The man made of words

Native American Literature: A Very Short Introduction - Sean Teuton 2018

The man made of words

It was March 1970. The previous July the United States had put a man on the moon, in May the Beatles would release the album Let It Be, and Native Americans occupied Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay to raise hell about the poverty on reservations. At Princeton University the Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday addressed the First Convocation of American Indian Scholars: “We are,” he said, “what we imagine. Our very existence consists in our imagination of ourselves. Our best destiny is to imagine …who and what, and that we are.”

Momaday knew that Native people had to reimagine themselves were they ever to recover from the nearly 500 years of conquest and disease that devastated indigenous peoples in North America. Government policies designed to eradicate indigenous cultures also worked to convince Native Americans themselves that they must surrender their traditional lives to survive as North American moderns. Either way, so went the American story, Indians were destined to disappear. Defiantly, Momaday and others extolled the imagination’s power to reclaim a freed vision of indigenous history, community, land, and knowledge. The liberation from that American story of Indian demise, Momaday urges, must begin in the mind. In this defining moment, Native people took possession of their own lives to envision a future of pride and flourishing. They would revisit their history and reimagine another destiny, says Momaday, through story, through literature: “Man tells stories in order to understand his experience …[and] achieves the fullest realization of his humanity in …literature.” For Native Americans this model of literature promises nothing less than the retention and future of indigenous worldviews. As Momaday and others of his day well knew, it would be no small feat to imagine a literature to serve a Native American movement. And yet they did it.

In 1968 Momaday published his first novel, House Made of Dawn, about a combat veteran in World War II named Abel who suffers a beating at the hands of racist police in Los Angeles, then returns to his New Mexico pueblo to retrace his relationship to his culture and land, and finally achieves wholeness and belonging. The novel ends with great hope for Native people. Readers have come to share in Abel’s struggle to regain his spiritual and bodily health when he wakes, runs, and sings in a ceremonial race: “[Abel] ran on … and under his breath he began to sing …. House made of pollen, house made of dawn.”

Momaday’s novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969, but, more importantly, it sparked an unabated explosion of Native American novel, short story, poetry, autobiography, and drama. Today Louise Erdrich, James Welch, Leslie Silko, Joy Harjo, Sherman Alexie, and Lee Maracle have become household names, and other Native writers abound: The Anishinaabe writer Gerald Vizenor imagines Columbus a descendent of Mayans and Jews who wished to return home to America. David Treuer, who is Ojibwe, sets Native American crime dramas in mid-century Minneapolis. Choctaw author LeAnne Howe’s characters investigate an eighteenth-century indigenous sacrifice that calls on the living present. Joseph Boyden, an Anishinaabe novelist, leads Native snipers into the trenches of World War I. Native American literature bears the same complexity and diversity as that found in any body of great literature.

As Native American authors learned to write in English they also mastered literary forms like the novel, adapting these genres to serve indigenous worldviews. Native writers still experiment with language in a way that incorporates oral literatures that have long connected indigenous nations with ancestors and lands, and shaped their communal identities as distinct peoples. Since the Native American literary movement of the 1970s almost all Native literature honors “The Man Made of Words,” Momaday’s call for imagination and for indigenous oral literatures to celebrate it.

Native Americans have long possessed practical writing systems such as wampum belts and petroglyphs, birch bark scrolls and bison hides, which often serve as mnemonic devices for oral narratives. Such narratives, often accompanied with song and music, dance and drama, describe origins, migrations, social customs, legal obligations, religious values, and ethical responsibilities. Other stories simply entertain, often humorously, by affirming the inherent folly, mystery, and awe of life on earth. Each generation holds the fate of oral literature in its hands; taken lightly or forgotten the stories and the knowledge they convey could be lost.

Historically North American scholars often saw this verbal art as proof of the Indian’s primitive state rather than as evidence of indigenous literary imagination. Though the pilgrims sailed to America in 1620 on the promise to convert Indians to Christianity and away from their orally transmitted beliefs, once Native Americans gained alphabetic literacy in English they began to express their oral literature in written form. By the 1660s Native people attended Harvard and learned Latin and Greek, and by 1720 missionary Eleazor Wheelock’s Mohegan students Samson Occom and Joseph Johnson, and Hendrick Aupaumut, who was Mahican, produced some of the first Native American autobiographies and sermons in English.

