Although Native Americans, or American Indians, are an ancient people, most of their written literature is fairly recent. It was only in the twentieth century that Native American authors began to produce long fiction and that Native American ethnicity became a central theme in novels and other forms of writing. Nevertheless, the literature of America’s oldest ethnic group does have deep cultural roots.
Long before the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, indigenous tribes and nations passed stories from generation to generation. These stories were intended to educate the young and to perpetuate cultural traditions, as well as to entertain. They told of the origins of the earth and of the human race, of the order of the universe and of the human place in it, and of bawdy tricksters who are mischievous but creative. Modern Native American fiction writers have frequently woven traditional narratives into their works.
Many of the earliest works of Native American written literature were autobiographies, intended for communication with the written culture of the invading Euro-Americans. In 1829, William Apes of the Pequot tribe published A Son of the Forest: The Experience of William Apes, A Native of the Forest to tell the story of the defeated and beleaguered Pequot people. Black Hawk, a Sauk, published Black Hawk: An Autobiography in 1833, after being defeated by Euro-American forces. The most famous of all Native American autobiographies is Black Elk Speaks (1932), the memoirs of the Oglala Sioux medicine man Black Elk, as told to poet John G. Neihardt. Although these autobiographies were generally intended for Euro-American audiences, they also influenced Native American writers. Much of contemporary Native American literature is heavily autobiographical.
The oral narratives and even the early autobiographies were works of people who saw themselves as parts of small communities, such as Pequot, Sauk, or Oglala. Over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as anthropologist Peter Nabokov pointed out, Native Americans developed a sense of belonging to a wider group. By the mid-twentieth century, when Native American written fiction began to flourish, writers such as N. Scott Momaday and James Welch were writing self-consciously as people with an ethnic or racial identity and as members of specific tribes or nations. The sense of belonging to a single group, the autobiographical written tradition, and oral narratives may be identified as the primary cultural roots of modern Native American fiction.