Volume V, Number 2, Fall 2009 · Special Issue: Proceedings of the 2008 HAAS Conference


"Reconceptualized Time and Space in Contemporary Native American Discovery Narratives" by Katalin Bíró-Nagy

Katalin Bíró-Nagy is Associate Professor at theInstitute of English and American Studies, University of Debrecen, Hungary. Email:

Native North American quincentenary fiction, inspired by the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s first landing in the “New World” conveys a vivid, transcultural sense of time and space, problematizing both as signifiers of cultural (mis)communication. As Teresa Bridgeman points out, “time and space are more than background elements in narrative, they are part of its fabric, […] they profoundly influence the way in which we build mental images of what we read” (52-3). If so, time and space reflect the different cultural conceptualizations of mental images. This essay examines how various combinations of Native and Western notions of time and space contribute to the reconceptualization of the Columbian grand narrative. The works studied below are Michael Dorris’s and Louise Erdrich’s The Crown of Columbus, Gloria Bird’s “History,” and Thomas King’s “A Coyote Columbus Story.”

The reconceptualization of certain temporal and spatial dimensions, carried out by the traumatized, colonized subject, is an act of rebellion. In our case, it is against historiographic colonialism, against the muting of indigenous voices by Western historicizing. In discovery narratives, written against “inter-narrative exclusion,” the Columbus heritage is revealed to bear Derridian “traces of other stories, stories that are not told, stories that are excluded, stories of the excluded” (Currie 84). However, as Mark Currie argues, “it is not enough to oppose the positivistic assumptions of history by writing a positivist history of the oppressed—it is the traditional practices of historical writing themselves which operate as ideological containment” (86). This is why Native writers address the Columbus story in accord with the Native American storytelling tradition, by means of flexibly constructed stories, applying spatial, temporal (as well as structural) strategies inherent in their own traditional storytelling.

As for the temporal dimension, the Native story is never envisioned as linear or chronologically and thematically fixed; it shows variations. Peter Nabokov sees an “innately democratic virtue” of the oral tradition, since the different versions show an “intimate awareness of […] different, perhaps contradictory microhistories” (49). Harold Adams Innis, in turn, understands this as a “continuous revision of history,” implying that in such a way does past history become applicable in some confusing present moment (quoted. in Cruikshank 7). Likewise, Native American works with a quincentenary topic read as “active reinterpretations.” They venture to make sense of a confusing past situation—the Discovery—in a confusing present colonial/postcolonial context. Through this process do discovery narratives attain healing power; traditionally, recontextualization constitutes the ceremonial healing aspect of the Native American storytelling mode, also integral to the Native sense of time and history. Metaphorically speaking, it plants the past (an event, a mythic story, or some cultural tradition) in the present (a storytelling event or a ceremony) to bear fruit in the future (the tribal community restored to spiritual health). Claude Lévi-Strauss coined the phrase “history for” to grasp this phenomenon (257). What we are dealing with in the above-mentioned texts is the Native American sense of “circular time:” while the past is a route to the future, the future in turn is a route to the past. In this “corridor, which allows for two-way traffic” (Nabokov 71), Native American historical narrative thickens experience into “epitomizing events” (ibid.). As Ramond D. Fogelson sees it, “[e]pitomizing events bring certain forces together in dramatic combination: they condense various subtle changes into a single transformative act” (qtd. in Howe 163). The Columbus story fits well into this concept of the “epitomizing event” and, thus, allows for its adjustment to Native historiography.

The geographical location of the “epitomizing event” is always of utmost importance. Thus Native history and temporality go hand in hand with a strong sense of place, actually, the latter more elementally shaping culture than time does. Geographical spots acquire sacred quality through those encounters with place that contribute to the formation of the tribe’s identity. This is generally the place where a given tribe came to the earth. Such a spot is the center of the tribe’s concept of the universe and the source of power; while the farther the tribe is forced to live from it, the weaker it gets (an important aspect of relocation tragedies). An eloquent illustration of this concept can be found in N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain. In a conversation with Momaday, Charles L. Woodard points out that Rainy Mountain, a sacred Kiowa location, is “not really a mountain, but a knoll or a hill,” yet goes on to conclude, in agreement with Momaday: “The fact of it is not the truth of it” (68). The “truth of it” is that Rainy Mountain is a landmark in Kiowa culture, symbolizing the “tremendous energy of the Kiowa past,” it is “history, culture, traditions” (69).

