Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Way of Kinship, part 2 of 2: The anthology's early beginnings.

In translating and editing the works in The Way of Kinship: An Anthology of Native Siberian Literature (Minnesota 2010), Claude Clayton Smith worked closely with Alexander Vaschenko, another leading scholar in Siberian literature who is based in Moscow. In this second part of our features on this first anthology of Native Siberian literature in English, translator and editor Claude Clayton Smith answers our questions.

Part One: Alexander Vaschenko, chair of comparative studies in literature and culture at Moscow State University, discusses how Native Siberian literature is similar to Native literature from North America.
Part Two (Today): Claude Clayton Smith, professor emeritus of English at Ohio Northern University, discusses how the anthology came to be.


How did you and Dr. Vaschenko begin working together?

I am glad to be asked this question, because the answer is a matter of serendipity and fate.

In October of 1989 an international Hemingway conference was held at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio, where I was a professor in the English Department. The conference was directed by my friend and colleague, Dr. Charles “Tod” Oliver, editor of the (then) fledgling Hemingway Review. One of the topics at that conference was “Native Americans in the Works of Ernest Hemingway,” and one of the scholars in attendance was Alexander Vaschenko, the Russian authority on Native American literature and folklore. Dr. Vaschenko had come with a contingent of six professors from the A.M. Gorky Institute of World Literature of the Russian National Academy of Sciences.

My book Quarter-Acre of Heartache had been published by Pocahontas Press in 1985. It details the successful modern struggle of Chief Big Eagle of Connecticut’s Paugussett Indian Nation to preserve the oldest (1659) continuous Indian reservation in America. Tod Oliver thought it would be an appropriate gift for Dr. Vaschenko, and I provided a copy, signed by Chief Big Eagle with a lavish inscription about our two nations walking in peace. In Quarter-Acre of Heartache Chief Big Eagle stated that one of his goals for the future was to create a dialogue between Native Americans and Native Siberians, since Native Americans are thought to have emigrated from Siberia to the Americas.

After receiving his gift, “Sasha” stayed up all night reading, and in the morning he came to me with two proposals. First, he wanted to translate the book as the fourth and final (contemporary) text in a series that he was editing about the long struggles of Native Americans. Secondly, he wanted the Chief and me to come to Russia that summer to address an audience of scholars and other interested parties. Three weeks later the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Russia opened up to the world.

The Chief and I visited Moscow and Leningrad during the chaotic summers of 1990 and 1991, adventures later detailed in my book Red Men in Red Square (Pocahontas Press, 1994). I returned in 1993 for a conference at the Gorky Institute, but unfortunately the Chief was too ill to accompany me. During that visit Sasha proposed that we collaborate on some translations of Native Siberian writers.

Yeremei Aipin, born in the native village of
Varyogan in West Siberia, has spent much
of his career working on behalf of the
Khanty people, as well as on his writing.
His work is included in The Way of Kinship.
Photo by Susan Scarberry-Garcia.
Our first effort was a chapbook, I Listen to the Earth by Khanty author Yeremei Aipin, published by Ohio Northern University in 1995. Sales of that book helped to bring Dr. Vaschenko and Aipin to the university in 1996 for a program called “The Russian Connection.” Subsequently we added new Siberian authors to our translation efforts, and in 2003 the North Dakota Quarterly dedicated a special issue to The Way of Kinship. We expanded this interim anthology to the current volume by the same title.

So the new text is a long labor of love, the culmination of a personal and professional collaboration of more than two decades, inspired by the spirit of Chief Big Eagle, who, with the help of noted civil rights lawyer William Kunstler, won the right to preserve the Paugussett reservation in Connecticut in perpetuity. Chief Big Eagle passed away in August of 2008 at the age of 92. His obituary and photo appeared in the New York Times.

In the anthology's foreword, N. Scott Momaday writes of the kinships between North American and Siberian Native writers. What are some of the divergences?

This is a good question because it is the similarities between North American and Siberian Native writers that immediately stand out when one reads The Way of Kinship. But I think a definite point of divergence is
Yuri Vaella, born in the village of Varyogan in West
Siberia, has written and published folktales, poems,
essays and folksongs in both Nenets and Russian. In
addition to writing, Vaella owns and herds reindeer.
His work is included in The Way of Kinship.
Photo by Susan Scarberry-Garcia.
simply the Siberian climate, which is certainly more harsh and hostile for nine months of the year than that experienced by most North American tribes. As I recall, snow was expected during the first week in September, a few days after we departed Siberia in 2003. This difference in climate means a difference in material culture, which results from different ways of coping with the environment.

In an entirely different vein, Native Siberians didn’t suffer the devastating epidemics that North American Indians did following their initial contact with Europeans. These differences are naturally reflected, to a greater or lesser degree, in the literature of both North American and Siberian Native writers.

Dr. Vaschenko has written that one of the goals of the volume is to move beyond “first acquaintance” so that Native Siberian literature can be an invaluable comparative teaching manual. What kinds of courses might incorporate the writings in this anthology?

The Way of Kinship will provide a cogent and comprehensive university text for arts and science courses in third-world literature, world literature, comparative literature, ethnic diversity, ethnic literatures, and cultural understanding. Due to the many cultural interconnections among indigenous writers, it will be an excellent supplement to courses in Native American literature. I have used it in my own Great Works of Literature course to meet the requirement for literature from a third-world country. I also feel strongly that any general reader interested in Native American literature will be rewarded by the contents of this unique anthology, the first in English.


Claude Clayton Smith is professor emeritus of English at Ohio Northern University.

To learn more about last year’s creative cultural exchange in New Mexico, listen to “Threads of Kinship: Dialogues with Native Siberian Writers at IAIA,” an interview published April 14, 2010, at Santa Fe Radio Café.

Find out more about The Way of Kinship.

This post is published in partnership with First Peoples: New Directions in Indigenous Studies.

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