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Translated Nation

Assistant Professor Christopher Pexa on his forthcoming book, teaching THE ROUND HOUSE, and reading Thomas Merton
December 14, 2016

Image of Assistant Professor Christopher Pexa

Image of Assistant Professor Christopher Pexa
Assistant Professor Christopher Pexa, who joined the English faculty this fall

In fall 2016, the Department of English welcomed Dr. Christopher Pexa as a new assistant professor here at Minnesota. Professor Pexa received a BA in Religious Studies from Arizona State University and studied social anthropology at Cambridge University through a Marshall Scholarship in 1998. He went back to ASU for an MFA in Creative Writing, graduating in 2003 with a poetry emphasis. He received his PhD in English from Vanderbilt University in 2013. Pexa was a Mellon Dissertation Fellow and a Mellon Diversity Postdoctoral Associate at Cornell University. He taught for a year as an assistant professor of English at Oklahoma State University. His book, Translated Nation: Rewriting the Dakota Oyate, 1862-1934, will be published by the University of Minnesota Press.

"Dakota people, like other indigenous
people on this continent, were forced
into a false choice between 'savagery'
and 'civilization,' and yet found creative
ways to navigate that binary and to
reinvest key terms of liberalism like
property, citizenship, and individualism
with Dakota meanings."
                                     — Christopher Pexa

Would you describe your forthcoming book? What led you to this topic?

My first book project examines how assimilation-era authors, including Nicholas Black Elk, Charles Eastman, and Ella Deloria, rewrote Dakota nationhood in terms of ethical norms—such as economic sufficiency—and practices—like making treaties and alliances—that were themselves rooted in what I call an ontology of earth, or a relational philosophy that comes from living in and with ancestral homelands. The book moves chronologically through a series of key historical moments, beginning with the 1862 US-Dakota War, and ending with the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. What the texts I read suggest are a rich and often ambivalent range of representational practices that performed modes of sovereign life apart from ones stemming from the colonial settler state. I highlight ambivalence because Dakota people, like other indigenous people on this continent, were forced into a false choice between "savagery" and "civilization," and yet found creative ways to navigate that binary and to reinvest key terms of liberalism like property, citizenship, and individualism with Dakota meanings. The book also examines contemporary oral histories from relatives and elders of the Spirit Lake Dakota Nation. These were a sort of genesis event for the project—living with these stories growing up.

What's the next project?

The second book project is tentatively titled Sovereign Mobilities: Indigenous Future-Making Beyond Borders. As I was working on the first book manuscript, I came across Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s remarkable book, The Undercommons. There's this moment where they address the film cliché of settlers "defending the fort" against natives, which they argue is not just an image for how the violence of settlement is inverted and excused in an act of false innocence-making, but also tells a kind of truth: namely, that the fort really is surrounded by native lands and lives, by "the common beyond and beneath—before and before—enclosure."

That idea of enclosures that happen not just in space but in time got me thinking about how movements of various kinds—spatial, aesthetic, and temporal—are also ways of performing tribal sovereignty in both imaginative and actual ways. I started looking at how indigenous authors like Gerald Vizenor in his novel Bearheart represented non-state sovereignty through border-crossings of various kinds. I was also thinking at the time of a Facebook group that was dedicated to remapping the Old Cheyenne Agency on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in what's now called South Dakota. How that reaching back across time to a place that is underwater, and unavailable to the living except through memory, was so moving, emotionally, but also such an affirmation of how a people renew relationships to one another through a place, a gone world that still very much exists.

What is your favorite work to teach?

I'm resistant to the idea of a "favorite." I'm too fickle for that. I'm teaching Louise Erdrich's novel The Round House this semester in my Introduction to Literature course. It's a tough book, emotionally and historically (it is almost self-consciously a mini-introduction to federal Indian law), and captures something of the nightmares—in law and in daily life, daily feeling—that must be navigated in prosecuting crimes committed against native people by non-natives. Despite or because of its complexities, it's an eminently teachable book, and I find that students get pleasure from both its pedagogical and storytelling aspects.

What was the most intriguing book or essay you've read this year?

I'll give you a slightly sideways answer to that question, since it's hard for me to think about "the most," well, most of the time. But recently I re-read Thomas Merton's essay "Rain and the Rhinoceros." I've taught it before in a lot of different courses—especially in ones that deal in some way with indigenous land and water rights, since it foreshadows in some ways the commodification of rainwater in Bolivia at the turn of this millennium. What intrigued me most encountering it this time was how Merton, in a reading of Eugène Ionesco's play Rhinoceros, links that commodifying urge (which finally extends to the self that wants to see itself "having fun") to the absence of solitude and the rise of totalitarianism. I think about a kind of modified solitude, a liberatory and collective space in the #NoDAPL movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and how one of its coups is the creation of a prayerful space at the Standing Rock camps where not only indigenous action, but reflection, happens. I once had a student write in an evaluation about Merton's essay—and without hyperbole, I think—that it saved his life. That makes sense to me.

What are you most excited about in joining the English faculty at the University and living in Minnesota?

I'm grateful for the chance to be close to the people and places where I grew up, and to reconnect with relatives in the Twin Cities and nearby. And the reception I've received from the English and American Indian Studies faculty has been incredibly warm. My family and I look forward to discovering all the Twin Cities have to offer!