Consequently, a geographical location is more than a spot; it is sacred since it radiates eternal spiritual power and, as such, is connected to an Indigenous sense of time, which is the physical representation of eternity. When examining time and space in discovery discourses, it is necessary to take the differences in Weltanschauung into consideration so as not to mistake various forms of narrative disruptions, in order to understand that these are techniques with which oral narrativity transforms into a written one, which shows “indications of the failure of Western chronological sequence to contain the full account” (Rainwater 107-8).

In discovery narratives, the center of spatial dimensions, the geographical location that radiates spiritual power that emerges as a landmark, is the shore where Columbus landed. Native and contemporary Western beliefs meet here: the discovery project was connected in the 15th century by Europeans with their search for glory and eternity. Columbus believed his role in providential history was to seek the way to Terrestrial Paradise (Kadir 17-8). One of the major influences on his cosmology was Cardinal Pierre d’Ally’s Imago Mundi, in which he read “that the earthly paradise lies in a temperate region beyond the equator” (Todorov 16). And so, when Columbus reached the temperate region, he was certain to have hit upon earthly paradise. A proof of this is to be found in an edited version of his journal under entry ‘Thursday, February 21st 1493,’ which reads that

the admiral says that the sacred theologians and learned philosophers were right in saying that the earthly paradise is at the end of the east, because it is a very temperate place, so those lands which he had now discovered are, he says, ‘the end of the east (Vigneras 176).

Columbus always tried to harmonize the “spiritual map” of the Bible with the geographical map he used aníd later helped to develop (West and Kling 109-10).

The obsession with gold and riches was rooted in spiritual preoccupations. One important spiritual component to the venture was the quest to find the East via westward travels to find the Orient. Martin Leer argues that it also entails preoccupation with lost origins (besides finding treasures). This “search for lost origins is also a search for a lost self, or part of the self” (26), surely a psychological motivation in all that Columbus, the “expatriate, never to be at home,” “the immigrant prototype” (Paolucci 16) achieved. Here is a hold on the Columbus story for Native American writers: place emerges as spiritual space, representing an eternal sense of time.

But are the spiritually enriched Native space inhabited by the Taino Indians and the spiritually symbolical same location in the Western Columbus discourse the same? They are definitely not, because there was actually no real discovery of the World of the Other—one discourse was simply written over the other. As Columbus had been promised the exercise of power over whatever shores he hit upon, “the conquest was already under way before any geographical encounter” (Kadir 64). What made this possible was that “Christianity and its providential rendering of human time and worldly events purvey the ideological givens that make imperial taking a natural right needing no further justification” (68). Also, on landing, the conquistadores took formal possession of the territory through a “self-staging” speech act, before any communication with the Tainos—an imminent sign of “linguistic omnipotence,” to use Tzvetan Todorov’s phrase (63). The very same notion manifested itself in a religious dimension as Columbus renamed everything he encountered. He picked biblical names combined with ones that reflected his patriotic sentiments: San Salvador, La Navidad, Santa Maria de la Concepción, Ferdinanda, Isabela, Espanola.

Since he did not consider Native speech a language, or Native ways a culture, he named lands and rivers “[l]ike a missionary” (Gautier 96). Stephen Greenblatt observerves that “[s]uch a christening entails the cancellation of the native name—the erasure of the alien, perhaps demonic, identity—and hence a kind of making new; it is at once exorcism, an appropriation, and a gift” (83). Thus the Columbus story reveals a basic truth about space: that it is “controlled by being familiarized and domesticated through language” (Ashcroft 100), since by the act of naming common space is transformed into a cultural place (Carter 377). This act also reveals the drive behind colonial intentions: power over the Other. As Bill Ascroft emphasizes, the “process of naming is fundamentally an act of power and the most important power is the power over representation, the power to present a toponomy as the only representation of a real world” (100). But if representation changes, identity alters with it. With the erasure of Native place names, the Native concepts of space, Native cultures and identities were written over.

Aboriginal authors today are concerned with writing those erased, ignored aspects of the Discovery back into historiography, to regain power over representation. Three spatial parameters develop out of the power struggle over representation in Dorris-Erdrich, Bird, and King, and all three are present in different ways: space as Native culture, space as Western culture and space as in-between.

