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Native American Literature

Indian Boyhood, From the Deep Woods to Civilization, Mourning Dove: A Salishan Autobiography

While Native American literature in English does not significantly predate the early nineteenth century, it is intimately linked to the rich oral traditions of the tribes whose ancestors migrated to the continent over 28,000 years before. The oral cultures of the Native Americans remain vigorously current in their principal forms of song, a category encompassing many forms of poetry, ritual drama, and story-telling. Although highly diversified in terms of language, religious beliefs, and sociocultural patterns, the oral art forms tend to have in common an emphasis on physical and spiritual harmony between humanity and the natural environment and the maintenance of a viable sense of community within the structures of the tribe. As the dominant oral genre for entertainment and exposition, story-telling has had the greatest influence over twentieth-century Native American writing in English, in which the narrative modes of the novel and autobiography are prevalent.

Autobiographical writings are of central importance to the establishment from the mid-nineteenth century onward of Native American literature in English. The blending of personal life history and ethnography found in the writings of William Apes (Pequot, 1798?), George Copway (Ojibwa, 1818c.1863), and other nineteenth-century writers is sustained in the works of Charles Eastman (Sioux), whose autobiographies Indian Boyhood (1902) and From the Deep Woods to Civilization (1916) display the persistence and vitality of the oral traditions. Mourning Dove: A Salishan Autobiography, the personal testimony of Mourning Dove (18881936), one of the earliest Native American women novelists, appeared in 1990 under Jay Miller's editorship. The best-known of the many life histories recorded from oral accounts is Black Elk Speaks (1932), narrated by Black Elk, a Sioux medicine man, to the author John G. Neihardt. In the autobiography Talking to the Moon (1945) by John Joseph Mathews (Osage), elements of the oral tradition combine with conventional literary accomplishment in anticipation of the work of N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa). Momaday's The Names (1976) is a straightforwardly autobiographical account of his ancestry and early life. His innovative and influential The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969) imaginatively frames the emergence of a personal quest for tribal origins within a broad exploration of Kiowa culture in its contemporary context. Notable among later autobiographies are Interior Landscapes (1990) by the versatile and prolific novelist and poet Gerald Vizenor and Lakota Woman (1990) by Crow Dog (Lakota; also known as Mary Brave Bird), a first-person account of the American Indian movement from the 1960s onward.

The earlier development of the Native American novel in the twentieth century is marked by recurrent treatments of mixed-blood protagonists seeking to secure their individual and communal identities through discussions between tribal traditions and American modernity. Mourning Dove (Okanogan-Colville) wrote Co-ge-we-a, the Halfblood (1927), a novel based on Okanogan oral stories, which was among the first works to address sociocultural displacement in the post-reservation era; she also published Coyote Stories (1933). In John Joseph Mathews's Wah'Kon-Tah (1932) and Sundown (1934), and Surrounded (1936) by D'Arcy McNickle (Cree-Salish), the breakdowns in traditional social structures are dramatically realized in patterns of crisis in individual lives. Other Native American novelists of the 1930s are John Oskison (Cherokee), whose Brothers Three (1935) contributes to American regionalism in narrating the attempts of a Cherokee family to re-establish themselves in their Oklahoma homeland, and Todd Downing (Choctaw), the author of ten mystery novels which include Murder on Tour (1933) and Night Over Mexico (1937).

The emergence of a highly productive new generation of Native American writers was inaugurated with the publication of N. Scott Momaday's The House Made of Dawn (1968), an affirmative treatment of the quest to renew contact with tribal values which is also central to his The Ancient Child (1989). The ultimately optimistic emphasis on the vitality and diversity of Native American culture in Ceremony (1977) by Leslie Silko (Laguna) is shared by Between Two Rivers (1987) and Humors and/or Not So Humorous (1988), the best-known works of Maurice Kenny (Mohawk). Other novels which suggest the viability of the ritual quest for Native American identity include A Good Journey (1977) by Simon Ortiz (Acoma) and Medicine River (1990) by Thomas King (Cherokee). Further treatments of the recuperation of tribal culture are offered by Duane Niatum (Klallum) in Digging Out the Roots (1977) and Songs for the Harvester of Dreams (1981), and Jim Barnes (Choctaw) in The American Book of the Dead (1982).

