Native American Short Fiction Analysis

The Oral Tradition

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), who calls himself a “man made of words,” links the oral tradition with print work by saying “the writer, like the storyteller, I think, is concerned to create himself and his audience in language.” Momaday sees the oral tradition not only as a part of a continuum spanning epochs but also as fundamental to the process of shaping language into meaning. By casting images into words at the moment of immediate response to a visual or aural stimuli, the storyteller (or poet/singer) can be working close to the point where consciousness and perception are linked in language. Simon Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo) connects the oral tradition to what he designates as “lifestyle,” which he describes as the “whole process of that society in terms of its history, its culture, its language, its values, and subsequently its literature.” Ultimately, he feels, “man exists because of language, consciousness comes about through language, or the world comes about through language. Life = language. Language is life, then.”

In addition to the crucial link between written literature and the oral tradition, Ortiz, Momaday, and many other Native American writers have stressed the importance of a historical record which was preserved when the First Nation peoples were almost annihilated during the first two centuries of the American republic. Ortiz recalls his father “trying to express certain views about how important it was for him and for the...

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Shaping Words into Text

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The sustaining power of the oral tradition is so strong that John Rouillard, a Santee Sioux and the director of a university Native American studies program, asked semiseriously at a meeting of the Modern Language Association, “Do Indians write novels?” His point was that perhaps it was “un- Indian” to be a published writer rather than a storyteller. Although his audience understood that he was setting up a false dichotomy, and Allen responded by saying that a novel is a long story weaving “a number of elements into a coherent whole,” the relationship between the story as it existed through time—supple, flexible, and changing with each narration; shaped by the personality of the storyteller; altered by the experiences of the community; ordered by some aesthetic principles common to First Nation ways of thought—and the fixed form of the printed version raised some crucial issues that have had a significant impact on both spoken and written imaginative fiction.

Considering the enduring power of the oral tradition and the way in which some of its most accomplished practitioners have produced artifacts with some core similarities to the short story as it has existed in the United States at least since the work of Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe, it might seem that Native American artists would have been interested in and able to do some more formal work in that area before Momaday’s Pulitizer Prize-winning novel. A review of the actual...

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American Indians in Print: 1774-1900

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The initial appearance in print of literary efforts by Native Americans was a result of the religious education they received in missionary schools. Samson Occom, a member of the Mohegan tribal grouping of the Hudson Valley in New York state, was a minister to several eastern tribes and published in 1774 A Choice Collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs. David Cusick (Tuscarora) put together a history of his people based on stories from the oral tradition, Sketches of Ancient History of the Six Nations (1827). The section describing wars against fierce monsters has elements of the kind of folktale that often precedes a composed narrative. William Apes (Pequot) wrote a full-scale autobiography, A Son of the Forest (1829), in which he combined personal reminiscence with major historical events (for example, the War of 1812 in which he, among many other Indians, fought with Andrew Jackson’s army). Elias Boudinot, known also by his Cherokee name—Galagina—translated into Cherokee a short fictional work called “Poor Sarah” in 1833. George Copway (Kahgegagahbowh; Objibwe) wrote an account of his travels in 1847The Life, History, and Travels of Kah- ge-ga-gah-bowh—that went through six editions and contained vivid descriptions of Objibwe life, such as his family’s near-starvation one winter, which approach the short story in form and effect. Copway’s The Traditional History and Characteristic Sketches of the Ojibway...

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Native American Fiction in the Twentieth Century

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Paula Gunn Allen, in her landmark edited collection Song of the Turtle: American Indian Literature, 1974-1994 (1996) summarizes the writing of First Nations people in the twentieth century by dividing the era into three units, which she calls waves. The first wave, which covers the initial seven decades of the century, was marked by what Allen identifies as “issues of recovery and identity” resulting from the dispossession of Native Americans by “the alien nation that conquered them.” The second wave, which Allen locates at the time in 1974 when Kenneth Rosen published the anthology The Man to Send Rain Clouds, continued and recapitulated the first wave themes while adding “a sense of renewal and hope” often reasserted with anger and pride. Conflict between cultures was a major subject of the collection, with many Native American protagonists victimized by an oppressive Anglo dominant society or destroyed in aggressive, violent attacks against it. As the second wave progressed through the 1970’s and 1980’s, a shift took place as the protagonists of novels and stories found ways to survive through the cultivation of a kind of ironic perspective that drew upon the revival or rediscovery of a cosmic vision grounded in the old ways of First Nations people. Notably, Abel in Momaday’s House Made of Dawn literally becomes the mythic figure of a ritual that enables him to transcend the immediate reality of Indian life. In contrast...

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The First Wave: 1900-1974

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The best known and most widely read Native American writer of the first part of the twentieth century was Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa), who lived among nomadic Santee Sioux as they moved to avoid the encroachment of advancing cavalry units. When his father Jacob Eastman (Many Lightnings) was released from prison after participating in the 1862 Sioux uprising, he encouraged Eastman to attend Dartmouth College (B.A., 1887) and then Boston University Medical School (M.D., 1890). Working as an Indian Agency physician, Eastman tended the survivors of the massacre at Wounded Knee (1890) and began an autobiographical account of his experiences, which was published as Indian Boyhood in 1902. His work combined historical information, folktales, explanations of Sioux customs and sketches of people he knew, giving many Anglo readers their first sense of another cultural community living in the United States. In the area of short fiction, his Red Hunters and the Animal People (1904), ostensibly a book for younger readers, retold traditional legends previously preserved through oral transmission and animal stories based on the conversations of hunters. This book was very successful, and Eastman followed it with Old Indian Days (1907), which heightened his imaginative style of storytelling. “The War Maiden” from this collection was a ground-breaking account “of the Courageous and Womanly Indian woman” (in Eastman’s words) in combat, tinged with humor and framed in a larger historical context by the first sentences: “The old man, Smoky Day, was for many years the best-known storyteller and historian of his...