Michael Dorris and Louise Erdrich expose these parameters in their “pilgrimage narrative” (Bridgeman 55), The Crown of Columbus. The reader learns a lot about both the Native and the White sides of the story in the novel. Simultaneous plot strands converge toward the shore where Columbus landed; both the novel and the Columbus heritage weave toward the center of the spatial and temporal web. In the meantime, space as Western culture and Western historical linearity, disappear in the circling wheel of Indian time. Physical distance between the parties is also significantly reduced, and this motion in outer space is mirrored in inner space; a psychological opening up toward the Other is achieved. As Gaston Bachelard points out in Poetics of Space, “profound metaphysics is rooted in […] the dialectics of inside and outside,” “confer[ring] spatiality upon thought,” creating “ontological determination” (212). In the novel, the process of spaces communicating originates in all the characters trying to relate to Columbus; they want to put a face on him, that is, to “discover” him. They find the Columbus within themselves along the way, so the conquistador turns from an aggressive discoverer stereotype into a human archetype, thus narrowing alienating spiritual distance inside the self between “him” and his victims. According to Khader “[t]he invocation of this postcolonial imperative to blur the Self/Other, oppressor/victim, and subject/object dichotomies in the production of postcolonial Nativeness is a prerequisite,” in order to map “new intensities, flows, and movements of multiplicities” (90).

“Inner” and “outer” spaces unite in the symbol of the cave in the novel. Through the uncovering of secrets, the unraveling of enigmas, and the re-experiencing of the Discovery in a contemporary context, one learns to search beyond surfaces, to see beyond Columbus’s gaze and finally realize the destination to be the cave and not the shore. As Northrop Frye maintains in Words with Power, both in the Christian and in other religions, the notion of the cave and to the deed in descending to it stand for the process of alienation from a previous stage of existence as well as for maturing into a new state. In some traditions, a treasure is to be located there; yet, the real treasure turns out to be maturing itself achieved here by digging below the surface of the Discovery story; consequently, one gains new self: this is exactly what the protagonists as well as the two races achieve in the novel. In ascending from the cave, some Native creation accounts reveal human beings that come from below the earth to enter a new stage of development. The narrowing of spatial and spiritual focus accompanies temporal focusing, which develops from the deliberately chaotically structured “anachronous” (Chatman 64) narrative sequence. Dorris and Erdrich’s stated aim is “to tell the tale in a chaotic way that would have all the coincidence and accidents and fun and danger and confusion that real discoveries have” (Smith 77). Chaos, however, carries various time dimensions in story time towards archetypical timelessness, creating constantly circling repetitive structures depicting the sense of time that the Native storytelling mode creates.

Gloria Bird takes the opposite direction, not exposing it all at the narrative level, but writing a narrative of exile instead (Bridgeman 55). She ignores both the time and the space dimensions of the Discovery. The short story does not directly address the colonial issue. Colonial confrontation is eliminated at the textual level to the extent that designations such as “Indian” or “indigenous” or key indicators like Santa Maria, Spain, the Court, the “Old World,” the “New World” do not come up throughout. Only the historical name “Colón” pins the discourse of an old man’s suffering down to a historical situation. Beyond that, there are only contextual references like the deck, the historical fame or people offering gifts in blood. Historical clichés, stereotypical approaches are thus avoided on the narrative level, while the same clichés and stereotypes are utilized and elucidated in the reader’s response, on the interpretative level. Without a profound knowledge of the Columbus heritage the short story reads quite differently. “Colón” becomes the focal point around which narrative and interpretative strands are woven simultaneously. The loss of individuality attained by disappearing in a historical role is most profoundly underlined by losing track of time. Although the past twenty and thirty years appear in the narrative—when Colón’s obsession with the fortuneteller’s cards comes up—modern notions like commercials or the morning paper occur throughout, indicative of his continuous historical presence spanning centuries between the 15th century and our days, as if there was, in fact, no story time. The character in the story does realize that somehow he is not himself and that in this different, timeless existence—in historiography—“madness and reality, lies and truth are the same thing” with “his world now is a pantheon of monotonous repetition” (Bird 142). Living in an eternal present moment drives him crazy. He wishes for his own death as a historical figure, “skim[ming] the obituaries for his name” (ibid.) in the daily papers. But he cannot die since he is already dead thanks to his historical role; his is a fixed position, not a flexible, changing one as it would be in oral historiography. Timelessness and repetitiveness are not virtues here; misused by Western historiography, they become means of spiritual imprisonment.

