Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Spring 1998


Published in Great Plains Research Vol. 8, No.1, 1998. Copyright © 1998 The Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Used by permission.


In addressing what its author calls "The Ethnopoetics Movement," this sensible, well-researched volume demonstrates that recording Native American verbal art is not a new enterprise, tracing it back to seventeenth-century Jesuit records and following it through the present-day. Nor has the task of converting tribal discourse to literature ever been easy. Along with the inevitable hazards of translation, cultural barriers intrude, especially in the transfer of oral performance to the silent page.

William Clements lays a clear foundation for a reasonable perspective. Earlier commentators, he writes, "uncritically assumed" that printed records of orally-based tribal material "provide absolutely reliable information about the nature of American Indian oral expression, even its aesthetic qualities." At the opposite extreme, "many modern students have dismissed these records as utterly worthless." Wisely, Clements takes "a middle ground between these positions," asserting that while older texts may show limitations, "in many cases they represent all we have from an entire verbal heritage." Instead of rejecting them outright, as many critics today are apt to do with the glib certitude of postcolonial hindsight, he reviews them open-mindedly, seeing the history of Native American text retrieval as a story worth knowing.