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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.

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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.

Early Native American fiction

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The early twentieth century saw the first written works of fiction by Native American authors. In 1927, Mourning Dove published the romance Cogewea, the Half-Blood. During the same decade, the Oklahoma Cherokee John Milton Oskison became widely known as a short-story writer and novelist. His novels, which deal with life in and around the Indian Territory—which became Oklahoma—include Wild Harvest (1925), Black Jack Davey (1926), and Brothers Three (1935). Both Mourning Dove and Oskison are frequently criticized for their stock characters and their adherence to the conventions of popular fiction.

Literary critics generally regard the mixed-race Osage Indian John Joseph Matthews as a more sophisticated author than Mourning Dove or Oskison. Matthews wrote mainly history and autobiography, but he did publish one highly regarded novel, Sundown (1934). He set the story in the Osage country of Oklahoma, where the Osage are divided into the “full-bloods” and the “mixed-bloods” and into those who have money from oil leases and those who do not. The novel’s hero goes away to college and then returns to struggle with his emotions about tribal life. Many of the themes, such as the tensions between tribal life and the modern economy and the struggle between assimilation and cultural traditionalism, became dominant in later Native American fiction.

D’Arcy McNickle (1904-1977), a member of the Confederation of Salish and Kutenai tribes of Montana, is often regarded as one of the best of the early Native American authors. Educated at the University of Montana and Oxford University, McNickle went to work for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1936, where he served as assistant to commissioner John Collier. McNickle dedicated himself to Collier’s attempts to reverse the efforts of the U.S. government to force Native Americans to give up their cultural and political identities. McNickle gives passionate expression to the struggles of Native Americans in his novel The Surrounded (1936), which tells the story of a young man who returns from a government Indian school to his reservation.

The Native American renaissance

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By the 1960’s and 1970’s, a new generation of university-educated Native Americans, many of whom were influenced by the Civil Rights movement, began to produce novels that met with wide popular acceptance. N. Scott Momaday (born 1934) was one of the first of this generation to be recognized as a major American author. A professor of literature, Momaday has explored his Kiowa heritage in both poetry and prose. In 1968, he published the novel House Made of Dawn, which won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1969. The protagonist of Momaday’s novel, Abel, returns to his reservation after serving in the military in World War II. He kills an albino, whom he believes to have been an evil sorcerer, and serves a prison term. After his release, Abel settles in Los Angeles, where he meets with hardship and brutality from white society and the corruption of traditional ways by other Native Americans. At the end, he returns to the reservation and runs a ritual race against death and evil at dawn.

Gerald Vizenor (born 1934), whose father was Ojibwa, also became both a professor and a writer. A prolific author, Vizenor has written poetry, history, ethnography, and literary criticism, in addition to novels. His first novel, Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart (1978; revised as Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles, 1990), is an autobiographical work that examines his own experience as a Native American. Another of Vizenor’s novels, Dead Voices: Natural Agonies in the New World (1992), draws on Native American traditions of oral narrative. This difficult, experimental novel looks at the trickster figure of Native American myth in the context of contemporary society.

Poet and novelist James Welch, part Blackfoot and part Gros Ventre Indian, looked at the Native American experience in works set in both contemporary and historical settings. Welch’s first novel, Winter in the Blood (1974), is a story with some autobiographical basis, about a young Indian on a Montana reservation. The reservation and its social problems are also at the center of Welch’s second work of long fiction, The Death of Jim Loney (1979), which deals with alcoholism and the confusion of a man of mixed race. Fools Crow (1986) tells of a band of Blackfoot Indians in Montana in the 1870’s. A fourth novel, The Indian Lawyer (1990), returns to the modern reservation in a tale of a successful Native American’s struggles with the temptations of political corruption. The Heartsong of Charging Elk (2000) follows its Native American protagonist from the Little Big Horn to France with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He is abandoned in France and must struggle with late nineteenth century French culture on his own.

Leslie Marmon Silko (born 1948) achieved critical acclaim with her first novel, Ceremony (1977), which deals with a mixed-race Navajo veteran’s struggles against insanity after returning from World War II. Under the guidance of a wise, elderly, mixed-race man, the protagonist finds peace and cosmic order through participation in traditional ceremony. Marmon’s second novel, Almanac of the Dead (1991), is an epic that took the author ten years to complete. It covers five hundred years of the struggle between Native Americans and settlers from Europe.