The almost blind old Colón lives on the deck of a ship with his blind mutt. The protagonist’s spatial confinement reflects spiritual confinement inherent in this historical role. The ship ensures complete isolation and alienation. “Exclusions and inclusions,” states Bridgeman, “often relate to distinctions between public and private spaces” (61). But does Colón’s imprisonment in a ship imply withdrawal from public into private space? No, because, although he is all alone, there is no private space to occupy in the lack of a private self. Yet, it is the spatial dimension itself that reveals the existence of a latent private self. After all, with Colón’s strolling up and down half crazy, the imprisoning deck emerges as poetic space, since it receives “more space than it has objectivity” (Bachelard 202). The reader feels that this has become the “center of all spaces” (203), the sign of deepening human solitude, when the two “immensities” seen as “the space of intimacy and the world space” do, in fact, “touch and become identical” (ibid.). If so, there is a latent private self which does come forward when at the end of the short story a question emerges: “Were there any survivors?” (Bird 142).

While contemplating over the de-individualizing effect of historicizing, Bird’s short fiction aims at reconstructing colonial power relations, though not in story space but in textual space, despite the fact that there is no overt colonial context in the narrative. As Homi Bhabha suggests, colonial stereotyping “sets up a discursive form of racial and cultural opposition in terms of which colonial power is exercised” (78). There is a power shift through this oppositionality in Bird’s text, when colonial stereotyping backfires, enchaining the Admiral with historical stereotypes, victimizing him and not Native Americans. The conquistador, in fact, is colonized by Western historiography. In handling the colonizer’s gaze, he both internalizes the alien stereotypical images imposed on him and rebels against them, and is forced to define himself in relation to them. Therefore, the Admiral ends up powerless behind his story. Yet, while the Western self and the Western story weaken as the gap widens between them, the textually absent Native sense of identity is empowered. It is not through textual, but, more significantly, through a textualizing presence. Not through any sentence, character, or situation, but by textualizing the void with the help of traditional narrativizing strategies, by relying on the reader’s interpretative response in bridging it, as if we did participate in the storytelling event.

The third example, Thomas King’s “A Coyote Columbus Story” is neither a pilgrimage, nor a withdrawal into exile; still, it unites Dorris and Erdrich’s spatially-temporally conscious handling of the Columbus heritage with Bird’s deliberately ignorant attitude when applying specific data, but at random, disconnecting them from the historical background. This short fiction is an alternative historical account, not of Columbus’s four voyages, but of the nature of the Discovery, written from the Native American point of view, and from within the Native cultural context. Here, Coyote, the female irresponsible trickster is to blame for the Admiral’s landing on the shores of the Bahamas. However, the Native context is not tribal but Pan-Indian. Although it is common knowledge that Columbus encountered the Tainos first, no tribal designation is specified throughout the story; Natives are referred to as human beings, the literal translation of most tribes’ names in their mother tongues. The tendency to overgeneralize also permeates spatial as well as temporal dimensions, and is highly characteristic of traditional oral narratives. These human beings are surrounded by animals (like the moose) that, in fact, are not native to Guanahani, where Columbus landed. The reader is no longer surprised when some French explorers show up on the scene in no time. Thus, human beings can be from any part of America; moreover, they live not only in 1492 but also in the 20th century, since they “go to see big-time wrestling,” they also go on “a seven-day Caribbean Cruise” (King 10). The arriving Spaniards hunt for computer games and music videos beside gold, and on leaving, the Admiral concludes: “[a]nother couple of trips like this, […] and I’ll be able to buy […] a used Mercedes” (23).

When new types of disturbing differences are introduced, the story’s scope finally widens to the degree of destabilization, a degree that reaches beyond the traditional, generalizing wisdom-search. The ‘new’ set of differentiations (in looks, traditions and morals) is a development that follows the Native-European encounter, carrying the danger of the Native world slipping into Western chaos. Yet, the spatial and temporal attributes of the Discovery are out of context and popping up in a chaotic way that turns out to be less the result of the destructive effect of colonization. King’s text is rather a trickster play with a lot of humor, which removes the tragic note from the Discovery story, and from its temporal and spatial confinement.

To sum up, Dorris and Erdrich first confront time/space relations as Native culture and the same dimensions as Western culture, then try to harmonize them; Bird, exposes the gap between the two, while King encompasses it all with border-defying trickster power. All three works are examples of “creative revisionism” (Huggan 410), where the handling of space and time first challenges Western ways of seeing and only then it does restructure knowledge on Columbus and the Discovery through traditional Native narrative means.

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