Native American literary studies

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

Native American literary studies

On November 9, 1969, a young Native American student dove from a borrowed sailboat into the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay and swam 250 yards against swift currents to reclaim Alcatraz Island as indigenous land. A Mohawk man from the St. Regis Reservation in upstate New York, Richard Oakes had migrated to San Francisco to join a community of Native people “relocated” to urban areas during the 1950s era of federal tribal termination. By the 1960s generations of Native Americans in the Bay area had grown restless about their displacement and poverty, and young people responded by organizing across Native groups and raising their voices in public protest. While attending San Francisco State College, Oakes gathered with other students to sharpen this vision of renewal for indigenous North America. The San Francisco State College group soon reached out to bring its dream of change to Native American student organizations at UC Berkeley and UCLA. The Red Power movement had begun among Native students. Native American writers too imagined a new narrative for Turtle Island, neither by longing for an impossibly timeless past nor by disconnecting the stories of Native Americans from the political realities of their lives. Instead the era’s authors worked better to interpret a colonized world and to offer this new knowledge to empower the people.

Following the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969, a decade-long flurry of events would define the Red Power era: the 1972 march on Washington for the Trail of Broken Treaties; the 1973 takeover of Wounded Knee; the 1975 intervention of the American Indian Movement on the Pine Ridge reservation; the 1978 Longest Walk on Washington to reenact the displacement of Native peoples from their homelands. Between these touchstone events, elders, faith keepers, students, scholars, and activists organized dozens of occupations of stolen indigenous territories, staged takeovers of corrupt Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) offices, and filed multiple legal claims demanding the return of stolen lands and property, as well as compensation for centuries of cultural destruction.

Meanwhile Native American students brought their visions of justice to college campuses to create what they began to describe as “Native American Studies.” Pressuring universities to accept a more diverse student body, Native scholars demanded that universities allow the production of knowledge by and for Native Americans. Sioux scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn recalls participating in this moment: “[We asserted] that Indians were not just the inheritors of trauma but were also the heirs to vast legacies of knowledge about this continent and the universe that had been ignored in the larger picture of European invasion and education.”


7. Native Americans occupy Alcatraz Island in 1969. The graffiti on the prison’s water tower reads in red: “Peace and Freedom. Welcome. Home of the Free. Indian Land.”

Antiquarians and Indian salvage

To succeed, Native American Studies had to tear free of the “salvage anthropology” that shaped the European study of indigenous people from the first moments of contact. As early as 1527 when Cabeza de Vaca wandered around Texas and published his detailed account of Native Americans, such explorers have sought to understand the worlds of indigenous peoples, but they did so usually in ethnocentric terms, and through the eyes of the conquerors. The Old World voraciously consumed proto-anthropological accounts, numbering Native people of the Americas among the most studied people in the world. John White thus entered an already engrained tradition when he arrived with the 1585 Roanoke Colony of North Carolina and created the first known European depictions of Native Americans in North America, and by 1608 to aid his trade and mining mission John Smith began to publish his account of Native people in Virginia. In 1620 William Bradford began his record of Plymouth wherein he includes careful study of the colony’s indigenous neighbors with an eye toward converting them to Christianity.

By the eighteenth century North American settlers began to make Native Americans the focus of their studies, with intellectuals such as Cadwallader Colden writing his History of the Five Indian Nations (1727) and James Adair his History of the American Indians (1775). In 1791 William Bartram published on his extensive travels in the indigenous Southeast. One of the best-known antiquarians was Thomas Jefferson, who, in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), described excavating and examining Native American burial remains in earthen monuments on his estate. An early member of the American Antiquarian Society established in 1812 and peopled by many American founders, Jefferson discussed the necessity of antiquarians to study, collect, and catalogue, that is, salvage, the ancient Adena and Hopewell monuments on the Ohio River before settlers plowed them under.

