Surprisingly for a novel evidently invested in representations of contemporary Choctaw traditionalism as a viable alternative to settler society, LeAnne Howe’s 2001 Shell Shaker gives unrelenting play to the gruesomeness, horror even, of the traditional rituals it depicts, at the risk of reinforcing stereotypes of Indian savagery. And yet, these depictions of the repugnant, that is, of ancient practices now prohibited by law or found reprehensible by a public sense of ethics, allow Howe to escape the integrative thrust of contemporary multiculturalism by pre-emptying identification through difference, an interpretive logic according to which we are all the same because we are all different, at the center of contemporary multicultural reading practices. As the readers of Howe’s novel recoil at the repugnant, they experience a limit to their understanding of the indigenous other, a goal ethnic writing is presumed to facilitate.

Howe’s novel is a plea for alternative ways of apprehending difference in contemporary North America, whether we attempt it through reading literature or other private or public practices. By redefining the interpretive ground of contemporary reading practices, Shell Shaker clears the space for the potential welcoming of the (indigenous) other despite freshly experienced limits of understanding, a welcoming that is not presumed on exacting transparency in exchange for acknowledgement. Further, the novel prompts an acknowledgement of contemporary indigenous nations, and the contemporary versions of indigenous traditionalism in particular, as viable forms of governance and sociality, forms that already successfully constitute political reality in North America.

Document Type


Publication Date


Publisher Statement

Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press.

The definitive version is available at:

DOI: 10.1215/00029831-2010-064

Full Citation:

Siebert, Monika. "Repugnant Aboriginality: LeAnne Howe’s Shell Shaker and Indigenous Representation in the Age of Multiculturalism." American Literature 83, no. 1 (2011): 93-119. doi:10.1215/00029831-2010-064.