The new generation

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By the 1980’s, the Native American novel was well established, and works of fiction on Native American themes were popular with a large readership. Louise Erdrich (born 1954), daughter of a Chippewa mother and a German American father, was one of the most successful Native American authors of the decade. In 1984, after having published a volume of poetry, Erdrich published her first novel, Love Medicine (revised and expanded, 1993). She followed this with a series of related novels: The Beet Queen (1986), Tracks (1988), The Bingo Palace (1994), and Tales of Burning Love (1996). The novels in this series tell the stories of three related Native American families living in North Dakota from 1912 through the 1980’s. Sometimes compared to William Faulkner, Erdrich is concerned with universal patterns of family life, as well as with contemporary Native American issues. She collaborated with her late husband, Michael Dorris, on both fiction and nonfiction works. Her later novels mine the same areas and themes, at the same time as they explore new territory. The Antelope Wife (1998) is set in Minnesota, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001) returns to North Dakota, The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003) explores Erdrich’s German American family legacy, and The Painted Drum (2005) starts out in New Hampshire before returning with the sacred drum of the title to North Dakota.

New Native American novelists emerged during the last decade of the twentieth century. Ray A. Young Bear’s Black Eagle Child: The Facepaint Narratives (1992) is an autobiographical novel in the form of a long blank-verse poem. It tells the story of Edgar Bearchild, a member of the Black Eagle Child settlement of the Mesquakie tribe. A dominant theme of the novel, one found in many Native American works, is the perplexing relationship between an individual who is part of modern American culture and the individual’s ancient tribal heritage.

Sherman Alexie (born 1966) was the most widely praised new Native American author of the 1990’s. A Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, Alexie grew up on the Wellpinit Indian reservation and continued to live on the reservation after achieving literary renown. Most of Alexie’s poetry and fiction focuses on contemporary reservation life, mixing portrayals of alcoholism and poverty with bitter but sympathetic humor and flashes of fantasy. Reservation Blues (1995) is set on a Spokane reservation. Its main characters are young Native Americans who have been out of high school for several years and face despair and a bleak future. After legendary blues guitarist Robert Johnson shows up, looking for a way to undo his deal with the devil, the young friends form a rock-and-roll band and reach fame after making their own deal with the devil, who happens to be a white man. Written after Alexie himself had achieved success, the story treats the problem of the threat to American Indian identity posed by succeeding in the white world, as well as with the frustrations and dangers of Native American life. Alexie’s 1996 novel Indian Killer is one of his few works not set on the reservation. The novel features a serial killer in Seattle who scalps his white victims, and it deals with issues of racial violence and loss of culture.


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Cox, James H. The Muting White Noise: Native American and European American Novel Traditions. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006. Comparative study that includes analyses of John Rollin Ridge, D’Arcy McNickle, Gerald Vizenor, Sherman Alexie, and other Native American novelists.

Hernández-Avila, Inés, ed. Reading Native American Women: Critical/Creative Representations. Lanham, Md.: Altamira Press, 2005. Examines Native American women’s writings as “creative, cultural, and political expressions.” Essays include “Relocations upon Relocations: Home, Language, and Native American Women’s Writings,” by Hernández-Avila, and “The Trick Is Going Home: Secular Spiritualism in Native American Women’s Literature,” by Carolyn Dunn.

Lincoln, Kenneth. Native American Renaissance. New ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. Still the most influential critical work on the Native American renaissance. Traces the writings of modern authors back to their roots in oral narrative and autobiography. Contains chapters devoted to N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, and Leslie Marmon Silko.

Lundquist, Suzanne Evertsen. Native American Literatures: An Introduction. New York: Continuum, 2004. 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.

Nabokov, Peter, ed. Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian-White Relations from Prophecy to the Present, 1492-2000. Rev ed. New York: Penguin, 1999. In one of the best introductions to Native American history from the Indian perspective, anthropologist Peter Nabokov presents the recorded responses of Native Americans to the European and Euro-American incursion over a five-hundred-year period. Also introduces each historical period with a summary and commentary.

Parker, Robert Dale. The Invention of Native American Literature. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003. Examines tradition and aesthetics in Native American literature. Includes essays examining the works of D’Arcy McNickle, Ray A. Young Bear, Leslie Marmon Silko, and others.

Porter, Joy, and Kenneth M. Roesmer, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Dozens of essays on historical and cultural contexts and genres, as well as studies of N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gerald Vizenor, Louise Erdrich, and others.

Velie, Alan R., ed. American Indian Literature: An Anthology. Rev. ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991. Anthology containing a wide range of literature, including traditional tales and modern poetry and fiction, by Native Americans on Native American subjects. Useful commentaries on the different forms of literature.

Vizenor, Gerald, ed. Native American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Collection of Native American writings assembled by an acclaimed Native American author. Part of the HarperCollins Literary Mosaic series.

Wiget, Andrew. Native American Literature. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Overview of Native American writing, from the earliest oral narratives to the writers of the Native American renaissance. Contains a chronology of Native American literary history from the development of agricultural myths to the publication of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony in 1977.

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