Sending My Heart Back Across the Years

Hertha Dawn Wong demonstrates how the development of Native American autobiography parallels the history of Native American culture: from tribal tales, through life stories, to imaginative autobiographies. In her first chapter, “Native American Self-Narration and Autobiography Theory,” she shows how Native American notions of self, life, and writing differ from Euro-American concepts. The traditional notion of self, for example, is bounded by the ideas of community and landscape, as the notion of meaningful “life” is culture-specific. The earliest stories in drawings reflect these ideas, as do later collaborative autobiographies—“as told to” narrations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (e.g. BLACK ELK SPEAKS). But increasingly in these later autobiographies readers sense the bicultural tension, as Indians are living between two worlds.

With the recent breakdown of many native communities, Wong argues, autobiography has become especially important, and in her last chapter, she analyzes the self-narrations of two writers who bridge the white and Native American worlds: N. Scott Momaday (THE WAY TO RAINY MOUNTAIN, THE NAMES: A MEMOIR) and Leslie Marmon Silko (STORYTELLER). Even in these most recent autobiographies, however, readers can identify the earlier notion of the communal self that is linked to the tribe, the land, and the cosmos. Wong’s is a serious study that helps readers to better understand the evolution of Native American life and literature.