Sarah’s Second Critical Article

In her article “‘It is ours to know’: Simon J. Ortiz’s From Sand Creek” Robin Riley Fast explores the function and importance of “witnessing” (52) in From Sand Creek. She argues that Ortiz represents the history of three different sects of Americans “Indians, white settlers and other white historical figures, and veterans” (55) as “both opposed and related to each other” (55) in order to help the reader witness both the complicity and commonality among these three groups. Fast furthers states that these representations also contribute to Ortiz’s goal of a “re-(or de-) centering” (61) of history to include previously marginalized voices.

Fast begins by discussing the importance of the poet/reader relationship and the assertion that witnessing is something in which both parties must actively participate in order to be effectual. She cites Ortiz’s own commentary on the subject as well as Don Laub’s.  Fast then considers how From Sand Creek’s “storytelling and listening community” (53) is America and the reasons that this is problematic. She notes the larger issue of assimilation conflict as well as the more concrete problem that the term “American” originally referred to what is modernly called Native Americans and only later was claimed by settlers to differentiate themselves both from Native Americans and Europeans. Fast uses these intertwined facets and history and literature to set up the overall argument of her article: that Ortiz recognized and used these facets to re-envision a better America.

Once she states her thesis Fast proceeds to example just how complicated and relative the relationships between the Native Americans, settlers, and veterans are represented in the poem. The Native Americans are quite obviously set up as victims but not only as victims of the settlers but also as victims of past veterans – a consideration that becomes more intriguing when the reader understands that veterans profiled in From Sand Creek at Fort Lyons descend from these victims.  Also Native Americans are not the only group that is depicted as victimized. According to Fast, Ortiz wants his readers to understand that the settlers were “manipulated by the powerful and their ideologies” (55) but that they were still “responsible for their own choices and actions” (55). In a sense the settlers were both victims and aggressors which indicates a commonality with the Native Americans and the veterans but also a complicity in their mistreatment.  Fast also points out that the veterans are likely populated by “descendants of both Indians and settlers” (55) which again complicates the consideration of the veterans as merely victims. Fasts suggest that these “entangled identities” (56) support even more commonality than is explicitly mentioned. Each group has suffered similar, if not equal, hardships and Fast holds that this is what Ortiz is striving for his imagined vision of America to recognize and understand.

Fast continues to provide characterizations from the poem that both set these groups in opposition and invite the reader to look for similarities of condition. She sets up several dichotomies that illustrate her argument rather perfectly: veterans/imperialism, settlers/Native Americans, veterans/settlers, etc. Particularly interesting is Fast’s reflection on the characterizations of the veteran and the settlers in From Sand Creek. She notes that the veterans are often given names, referred to in the first person, and considered as individuals but that the settlers are not given names, referred to in the third person, and considered as a group. This contributes to Ortiz’s attempt to move the center of history, or at least this particular history, toward the marginalized voices of the Native Americans and the veterans.

Fast briefly discusses the role of Whitman in From Sand Creek and points out that it is just as complicated as the relationship between the Native Americans, settlers, and veterans. The most apparent and simple way to interpret Ortiz’s inclusion of Whitman in his poem is to understand Whitman as a “positive precursor” (58) for Ortiz. But, as Fast points out, Whitman was a supporter of Manifest Destiny and if there is a villain in From Sand Creek the political doctrine of Manifest Destiny is it. Fast concludes that Whitman is representative of “both complicity and commonality” (59) and entertains the idea that including Whitman in the poem may have been Ortiz’s way of illustrating the problems of attempting to connect with white Americans.

Fast’s article is both an accessible and intriguing read. Her focus on close reading of the text and her dedication to Ortiz’s own commentary made her assertions all the more understandable and argumentative. The idea that the people Ortiz represents in the poem are so intertwined and yet so different fits well into the doctrine of From Sand Creek that is pushing for the rise of understanding among these groups not despite the differences but because of the commonalities. Fast’s idea that each groups differences are mostly differences of degrees as opposed to differences in character allows for Ortiz’s vision of a more understanding America to become much closer to reality.

Fast, Robin Riley.”‘It Is Ours to Know’:Simon J. Ortiz’s From Sand Creek”.Studies in American Indian Literatures:The Journal Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures:12.3(2000 Fall), p.p. 52-63.

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