Historical Background (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Early encounters by Westerners with Indian cultures led to numerous misconceptions about Native American oral traditions. Most Native American literatures, before European contact, belonged to the oral tradition. Works were originally conceived for dramatic presentation, often with music and dance, and as lyrics to songs, rather than as texts for the printed page. Some tribes made pictographic records, but this was not typical. Western readers, with the expectations of readers of printed works, erroneously concluded that Indian literature, which featured the repetition and strong parallelism of song and oratory, was primitive. Native American literature was also, understandably, pagan. Beginning with Spanish explorers, Europeans suppressed and destroyed Indian cultural creations. The great variety of Native American cultural life was largely replaced with European languages and culture and with a few stereotypes. Stereotypes about Indians have proved remarkably durable.
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Western Interpretations (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Early European writings were historical accounts of first encounters with Indians, for example those described in John Smith’s The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624), William Bradford’s History Of Plymouth Plantation (1856), John Eliot and Roger Williams’ studies of native languages, and descriptions by Captain Edward Johnson and Daniel Gookin. Smith’s account of Pocahontas became an American myth, for example, retold in The Indian Princess (1808) by James Barker, the first American play on an Indian theme.
After historical accounts came personal ones, the captivity narrative being central. Mary Rowlandson’s best-selling nonfiction story of her captivity, published in 1682, established the genre of factual and fictional Indian captivity narratives. The full title of her work is The Soveraignty and Goodness of God: Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed: Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. Some narratives were reasonably accurate; others were sensational. The captivity narrative endured into the twentieth century, Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (1964) being an example.
Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin wrote of their interest in Indian government, which was based largely on oral tradition. Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1784) praises Indian oratory, and Franklin...
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Native Responses (Identities & Issues in Literature)
With the arrival of Europeans came missionary work, and the first Native American efforts at Western-style literary production typically involved the publication of the Bible in Indian languages. Syllabic and pictographic versions were produced. Samsom Occom published the first literary work in English by a Native American, A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian, in 1772. The execution sermon became a staple. William Apes, an Indian author and missionary of the early nineteenth century, probably wrote the first Native American autobiography, A Son of the Forest (1829). Sarah Winnemucca published Life Among the Paiutes in 1883; it is an autobiographical work that attempts to change white attitudes toward Indians. Native American works often express anger and sadness over the displacement, decimation, and the forced assimilation of Indians into white culture.
John Rollin Ridge, a Cherokee, wrote essays, fiction, and poetry in the nineteenth century. His Poems are perhaps the only book of poetry published by a Native American in the nineteenth century; his famous The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta (1854) is the first novel by a Native American. Sophia Alice Callahan’s novel Wynema, a Child of the Forest (1891) is perhaps the first novel by a Native American woman.
The words of Sitting Bull, Pontiac, Black Hawk, Lame Dear, and Lakota holy man Black Elk were...
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The Twentieth Century (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Emily Pauline Johnson achieved fame with her poems (Flint and Feather, 1912) and short fiction (Moccasin Maker, 1913). Two other novelists of the early twentieth century are Mourning Dove (Cristal Quintasket) and John Joseph Mathews. John Oskison’s Brothers Three (1935) depicts Oklahoma memorably. Salish Indian D’Arcy McNickle published The Surrounded in 1936; the novel is based on life on a Montana reservation. Humorists Alexander Posey and Will Rogers satirized politics local and international. New Mexico Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize-winning House Made of Dawn (1968) is often cited as the work that transformed Indian literature. In this novel and in autobiographical fiction and verse, Momaday’s explorations of the themes of personal identity, of feelings of alienation, of the blending of cultures, of a sense of place, of the sacred nature of words, and of the complexities of ethnic identity became central issues among Native American writers of the later twentieth century, including Paula Gunn Allen, Peter Blue Cloud, Simon J. Ortiz, Lynn Riggs, Leslie Marmon Silko, Highway Tomson, Gerald Vizenor, Frank Waters, and James Welch, among others.
A key theme of the late twentieth century Indian literary renaissance is that language is an affirmation of survival. For example, Welch’s use of existential and surrealistic imagery explores the absurdity of reservation life and the importance...
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Bibliography (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Bruchac, Joseph. Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1987. Interviews with a number of Indian poets, emphasizing questions of identity, influence, and multiculturalism.
Hill Witt, Shirley, and Stan Stener, eds. The Way: An Anthology of American Indian Literature. Alfred A. Knopf, 1974. Essays, poetry, and fiction about Indian life from European contact to the twentieth century.
Katz, William Loren. Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage. New York: Atheneum, 1986. Escaped slaves and other blacks became part of Indian tribes beginning with the first arrivals of Africans to the American continent; this book tells their story.
Lundquist, Suzanne Evertsen. Native American Literatures: An Introduction. New York: Continuum, 2004. An essential research tool for study of Native American literature. Includes both a broad overview of the history and scope of Native American literature as well as studies of individual authors and works. Includes excellent resources for further research.
Vizenor, Gerald, ed. Narrative Chance: Post Modern Discourse on the American Indian Literatures. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989. Late twentieth century critical interpretations of Indian...
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