“Our core values are incredibly resilient”: An interview with Christopher Pexa

This week the Modern Language Association announced that it has awarded The MLA Prize for Studies in Native American Literatures, Cultures, or Languages to University of Minnesota Press author Christopher Pexa. The award will be presented at the Association’s virtual convention on January 9, 2021. 

The committee’s citation reads: 

Christopher J. Pexa’s Translated Nation: Rewriting the Dakhóta Oyáte examines Dakhóta literature that emerged between the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn and the antipipeline protests at Standing Rock 140 years later. Pexa takes as the basis for his thinking about Indigenous sovereignty and the Dakhóta canon the ethics of the thióšpaye, the idea of extended family or kinship, and grounds his readings of both canonical texts and lesser-known archives (prisoners’ letters, interviews with elders) in thióšpaye philosophy. Part literary criticism, part ethnohistory, part language activism (in its pathbreaking reliance on Dakhóta words and phrases to express Dakhóta concepts), and part loving fieldwork centered on the voices and stories of his own grandmothers, Pexa’s work convincingly recovers a sturdy though strategically inaccessible Dakhóta resurgence and compels readers to think more deeply about other tribal peoples’ creative decolonizing work.

For the occasion, Chris kindly agreed to an interview with Eric Lundgren, Outreach and Development Manager at the Press.


I want to start off by congratulating you. After winning the Labriola Center American Indian National Book Award for Translated Nation, you’ve now been named the winner of the MLA Prize in Native Literatures, Cultures, and Languages. What does it mean to you to be recognized in this way for your first book?

I’m grateful, honored, and a little surprised at these recognitions. I’m surprised because what I find most heartening is how they signal that local Native lives and histories have made their way to a range of audiences, including (and maybe most importantly to me) non-academic ones. This may be most true of the Labriola Prize since its purpose is to highlight community-based work. As for the MLA Prize, which is only around eight years old now: I’m also incredibly grateful to have my book appear along those of brilliant folks like my colleague at the University of Minnesota, David Chang, Beth Piatote, ku‘ualoha ho‘omanawanui, LeAnne Howe, and James Cox. This is an esteemed company to be in, for sure.


In some of your discussions of Dakhóta writers and thinkers such as Nicholas Black Elk, Charles Eastman, and Ella Cara Deloria, you find a “representational shiftiness” in how they dealt with U.S. colonizers, accommodating the settlers while protecting the “ethical and political heart” of the people. I wonder if you could give a few examples of how this mode of resistance played out. 

Well for starters I’d say that this “shiftiness”—which shows up as a kind of ambivalence, for instance when Eastman uses a language of Indian “wildness” and vanishing even as he extols the virtues of his own Dakota people—this shiftiness or ambivalence isn’t necessarily a way of resisting the settler state. Rather, it’s on the one hand a symptom of being caught in an impossible either-or situation (i.e., assimilate or die). On the other hand, it’s a strategy of withholding important cultural and political knowledge from settler view, even while engaging settler audiences with the kinds of performances of Indianness they expected to see. 

To give a couple of for-instances: Black Elk would perform for white tourists in the summertime Duhamel Indian Pageant in Ȟé Sápa, in the Black Mountains or “Black Hills” of what’s now South Dakota. As part of those performances he re-enacted certain ceremonies, including the kettle dance. But as his granddaughter points out in an interview, the kettle was always left empty. For tourists, then, it was a kind of signifier without a signified—there was no content other than what they brought in the expectation of a certain kind of Native exotic. To the Lakȟóta relatives and workers, it was a chance to be together in the summer in a place of origin, of creation. They could gather lodge poles there, too. To give an example from Eastman, who worked with the Boy Scouts: he divulges details about the “eneepee” or “the original Turkish bath” (Eastman often worked both his revelations and his withholdings from white audiences through such analogies) while withholding most everything else about this purification ceremony’s content and performance. He taught white kids to “play Indian,” in other words, with maybe <1% of the conceptual material that might entail, especially since most of his Boy Scout was not playing Indian in Dakhóta/Lakȟóta homelands (and so wouldn’t engage in a real, embodied way with most of what he describes in works like Indian Scout Talks). 


Translation is an important concept for your book and features in the title. In a sense, it is about how Dakhóta writers and thinkers “translated” their own culture and way of life to survive under the rule of white U.S. settlers, but the underlying differences in language are also key to understanding this history. What are some of the features of the Dakhóta language that play a role in the political and intellectual traditions you are exploring here?