Not until the 1820s, however, did Native Americans take control of English literacy to combat racism, build indigenous nations, and retain lands. Around this time a nonliterate Cherokee silversmith named Sequoyah invented North America’s first indigenous alphabet. In a matter of weeks Cherokees began creating their own literature without the aid of English. In 1828 Elias Boudinot, John Ridge, and John Ross helped establish the first Native American newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, in English and in Cherokee, in which they recorded traditions, reported or opposed federal Indian policy, and put Native people in touch with the global world. Also around this time Pequot minister William Apess began to preach throughout New England to Europeans, Natives, and Africans alike, and he wrote in defense of those he presciently termed people “of color.” Others such as Seneca activist Maris Bryant Pierce and Cherokee missionary student Catherine Brown composed national histories and conversion narratives.

In this era Native Americans adapted mostly nonfiction forms to serve specific political needs. As they protected or even suppressed their oral literatures and advanced their western learning to promote diplomacy, Native writers composed histories and essays, addresses and editorials. Out west where, by the middle nineteenth century, the reach of the North American empire remained tenuous, indigenous people began to collaborate with translators and amanuenses to compose numerous autobiographies. While ethnologists perhaps saw the goal of this work as the preservation of a dying way of life, Native Americans sought to tell the world their story of America. Recorders gained the accounts of famous warriors such as Black Hawk and Geronimo, often at the expense of Native women’s personal narratives. Nonetheless, in the autobiographical genre we see the first emphatic emergence of indigenous women’s voices, and some women describe their experiences as medicine makers and healers, war leaders and diplomats. Crow wise woman Pretty Shield details a prophecy from her “ant helpers” entirely in Indian sign language, while Paiute lecturer Sarah Winnemucca scouts for the U.S. cavalry and carries a knife in her stocking. Well into the twentieth century the autobiographies of such Sioux authors as Charles Eastman and Luther Standing Bear offer pre-contact experience and subsequent mastery of westernization as a critique of North American society.

The Cherokee journalist John Rollin Ridge published the first Native novel, Joaquin Murieta, in 1854, and the first novel by a Native American woman, Creek Alice Callahan’s Wynema, appeared in 1891. Despite these firsts, creative work in fiction, poetry, and drama did not mature until the 1930s, when, after decades of federal policy set on destroying indigenous culture, Native populations and vitality had seen their nadir. Perhaps for this reason Native American writers turned in earnest to fiction for the first time; here they could harness the imaginative wonder preserved in oral literature to revive and sustain indigenous communities. Such would explain the defeatism also at play in the era’s novels, such as in Osage writer John Joseph Mathews’s Sundown (1934) and Salish intellectual D’Arcy McNickle’s Surrounded (1936). By the explosive 1960s, however, Native writers such as Momaday would imagine a new Native American literature, one in touch with oral literature, to write new endings as new beginnings for Native people.

A different American story

Narrative serves to explain the world, especially when that world faces crisis: a Keresan creation story describes the arrival of some of the first deities in the form of twins. One remained but the other traveled east to reside beyond a great body of water, promising one day to return and reunite with his twin. The prophecies of other Native nations predict the arrival of long-lost relatives from other shores. Such stories no doubt helped indigenous peoples understand the arrival of Europeans. In view of such prophecies, Native people may have thought that European invaders arriving on horseback and covered in armor were gods. But if so this deification was short-lived, and it underscores the fact that indigenous peoples possessed their own literatures long before the arrival of Europeans.

Of course before the coming of Columbus, the peoples indigenous to the Americas did not call themselves “Indians,” as the admiral wrongly dubbed them. In fact they probably had no shared identity that spanned the hemispheres or even North America. Instead, these small groups often called themselves by names roughly translating as “The People.” Each of these peoples shared a commonly held land, language, kinship, and belief about their place in the universe. Aside from these similarities, indigenous peoples in North America differ greatly. As a people adapted to a particular region, they developed subsistence patterns and belief systems tied deeply to that specific land.