A harsher realism engaging alienation and displacement as fundamental to Native American experience is encountered in The Death of Jim Loney (1979) by Jim Welch (Blackfeet-Gros Ventre), What Moon Drove Me to This (1979) by Joy Harjo (Creek), and Fire Water World (1988) by Adrian Louis (Paiute), a devastating treatment of alcoholism and substance abuse in the reservations; Barney Bush (Shawnee) uses mordantly ironic humour to deal with the disintegration of Native American culture in My Horse and a Jukebox (1979) and Inherit the Blood (1985). Other novels notable for their contemporary realism include Winter of the Salamander (1980) by Ray A. Youngbear (Mesquakie) and The Light on the Tent Wall (1990) by Mary Tallmountain (Athabascan). Personal alienation and cultural dispossession are salient themes in Mean Spirit (1990) by Linda Hogan (Choctaw) and Dawnland (1993) by Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), two of the principal historical novels written by Native Americans. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight (1993), by Sherman Alexie (Spokane) contains linked stories reflecting the complex density of life in the Spokane Indian Reservation. The importance of women and the family in Native American life is central to many works by contemporary authors, most notably those of Louise Erdrich (Chippewa), who has dealt with complex familial relationships in Love Medicine (1984), Beet Queen (1986), and Tracks (1988), and Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna), author of The Woman Who Owned the Shadows (1983) and The Sacred Hoop (1986). A Yellow Raft on Blue Water (1987) by Michael Dorris (Modoc) deals with tensions of belonging and division among three generations of Native American women, while Janet Campbell Hale (Coeur d'Alene) forcefully presents an alcoholic female protagonist in The Jailing of Cecilia Capture (1985). Other novels with a feminist perspective include One More Shipwreck (1981) by Luci Tapahonso (Navajo) and White Corn Sister (1977) by Peter Blue Cloud (Mohawk); while The Grass Dancer (1994) by Susan Power (Sioux/Dakota) contains linked stories covering several generations of Native American women.

In the late 1960s, many Native American writers began producing poetry in English enriched by the traditions of the oral culture and vitalized by a keen sense of experimental possibilities. Among the authors referred to above who have produced poetry covering a wide range of themes and forms are Paula Gunn Allen, Jim Barnes, Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan, Duane Niatum, Leslie Silko, and Gerald Vizenor. Other genres not widely adopted by twentieth-century Native American writers in English include satire, in which the ‘Fux Fixico Letters’ (1901) of Alexander Posey (Creek) and Rogersisms; The Cowboy Philosopher at the Peace Conference (1919) by Will Rogers (Cherokee) anticipate the detached satirical stance in much of Gerald Vizenor's work. With regard to drama by Native American authors, Lynn Riggs (Cherokee) was probably the best-known playwright prior to the 1960s; his celebrated folk-drama Green Grow the Lilacs (1931) provided the basis for the musical Oklahoma! (1954). During the 1970s Hanay Geiogamah (Kiowa/Delaware) emerged as the most notable Native American playwright, chiefly through the success of his best-known work, Body Indian of 1972; he founded the American Indian Theatre Ensemble (now the Native American Theatre Ensemble) in 1972. Gerald Vizenor, Tom King, and Linda Hogan have also written drama and screenplays.

In the field of non-fiction Vine Deloria, Jr (Sioux) has emerged as the most prolific and respected author since the appearance of his controversial interpretation of historical transitions in Custer Died for Your Sins (1969). Other writers who have challenged settled views of Native American history include Robert Conley (Cherokee) in Mountain Windsong (1992), Clifford Trafzer (Wyandot) in The Kit Carson Campaign (1981), and Pueblo tribal historian Joe Sando (Jemez) in Nee Hemish (1982). Studies of issues relating to environmental and sociocultural resources form a substantial contribution to contemporary Native American writing, notable examples being the treatment of repatriation in Ghost Singer (1988) by Anna Walters (Otoe/Pawnee), Termination and Relocation (1985) by Donald Fixico (Creek), and American Indian Societies by Duane Champagne (Chippewa). Major critical studies by Native Americans include Other Destinies (1992), a remarkable interpretation of the modern Native American novel by Louis Owens (Choctaw/Cherokee), and Gerald Vizenor: Writing in the Oral Tradition (1996) by Kimberley Blaeser (Chippewa).

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Mr Polly to New France