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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 189

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During the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century, most works dealing with Native Americans were written by whites who visited the reservations and wrote about the people they found there and the stories they heard. These accounts may have led the American public to believe that American Indians were more exotic than they actually were. They offered information about the mythology and spiritual beliefs of Native Americans but did not always accurately portray their everyday life. One writer in the early twentieth century who did present a very accurate view of the Native American lifestyle was Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa), who wrote many books about Indian life and beliefs, including The Soul of the Indian (1911). Eastman was able to explain Native American life accurately because he himself was a Sioux who spent many years as the doctor on the Lone Pine Reservation in South Dakota. He could compare the Sioux culture to the white culture because he had been educated at Dartmouth College. At the end of the twentieth century, readers were still consulting Eastman’s works for an understanding of Native American beliefs and values.

Civil Rights and Native American Literature

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The Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s encouraged all people of color, not just African Americans, to assert their right to self-determination and to demand that their cultures be respected. Such ideas and beliefs led to the development of a body of literature from various minority groups including Native Americans. In 1969, N. Scott Momaday, a member of the Kiowa tribe, became the first Native American to win a Pulitzer Prize. His book House Made of Dawn (1968) was about the identity formation of a twentieth century Kiowan who retraced the earlier migration of his tribe from the mouth of the Yellowstone to southwest Oklahoma. Momaday’s theme of identity formation was explored again and again by Native American writers in the following two decades. Momaday’s success encouraged other Native Americans to explore their native cultures for literary themes.


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In the 1980’s and 1990’s, the United States became increasingly multicultural. Just as the Civil Rights movement had encouraged people of color to think about their rights and identity, multiculturalism spurred people to explore their cultural values and beliefs and to write about them. Native American poets, novelists, essayists, and playwrights produced works that contained the writers’ individual memories and experiences as well as those of the various tribes. Although each writer’s works differed, certain rhetorical styles, themes, and elements emerged to characterize Native American literature. Because many of the stories and characters grow out of an oral tradition, Native American writers are likely to employ repetition and to produce stories that have morals rather than simply to tell stories in a linear fashion or to employ a problem-solving technique. The themes found in Native American literature often relate to those of oral storytellers and of Native American history. Tradition-based topics include tricksters, creation, encounters with death and with mystery, star spouses, and familial and other human relationships; history-based topics include migrations, abductions, betrayals, and colonization. Common elements such as buffalo, coyotes, spiders, minerals, weather, astro-figures, colors, directions, time, and dance also figure in Native American literature.

Hundreds of Native American writers from every tribe emerged in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Many of these writers became very popular and won literary prizes. Mary Tall Mountain of the Alaskan Athabascan tribe wrote poems about the discord that Western civilization created for Native Americans. Paula Gunn Allen, Joy Harjo, Louise Erdrich, and Leslie Marmon Silko wrote poems, stories, and novels whose themes were the traditional role of Native American women and reconciliation of that role in modern life. James Welch explored the meeting point of traditional values and the modern world. Many Native Americans dealt with social problems as they affected Native American life. Vincent L. Mendoza won the 1994 Native American Prose Award for Son of Two Bloods, which explored racism against people of mixed heritage. The poet Harjo and the playwright Drew Hayden Taylor explored alcoholism as it affected native peoples. Taylor, as well as writer Sherman Alexie, examined Native American stereotypes. Paula Underwood (Turtle Singing Woman), a member of the Seneca tribe and oral historian for the Iroquois nation, wrote the immensely popular Who Speaks for Wolf (1994), a compilation of traditional stories told to her by her father Sharp Eyed Hawk.

By the end of the twentieth century, many Americans had a much better understanding of Native American culture because its themes and values had been explored by numerous Native American writers in many very successful and popular works of literature. This literature helped non-Indians understand that American Indians had needs and desires that were very much like the needs and desires of other Americans. It also helped erase many of the negative stereotypes of Indians that had been created by American films and television shows.

Core Resources

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 93

Andrew Wight edited Dictionary of Native American Literature (New York: Garland, 1994). Two good anthologies of Native American literature are American Indian Literature: An Anthology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), edited by H. David Brumble III, and American Indian Literature (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), edited by Alan R. Vellie. Harper’s Anthology of Twentieth Century Native American Poetry (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), edited by Diane Niatum, provides an excellent overview of Native American poetry. Joseph Bruchac and Janet Witalec edited Smoke Rising: The Native American Literary Companion (Detroit, Mich.: Visible Ink Press, 1995).