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Autobiography, ethnography: The writing of Native and American lives in the twentieth century

Jason T Hertz, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Autobiographical texts represent an author, narrator, and subject with the same proper name, and audiences expect them to be sincere attempts to understand history. The Introduction below shows how the genre adapted to post-structural and post-colonial shifts in the late twentieth century through reflexive critique and the practice of strategically essential politics. Ethnographers made similar adaptations at this time. For North American indigenous people, this shift meant critiquing monumental stories about Western “heroes,” bearing witness to injustice, and developing good ways to interpret traditional mythologies in postmodern terms. Ethnography changed radically in response to global de-colonial movements of the late twentieth century. Chapter One shows how theories of nomination, performativity, and cultural hybridity took precedence over notions of authenticity. In this situation, Native American autobiography moved accordingly, from collaborative endeavors like Black Elk Speaks and Papago Woman to critical auto-ethnographic projects. Gerald Vizenor’s and Leslie Marmon Silko’s nonfiction writings about mixed ancestry show how literary reflexivity and singular interpretations of folk mythologies responded to these late twentieth-century changes in literary discourse. Chapter Two focuses on their adaptations of trickster characters, and examines how they both make satire of and generative play with modern Euro-American conventions of autobiography, ethnography, and realism. Collaborative autobiography, despite its critiques elaborated in the first chapter, is still a relevant genre for prisoners because the U.S. criminal justice system effectively censors their voices. Chapter Three shows how co-authors have made compromises in order to attempt building solidarity through publication. An equally important aspect of prison memoirs beside their influence on outside readers involves the writing process. Workshops that organize systems of feedback and revision are equally important because they support literacy efforts and help prisoners understand paths toward recovery. Chapter Four interprets postmodern theories of neo-Marxist resistance to capitalism and post-colonial strategies in the context of Native American cultural representation. It attempts to elucidate strategies like playful deconstruction and productive reflexivity that stop reifying zero-sum publishing games in which one author’s success means another’s loss. Following these late twentieth-century insights, insider and outsider authors can produce valuable knowledge about North American history and literature.

Subject Area

American studies|Ethnic studies|Native American studies

Recommended Citation

Hertz, Jason T, "Autobiography, ethnography: The writing of Native and American lives in the twentieth century" (2016). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI10102746.