Carolyn Dunn and Rain Prud-homme Cranford
Interviewed by Rosalyn Spencer
Rosalyn Spencer: We named this journal Rigorous based on our experiences with fellow educators. When recommending multicultural titles for curricula, we find that white educators often ask us if specific authors of color are “rigorous” enough to merit inclusion.
You are both highly-educated poets and women of color, working in academia. Have you ever encountered the subversive actions of peers in your field who question the validity or rigor of your work and why it should be represented?
Carolyn Dunn: Yes. I studied with Paula Gunn Allen starting in the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s during my first foray into academia, and then the conversations we were having within the academy was having to fight for a place in canonical works for American Indian literature. Much of my early work in the field was situational—where does American Indian literature fit in the Western literary canon? And later, where does it find in the American Studies canon? Where do we fit as American Indian women poets during the women’s poetry movement in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s in view of names like Judy Grahn, Marge Piercy, Adrienne Rich, Eloise Klein Healy, the white feminist poets, and then amongst Black women poets, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, belle hooks, etc. Early American Indian poetry, what we could call poetry, was led by Paula Gunn Allen, Beth Brant, Wendy Rose, Chrystos; that’s when Joy Harjo first started publishing her poetry and later Louise Erdrich… we were trying to establish space in the canon for Native American poetry but Native female poets, who were by definition writing feminist poetry but we weren’t what I would call traditional feminists. They were Native women talking about native women’s issues in a field dominated by the voices of male radical leadership and the women’s voices, to quote me quoting Mary Brave Bird Crow Dog, we were more concerned about survival and colonization that we were living daily than worrying about getting the poetic voice out there. As a young poet in my very early 20’s, that was a profound time for me, finding my voice coming from a very long line of very strong women leaders.
Rain Prud'homme-Cranford: My sister-couzan helped forge a path for me to follow. I started my undergrad in the 90s. However, I would quit, become a social worker, joined AmeriCorps, focused on music and poetry before finally returning to finish my B.A., and later my graduate degrees. There are 10 years between Carolyn and I and I am grateful that she and our other Native intellectuals helped break more walls down. As I was working towards my M.A. and later my PhD., I turned to Carolyn’s creative and critical work. I had to, because even now, there are so very few of us Indigenous writers of Louisiana and the Gulf coast represented in Native American Studies, and our voice are so often absent in Southern literature and American literature as a whole. As a fat, (dis)Abled, IndigeQueer cis-woman in academe who works at the juncture of creative, critical, and uses art as activism, I find it particularly convenient the ways so called “intellectuals” are quick to dismiss both my person and those of us who work in creative works as “less than.” As if our poetry, our stories, or art are not theory-making. It is the same argument we have been having with western academic institutions since the rise of the university. Indigenous peoples have our own epistemologies, ways of knowing, and our creative output, from poetry to basketry is as much a study in theory and practice as any form of continental theory or art. I long for a time when we don’t have to persuasively articulate our intellectual value.
RS: Can you tell us about your newest releases of poetry and the themes you wanted to explore in your newest works?
CD: My last two books were really centered in California… Outfoxing Coyote was about the Redwood Forest in northern California where I went to school and lived for many years. The influences upon me as a diasporic native young woman living among a very strong, very resilient native culture that wasn’t my own but that I was exposed to at a very young age so technically grew up with was rooted in that book. The cultures of the Yurok and Karuk, Tolowa, Wiyot and Hupa are very strongly represented in that book, and that book is a dialog between the southeastern spirit Deer Woman and the northwestern version of Coyote. In some ways I felt like a southeastern spirit in a northwestern world, and the influence of those two very strong archetypical characters was fully realized in that book. My second book, Echolocation: Poems and Stories from Indian Country: L.A. was very much about living in southern California, and my experience in the place that was my homeland and a place I love dearly, but although I was born there and my parents were both born there, we were/are not the native peoples from that area. The spirits that are in dialog there are much more Tongva and Chumash spirits—the desert world and the natural world covered up by concrete and asphalt but pushing through and surviving, many times underneath people’s feet and cars and out in the open but not really noticed. My new book, The Stains and Burden of Dumb Luck, is very much what Rain calls my deeply rooted southeastern space: a diasporic Indian returning home. The imagery I deal with in that work is very southeastern: not only recognizing my specific native indigeneity but my “new world” Creole identity: Tunica/Choctaw/Biloxi, African, Metis, MicMaq, and French Canadian. So I think, looking back at these three books written over the last twenty or so years, charts my return journey home: from the Redwood Forest to the desert to the red dirt of Oklahoma and the swamps of Louisiana and Mississippi.
