“Can a Shaman Cure My Fear of Normalcy?” and Other Curveballs

By: Alexander Menrisky

The decade of the 1960s—as a stylistic archetype or broad sensibility—has experienced something of a cultural comeback over the last few years, its influence felt in venues from popular music to clothing design. One of the challenges of teaching the decade’s literature and art at such a moment is the degree to which students might take some of the era’s most questionable fashions seriously—especially those involving problematic settler representations of Indigenous peoples. How do we negotiate the terrain of multiethnic literatures when students avidly believe certain problematic representations to be beneficial?

To take one example, I regularly teach a course that considers “hip” from a multiethnic perspective, with special attention given to cross-racial appropriation and representation. Students always enjoy our discussion of 1960s drug cultures, from Ken Kesey’s infamous acid tests to William Burroughs and Alan Ginsberg’s correspondence over ayahuasca and its Native origins. Despite simultaneous consideration of texts by Indigenous writers such as Vine Deloria, Jr., who complicate the romanticized picture of “primitive” gurus that accompanies (white) countercultural writing, many of my settler students have seemed predisposed to take such accounts at face value. A handful of them have heartily agreed that observing allegedly Native drug rituals is a great way to find authenticity in an alienating world.

Such interest should not come as a surprise. This post’s title is borrowed from an article in Vogue by the same name. Even if that article dances a fine line between being genuine and facetious, I’ve worked with a number of students who initially take that sort of question—“Can a shaman cure ________?”—quite seriously. Widespread media coverage indicates that organic hallucinogens are presently not ony socially tolerable but even fashionable. I’ve even had students who have made pilgrimages to New York City yoga studios, where a guide leads them through the process of “ego death,” as the Vogue article puts it, and then rebirth.

The “ego death” narrative is an old one. Under the influence of  “consciousness-expanding” drugs, countercultural figures sought to upend social pressures and manifest natural, authentic psyches. In their writing, enthusiasts often indiscriminately associated psychedelic experience with Native communities, rhetorically unified by the questionable suggestion that “primitive” peoples have mercifully dodged the psychic limitations engendered by “civilization.” To partake especially of organic hallucinogens—precisely the substances that have found mainstream popularity today—would be to join ego-free primitives in a state of bliss (no matter the nation’s histories of domination and exclusion). It is alarming how much of this rhetoric survives in the recent rash of magazine articles extolling the virtues of ayahuasca, mushrooms, and other plant compounds.

What I really want to talk about is students’ uncritical adoption of such narratives about Indigenous peoples—and, more importantly, how to approach such issues in the classroom. Of course, the essential element in doing so is to teach Native writers and to foreground Indigenous contestations of Euro-American settler assumptions of the “noble savage” variety. That said, even after a successful week spent discussing, for example, why Norman Mailer’s argument in “The White Negro” is problematic, students on the whole have found the notion that similar dynamics might be at play in psychedelic literature a difficult pill to swallow. I suspect there are two reasons for this struggle: 1) unlike much of our course content, the link between drugs and Indigenous peoples is current, even if it emerged in the past; and 2) students familiar with the hallucinogen narrative often truly believe in its capacity to fix people. In other words, who cares if those representations are inaccurate, reductive, or just plain racist? They celebrate Indigenous lives.

What vocabularies do we have at our disposal to address this sort of pedagogical problem? Because I do think it is ultimately a matter of vocabulary. I read a paper related to this topic at the recent 2019 MELUS conference in Cincinnati, and the discussion that resulted from the talk has provided me with new ways of thinking about how to preempt defensive crouches around neoliberal settler narratives about Indigenous peoples and their hallucinogenic means to self-betterment.

The title of my MELUS panel was “Native Americans as Subjects and Objects of Representation.” It is precisely the explicit distinction between “subject” and “object” that is crucial to discussion. Of course, differentiating between representations of Indigenous peoples by settlers (as objects) or by themselves (as subjects) is not a particularly original strategy. But it is worth noting that the most common difficulty I face when interacting with the students who most avidly defend the sort of assumptions described above is their insistence that such distinctions do not matter if what is at stake is not Native peoples themselves but the function of hallucinogenic substances. Any teacher or scholar of multiethnic literature knows full well that Native representation is precisely what’s at stake, but my point is that, in the classroom, it becomes necessary to locate an explicit point of contact between Native peoples as subjects or objects of representation.

To continue with the same example, what is the crux between the psychedelic narrative and writing by Indigenous authors? From my perspective, it’s a matter of language and narrative itself. For New-Age luminaries such as Terence and Dennis McKenna, the ego is a construction predicated on language—a mediating symbol between self and world. To ingest organic hallucinogens is to break down the chain of signification, to access the “pure,” unmediated (lack of) subjectivity apparently essential to Native peoples.

Anyone who has ever seriously read work by Native authors or cracked open a work of Indigenous Studies criticism recognizes the absurdity of this position. The essential role played by language, narrative, and oral tradition in Native cultures is well-documented. (For a fabulous teaching tool and work of criticism in general, see Daniel Heath Justice’s recent Why Indigineous Literatures Matter.) Drawing attention to that emphasis, however, is precisely what has led my students, over time, to recognize the continued objectification of Native peoples in “celebratory” hallucinogen rhetoric. By reading poetry by Simon Ortiz or Joy Harjo, or essays by N. Scott Momaday or Leslie Marmon Silko, or more recent texts by writers from Craig Womack to Louise Erdrich, we as a class come to recognize the variegated yet consistent ways in which such writers represent the role played by language and narrative in Native arts, how that role constitutes subjectivity, and how ignorance or even denial of such traditions constitutes an act of settler violence.

My point is that, because on my particular syllabus the distinction between Indigenous peoples as subjects or objects of representation turns not on hallucinogenic practice itself but on the question of the role played by language and narrative in matters of subjectivity, my own pedagogical stress must shift accordingly. The question of language, rather than of hallucinogenic practice itself, is what troubles the uncritical perception that celebrations of historically Indigenous traditions are by default unproblematic. This drug business is only one example, of course. My question for myself, as I prepare syllabi and lesson plans that feature multiethnic texts, has become, What is the crux? What is the actual point on which the distinction between subject and object turns? That question is essential to undermining the celebratory yet nonetheless colonial assumptions that persist in mainstream rhetoric, and which many students take for granted.

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Alexander Menrisky is a Lecturer in the English Department at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where he teaches composition and American literature with emphasis on environmental humanities and multiethnic traditions. His current book project, Wild Abandon: American Literature and the Identity Politics of Ecology, is under review. He has published in CriticismISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, and Edge Effects magazine.

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