Reading “The Shoshoneans” As An Activist Text

The following paper was originally given in 2007. Given the clear indication of a resurgence of critical interest in The Shoshoneans (which is soon to be reprinted for a 21st-century audience by the University of New Mexico Press, under the expert editorial guidance of M.R. Hofer), I offer it up as one of my original sites of inquiry.

Only in the instance of exchange can you find sense. It is strictly a measure of testing the process, living in it. (Shoshoneans 84)

In two different interviews given in the early 1990’s, Ed Dorn criticizes the American public’s limited understanding of the potential for social change which characterized the early nineteen-sixties. Noting that the years 1960 to 1965 don’t properly belong to popular conceptions of either “the fifties” or “the sixties,” but rather form “a half decade that’s free floating,” Dorn disparages people who “get literal about the decade” and fail to recognize that the first five years were “a whole different ballgame … very serious, and … very political … A lot was really peculiar to those five years that didn’t really repeat after that” (Bezner 43, Wright 212). Where the second half of the decade, Dorn notes, was an overall “slouching towards relevancy,” a comparatively powerless era of the re-assimilation of progressive movements into a capitalist culture, in the early years “it looked like something was going to happen,” like change was truly in the air (Wright 212).

Documenting both a 1965 road trip through parts of the far West and the state of the Native American people living in that area, the 1966 book The Shoshoneans: The People of the Basin-Plateau was a collaboration between Ed Dorn and African-American photographer Leroy Lucas. The travel itself, as well as the written narrative that comprises Dorn’s contribution, can be interpreted as the end result of Dorn’s studies with Charles Olson at Black Mountain College—or more specifically, as an answer to Olson’s 1955 Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn. The resulting book, however, published by William Morrow in 1966, is a different sort of call-and-response. As a collaborative work, a dialogue between contributors and between cultures, The Shoshoneans deliberately bridges the gap between text and image in order to pay tribute to the insularity and resistance of a particular culture. While structurally, the book conflates genres, progressively melding both the “call” of Dorn’s language and the “response” of Lucas’ photographs into one piece, in doing so, it preserves the distinctions both Dorn and Lucas make between mainstream American and Shoshoni culture. Intriguingly, it is the preservation of this gap that allows The Shoshoneans to go on to explore ritual ceremony’s potential to rejuvenate individuals and communities. Ultimately, The Shoshoneans is best read as a conscious example of early-sixties activism, an attempt to raise both intellectual awareness and empathy in a time later characterized by its political and social potential. As Sherman Paul notes in his book-length response to the poetry of Dorn, Duncan, and Creeley, “books are acts, and his is timely” (110).

Dorn’s contribution to The Shoshoneans begins with a description of his starting point: “I begin where it was the highest pitched for me,” he states (9). While this means beginning the book with the story of a spiritually and emotionally heightened encounter with an elderly Shoshoni man, the sentence also has topographical connotations. Indeed, The Shoshoneans explicitly uses maps, and the idea of mapping, as a means of bringing text and image together. The very endpapers of the book are a map of the area under discussion. Marking the basic topography—mountains, deserts, lakes and rivers are all noted—of the Basin-Plateau, the maps that literally bookend Dorn’s text and Lucas’ images also provide a general overview of the impact American civilization has had on this physical space. Various towns and cities are marked on this map, as are four Indian reservations. Interestingly, the only roads delineated on this map are U.S. highways. This visual demonstration highlights modern infrastructure’s physical and psychological dominance, but also isolates certain parts of the map. With no roads leading in or out, some of the settlements on the map appear to be entirely inaccessible, becoming communities that anyone using this guide could not actually visit.

Despite this choice, which generates a sense of distance, Dorn’s text explicitly encourages the reader of The Shoshoneans to come to a personal understanding of the geography of this region, to use this map to connect with his narrative on a distinctly human scale. In the opening of the second chapter, he instructs the reader to “Lay your right hand, palm down, fingers spread, on a map of the West scaled approximately one inch to fifty miles” (16). As maps of the West scaled precisely in this manner, the endpapers of The Shoshoneans are an obvious tool to encourage individual engagement. And so Dorn continues, noting where one should place each of the fingers and the heel of the hand. After following his instructions, “you will have covered the Basin-Plateau area” with your hand, will literally be able to grasp his subject (16). The physical connection developed here is a moment of great empathic potential, despite the exploitation that could potentially occur when any space is “covered” over by an external invasion. In fact, because that has already happened—because the West is “an irreversibly fallen world,” already “disappear[ed] finally under a cloak of agriculture” and “neon cities”—any move to develop some kind of tangible experience—the hand pressed against the map on the book cover—is potentially redemptive (McPheron 16, Shoshoneans 22, Smith 104).

