Cover image for Feathering Custer
Feathering Custer
Penn, W. S., 1949-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, 2001.
Physical Description:
240 pages ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PS173.I6 P46 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



The noted Nez Perce fiction writer and critic W. S. Penn turns his wry and penetrating gaze on the state of modern Native life and literature and considers how modern scholarship has affected the ways Natives and others see themselves and their world. The result is a uniquely frank, witty, and unsettling critique of contemporary theory and its ability to come to terms with the real lives and literatures of Natives in North America.

Key to this critique is the troubling issue of what properly constitutes a traditional "Indian" identity and an "Indian" literature within Native communities and in the academy. In confronting this issue, Penn exposes some of the sillier uses of the serious language of diversity as well as the impact of identity politics on Native professors. And yet, Penn argues, the storytelling traditions so central to Native communities remain very much alive today, hidden in the corners of the literary canon.

Author Notes

W. S. Penn is the director of the Creative Writing Program and winner of the Distinguished Faculty Award at Michigan State University. His many books include the North American Indian Prose Award-winner All My Sins Are Relatives (Nebraska 1995); the American Book Award-winner Killing Time with Strangers ; and This Is the World.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Just in time for the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Little Big Horn comes this provocative if uneven collection of essays by Nez Perc? fiction writer and critic Penn, who attempts, with commendable verve and insight, to take the measure of Native American studies today. Like many another successful academic (Penn is professor of literature and creative writing at Michigan State), the author is rather embattled and defensive in these works, and a bit chagrined to find himself at the heart of an often patronizing and reductive academy. Especially self-conscious about his precarious position as a Native American (Nez Perc? is his publisher's designation; Penn prefers "mixblood"), Penn employs a number of strategies to "keep it real," including the compelling form of these 10 extended essays. Penn is a passionate advocate of the oral tradition and an enemy of "purity," whether of racial designation or literary form, and his essays often incorporate fictional elements, showing a healthy respect for anecdote and digression as methodological tools. He uses such techniques most successfully in the book's opening essay, "Tonto Meets Chuang Tzu," which combines fiction, essay and autobiography to illustrate and explain Penn's hybrid methods and goals. Yet even when (as in the rambling "Donne Talkin") it is difficult to separate illustrative digression and core substance, or when he takes Pagliaesque cheap shots at such disparate figures as Courtney Love, Richard Ford, Bjork and Amy Tan, Penn refuses to take refuge in jargon or doublespeak, and his attempts to negotiate complicated cultural thickets prove winning. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Using his novelist's flair for character and plot, Penn (Michigan State Univ.) begins this study of Native American misrepresentation with a fictional account of Tonto growing up as the outcast fat Indian boy who became an academic. With inside jokes, he mocks the misuse of language by academics so mired in theory that they end up missing the meaning of narratives, storytelling, language itself. Penn demonstrates his own mastery of critical theories as he weaves them into his life experiences. He takes on Native writers and critics along with non-Natives who fail to understand the life experiences that give rise to authentic Indian identity. As he dissects "myths and second-hand truths," he explores the language of modern critical theory applied to minority literatures: "empowerment," "oppressor," and "resistance" become limiting language rather than explanatory. Just as Custer had "trouble taking the Sioux seriously" and lost his life (only to be resurrected in Wild West shows), Native writers find it difficult to be taken seriously. Penn's approach to modern critical theory complements work by Gerald Vizenor and Louis Owens and does so in an often witty and humorous manner, identifying the folly of critics who try to interpret literature for which the contemporary tools of criticism have little relevance. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. G. M. Bataille University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Table of Contents

Feathering Custerp. 0
Tonto Meets Chuang Tzup. 1
Paving with Good Intentionsp. 29
Tradition and the Individual Imitationp. 65
Leaving the Parlorp. 91
Donne Talkin'p. 105
Killing Ourselves with Language as Suchp. 135
In the Gazebop. 151
In the Garden of the Godsp. 179
Feathering Custerp. 191
Critical Artsp. 221
Notesp. 227