Announcement: Dr. Caleb Smith Lectures on Law and Literature

Join us this Friday for a lecture by Dr. Caleb Smith (English and American Studies, Yale), “Crime Scenes: Fictions of Security and Jurisprudence.” The talk will take place in Parlin Hall 203 at 3:30pm.

In this lecture, Dr. Smith will discuss his recent work on law and literature, focusing especially on the popular literature that emerged from the struggle over Cherokee “removal” between the 1830s and 1850s; the minister Samuel Worcester’s letters from a Georgia prison; the lawyer-novelist William Gilmore Simms’s “border romances”; and the Cherokee writer John Rollin Ridge’s Joaquín Murieta, sometimes known as the “first Native American novel.”


Dr. Caleb Smith is the author of The Oracle and the Curse (2013) and The Prison and the American Imagination (2009). He is working on an edition of “The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict,” an 1858 narrative by Austin Reed, an African-American inmate of New York¹s Auburn State Prison, which will be published by Random House in 2016.

Presented by the departments of English and American Studies.

5 Questions with AMS Afficilate Faculty Member Dr. Jim Cox

Today we are pleased to bring back a favorite feature here at AMS::ATX—-5 Questions! Today’s interview introduces you to Dr. James H. Cox, AMS affiliate faculty member in English and author of the forthcoming book, The Red Land to the South: American Indian Writers and Indigenous Mexico.

What has been your favorite project to work on and why?

My most recent project was on American Indian writers who traveled to Mexico and wrote about it and its indigenous population. This was an exciting project because I was thinking about comparative indigeneities, about the way indigeneity is experienced in the United States and Mexico, and how it’s experienced when people are crossing the border as well. I enjoyed it because I was writing about a time period in American Indian writing that has been largely neglected by literature scholars, and overlooked by historians, too. This period falls between the progressive and civil rights eras – it looks like an empty four decades, but the period is actually full of manuscripts and published works that only a few people have studied in depth. The genre diversity within the project is fun as well – I worked with detective novels, worked with plays, which I had never done before, and nonfiction. I was going outside of the more conventional literary genres, reading biographies and memoirs and histories by Native authors.

Additionally, I’ve just started a new project that I’m really stoked about. One of the writers in the American Indians in Mexico project is Lynn Riggs, a Cherokee dramatist who published between 15-20 plays, a book of cowboy songs, and a book of poetry during his life. He wrote about 10 other plays that went unproduced and unpublished. In 1931, he also made an experimental film with a director named James Hughes and with guidance from several fairly well known cinematographers from Hollywood, including Henwar Rodakiewicz. It is a 15 minute film of a day in Santa Fe. When the film was complete, he showed it first to the literary crowd–Alice Corbin Henderson, Spud Johnson–in Santa Fe at that time. It’s a silent movie, and he interspersed it with a poem of his called “Santo Domingo Corn Dance.” There are two dominant images in the film. One is of a huge cross outside a church in Santa Fe, and then there’s a dance by local indigenous people. So I’m going to Santa Fe and the New Mexico historical archives. In particular, I want to know who the dancers are. If the dance in the film is actually the corn dance, then Riggs violated a prohibition against filming it. I suspect it wasn’t, but, if so, I’d like to know how and why Riggs staged it the way he did for the film. I’m also interested in his multicultural conception of Santa Fe at the time: there are Mexican Americans, Native Americans, Anglos, interspersed throughout the entire film; and I’m interested in the images too of the cross and the corn dance and how he’s playing with both of them to convey a sense of the religious identity of this place.

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Faculty Research: Dr. Randy Lewis discusses new book, ‘Navajo Talking Picture’

This past July, Dr. Randy Lewis published his third book, Navajo Talking Picture (University of Nebraska Press). I sat down with Randy to discuss the conception of the book, its challenges, its delights, and how the narrative he tells engages with broader conversations within American Studies and beyond.

Where did the idea for this book come from? How did the film [Navajo Talking Picture] and the filmmaker [Arlene Bowman] come onto your radar screen initially?

Probably about ten years ago, I realized that there wasn’t much scholarly literature in film studies and none in American Studies on Native American cinema or indigenous media in a global sense. I started thinking about how to remedy that. I began collecting texts to consider and got deep into Alanis Obomsawin’s work, which I thought was just going to be a chapter of a book that would look at some of the major figures in Native American cinema who had been neglected. It just kept going into a book. It’s hard to imagine this, but it was the first one devoted to a Native filmmaker. This says something about how much “Native art” is narrowly associated with traditional art forms in opposition to modern, technologically-dependent art forms, as well as how rarely Native people have been able to get their points of view on screen, even as they are obsessively represented by outsiders like John Ford.

While I was writing the Obomsawin book that came out in 2006, I was aware that I had these other things that I was really interested in. Part of it stemmed from writing in the southwest at the School of Advanced Research in Santa Fe for a year. I was really close to Navajo Nation, and I was coming across a lot of amazing Navajo artists and getting a sense that not only were they doing a lot with Navajo-language radio on the reservation, but there were a lot of Navajo media professionals doing all kinds of projects that were not on the film studies or American Studies radar. And I learned that there was a Navajo filmmaker named Arlene Bowman, who was really early in this story of Native filmmaking, who seemed to interest and dismay audiences equally. I wanted to see this film she made as a graduate student that had made a little splash in the 1980s when it came out, at a time when she was the first Native woman in film school at UCLA or probably anywhere else.

Arlene Bowman, 1980

So I watched the film called Navajo Talking Picture, and I found it kind of confusing and unfamiliar. Then I’d show it to other people, to friends and students. What got me really hooked on it was that I had never seen something upset people and divide audiences so much. Apparently back in the 1980s when she screened it at festivals, Bowman said, there were these camps that were set up. Some people said, “You have the right to make this film, and you have a right to put your traditional grandmother on film even if she appears unwilling.” And other people would say, “This is an example of everything that you should not do in documentary.”

As I started to register the depth of the divide and the racially-infused animosity, I became interested in the film itself as a cultural object, as a kind of wound, as I write in the book. I’m probably more interested in this question of wounding – or, let’s use the metaphor of a rock and ripples, because I have to have my eccentric metaphors. The rock is the text under consideration, and it drops into the pond of the culture, and it creates ripples. The ripples are the things that really fascinated me: why there were so many strange responses and strange resonances to this very small film.

Reading the ripples

The fact that it’s a film almost became incidental. I became fascinated by what you could learn about the way different audiences responded. About why some viewers had such strong expectations about what Native artists, or Native women, were “supposed to do.” About what was “authentic” and “appropriate” for Native artists, things we rarely ask about non-native artists, you know? I ended up writing some of the first pieces about the reception and intentionality involved in the reception of native art. Why do we want it to be this way and not that way? Why do we think it was meant to do x and not y? And who is the “we”? These are revealing questions in terms of race, power, and gender.

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