Photo of endpapers of The Shoshoneans

Map endpapers of The Shoshoneans

This moment in The Shoshoneans is one of the most overt connections the book has to Dorn’s Black Mountain education. In Charles Olson’s Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn, Dorn’s teacher and predecessor emphasizes that “process,” or “methodology,” an explicit concern for “how-how-how” an investigation is carried out or recorded, is the “soul” of any poetic work (305). As a number of critics have noted, Olson finds this “methodology” largely in Carl Sauer’s approach to the study of geography, a practice that “champion[ed] … direct observation” of both “the form and content of a particular locale” in order to fully understand “change, especially the impact of humankind on the land” (Parsons 35). Given the explicit didacticism of Olson’s Bibliography, and Dorn’s own emphasis on geography in the early sixties, the few scholars that have examined The Shoshoneans tend to see it as a sort of senior thesis, Olson’s poetics and Sauer’s geography “internaliz[ed]” and applied by one particularly astute undergraduate, albeit some ten years after the completion of his formal studies (Smith 104, Davidson 70, Paul 130). It is certainly true that Dorn set out on this trip to examine what he called the “terrible awesomeness” of the “American upper landscape, … the geography” of the Basin-Plateau (Views 95). His relationship to his predecessors, however, is more complex than previous scholarship would indicate.

While both Olson and Sauer were deeply interested in mapping as a tool for understanding the “totality” of the “form” of a particular area, The Shoshoneans begins to use maps as a means of charting personal experiences, thoughts and connections (Sauer). Early in the Bibliography, after suggesting that Dorn look at the work of physiographer Armin Lobeck, Olson notes in a parenthetical that Dorn should also “get maps … & fill em in, locate stuff, etc., to get that topographic sense in the mind as you have it in the feet” (300). For Dorn, “filling in” a particular map is the key to understanding both a particular “landscape” and the self experiencing it. Thus when Dorn speaks at the Berkeley Poetry Conference of 1965, having just returned from “tagging along” with Lucas and “making notes” about the Shoshoni, he spends a good part of his talk on poetics describing the Basin-Plateau and his own revelations, and as he speaks, uses a blackboard to draw a map similar to the one later found in the book itself (Views 95). As the talk continues, the map grows. For the audience member at Berkeley, or the reader of The Shoshoneans, the map must serve both psyche and body—hence Dorn’s encouragement to the reader to “fill in” a personal connection through the hand, even as he spends the entirety of the second chapter of his narrative describing the topography and ecology of the Basin-Plateau.

This technique is one that Dorn later used in the classroom. As a visiting professor at UC-San Diego in 1976, on the first evening of class Dorn hovered on the edge of silence until his students became uncomfortable, then unfurled a railroad map of the United States across the table and said, “This is our area” (Wesling 1). While the critic recounting this story notes that Dorn had “consciously chosen the map that began to reveal America in a way that united … economic and sociocultural determinants,” the poet’s choice of words reveal another use of the same map (1-2). Dorn begins this class by inviting students to own something, to share collectively in the classroom experience, the object before them, and the physical and psychological space that object represents. So. Given this personal investment in maps, I’d like to return briefly to the endpapers of The Shoshoneans. As noted earlier, some of the towns on this map are cut off, practically and psychologically inaccessible. One of these communities is the small town of Hailey, in southern Idaho. Separated from US 30 by the Snake River basin and some “lava beds,” it is directly above one’s right hand when one follows Dorn’s Chapter II instructions. Dorn and Lucas never visit Hailey over the course of their journey; the narrative itself makes no reference to the town. But placing the birthplace of poet Ezra Pound on this conscious construction of a map, with no road leading to or from the settlement, is both a confirmation of a kind of poetic heritage—Olson corresponded and visited with Pound for a time, and counted him an explicit influence—and a turn away from these poetic “fathers” as the “son” charts his own path.

