“Crossing Cuyahoga,” a hybrid text
10 Questions Interview with the Massachusetts Review
Carter Meland is a tall, left-handed descendant of White Earth Anishinaabe. He takes writing seriously but does so with good humor. His novel Stories For a Lost Child invokes the waters of Lake Superior and the Mississippi River, and the deepwoods voice of Misaabe (Bigfoot) to help his characters make sense of the problems in their lives. By day he teaches students in the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth about the wicked smart, moving, and profound things that Native writers have to say about the world, and by night he tries to rise to the standards they set. Stories for a Lost Child was a finalist for the 2018 Minnesota Book Award.
Stories for a Lost Child (Birch Bark Press)
You describe your piece, “Crossing Cuyahoga,” as a hybrid piece. Can you speak about what “hybrid” means to you? What, exactly, makes this piece a hybrid?
CM: “Hybrid” was just a word I put on the essay when I submitted it to the editors. I didn’t know what to call it since it blends a dream with real factual material. If I had it all to do over again, instead of hybrid, which seems pretty pretentious, I think I’d just call it “creative nonfiction.” Everything really happened in it, including the dream and the impressions of the song that I got from it. I also wish that I had titled it “Crossing Cuyahoga with Lou Reed,” as including his name may have grabbed a few more eyeballs.
MR: The essay continually returns to what is “out-of-sync”. Could you talk more about what you mean by out of sync? (Or perhaps, what you mean by in sync?)
CM: As you can tell from the essay, I love juxtapositions. Let’s put Lou Reed, Iron Eyes Cody, and REM into an essay and see what “syncs” them up. In this case. what syncs them up is both environmental concerns (represented by the burning river) and representations of Native people—mostly misrepresentations. From the perspective of this Native descendant, these stereotypes are out of sync with the rich complexity of Native experience, good and bad. So even though the concern with environmental devastation that we see in songs like REM’s and ads like that starring Iron Eyes Cody are good, in that they attempt to raise our consciousness about such issues, they are bad in that they use the “Noble Savage” imagery of the Ecological Indian to make their point. They are out of sync, which maybe is a way of saying they are out of balance. I consider Native stereotypes a social injustice, and a lot of my work deals with exploring issues of Native representation. REM’s song and the PSA both make an environmental justice point by using social injustice. You can see more thoughts on the ways that the ecological Indian stereotype, a form of Noble Savage imagery, colors settler colonial culture here.
Juxtaposition is also a great way of generating creative tensions. One of the great musical pleasures of my life was listening to Lou Reed’s Blue Mask album on headphones when it came out in 1982. On that album, Lou’s guitar is isolated in the right stereo channel and Robert Quine’s guitar in the left and listening to their work that way was mind-boggling. I’m not smart enough to know what they were doing musically, but as a listener I just knew the way their guitars would move in and out of sync was really rewarding and cool; a powerful juxtaposition. Listening to the opening minute or so of the album’s title song, “The Blue Mask,” still stuns me. The way their guitars move from this dissonant feedback screech and into this heavy melodic riff (if those are the right words!) gives me chills to this day. In fact, I’m listening to it right now, so I’ll be back in five minutes when it’s over.
This idea of dissonance and things being out of sync is kind of how it feels to be alive right now. We know our consumerist lifestyles and economies are destroying the environments we live in, yet we continue to live those lives. We also have people who love the United States so much that they want to destroy it as a democracy by suppressing the right to vote and by celebrating and “eating up” (literally in the last scene of my piece) the delusions of a tin pot dictator.
Notions of balance found in Native stories and philosophy are sort of the implied foil to all the “out-of-syncs” in my piece. The widely shared Native ethic of living with a responsibility to care for all your human and more-than-human relatives is a way striving to be in sync. Let’s take care of the water so it doesn’t burst into flame or poison our children. Let’s take care of it as a relative because it takes care of us. Let’s do this because it is our responsibility to make sure our relatives are healthy because when they’re healthy, we’re healthy.
