Publish at March 14 2022 Updated March 18 2022

Contemporary Native American Fiction and the Reinvention of the Self [Thesis].

Literary totemism recomposes identities and communities

"Because they do not sugarcoat the harshness of the initial situations or the brutality of the hardships encountered, but rather lead the heroes to show initiative in transcending this violence, totemic narratives act as catalysts of energy and processes of reconciliation of a fragmented personality. "

Caroline Durand-Rous, in her dissertation on "the reinvented totem," explores how the totem allows, after the brutality of contact with settlers, to rewrite Indian legends and perpetuate tradition, to regenerate the imaginary through trickery (the trickster, the fripon), sacrifice, and totemic water, and to refound one's identity and community through dynamic totemism.

The current dynamics of the geopolitical world tend to be based on an idea of separation and a static order: humans and "the environment," good and evil, friend and foe. The "trauma of separation" came from outside in the context of colonizations, but it is also internal to Western culture, which sees the world this way.

Reconnections in motion

Who says separation says consequence of absence, illness, addictions. These can affect a social group removed from its ancestral territory, rich and fruitful, and parked in empty reserves.

They also affect humans isolated in cities with impermeable soils and rendered sterile (separated from the breathing of the living), invited by the conveniences of commercial offerings to eat food in trays that go "ding!" when ready to be swallowed.

To reconnect with the vital breath of the world, Native American literature emphasizes fluid connections that require a permanent and flexible renegotiation of our relationship to the world at the same time as it changes.

Whoever one is, and most certainly for different reasons, one will be able to identify with the heroes of this literature and experience the power of their transmutations:

"The inherent plasticity of totemism allows for all the modulations of form necessary to integrate the plurality of identities. "

Through an individual initiation, it is the entire clan that is regenerated.

Authors in the corpus

The corpus consists of two authors whose common ground lies in a novel literary use of totemic practices.

On Wikipedia, some are listed in the category of Native American renaissance authors, the researcher on the other hand attaches them to the aftermath of this renaissance, in the sense that "transmotion" (totemism in motion) allows for the recreation of a Native American identity at the intersection of the old world, other identities, and the new experienced.

They are two American authors: the ojibwe writers Louise Erdrich and David Treuer, and two Canadian authors: author Haisla Eden Robinson and the Métis-born and Cree author Joseph Boyden.

Three author-ices belong to the same cultural and historical pool of Algonquin nations and two cultural areas historically linked to totemic practice (individual and clan). All of them have in common "an assumed hybridity in the elaboration of totemic paths".

The hybridization of symbolic sources

Thus, we find Amerindian, but also Christian, and ancient Greek references. Mixing us too reality and fiction-magic, we will illustrate with the names borne by three children of Louise Erdrich: Persi Andromeda, Pallas Antigone and Aza Marion.

And, opposite these children's names, a character from The Last Report on the Miracle at Little No Horse (The Last Report on the Miracle at Little No Horse): a man with a sparse beard who poses as a priest is actually a woman running from her past.

Pallas Athena comes to mind, appearing to Telemachus to announce the return of his father Odysseus in the form of his tutor, an elderly man named Mentor Μέντωρ.

Another link to Athena, glaukôpis γλαυκῶπις this time (with a bright, pers, gray gaze), in the noted use of the color glaukos (glaukos) from the Greek Archaic period, which color historian Michel Pastoureau defines as follows:

"[Thus again] glaukos, which archaic poets make great use of and which expresses sometimes green, sometimes gray, sometimes blue sometimes even yellow or brown [...]. In Homer, it is used as well to name the color of water as that of eyes, leaves or honey."

Totemism and Mundialization

The term totemism comes from the Ojibwe word "ototeman," which covers spiritual kinship: he is of my kin, he is of my clan.

Tutelary powers (animate or "inanimate" like minerals or even a car in one of the novels!) are ambivalent magical powers.

They belong to a clan in a hereditary way (clan, social totemism) and/or they reveal themselves to an individual through dream, vision, a significant event, or other means of revelation (individual or revelatory totemism).