I’d like to turn now to what is, for me, the central element of The Shoshoneans—the developing relationship throughout the book between Dorn’s travelogue and Lucas’ photographs. Asked unexpectedly to respond to this book while in class, I stumbled, and rather infamously squeaked, “I liked the pictures.”

I take small consolation in the fact that I was not the only person to have such a reaction. Reviewing The Shoshoneans for the New York Times in March of 1967, Walter van Tilburg Clark feels that the book “is not the scholarly, objective …study that its titles and … endpaper maps … suggest,” and devotes the bulk of his review—which reprinted a number of photographs from the book—to Lucas’ contribution (7). This treatment of text and image as two disparate elements of The Shoshoneans is common; others have also found it useful to read a one-way relationship between the photographs and the written narrative. Where Clark sees Dorn’s text as an unsuccessful supportive apparatus for Lucas’ photography, later critics reverse or salvage this relationship, arguing that the “images extend Dorn’s text,” or that it is the travelogue portion that saves The Shoshoneans from becoming a “superficial” or “impressionistic” coffee table book of pictures (Smith 105, Dresman 100). While one critic is willing to grant that a “collusion of text and image” also takes place, historically, it has been a matter of granting one portion of the book a dominant role (Smith 106).

It is more productive to interpret The Shoshoneans as a dialogue, a multidisciplinary, printed version of the call-and-response of the protest march, with both text and image presenting complementary interpretations of the map which defines “our area.” While both the travelogue and the photographs are presented in discrete sections, alternating between chapters of Dorn’s narrative and cohesive presentations of Lucas’ pictures, the relationship between these portions of the book changes as the narrative progresses. Beginning as two distinct visions of the Basin-Plateau landscape, by the close of the book text and image are one unified representation of ritual ceremony’s potential to create change. The first time the reader encounters Lucas’ photographs is (not coincidentally) on the page opposing Dorn’s “handprint” map of the Basin-Plateau. Breaking into the opening lines of Chapter II of the travelogue is “The People,” fifty-one images, primarily portraits of individuals, aging as the series progresses. The very first image, however, is inside a cemetery. In the foreground of the photo is the headstone of a 37-year-old Native American, who was, according to the engraving on the stone, “Buried Like A White Man.” Behind and on either side of the central headstone, numerous graves are marked by white crosses. The sky, which makes up fully half of the background of this photograph, is full of fast-moving white clouds.

"buried like a white man" -- Annotated Picture

Click on the image to see an annotated version in Flickr.

A depiction of the results— that is, an early death and a less-than-honorable memorial—of assimilation, while also an acknowledgement of that conquest’s inevitability as time moves forward and the clouds gather, this image is an explicit foreshadowing of ideas Dorn will later examine in the travelogue—particularly the questions of assimilation which arise during the pair’s visit to Reno, chronicled in the middle of the book. At this point, however, the photography is disconnected from the narrative. The text on the page opposite this image is a general introduction to the “Basin-Plateau area of the western United States,” an orientation to the physical geography that Dorn and Lucas traversed in 1965 (16). The only human beings mentioned in this description are obvious outsiders, “a few gamblers, professional criminals, movie stars, divorcees, and, of course, the people who live there” (16). While it is easy to imagine the dead man buried beneath the headstone on the opposite page as belonging to one or more of these marginal categories, there is no reference made to the photograph itself. The marker could be on anyone’s grave. The photographs are textually invisible.

By the time the second set of photographs is inserted into the book, in Chapter V, Dorn has shifted from general commentary to a self-reflexive, more holistic analysis of Native American languages. While the Athapascan he hears demonstrates a distinct cultural divergence, “a differentiation of the scoring of the earth” in comparison to the English he knows and speaks, it also generates “a fluttering of the spirit” that culminates in the recognition of Dorn’s own limits as an external observer (Shoshoneans 32). At this point, the travelogue begins to categorically “deny… the imperial habit of the American mind,” to refuse to assimilate or “subjugate… the foreign” (McPheron 36). At the same time, the second set of photographs document the assimilation that has already occurred. Labeled “The Basin-Plateau,” these twenty-seven images emphasize travel and futility. The first picture, of a U.S. highway heading into the mountains, takes the viewer down a road which is literally going nowhere; after making a sharp turn for no obvious reason, it disappears into the background of the shot. And the final image in this section—a feather headdress mounted, trophy-like, on a wall, next to two crosses and the American flag—is a visual acknowledgement of the loss of some “essential otherness” (McPheron 37). The travelogue later makes explicit reference to this image, when Dorn claims: “Somebody must have given the Indian a big dose of the flag. Maybe that famous separation of church and state was never their concern. In any case, the place felt spiritually dead” (Shoshoneans 53). At the moment these photographs are introduced, however, the narrative is experiencing a moment of spiritual vibrance, championing the relative linguistic detachment of the people of the Basin-Plateau and claiming that “Each utterance is particular, that’s what saves us all” (33). Does the distinctiveness of the Shoshoni people represent a potentially redemptive means of resisting incorporation into mainstream American culture, or is it an empty stand against past conquests? At the very least, midway through The Shoshoneans, both contributors are considering the same question.

