROSE: Well, I teach in one. It's not in a university, but I have taught in universities. I'm now at a city college, a two-year college. But I have taught at the University of California at Berkeley, and I have taught at California State University here in Fresno, in both instances in Native American studies, and now at Fresno City College. I see it as something that at the moment is very necessary, as part of the ethnic studies experience. It's something that's been left out of the curriculum, is still left out of the curriculum, unless we go there and put it in. And the only way we can go there and put it in is to concentrate on just those things. And if Indians are left out of every other class on the university campus, even where they are pertinent--for example, leaving Scott Momaday out of a class on twentieth-century American literature, something like that--somewhere else there has to be a balance. There has to be someone somewhere else who is going to emphasize Scott Momaday to the exclusion of the ones who are emphasized in the other class. I hope that at some point that will become balanced. I hope that pretty soon an American literature class will just automatically include someone like Scott Momaday--and some of the other people: Charles Eastman, you know, the other writers in our history. I also hope that there will continue to be some kind of program where Indian people will be doing the teaching. If courses in Native American studies were to go into the so-called mainstream departments, if Native American history were just taught through the history department, it would not be an Indian person teaching it. Even if they taught from the same cultural and political viewpoint, it would probably not be an Indian teacher. So part of what we are doing in these ethnic-studies departments is building up a core of professional academic people, a core of professional scholars.

LC: What's the response you get from your students?

ROSE: Well, it ranges--I have very large classes for Native American studies. Up at Berkeley you're likely to have a class with ten people in it, but down here it's more likely to be fifty. It varies. At the two-year college I find that students are much more receptive to the Native American studies than they were at the four-year university in the same city, here in Fresno. At the four-year university I had students who were calling me a squaw in class. I had students who, as I'd be walking across campus, would yell rude things at me that would be racist in nature; I was told not to talk about political controversy. They are among the reasons why I left the university, and I went to the city college here. Where I am now, some of the students have difficulties with the material primarily because they were brought up with a very narrow focus: if it isn't in the Bible it can't be true. That is the major problem, which is not as much a problem as just plain hostility.

LC: What do you think of non-Indian critics and readers of your work?

ROSE: When non-Indian critics, generally speaking, criticize my work, I find it useful. The critics that bother me are the ones who set out to review my work or the work of some other Indian writer and state at the beginning of the review that they can't really do it justice because they haven't taken enough anthropology. They drive me bats, because when I write my books of poetry, they are in the English language. When I use Hopi or other Native American terms, or Japanese terms, terms that are not in English, I explain them. I use a footnote as a courtesy, with the assumption that most of the readers of my work will be reading it in English. So with that assumption I use footnotes. I wish that the academic poets I might be reading would have the same courtesy for me to explain some of the culture-specific terms that they use. But they don't.

LC: In Geary Hobson's words the "white shaman" is a writer who in his poems assumes the persona of a shaman, usually in the guise of an American Indian medicine man. Would you like to add a few remarks on that?

ROSE: A few remarks. The term was coined by Geary Hobson. These are not just people who take on the persona of the shaman in their poetry but are people who actually even outside the realm of poetry take on a fabricated persona. The problem is one of integrity, very simply. I have no difficulty with people taking on an Indian persona and trying to imagine through their work what it would be like, for example, to be at the Wounded Knee massacre, or to be a man or a woman in Indian society. Fine. As long as it's really clear that that's what it is--an act of imagination. in my own work, if I put myself into the shoes of Robert Oppenheimer, it clearly is an act of imagination. I'm not going to pretend to people that I'm Robert Oppenheimer, or that I have some special insight into Robert Oppenheimer's mind. I'm going to imagine something about Robert Oppenheimer and I'm going to express the imagination. It's not an expression of him; it's an expression of me. If people who want to write about Native American spirituality or any of those kinds of issues were to simply start it out by saying something like: this is an act of my imagination; this is something I have been thinking about; this is something I feel; this is how I see it. Fine. But what happens is, that we get people, and this is who we call white shamans, people who say they have some special gift to be able to really see how Indians think, how Indians feel; that when they do it, it's real. One of them even had the audacity one time to tell me that I could not write poems; in the particular instance it was a poem about Tsu’hsi, the empress dowager of China; he told me I shouldn't write a poem about her because how could I understand the Chinese culture, but then he said it would be okay for him to do it because it was easier for someone who was white to put themselves into the shoes of other cultures, than it would be for other people.

LC: Can you see any evolution in your work?

ROSE: I hope it's getting better. I don't know. It isn't really my job to try to analyze my own work. I'm more comfortable analyzing someone else's work. But I try to improve. I hope that, like anyone else regardless of what they're doing, I hope that as I grow the work grows. I hope I am growing; I hope the work is growing.

LC: Could you describe your writing process?

ROSE: Well, I explained it one time, on radio, as the sensation of being sick in your stomach, in that you suddenly have to throw up, suddenly, you have to vomit. There is no way you can stop it. It has to happen. It's a bodily process in which the material is expelling itself from your body. That's what it feels like to me in a mental or emotional way. Suddenly it's there and it has to be expelled. It's going to come out whether I want it to or not. If I don't have something to write on, it comes out of my mouth. It's got to come out one way or another.

LC: Could you talk about your works in progress?

ROSE: There's one book that is primarily political work, which is looking back over the Indian movement for the twenty-five or so years that I've been involved with it, which is going to be called "Going to War with All My Relations." I don't have a publisher for it yet, so there will be probably something worked out about it pretty soon. There's one book I have in mind that he (her husband] doesn't want me to do. That's called, "How Come Arthur Isn't a Cowboy?" A couple of things like that are in progress.

rosecvr1.jpg (63825 bytes)From Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak. Lincoln: Unviersity of Nebraska Press, 1990. Copyright 1990 by University of Nebraska Press.

In Winged Words Laura Coltelli interviews some of America's foremost Indian poets and novelists, including Paula Gunn Allen, Michael Dorris, Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan, N. Scott Momaday, Simon Ortiz, Wendy Rose, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gerald Vizenor, and James Welch. They candidly discuss the debt to old and the creation of new traditions, the proprieties of age and gender, and the relations between Indian writers and non-Indian readers and critics, and between writers and anthropologists and historians. In exploring a wide range of topics, each writer arrives at his or her own moment of truth.

Available wherever books are sold or from the University of Nebraska Press (1-800526-2617) or on the web at


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