Native American Identity in Literature Analysis

Historical Background

(Society and Self, Critical Representations 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.

Western Interpretations

(Society and Self, Critical Representations 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 advised the Albany Congress of 1754 to study the principles of the Iroquois Confederacy and oral tradition epic from which it came. The principles of...

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Native Responses

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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 translated into English but found little public interest until the late twentieth century. Transcriber John G. Neihardt’s edition of Black Elk Speaks first appeared in 1932 but was not widely read until the 1962 edition. Other transcriptions of Black Elk’s words were published in The Sacred Pipe (1953), transcribed by John Epes Brown. Black Elk intended his story to be told communally, with the stories of other members of his tribe, and not chronologically but thematically, a non-Western approach that may be confusing to many students of Indian literature. “As-told-to” autobiographies are considered a distinct literary subgenre of Native American literature.

The Twentieth Century

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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 of context for establishing identity. These ideas are explored in Welch’s Riding the Earth Boy Forty: Poems (1971) and Winter in the Blood (1974). Silko and Allen explore multiculturalism in Indian life as a source of pain and of strength; Silko’s Ceremony (1977) is an example. Vizenor’s work offers his call for a “literature of survivance” to counter what he calls “manifest manners.” He points to the modern complications of national, tribal, and multicultural ways of reading Native American literature.

Much debate concerns Native American writing that seeks to express an unromanticized affinity for cherished traditions. Some Native American writers seek to bring Native American traditions into the broader American consciousness; other writers advocate separation from the dominant culture, wishing to keep Indian traditions private and isolated. Separatists strongly criticize white authors who write about Indian values, rituals, and religious symbols. For some Indian poets, the clash over the forced use of English and cultural imperialism is not resolvable. White authors who deal with Indian subjects, notably Tony Hillerman, Barbara Kingsolver, and Michael Dorris, receive varying degrees of acceptance by Indian readers.


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Suggested Readings

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 writings.