While some Native Americans have oral histories of migrations, others explain their creation as a literal emergence from a sacred landscape. On the southern planes Kiowas tell of crawling from a hollow log; in the northeastern woodlands Mohawks describe falling through a hole in the sky to land on a turtle floating on the water. Paleoanthropologists have developed theories of great migrations of Paleolithic people from Asia to the Americas as early as 75,000 years ago. Around that time giant glaciers covered much of North America, causing sea levels to drop and exposing land in the Bering Strait. Pleistocene animals, megafauna such as giant bison and wooly mammoths grazed across this land bridge, and hunters followed. The hunters probably made their way down the west coast, all the way to the tip of South America. More and more experts believe that Native Americans also arrived by sea, as maritime traders across the Pacific Ocean. Today some Native leaders and scholars question the Land Bridge theory, claiming that it conveniently suggests that Indians too are actually settlers.

Around 200 BCE increasing agriculture began to spur larger settlements across North America, especially in the Ohio Valley. Excavators in the nineteenth century named their founders the Hopewellians. They built enormous, geometric earthworks, embankments, circles, and squares more than a thousand feet wide using a consistent unit of measure, and they buried revered leaders in earthen pyramids along with items traded from distant lands. It appears that Native Americans made pilgrimages to these monuments; Hopewellians did not reside in but seemed to manage these holy cities, and visitors from afar might have left their offerings and then returned home to spread the Hopewell culture as far as North Dakota.


1. Native American nations in their ancestral homes, c. 1500 CE

In what is now the southwestern United States, a complex agricultural society emerged between 900 and 1500 CE. In the southern Arizona desert a people known as Hohokams built a stone-lined system of canals to divert water from the Gila and Salt Rivers to irrigate their crops. The building of the Hopewell monuments and Hohokam canals gives evidence of a political system, even a legal system for the handling of water rights. They also constructed ball courts and earthen pyramids to serve an apparently strictly ranked society. During this time northeast of Hohokam, Anasazi people built massive brick apartment-style complexes that still stand today. Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon has more than two hundred rooms and until the nineteenth century was the largest apartment building in North America. After about 400 CE the Hopewell culture dissipated and, by around the fifteenth century, the Hohokam and Anasazi dwellings began to empty. These civilizations did not mysteriously vanish but adapted to changing environments. Indigenous people left these cities to form new settlements, bringing their technologies and new foods, such as maize or corn, with them. By 800 CE indigenous farmers in the Great Lakes, Northeast, and Southeast had engineered varieties of corn that thrived in their own region and climate.

The centuries between 800 and 1000 CE saw the beginnings of the most complex culture in North America. Thought to originate in the Mississippi River valley, Mississippians distributed their religious complex far into the Southeast and into Oklahoma, with at least one population center that remained into the eighteenth century. They designed cities and built platform mounds, plazas, and defensive walls with bastions. Just east of St. Louis lies the empty city of Cahokia, where as many as 20,000 Native Americans lived and prospered before the largest earthen pyramid in North America, at more than 100 feet high.

Archaeologists find that Mississippians participated in ranked societies ruled by hereditary priests. To honor these rulers, commoners and outlying chiefdoms paid tribute, sometimes even in sacrifice. A labor division enabled the creation of an elaborate material culture. Mass food production, mostly in corn, was needed to feed the temple builders, and so hunters and farmers worked harder to satisfy this demand, establishing colonies as far away as Wisconsin. The ruling class was buried with vast collections of status goods, which were traded far and wide to amass them. Gods of earth and sky, corn mother and bird man, as well as a panoply of spirits, informed their universe and gave meaning and purpose to work, rank, and community belonging, as suggested in Mississippian iconography found on funerary objects. By 1400 CE inhabitants abandoned Cahokia as well as other Mississippian centers, and they likely moved to regions with more resources or more democratic societies.


2. In an artist’s reconstruction of the city of Cahokia, c. 1100 CE, as many as 20,000 citizens thrive in a planned, walled city. Athletes compete in the great plaza, while the tallest earthwork north of the Rio Grande stands in the distance.

