Native American Short Fiction Summary


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

According to the conventional criteria used by literary scholars to define short fiction, the contributions of Native Americans to this genre are relatively recent. A consensus among commentators familiar with the field is that N. Scott Momaday’s novel House Made of Dawn (1968) marked the beginning of a new phase of cultural expression in which First Nation people joined other ethnic groups in finding publishers for their writing. As Leslie Marmon Silko, whose novel Ceremony (1977) has been called the first written by a Native American woman, puts it somewhat sardonically, “the ignorant Anglo-Americans that suddenly let us publish our books” realized the growing interest in Native Americans had commercial possibilities. As Silko, in consort with many other accomplished First Nation novelists, has contended, this emergence into print is the latest and hardly most significant phase of a tradition of storytelling that reaches back to what might be called the dawn of human time. “From generation to generation the people had been telling stories,” Silko explains, “and Scott Momaday could not have written the book if it not had been for the careful nurturing, for the care of the stories and his old grandmother he talks about.” As she states in Ceremony:

I will tell you something about stories,[he said]They aren’t just entertainment.Don’t be fooled.They are all we have, you see,all we have to fight offillness and death.

The “death” she speaks of is a death of the spirit, of a people’s soul, of the culture that sustains a civilization, and the stories that she refers to have been an integral element of First Nations life and originate in the pre- Columbian distant past. Stories, or “short fiction,” are a part of the oral tradition that preceded print, that continues coterminously with its invention, and that does not seem likely to be subverted or replaced entirely by written forms now that Native Americans have at least some access to the same media outlets as other citizens of the United States.

Silko’s Archetypal Storyteller

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Just as Momaday’s House Made of Dawn has been identified as the trailmaking act that opened the way for Native American literature to move into the realm of print, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Storyteller (1981) could be regarded as the defining document which set the direction for the short fiction of the next decades. A multi-genre mix of prose and poetry, autobiographical recollection and historical evaluation, it set stories drawn from the oral tradition amid the cultural conditions that led to their creation and continued existence. Touching on many of the crucial concerns of First Nations people—including legends and myths of creation; power and medicine; communal stories of love, hunts, and heroic actions; poetic evocations of landscape and the inhabitants of the wilderness—stories like “Yellow Woman,” “Lullaby,” and the title piece carried the heritage and history of Native Americans through the arrival of European settlers and on to the end of the twentieth century. Silko’s work stands as a testament to the power of the living tradition which she revitalizes and extends. As the opening lines of her poem “The Storyteller’s Escape” have it,

The storyteller keeps the stories    all the escape stories     she says “With these stories of ours     we can escape almost anything     with these stories we will survive.”