Native American literature is interesting in and of itself but also when the reader understands the cultural perspective of that population. Part of this interest comes from the fact that the Native Americans were the indigenous people of what would become the United States. When European colonists arrived, the Native Americans were put in the position of having to either assimilate to the new culture or to resist assimilation. Many of the texts that come from Native American literature discuss this question, but also make it understood that there is no clear answer. Part of the individual person will want to associate themselves with the majority in order to prevent themselves from being labeled as something other or outside of the norm. Yet, the other part of that same person will feel at least partially pulled towards taking up the cause of their heritage. By keeping the customs of their ancestors alive, they are ensuring that the heritage is not forgotten. Therefore, it can be concluded that for people who are Native American, or who are members of any other cultural minority for that matter, will feel a pull to choose one side or the other. Usually the result of this internal conflict will be an unanswered question, for it can be almost impossible to create a definite and unchanging identity when the world and the people in it are always changing. In the poems of Ron Welburn, the author explains what it is to live in this dichotomy where part of your identity wants to belong to the United States and with the majority population of the country, but the other part of you wants to reject that imposed culture and illustrate your native heritage through your actions and your identification. This is made shown in two of Welburn's poems from Coming Through Smoke and Dreaming: "Shinnecock 40" and "Jazz."
In the poem "Shinnecock 40," the narrator of the piece talks about an occasion which could be interpreted as either a traditional Native American ceremony or a group of individuals from the majority culture. This is an example of Welburn's difficulty with his dual identification. He begins by writing that "We arrange in circles" (Welburn 67). However, it is unclear who this "we" refers too. Welburn uses this specific pronoun to indicate that he is making himself part of a larger group of people, but it is up the reader to make the determination about which of the groups it is that he is siding with. The we is an example of a conceit that follows throughout Welburn's poetry and in these two works in particular. "We" stands for the comparison between the Indian culture and the white culture and not knowing where the person stands.
Late in the poem "Jazz," Welburn's narrator is trying to explain himself to some other girl named Gwen. He is angry and frustrated because his friends like music that he does not and vice versa. Gwen makes the simple statement that "We are different, / and I am aware of her 'We'" (Welburn 6). The narrator is angry and his emotion bleeds through the passage. It is an anger bred out of an understanding that the individual is unique and separate from the majority, and that the one does not want to be separate from the group. The narrator wants everyone to understand him and to perhaps even adapt so that the rest of the world enjoys what he enjoys. Here, the music is a metaphor for anything, any idea or actual thing, which could divide people. Gwen makes the simple statement that all people are different. She does not say this with the same anger, nor is she trying to ignore or minimize the narrator's emotions. Instead, she is simplistically trying to explain a large and complex concept which in reality does have a very simple answer. Differences is an abstract concept in that it cannot be defined, but it should be accepted as part of humanity.
The second stanza of the poem "Shinnecock 40" explains how the narrator feels, and also continues the motif of creating a sense of more than one person by using pronouns which indicate a group rather than a single person. In this passage, the narrator is both celebrating the sun, and thus relating himself with the natural world and also showing that he is sad that his existence is so difficult. The natural world is a healer of the pains and sorrows of this group of people. Welburn writes:
The sun infects us with joy
And makes well our ailments
Wiping tension from our brows (Welburn 67).
This narrator is living a life where the norm seems to be a challenge. The illnesses and pains of this individual are also applicable to the rest of his collective population. It is also indicated through the lines that the pain is directly caused because of unpleasant interaction. Note how it is tension that is wiped away by the natural world. So here, nature is being used in place of the Indian culture which celebrates nature. This outside world is a personification of that group of people.
As the narrator of "Shinnecock 40" blames an outside other for causing his unhappiness, so the narrator in "Jazz" is visibly angry at some unnamed person who will not do as he is asked. The narrator says that he is not good at dancing, "especially under the critique one gets from the baobob soul" (Welburn 6). Like in the other piece, this dancing could be literal as in the dancing that is applicable to a specified culture, or metaphorical as in the manipulations and maneuvering that must be done in order to conform to a chosen culture. The narrator realizes that he is being judged against some standard and he bristles under the comparison. In terms of acceptance or rejection of assimilation, this can be interpreted as the narrator's ability to blend into the majority European culture of the current United States. He does not know how to completely conform to the norms of the majority society. Thus, he is angry both at the "dance" that he has to perform as an outsider, and also angry at the members of that other dominant culture who he believes are responsible for making him feel marginalized and judged.
In "Shinnecock 40," the poem ends with the narrator finally making a decision about his identity. He has struggled with his joint identity as both Native American and as American throughout the piece. Finally, it is the tradition, the music of his heritage that tips the scales for him. Instead of choosing one side over the other, the narrator decides that he can be both. His dual identity is no longer a burden, but a joy. He says in the final stanza that "the drums braid us together / and the songs paint new colors" (Welburn 67). Although he accepts his heritage, as indicated by the drum beat, a traditional Native American instrument, he also demands something that is new. The narrator asks that new color be painted. Thus, even though he is accepting his identity as Native American and the traditions of that culture, he also embraces the new identity that is acceptable to a changing "melting-pot" of a culture. The music that he listens to becomes a metaphor for his accepted identity.
Similarly in Welburn's poem "Jazz," a narrator is talking about something that could be a man identifying with either an oppressed or an oppressor culture. The narrator makes the rather innocent statement that his friends who live across the street enjoy a certain kind of music and, remarkably, his family members also enjoy that type of music. This could be a coincidence or even a minor tidbit of information…