It remains a matter of debate why indigenous North Americans developed agriculture, since hunting and gathering require less work. We do know that populations increased with the invention of agriculture, but we do not know which came first. Either way, by the time Europeans arrived much of North America relied primarily on planting for subsistence. A few areas rich in hunting resources were the small exceptions: on the Pacific coast thriving salmon peoples had little need for agriculture; Native Americans in the far north and in the Great Basin could not farm their lands but lived primarily by hunting; and on the plains Native groups found vast resources by tracking the annual migrations of bison (or buffalo). Formerly sedentary and practicing agriculture, the buffalo people hunted on the Great Plains in a reversal of nineteenth-century European theories of human civilization that evolves from nomadic hunting to sedentary agriculture. Ironically this cultural exception on the plains came for many North Americans to stand for all Native people. Instead, by 1500 CE indigenous North America was almost entirely agricultural. The Southwest and anywhere east of the Mississippi River saw vast planting and harvesting of corn, beans, and squash—foods known to the Iroquois as the Three Sisters. Hunting supplemented diets, but it was from well-established farms that Native Americans primarily fed their people.

Most everywhere except in the Southwest Native women were the sole farmers. Men cleared fields and hauled harvests, but women hoed and dug, planted and pruned the crops. Some scholars surmise that this gendered division of labor began long before the cultivation of plants, when women first gathered the vegetable parts of indigenous diets. Women learned which plants were nutritious or poisonous, which healed or made good baskets or clothes. From birthing and rearing children Native women learned how to find and make medicines and perhaps for this reason many women became healers and spiritual leaders. Indigenous women were thus often viewed as lifegivers and sustainers in the deepest sense. In fact, in some oral literatures women are synonymous with food itself. For Abenakis and Cherokees the first woman gave birth to corn, and for Cherokees the name of the first woman, Selu, is the same as the name for corn. In ceremony Native Americans honored these spiritual relationships to ensure good harvests.

Indigenous societies often carefully organized their labor, lodges, societies, and even dialects by divisions in gender. Men and women often knew very little of each other’s activities and lifeways. Scholars debate whether this gendering was complementarily or disproportionately empowered, but since dualism and balance formed such a part of many belief systems, it is possible that women and men worked separately yet fairly to prosper as one. In matrilineal societies—groups that trace their familial descent through the mother—men married into wives’ families and lived with them. Anthropologists often refer to families organized by matrilineal descent as clans. Women often owned the homes and their contents, and they managed the land within the clan system. Possessing such social power, in many communities Native American women held a central place in government. Among Iroquois people clan mothers, heads of extended families, acted as key decision makers especially in wartime. The women who gave the young men their lives helped determine whether a situation merited the risking of those lives.

Native men’s lives typically concerned warfare and hunting. In each activity men devised complex methods and trained each new generation, often against great danger, to provide for their people. Through rituals honoring the spirits of animals, hunters ensured that migratory game would return and remain plentiful. Boys became men by proving themselves capable hunters and defenders of homelands. Indigenous nations maintained territories, and warfare clarified boundaries that determined group identity with land. While men killed their enemies, war often sought not decimation but displays of national identity, power, and worth. Because war involved also peace agreements with foreign nations, Native American men often engaged in diplomacy and trade.

From the earliest Paleoindigenes who organized to hunt or share work, steadfast social relationships emerged to preserve order and guide moral conduct within a community. Throughout indigenous North America this kinship ensured the very survival of distinct peoples. Indeed, visions of kin responsibilities expanded beyond the human realm to include animals and plants, rocks and weather, and their spirits. At the human level alone complex kin responsibilities varied widely across North America. Within a single Native American group, individual kin could be relatives by biological descent or marriage, or entire groups could share no biological relationship but still consider themselves relatives. In the far north Native people understood themselves to descend both from their mothers and from their fathers, or bilaterally. On the plains among hunting cultures Native Americans tended to define their descent through their fathers. Southwestern and woodland farmers descended through their mothers, a rare phenomenon worldwide.

Kinship likely emerged and endured through the concept of reciprocity since group survival depended on setting aside individual needs for the good of the whole. This system meant that every action in one’s daily life in some way must serve the people; one must cooperate on plans, help with work, and share the food. In this manner kinship was also economic. Such kinship obligations were stratified and highly codified, for one belonged not only to a nation, but also to a band, clan, moiety, and various hunting and worship societies, for instance. While social obligations might compete, maintenance of social harmony remained paramount. Group members trusted that others would match their commitment to cooperation and care. Reciprocity was thus demanding and even restrictive on the one hand, but a social safety net on the other.