And the answer, of course, is that both stances are correct. As The Shoshoneans concludes, the final chapters of Dorn’s narrative and the last two sets of Lucas’ images increasingly work together to promote the idea that major Native American ceremonial practices, including the Sun Dance, War Dance and Ghost Dance, contain the same sort of social potential seen elsewhere in the early sixties. While it is true that “the most significant aspects” of “the Shoshoni religion” have been reimported, “had to come back from the plain,” the Sun Dance in particular remains not only a “form of worship,” but a “technique for living,” a means of developing personal meaning in the face of late capitalism (Views 100, Shoshoneans 78). The penultimate chapter of Dorn’s narrative, however, which describes the Sun Dance, does so at a remove, through the use of secondary sources. “Depriv[ing] himself of the intimacy of the” ritual experience itself, Dorn retreats from testimony and lived experiences in order to tacitly acknowledge that ultimately, “he can’t escape the power of his own projections onto” a people more marginalized than he (Smith 111, 110). It is the final photographs that provide the reader of The Shoshoneans with access to ritual ceremony—and this access is carefully limited to a mere fourteen images, taken while Lucas—”his marginalization,” as an African-American living in “that socially complex era,” deeper than his companion’s on this trip—actually participated in the dance (Smith 112).

In order for any emphasis on either isolationism or ceremony to have an effect on the reader of The Shoshoneans, the image must temporarily trump the text. Lucas’ photographs of the Sun Dance, which break up a description of the Ghost Dance at Wounded Knee in Dorn’s final chapter, are immediately followed not by the resumption of Dorn’s narrative, but by a fourth and final set of photographs—a small collection of images of the War Dance. It is no coincidence, however, that the final pages of The Shoshoneans mark a return to the necessarily distanced travelogue of the poet. Immediately following the final set of photographs, Dorn’s narrative describes a moment in which Native American ceremony was robbed of its power. Explaining that the massacres of Wounded Knee, including the “murder” of Sitting Bull, “registered another small installment in the spiritual death” not just of Native American cultures, but of “America” as a whole, Dorn reminds the reader of the inevitable resurgence of Western dominance, or “the inside [life] of a nation” (Shoshoneans 81, Views 112). The 1965 Sun Dance has ritual significance for those able to participate in it, but that significance cannot be experienced by either the writer or the reader of The Shoshoneans.

One of the many questions asked in The Shoshoneans is, “When does ceremony get to be too hard?” Dorn’s initial answer is “perhaps when it is brought back” to “entertain” a people who had left it behind (60). At the conclusion of a half-decade of social activism, the peoples of the Basin-Plateau represent both the potential for redemptive change and the limits that any progressive movement will face. Internalized nationalism is an insurmountable handicap. Mainstream American culture, even if it is “a majority produced specifically to believe it has not been infected by the minority,” will render the minority meaningless, if not altogether mute (Shoshoneans 26). Active resistance is possible, but it must come coupled with disidentification, a conscious self-displacement from the entire majority/minority debate, in order to have longevity. At the Berkeley Poetry Conference, upon the conclusion of the trip that will become this book, Dorn notes that the people described in The Shoshoneans are “not Indians. They’re not Americans. … everything you bring to them is your notion of what they are. It’s not theirs” (Views 98). While the map, the dialogue between narrative and photograph, and the images of the Sun Dance perhaps bring the reader of The Shoshoneans closer to self-understanding, the Shoshoni themselves remain unknowable.