RPC: I have to take a minute to say, I adore Carolyn’s The Stains of Burden and Dumb Luck. It is my favorite of her works, because she journeys home to our S.E. homelands weaving the narratives of our Peoples alongside memories of family in ways that are both heartbreaking and resilient. It was a joy and honor to edit the collection. My new poetry book project under revision, Miscegenation Round Dance: Poèmes Historiques, is based in historic research and familial memory. Inhabiting historical and creative spaces from my ancestors Marie Thérèse dite CoinCoin (African Slave concubine of Claude Thomas Pierre Métoyer), Jeanne de la Grand Terre (Chitimacha slave turned spouse of François Derbanne), Fala-mah-tubby (Choctaw for “Turns around and Kills”), Eulalie Amelia Pierite-Beridon (Choctaw-Biloxi-Creole) and their descendants in Cane River, Marksville, Indian Creek, Opelousas, Gulf landscapes, and Indian Territory (IT)—I reinscribe narratives of survival and cultural continuity. Combing music and musical forms (the bop, villanelle, rondelet, stomp songs forms, pantoums, and blues poetics) I pull from my personal and familial history, historic records, ancestral landbase, and legal history in recognition that my personal histories of violence are forever linked to the violence against my ancestors and the continued “violence” against our homelands (ecological violence).
RS: The representation of Indigenous people is sorely lacking in what is defined as the mainstream literary market. How do you combat these limitations and what are some of your frustrations at the lack of the Indigenous voice in literature?
CD: The advent of digital publishing has freed a lot of us to be able to open the market up to indigenous writers. It has always been my intent, as a poet, a playwright, and a teacher of both of those forms, to mentor younger and older emerging writers in these fields. Part of that mentoring includes the reading of, publication, and distribution of new works by emerging poets. When That Painted Horse Press first started, it was the brainchild of myself, Paula Gunn Allen, and my former husband James Anderson to introduce the work of emerging poets. We published not only my work but the work of two younger native women, Taos Peblo and Tarahumara Kristy Orona-Ramirez (Reclaimation Road) and Yurok and Karuk Shaunna Oteka McCovery (Swim You Every River). Both of these women went on to publish with bigger presses (Kristy’s children’s book Kiki’s Journey from Children’s Book Press and Shaunna’s The Smokehouse Boys from Heyday Books) and both were students of and very dear friends of mine. I’m hoping to work with both of them again as well as look into the next book we were going to publish in the early 2000’s, Lee Francis’ One Decade Down, as well as introduce newer voices (Jenny Davis, Charmaine Shawana, M. C. Lane) and more well-known including San Francisco poet laureate Kim Shuck and Kimberly (Roppolo) Weiser. So in a nut shell, our response is to publish and help get those voices out there, now that the platform is available, to put out high quality, amazing voices.
RPC: I agree with my relative Carolyn that representation is changing with the rise of Indigenous small presses. Back in what was called the second wave Native Renaissance, there was a rise in small Native journals and presses as well as spaces for community and support for Indigenous writers. Our elders (some of whom have walked on) like Maurice Kenny ( Mohawk), Jim Northrup (Anishinaabe), and Laguna author, academic, and founder of Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers (WC) Dr.Lee Francis II (the sibling of Paula Gunn Allen and Carol Lee Sanchez), along with the still ceaselessly advocating Geary Hobson (Arkansas Cherokee/Quapaw) who with his wife Barbra Torralba Hobson (Comanche/Latinx) and Joseph Bruchac helped form the Native Writers Circle of the Americas (NWCA) along with Returning the Gift, Native writers/artists conference (RTG lit fest). Now NWCA operates as the Native American Arts & Letters while RTG continues to celebrate the voices, presence, innovations, and persistence of Indigenous writers and storytellers across the Americas. I believe bringing Indigenous peoples together creates family; we make kin in new ways. This also leads to innovation in publishing and the ways we seek to make one another visible. From Kegadonce Press here in Canada run by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm (Anishinaabe), to Mammoth Books headed by Denise Low-Weso (Lenape/Cherokee heritage) and Thomas Pecore Weso (Menominee), to Mongrel Empire Press whose editor-in-chief Jeanetta Calhoun Mish (Creek/Lumbee/ Delaware descent) recently edited a special issue of World Literature Today on the fourth wave in Native writing. Having worked with WC, NWAC, RTG, and Mongrel Empire, I hope that I bring the lessons of my mentors, colleagues, family, and friends with me to That Painted Horse Press. I am especially excited that our two books right out the gate this next year (January and April 2018) will be Indigenous writers from the Gulf coast— Kimberly Gail Wieser’s (Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee descent) Texas to Get Horses and Thomas Parrie’s (Choctaw-Apache Tribe of Ebarb, LA) Toledo Rez & Other Myths.