Kinship also served as a criminal legal system. When one’s relative died at the hands of another kin group, one was obligated to kill or adopt one from that group to restore the loss. While this “law of blood” may seem extreme, in the balance much bloodshed was averted. Rather than entire nations going to war over a single accidental death, one person’s adoption into the clan network brought lasting peace. As kinship served diplomacy, so it enabled political organization. Certain kin groups rose to power, but kinsmen could challenge this power simply by refusing to follow. Among Natchez people custom demanded that elites marry commoners, one assumes to protect against the consolidation of kin power. To dishonor kinship and its reciprocity with selfishness or arrogance was to self-destruct in isolation or banishment.

The North American indigenous world was alive with unseen spirits that were thought to produce and govern the survival of all life in the universe. And all aspects of the universe were alive, including rocks, thunder, and wind. Even objects such as baskets or pipes could have personhood. Native Americans could gain access to spiritual power through prayer, ritual, and ceremony, and a people’s very survival depended on properly meeting these spiritual obligations. Neglect of the spirit world might bring flood or drought, famine or illness. Bountiful agriculture required renewal ceremonies at harvest, and successful hunts demanded prayer and gratitude.

Spiritual leaders mastered oral narratives that reviewed and affirmed the people’s sacred covenants with the spirit world, and they led others in dramatic recognition of this through song and dance. Throughout indigenous North America belief systems varied widely. In the Southeast the sacred fire embodied the sun and formed the center of worship, while in the Northeast the longhouse became the vehicle for ceremony. In the Great Lakes region the midewewin medicine society held sway, while on the Pacific coast elaborate dramas commemorated spiritual unions with ancestors. On the Great Plains indigenous groups honored the sundance. Spiritual belief systems, because they were practical, were malleable; indigenous nations borrowed and adapted those ceremonies or rituals they thought applicable and successful.

This was the Native world in North America before the legendary white brothers returned. Coast to coast and from the Arctic Circle to the Rio Grande Native Americans had developed complex and distinct societies that both grew from and drew on particular regions and resources. Though scholarly claims differ, some estimate that five to eight million people inhabited America north of the Rio Grande in 1500, with some four hundred different languages. Indigenous communities handed down their histories and art, government and worship, and even technology. While their machines of war could not match those of Europeans, their ways of healing and medicine might have surpassed them. In today’s terms one might say that indigenous economies were often sustainable, and that kinship and worship kept the world alive, mysterious, and satisfying.

Some stubborn myths

On his first voyage to the Americas, Columbus brought beads and bells as gifts to befriend the Arawaks of the Bahamas, but he also brought disease. Because indigenous people raised little livestock, they had virtually no immunity to the contagions brought from the Old World. Evidence shows that Native Americans suffered from arthritis, venereal diseases, and other ailments in pre-contact North America, but nothing as devastating as smallpox and measles, influenza and tuberculosis. A vast network of trade routes throughout the Americas saw the rapid spread of European diseases. Entire communities collapsed, and with them surely entire bodies of knowledge. By 1890 the Native American population in the United States had sunk to 250,000.

Europeans likely knew little about the transmission of disease and its destruction, but of course disease was not the sole cause of Native decline in North America: warfare and policy played their part too. Whether war or diplomacy carried the day, a relationship between Native Americans and Europeans grew over time, and narrative—literature itself—often stood at the heart of these colonial relations. Europeans held stories about the origin of Native Americans, and Native Americans had their own narratives about the arrival of Europeans. The differing beliefs and values communicated by their narratives informed their ensuing and varying conflictual and cooperative endeavors. Indeed while these narratives across the frontier competed, they as often became entwined, as manifest in hundreds of treaties that bear both European and indigenous signatures.

Spain appealed to the pope by the late fifteenth century for the right to exploit New World resources and peoples, and it justified its conquest with a narrative called the Doctrine of Discovery, which invented the right of Christian royalty to claim dominion over lands of non-Christians still unconquered by other Christian crowns. The Discovery Doctrine also sought to maintain peace between the crowns by precluding the competition for new territories. Mass enslavement, torture, and murder of indigenous people by Spaniards ensued, and by 1550 Bishop Bartolomé de Las Casas debated Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda on whether Native Americans were rational beings capable of voluntary conversion, or whether they were barbarous sinners whom Spain should enslave to forcibly convert. While the conversion of indigenous souls became a mission in the European discovery of the Americas, the conquest of land and its riches drove what some scholars have called the greatest collision of cultures in the history of the world. European invaders continued to justify conquest with powerful legal narratives. By the late sixteenth century France and England sought to join in the plunder of the Americas, and thus sought to modify the Doctrine of Discovery with a new narrative, the Right of Conquest. Dominion, as this new story told it, was not enough to claim territory. A crown must have the might to conquer, then occupy and defend new lands to possess them legitimately.