An intimate connection exists between the individual and the tutelary spirit.

"The totem chooses the guardian, who must come to terms with it."

Toemism is part of the cosmovision of the Native Americans, "it affirms the existence of spiritual forces that cross the ages and animate the land".

This organization of energy is sustained by exchange and reciprocity, and totemism allows for action to maintain or refound the balance of the world.

For the anthropologist Philippe Descola, the totemic mode is separate from the animistic mode (in its system of "mundialities," worldviews), but for researcher Caroline Durand-Rous, who has been confronted with a mobile and hybridizing material of tradition:

"In the various novels we study that feature a revisited totemism, the modes of thought defined by Philippe Descola appear much more intimately linked, and the totemic relationship develops there as much through the metamorphosis he associates with the animistic mode as through the metaphor and empathy he attributes to the analogical mode. "

Literary Totemism

In explorations of worlds similar to the magical realism, the researcher wished to:

"reveal within novels that have already been widely studied a particular symbolic structure that renders the protagonists' journeys and interactions meaningful by rearranging the patterns of a traditional ritual practice."

The six indices of literary totemism:

  1. The presence of a reinvented clan, as a final bulwark against a dehumanizing society.

  2. The both mythical and magical relationship between individuals and their environment (an ambivalent and contested territory).

  3. Characters observe a deferential attitude toward an object or being, there is an instinctive invention of practices.

  4. A particular object or being invests the individual with the mission of guardian of the totem. He cannot escape it. He builds and affirms his personality in an initiatory journey resulting in a metamorphosis (happy or unhappy).

  5. The plot relies on a phase of sacrilege or sacrifice in which the guardian regenerates his relationship to the totem and re-launches the clan into a new cycle.

  6. There is permanence of a magical water that permeates not only the physical territory where the action takes place but also the imagination of the protagonists.

Tolemic water, a space-substance

Tolemic water uses this magnetic force that is a common feature of all reveries of water [Bachelard].

It exerts a not insignificant hold on totems and their guardians. This substance, whose paradox must be tamed, is found in three forms in the Amerindian literature studied:

  1. Waters of travel: the living waters, the spiritual landscapes that guide individuals on their journeys (mental mapping from water). The totemic wave carries the characters towards the rediscovery of their ancestral land.
    "It reveals, through the images of the initial territory, the existence of a depth that must be experienced to learn a lesson."
  2. Transformative waters: pure waters, water erases (ablutions) in order to better recreate being.
    There is "instinctive reinvention of rituals related to the purifying energy of totemic water."
  3. Waters of reconciliation: dense, malleable waters, dual waters (salt, fresh), places where reality and magic meet, islands and lakes like eyes seen from above, streams of words.

Crossing the "paradoxical passage" (Mircea Eliade)

The stories begin with characters out of step with their own destiny, then the totem pole imposes itself on its guardian and the covenant between them is sealed so that there is a reclaiming of integrity and dignity.

Through a painful ordeal, "[the character] finally reveals himself to himself. He increases his strength tenfold and manages to project himself into the future."

"Every book is a totem pole as long as we take the trouble to let the spirits that slumber within it inhabit us."

"We are what we imagine." Navarre Scott Momaday

Illustration: Bruce Warrington from Unsplash.

To Read:

Caroline Durand-Rous, The Totem Reinvented: Exploring Identity and Redefining the Self in Contemporary Native American Fiction. Literature. University of Perpignan, 2017.

Thesis available at:


Marcel Detienne, Jean-Pierre Vernant, The Ruses of Intelligence. La mètis des grecs.

Luc Bigé, La Voie du héro, les 12 travaux d'Hercule.

Sandrine Benard, Native languages that resonate.

Aude Chartier Vallart, The Darkness Opens, When Indigenous Identity Liberates Writing.

Chronicle written with The Spirit of Healing, by Sandra Ingerman and Byron Metcalf, to listen. Here the 3rd track.

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