MR: The text discusses the origin of the word “Cuyahoga.” What made you decide to use the alternate spelling from your dream, koy a’hoga, alongside its more common spelling? Do you see those spellings as out of sync? What does that suggest about broader ideas of identity or language?
CM: You may have to ask Lou Reed for the answer to this one. The dream as described in the opening page of the essay is real. Koy A’hoga was the word I saw on the album cover. To honor Lou, I used that spelling, but being a word geek, I also needed to know what “Cuyahoga” means and from which Native language it was borrowed. My impression from the dream is that Lou thought “Cuyahoga” was out of sync with the word he had learned and so “Koy A’hoga” was his way of bringing the word back into sync with the Iroquoian language family. Of course, I don’t know where he got that idea and why he shared that with me in a dream. I also have no idea if the inflection of his spelling is correct in any way.
As to the broader question of language and identity, I think these competing spellings are a way of thinking about (in non- too-clear a way) the difficulties of putting Native words into standard American alphabetic form. Often the spelling of Native words in that sort of alphabet misrepresents (that word again; hmm, I’m sensing a theme) how the word actually sounds. For instance, I live in Minnesota, which is how settlers spelled the Dakota name for the Minnesota River and now we all pronounce the word as “minn-ah-so-da.” Dakota people have their own orthography (or alphabetic form of writing) that more accurately represents the way the words sound in the voice of a Dakota speaker. In Dakota the word Minnesota looks like this: Miní Sóta and sounds more like “min-AY so-ta.” We can talk about these Native orthographies and more accurate pronunciations of Native words as ways to decolonize Native languages (take them back from colonial orthographies). Perhaps Lou was decolonizing the language by using the Koy A’hoga spelling—or maybe the alternative spelling is a metaphor for this sort of decolonizing.
MR: Much of the inspiration for “Crossing Cuyahoga” came after a dream. Your work mentions the challenge of transitioning that dream into your waking life. How did that impact the process of writing this piece? What is the significance of dreaming to your process? Culturally?
CM: Culturally, for Anishinaabe people, dreams are sources of knowledge and insight. As an Anishinaabe descendant, I wish I could say I have these powerful or prescient or life-altering dreams, but I don’t. All my dreams are pretty mundane. Like seeing an album cover for a new song by a man who passed over years ago. Most of my dreams are waking dreams and I usually get them when I’m writing a story; the story is a dream. Every creative writer/artist will tell you the same sort of thing: You start out writing within some framework and then something takes over and you just follow it. It’s a process of releasing the logical mind and letting your subconscious loose, which is also what happens when you dream I suppose.
The transition from dream to waking life can be a challenge, but for me the greater challenge, at least with this piece, was holding on to the dream and the feeling it gave me, because before my feet even hit the floor that morning, I knew I wanted to write about what I’d seen and the impressions I’d gotten of the song.
MR: Several songs are important in this text. Did you listen to any of them while you wrote this? Were there any other specific pieces of music that you felt influenced this narrative?
CM: Other than REM’s “Cuyahoga,” which I listened to in order to make sure I got the lyrics right, I didn’t really listen to any of the other songs I mention in the piece when writing it. I know them pretty well.
MR: Can you speak about the significance of bodily organs, especially the liver, that appear in the text?
CM:As a fan of Lou Reed’s music, I knew about his liver transplant and I knew that, in the end, it failed. He had abused his liver for years with excessive drinking (or so I’ve read). The liver is sort of there to clean up toxins that enter our bodies and when the toxins overwhelm the liver’s capacity to cleanse the body, the liver revolts, shuts down and when it dies, so do you. Lou tried to game his history by getting a liver free of disease transplanted into his body.
Similarly, at least in my mind, when rivers like the Cuyahoga are overwhelmed by the toxins we spill into them, they fail. A river catching on fire is a mightily epic image of the failure of a society to responsibly care for one of its more-than-human relatives. The river and the liver become analogues of one another, and both are metaphors of larger issues. Both show that you can’t game a poisonous history.
