Interview with Katy Young

In January 2006, Katy Young interviewed writer and scholar Daniel Heath Justice via e-mail about his forthcoming academic work, Our Fire Survives the Storm: A Cherokee Literary History .

Katy Young : Our Fire Survives the Storm covers Cherokee literary history from the eighteenth through the twentieth century. Did you always conceive of the project in this large a scope? What do you feel is important about considering contemporary work in relation to earlier work? How does a project of this scope fit into your larger project of privileging a Cherokee-centric reading of these texts?

Daniel Heath Justice : A broader scope for the project seemed necessary from the beginning, but it's undergone different permutations. As my dissertation, I'd had a more focused set of texts and considerations—primarily regarding metaphors and material realities of removal—but in rethinking the contours of the study as a book-length project, I wanted to track social and intellectual continuities of nationhood in Cherokee literature and expression from before the era of "civilization" (i.e., the Cherokee Republic), as this is an under-examined and really rich time of transformation and transition for Cherokees that speaks quite powerfully to our current time. To contextualize the literature in the social history is, to my mind, one way of understanding both the specificities of national Indigenous literatures and their connections with other literary traditions, so a broad-scope study that touches down on provoca­tive historical moments seems to be a way of balan­cing the national with the inter­na­tion­al. Indeed, this is what the Beloved Path and Chickamaugan con­sciousness engage—the White town leadership dealing with domestic affairs, and the Red dealing with international relations. [Through the early nineteenth century, Cherokee political society was divided into two complementary spheres: Beloved Path/White towns governed during times of peace while Chickamauga/Red towns governed during times of war.]

KLY : From your writing, it seems that the Beloved Path/Chickamaugan consciousness pairing isn't the only complementary pair in Cherokee sociopolitical and/or spiritual structures. Why choose this pairing in particular? What drew you to the structure of complementary principles?

DHJ : This comes again from a sadly-neglected pre-Republic social history that gets lost in the dominant narratives of John Ross, the Treaty Party, and the Trail of Tears. One can't really understand those nineteenth-century figures and events without also understanding the historical and cultural contexts that shaped them, and these were the White/Red or Beloved/Chickamaugan comple­men­tarities that had been structuring Cherokee social and relational interaction for centuries. Much of the later history (and its literature) is more fascinating and provocative if we see it as continuing conversations, struggles, and balances that had been in action long before the rise of the Cherokee Republic, and which have continued to this day.

KLY : You include many personal reflections in your study—especially about your own childhood in Colorado and the stories you remember from growing up. In some ways, this reminds me of Craig Womack's letters by "Jim Chibbo" in Red on Red (1999) or, more noticeably, Greg Sarris's own stories written into Keeping Slug Woman Alive (1993). Was there any question about including your personal reflections, either in your own mind or in the mind of your publisher? Do you think there's a conscious move by some Indigenous literary critics to not write solely in scholarly prose?

DHJ : This was, in a fundamental way, my own way of acknowledging that there are many different Cherokee histories, and my own family stories can't be seen as authoritative, representative, or anoma­lous in relation to those of other Cherokees. It's also an issue of accountability, especially given the criticism that some cosmopolitanist scholars level at literary nationalists. Shallow cosmopolitanist criticism claims that we're essentialists who assert purity and untouched Indianness in our work. It's a gross misreading of literary nationalism, but a common one. To acknowledge my own specificities—light-skinned, mixed-race, outland, Queer, etc.—and to see them as complementing my nationhood, not undermining it, is to give evidence of the dynamic and adaptive heart of Indigenous nation­hood, which can change without losing itself. At its best, and in relevant moderation, acknowledging our subject positions keeps us accountable to our families, communities, colleagues, and discipline; at its worst, and in excess, such an approach can twist the literature toward self-aggrandizement and myopic self-indulgence. Besides which, these stories are part of what has shaped my own interests in the literature and the criticism, so those debts and influences should be acknowledged as honestly and fairly as possible, while also keeping them from dominating the discussion of other peoples' stories.

KLY : In light of the way you use and articulate the definitions of Beloved Path and Chickamaugan consciousness in Our Fire Survives the Storm , where would you locate your own work, specifically this literary history, on this spectrum? Does it fit into this conception? My appreciation for the nuance and complexity of your readings of the authors in this study has been growing as I've been trying to figure this out; it's tough to locate these dynamics in literature, never mind refusing to pigeonhole the writing on one side of the spectrum. I would see your work as both fierce and conciliatory, to some degree.

DHJ : I think you're right—there are elements of both in the text, and I hope that it speaks to both. Maybe it's in the middle of the spectrum, though a bit more toward the Red sphere. My heart, I think, is with the Chickamaugans, but the Beloved Path is a necessary caution against moving too far toward warfare; the White sphere seems a far more difficult place to seek balance, and because of that is vitally important to consider. Tsiyu Gansini [Dragging Canoe] and Nanye'hi [Nancy Ward] were both, at various times, gentle and fierce; it's the ever-shifting balance of the two ways of being that seem to me to most strikingly characterize Cherokee survival.

KLY : How do you envision this book being used in classrooms? Did you think of the pedagogical implications of this study as you were writing? Would this book be solely for college classrooms or do you think it could appeal to a younger audience?

DHJ : The value of this text in teaching about Cherokee literature and social history was always part of my revision considerations; I hope that it's relevant and useful not just in classrooms, but in communities and households beyond the academy. I'd love to hear that Cherokee folks and other interested readers are finding something good and significant in it, and that it opens up further interest in the intellectual and artistic dimensions of our histories and current lives.

KLY : Your first novel, Kynship: The Way of Thorn and Thunder (2005) recently came out. How does your creative writing influence your scholarly work and vice versa? Are there two different personae you inhabit or is there overlap and interchange between these two types of writing?

DHJ : There's definitely a relationship between the two, as similar concerns of land, community, nation, and sovereignty shape both. Yet they're still distinctive, in content as well as purpose, as I wrote the novel as a way of untangling some of the headier ethical and emotional issues that emerged from the scholarly study; it was my way to write back to removals in ways that didn't obscure or misrepresent the lived histories of real human beings. I don't think I'd ever write a Trail of Tears novel, as it would be too emotionally draining and exhausting, but I've found writing a fantasy epic about removal in an imaginary world to give me opportunities to transform those histories of oppression and rethink the past in new ways.

KLY : Do you have a next project in mind?

DHJ : My next big project is a study of "recognition" as it applies to Indigenous peoples, and the complicated relationship between Indigenous definitions and metaphors of belonging and those imposed and presumed by self-interested nation-states.