There are a few Dakhóta and Lakȟóta keywords or central concepts to this book that tie to the question of what passes between languages and worldviews, what falls out of that translation, and what is strategically withheld. Among them are: thióšpaye, Oyáte, wakháŋ, Wakháŋ Tháŋka, among others. Most of these emerged from my readings of the oral and literary texts that show up in the book. All in one way or another have to do with what is more and more commonly called in academic circles “critical relationality,” or a non-hierarchical, horizontal, non-human-centric, non-heteronormative, non-homonormative forms of kinship. It’s these forms of kinship that I describe as an integral part of a thióšpaye ethics that was both performed for, and largely illegible or incomprehensible to, white settler society. 

Another answer: I was just listening to the radio the other day and someone was talking about an opera by Beethoven, how Hector Berlioz said of that opera that “there are certain kinds of musical beauty, evident to all, yet which are not calculated to excite applause.” If we substitute “there are certain kinds of beauty in Dakhóta and Lakȟóta literatures, evident to all Dakhóta and Lakȟóta people, yet which are not calculated to excite applause,” then we get close to what I mean by “translation” in the book. I like the idea of not being calculated, of being quiet but no less powerful for that quiet. It reminds of Kevin Quashie’s idea of “the sovereignty of quiet,” which also inspired my readings in this book.


You are yourself a member of the Spirit Lake Nation, and the book features several interludes in which you conduct interviews with family members to provide an alternative mode of Indigenous memory and history-making, alongside your more formal scholarly analysis. I wonder if you could tell us more about your involvement with Spirit Lake Nation, and at what point in the writing process you decided to include the oral histories.

The book really grew out of those interviews, which I did some twenty years ago now in Fort Totten with my grandmas Rachel Charboneau (Young) and Grace Lambert (Young), and out of an archive of recorded interviews with other Spirit Lake elders that were made as part of a Dakhóta language program in the early 1990s. These interviews started going to work on me and by the time I started graduate school and knew I wanted to write about Dakhóta and Lakȟóta literatures, I saw all these resonances between them and the things I was reading. I saw that family stories were webbed together with communities, and between communities, with the Oyáte. In some ways, these stories were/are the Oyáte. 

By including the interviews I also wanted to honor the ordinary, everyday talk I love—these elders who have passed on whose laughter and joking I miss. Putting whole cuts of the everyday is maybe both an invitation and a dis-invitation—if you’re down, you’ll listen in. If you’re not, well… you’re missing out! That’s also part of the translational dynamic I wanted to evoke.


The concept of the Oyáte or people sets out a particular conception of human community and relationship to place for the Dakhóta. I wonder if you could elaborate on how this concept, and also the idea of thióšpaye ethics based in personhood, sufficiency, and generosity, informs Dakhóta philosophy and how these concepts have changed or evolved from the 19th century to today.

My basic view or argument is that these core ethical concepts have remained strong and relatively unchanged from the late nineteenth-century till now. That’s the reason for tracking resonances between recent oral histories and interviews and earlier literary texts. I would say, though (and this is not in the book except in a flickering way in its epilogue) that our Indigenous territories—our storied and originary lands, waters, and skies—have always been under threat from the settler nation, and obviously still are. Oil pipelines are just one of the more visible examples of this threat, but sacred sites that have been incorporated into city and state park systems, waterways that have been literally covered over by cement, these are other examples where territories of the People, the Oyáte, remain under attack. Our philosophy has had to adapt, to account for the losses of plant, animal, and spirit nations, that have resulted from those attacks. But our core values are incredibly resilient and will no doubt help us to be good relatives who will actively work to reclaim territory, whether through land buy-backs or through other forms of activism. 


Your book could be considered part of what Leanne Betasamosake Simpson has called “Indigenous resurgence,” a rebuilding of Native intellectual and philosophical traditions. I wonder what you think about the efforts of cultural institutions to recognize this resurgence—whether through land acknowledgements or reframing of historic sites, such as the Minnesota Historical Society’s efforts to include Dakhóta narratives at Fort Snelling. What are the next steps cultural institutions should take beyond these symbolic efforts?

As I understand Simpson’s meaning of “Indigenous resurgence” or “radical resurgence,” there’s a strong element of action or activism entailed in it. As I’ve already mentioned, my project in this book was quieter, maybe, than Simpson’s “radical resurgence” allows, although I’d like to think that our ancestors who lived during the assimilation era did cultural and political survival work that allowed for the more visible actions of our present—like Idle No More, #NoDAPL, but also taking down colonizers’ monuments and renamings like the one that restored the lake, Bdé Makhá Ská, in Minneapolis—to happen. As for Fort Snelling, I think it’s a good thing that the Minnesota Historical Society has begun to acknowledge that the fort is built atop a site of genocide but also of origin for Dakhóta people: the Bdóte or confluence of Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. But it’s not nearly enough, and the move to make these histories equal is itself a re-colonizing one. My view aligns with Dakhóta scholar and activist Wazíyatawiŋ’s, then: we should just tear down the fort, and not just figuratively.


Translated Nation: Rewriting the Dakhóta Oyáte is available from University of Minnesota Press.

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