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From Speech to the Page

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

E. Pauline Johnson’s ability to transfer told-to-people (from the oral tradition) stories into told-to-the-page stories was an anomaly dependent on her unique background in two cultures. Humishuma’s collaboration with McWhorter was more typical. In spite of leaving school after the third or fourth grade, she was determined to write and to publish her work. Her novel Cogewea, the Halfblood was completed in 1916 but not published until 1927. It drew on the Chipmunk cycle of tales (“Cogewea” means “chipmunk”), linking separate short stories into a proto-novel, and required her to pay several hundred dollars to defray publication costs. Very few people had this kind of persistence. Estelle Armstrong, who also...

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The Second Wave: 1974-1990

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Leslie Marmon Silko generously credits N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn as the book that effectively opened the gates of the publishing mansion. It would be just as accurate to cite Silko’s first published works of fiction, which appeared in Rosen’s anthology in 1974 as equally important, one of the reasons that Allen chooses that date for the beginning of the “Second Wave” of Native American fiction. Silko’s employment of traditional material—the stories told in the Laguna Pueblo that she heard in her youth—were fashioned into forms sufficiently recognizable to and accessible in the academic community so that “Lullaby” and “Yellow Woman” were included in prize-winning collections in 1975....

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The Tribe of Pressed Trees

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Louise Erdrich (Chippewa) developed her novel Love Medicine (1984) as a cycle of interlocking short stories which can stand separately as completed literary works, “a series of stories, many of which were published independently” as her collaborator Michael Dorris (Modoc) put it. The novel was designed to be the start of a tetralogy that expanded by structural design and was based on the inclusion of enduring traditional stories, told from diverse narrative viewpoints and gathered into an almost epic arrangement that moved back and forth across chronological time. This approach is indicative of the complex, sophisticated manner of presentation that Third Wave writers have devised to make use of the wealth of material...

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The Third Wave: After 1990

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The tripartite division of Native American writing is very useful in terms of clarifying the process of change that permitted an ancient manner of communication to enter and enliven what Marshall McLuhan called “The Gutenberg Galaxy.” The landmark moment when Momaday’s novel was published is a point in history that truly separates before and after, cited and acknowledged by writer after writer. Linda Hogan (Chickasaw), when asked about influences replied, “Momaday’s House Made of Dawn—I thought it was for me the most important thing I had read.” James Welch, an acclaimed novelist, says that after Momaday’s book won the Pulitzer Prize “suddenly people started to notice Indian literature, that the way kind...

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Life on and off the Reservation

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In his novel Reservation Blues (1996), Sherman Alexie (Spokane-Coeur d’Alene) describes his protagonist, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, as “the misfit storyteller of the Spokane Tribe” who had “caught some disease in the womb which forced him to tell stories. The weight of those stories bowed his legs and bent his spine a bit.” His talent, like many gifts from higher powers, is a blessing and a burden; an obligation, a responsibility, a mystical urge, and a source of exaltation. The power of his stories is inescapable but not entirely welcome:Thomas Builds-the-Fire’s stories climbed into your clothes like sand, and gave you itches that could not be scratched. If you repeated even a sentence from one of those stories,...

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The New Wave

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

One of the most striking stories in Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine is the “chapter” called “Saint Marie” which plunges into the flow of narrative consciousness of a young Indian woman who has been placed in a convent school. Following the direction set by one of the teachers, Sister Leopolda (formerly Pauline), a half-white and mixed-blood Indian woman who is referred to earlier in the book as “an unknown mixture of ingredients,” Marie Kashpaw ricochets between the lure of satisfying the demands of the Catholic disciples who run the school and her instinctive responses to the call of an Indian heritage which has been suppressed but not extinguished. In spite of all the tangible rewards that the Western...

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The Old Ways

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The outpouring of fiction dealing with Native American life in the last decades of the twentieth century was an important corrective to the misrepresentations and insults of depictions by non-Native (and some Native) writers. This has meant a departure from the best side of earlier literature, the sensitive recreation of traditional stories from the oral tradition. However, the “talking leaves” (the title of an anthology edited by Craig Lesley) have not been superceded or silenced by “the tribe of pressed trees” and have continued to speak through an evolving interchange that confirms the ancient idea of a story “alive” to revise the record of the past and to shape the emerging “reality” of the future. Growing out...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Alexie, Sherman. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1993. An imaginative, original collection of linked short stories that reflect a contemporary sensibility in Native American life.

Allen, Paula Gunn, ed. Song of the Turtle: American Indian Literature, 1974-1994. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996. The complementary volume to Voice of The Turtle, another astute collection of short fiction, with an especially informative essay on the three “waves” of Native American writing, and additional material on the authors and other useful volumes on the subject.


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