RS: As a native of Louisiana, I found it interesting that both of you have Creole ancestry. How does this add to your voice as Indigenous women?
CD: We both argue that Creoles are indigenous, indigenous to Louisiana and unique in that the strands of three very distinct cultures came together to form a unique one-one with its own language, culture, and religion. We are the descendants of those original Creole families who were European, indigenous, and African; we can trace our ancestors since before Louisiana was Louisiana; where our indigenous roots expanded from the expulsion of the Cherokees, Creeks and Choctaws before Removal and the movement of those native populations into that area where they joined our Attakapas, Chitimacha, Houma, Choctaw/Biloxi, and Caddo ancestors who had been joined by our African indigenous ancestors and our Metis, Cree and Micmaq from Nova Scotia who were kicked out of Nova Scotia. So basically, we are the descendants of a diasporic people, always on the move, and indigenous.
RPC: I think Carolyn summed this up quite nicely. I think being Louisiana Creole we recognize that our specific tribal descent is kinshipped to our Creole identity, because Louisiana Creoles are post-contact Indigenous peoples. Post-contact Indigenous peoples arise out of conflict, contention, survival, and remnants/coalescing of Indigenous peoples impacted by settler-colonialism. We recognize that we are Indigenous while our culture carries European (settlers often of French, Spanish ancestry) elements that changed our culture, moreover, that the presence of our Indigenous African ancestors further both Indigenized our ancestry and cultural practices, but also places our histories within further narratives of subjugation and genocide within the Americas. Creole culture has been defined, redefined, mythologized, exoticized, eroticized, and the victim of binary southern structures and hypodescent (Jim Crow). Moreover, there has been an overwhelming focus on New Orleans with an often absence of other Louisiana Creole communities and their connections to specific tribal populations in the state of Louisiana. Therefore, defining Louisiana Creole culture and identity, with respect to our Indigeniety (both Native and African), grounded in our landbase, culture, and political presence as a post-Contact Indigenous (African/Native American/Latinidad) people, is an ever more vital discussion within Creole discourse, for both my cousin and I, along with our relatives Tracey Colson Antee, Janet Ravare Colson, Jeffery Darensbourg, Andrew Jolivétte, Darryl Barthé, and Tanner Menard. These conversations help move us toward more productive methods for cultural sustainability, political and ecological rights, and in larger dialogues on Indigenous and African studies, solitaries, and understanding Red/Black diasporas.
RS: Congratulations on the revival of That Painted Horse Press! What is your vision for the trajectory of the press, and its goals and mission?
CD: To keep mentoring, working with, and publishing new indigenous writers; to expand the definition of indigeneity in the sense that we are a borderless press and we recognize global indigenisms without foreclosing on American Indian identity; and to provide a voice and platform for established indigenous writers to get their voices heard.
RPC: Carolyn has the final word here. All I can say is— ome! I agree!
Poet, playwright, and scholar Carolyn Dunn was born in Southern California and is of Cherokee, Muscogee Creek, Seminole, Cajun, French Creole, and Tunica-Biloxi descent. She earned a BA from Humboldt State University, an MA from UCLA, and a PhD from the University of Southern California. Her collections of poetry include Outfoxing Coyote (2001) and Echolocation: Poems and Stories from Indian Country L.A. (2013). She has edited the anthologies Through the Eye of the Deer (1999) and, with Paula Gunn Allen, Hozho: Walking in Beauty: Native American Stories of Inspiration, Humor, and Life (2001). Dunn is the coauthor, with Ari Berk, of the nonfiction book Coyote Speaks: Wonders of the Native American World (2008). Her play The Frybread Queen was produced by the Montana Repertory Theater in Missoula, Montana, and Native Voices at the Autry in Los Angeles.
Dunn’s scholarly work focuses on American Indian women’s literature and American Indian identity. She has taught at Humboldt State University, Four Winds Indian School, and California Polytechnic State University. A founding director of the American Indian Theatre Collective, she is also a member of the female Native American drum group the Mankillers. She is director of the American Indian Resource Center at UC Santa Cruz.
Rain Prud’homme-Cranford (Goméz) is a “FAT-tastic IndigeNerd” who won the First Book Award Poetry from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas for Smoked Mullet Cornbread Crawdad Memory (MEP 2012). She is an assistant professor of Indigenous literature in the Department of English and affiliated faculty in the International Indigenous Studies Program at the University of Calgary.