While either narrative seems tenuous today, the United States and Canada inherited them, and they remain the legal basis for the claim to, and limit of, Native lands and peoples within the national borders of both countries. Both nations sought treaties with indigenous nations to gain their own sovereignty, but today Native nations use these same treaties to expand their sovereignty as autonomous governments on this very same basis. A good deal of colonial law serves to deny these Native American governments. Over time Canada established the Indian Act to define indigenous people as descended of an indigenous male; the United States, in decision, legislation, and policy, sought to destroy indigenous culture and communal land ownership. The shared effect was the depopulation of Native America.

When English settlers founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1628, they discovered not the Virgin Land that their own stories prophesized, but what some scholars call a widowed land. In 1616 and 1618 plagues killed an estimated 90 percent of New England peoples. This human loss together with the depletion of game and fish may have left Massachusetts a relative wasteland. Down the coast Native American slaves helped restore labor populations: Native people of Carolina comprised about one-fourth of the slave population. Another epidemic in 1633 took the lives of key sachems and shook the balance of fur and wampum trade power in the region. Several bloody conflicts ensued, probably most notorious among them the Pequot War, which culminated in 1637, when English colonists and their Narragansett and Mohegan allies surrounded and set fire to a Pequot town near Mystic, Connecticut, then sold the survivors into slavery. The English forbade the use of the Pequot name to render them extinct. Later, North Americans viewed the demise of indigenous people as the sad though inevitable side effect of American Progress. He was the Vanishing American or, later, Indian. These colonial narratives—the Doctrine of Discovery, the Right of Conquest, the Virgin Land, the Ignoble Savage, the Noble Savage, and above all the Vanishing Indian—remain with us still today, and Native Americans variously employ and denounce such myths with their own literatures.

Such was the narrative landscape on the advent of settler colonies in North America. For centuries indigenous nations held territories and the government and economy to control them. Native peoples actively managed the land and its resources in a world wholly adequate to their needs. While Europeans boasted of advances in weapons and some other technologies, Native Americans held their own sense of greatness in other matters, such as government, architecture, and art. Indigenous people were not men in their primitive state, savages in need of evolution to European civilization; rather, they had their own differing civilizations. Long-held beliefs about the sanctity of land and life no doubt inculcated a special wisdom among Native Americans, but, like any human society, greed and waste and deception and malice were not unknown among them. Native Americans were both noble and ignoble “savages.” Despite the conclusions among nineteenth-century North Americans that Native people were sadly destined to fall before the westbound tide of white settlers, the Indian did not vanish. Today we write and speak of Native Americans in the present tense: complex though ordinary people who as often gather a leafy medicine as carry a briefcase to court.

Just the facts

We cannot understand the emergence and value of Native American literature without this history of indigenous nations, and of European conquest and colonization. The latter is often a troubling history, but one that can instill pride and admiration in Native resistance, diplomacy, and adaptation in the midst of invasion. It merits restating that Native Americans negotiated the presence of Europeans and their threat to indigenous livelihood often through literary response, whether through testimony or address, essay or novel.

Anyone who lived during the early invasion of North America would be shocked to hear that Native American literature thrives today. And it thrives because Native people, despite the obstacles, are resilient. A 2010 census shows 2.9 million Native Americans in the United States and, in 2011, 1.4 million in Canada, with these numbers growing at a surprising rate. In Canada there are 600 indigenous nations, bands, or governments. The United States recognizes more than 550 Native American nations on more than 310 reservations that comprise more than 55 million acres of land. While some Native communities are still the poorest in North America and call for the greatest concern for social and health problems, many communities are growing their economies and reinvesting in cultural and language revitalization. Despite the challenges the future looks bright for indigenous North America.