The image of people shoving their livers down the throats of other people is just gross in all the ways cannibalism is gross—plus, for me, liver is the grossest of all cuts of meat. That image of forcing liver down the throats of others, even of people on your “side,” is also some sort of commentary on people perverting that cultural ethic to care for one another. It seems to have something to do with the way cultural toxins lead to destruction of self and others as well. We’ve become so poisoned as a society (another way of saying “out-of-sync,” perhaps) that we don’t even realize what we are eating. Transplanting all our hopes onto Noble Savage stereotypes or wannabe dictators is a way to avoid addressing the poison at its source, but like Lou Reed’s liver transplant, they ultimately fail.
MR: What is it like to blend prose with historical (and current) data? Why did you decide to place factual information about the Cuyahoga River fire within the body of your text?
CM: I think I use dates in the essay so that readers don’t think I’m just making things up. The Cuyahoga River did burn on June 22, 1969, Lou Reed did die in October of 2013, the Iron Eyes Cody PSA did air for the first time in 1971. Any interested reader could look up this info if they wanted. The dates establish a certain credibility (I hope!) that sets the creative aspect of the piece on a sort of factual ground.
In response to that part of the question about the importance of dates and data, in the case of this piece it provides a framework that mimics, to a degree, the sorts of texts most people read most often and that stand in contrast to the sorts of creative things that happen throughout the piece. It makes things seem concrete until they start to become metaphorical, which is why I work to establish the facts of the Cuyahoga fire before exploring the implications and analogues of that conflagration by syncing it with other associated events.
I will admit that I use the date of the dream (December 17, 2019) sort of ironically. It really did happen on that morning, but who cares what day it took place? How could you ever check that date? Other than an obsessive, who puts a date on their dreams? Yet, I used the date to, once again, give the piece an air of credibility. Too often we trust data in this society more than we trust stories. Data is just information without context (in many situations), while stories are instructive, cautionary, revealing, transformative engagements with lives lived that are built (or contextualized) from bits of information. The date of the dream is meaningless, but the story of the dream isn’t and, ultimately, all the dates in my piece are empty facts in the face of the stories I wanted to tell.
One of the things I’ve learned in my study of Native literature is that it’s not the date that something happened that matters. Who it happened to, where it happened, why it happened, and how we can use that story to bring ourselves back into sync with our human, water, and earth relatives is what really matters.
1. A filmed poem by Thomas King, “I’m Not the Indian You Had in Mind,” looks at issues surrounding misrepresentation and colonialism through a more darkly comic lens.
2. The Wikipedia entry for Lou Reed’s album The Blue Mask makes mentions of the out-of-sync guitar work with Robert Quine, who appeared on the album.
3. A major example of their guitar work can be heard in the recording of the song “The Blue Mask.”
4. The recording of the syncopated cello from Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle.”
5. A map and in-depth information of the Cuyahoga River on the Ohio Department of Natural Resources website.
6.A video clip that shows the burning of the Cuyahoga from the Cuyahoga documentary (1978).
7. An essay by Finis Dunaway, “The ‘Crying Indian’ Ad that Fooled the Environmental Movement,” considers the impact of actor Iron Eyes Cody and the infamous advertisement. The essay also includes a link to the original advertisement.
8. The music video for REM’s song “Cuyahoga,” then the lyrics and fan interpretations of the song.
9. A smart, brief essay, The Problem With the Ecological Indian Stereotype.
10. The music video for Lou Reed’s “The Last Great American Whale,” then the lyrics and fan interpretations of the song.
11. Lou Reed’s obituary, which includes information on his liver transplant.
12. Two articles on Donald Trump, his followers, and his nihilistic approach to climate change include 1): A list of the environmental rules rolled back by the Trump administration, and 2): End of the World: A Look at Trump’s Nihilism.
13. An informational video on Greta Thunberg.
14. An informational video on Autumn Peltier on inspiring Native activists.