Of course the question of whether Europeans truly could understand the histories of these indigenous peoples, let alone whether they had the right to desecrate Native American burials, did not arise. Long before their arrival in the Americas, Europeans had invented the interdependent concepts of savagism and civilization. Civilization, in a manner, needed savagery to affirm its superiority. For this reason the savage had to remain, if only in memory. Native people thus existed as relics who demanded collection. In fact, like many North Americans, Jefferson believed not only that contemporaneous Native Americans bore no relationship to America’s ancient earthworks, but also that his era’s savage Indians had actually exterminated the continent’s ancient, advanced race of “moundbuilders.”

Along with the concept of savagism, the idea of the Vanishing Indian drove the collection and study of Native objects and peoples. As a discovered remnant of unchanging, primitive man, the Indian would melt before the tide of American progress. He would leave the land to civilized people, who evolved in time, possessing both a history and the intellectual means to record it. North Americans who crossed the frontier, such as Superintendent of Indian Affairs Thomas McKenney, or Michigan territorial governor Lewis Cass, or painter and author George Catlin, returned East with what they considered to be records of disappearing Indians. In 1832 antiquarian Samuel Drake published his Indian Biography. From his bookstore or “Institute of Miscellaneous Literature,” Drake sold tickets to William Apess’s performance of Eulogy on King Philip, which drew heavily on Drake’s history of indigenous New England. Drake’s bookstore attracted editors of magazines on Indian antiquities such as Jared Sparks, who published Cass’s essays supporting Indian removal by arguing that indigenous people’s languages lacked the complexity to support civilized thought.

By the 1870s, when the United States had removed most eastern Native nations to the West and established the reservation system, the new Bureau of Ethnology had categorized the resulting collection of Native American objects and oral literatures. In 1879 an act of congress established the Bureau of American Ethnology to transfer governmental and cultural materials relating to Native people from the Interior Department to the Smithsonian Institution. But its founding director, John Wesley Powell, also envisioned the bureau as the vessel to support a burgeoning new field of anthropology.

While the Smithsonian requested that military officers gather Native American bodily remains and cultural materials from the battlefield, dozens of scholars conducted fieldwork by living near or in Native communities, where they sought “informants” for their studies. Into the early twentieth century the bureau’s staff comprised some of the best-known ethnologists in the field’s beginnings, such as Frank Cushing and James Mooney, and supported the research of other scholars, such as Franz Boas, Frances Densmore, Washington Matthews, and Paul Radin. Such researchers translated and recorded songs, ritual dramas, and narratives including epics, legends, and stories. Like their informally trained predecessors, these early anthropologists tended to assume that European culture was superior and evolving toward progress in a pattern that would eventually overwhelm inferior, static indigenous cultures. From this vantage the Native American informant was performing the life and mindset of a previous evolutionary stage of humankind, and the anthropologist could simply record this performance. But much was lost in translation. James Mooney recorded the stories of his Cherokee informants, who sang songs central to the ancient narratives. He did not view the songs as integral to the stories, however, and so elected not to include them.

Most privileged were those Native people who in the minds of North Americans exuded the nascent virtues of humanity. This Noble Savage lived close to nature and displayed courage, generosity, and eloquence. He was usually male and a great, though defeated, warrior. Other recorders such as Paul Radin sought out his opposite, the Ignoble Savage. Radin’s Indian “rogue” stole, lied, and tricked women into marriage. Radin purchased the confidence of his impoverished informant, who was probably reluctant to disappoint his benefactor, and so embellished his tale to please him. Then Radin copiously altered his informant’s story to please his editor. Bearing this troubled, colonized history, anthropology came to be viewed as predatory by mid-twentieth-century Native Americans. By the late 1960s Native activists confronted archeologists digging without full permission on indigenous lands, asking them if it would be acceptable for Native Americans to dig in Arlington, the U.S. national cemetery.


8. On one of his frequent trips to Washington as a Blackfoot representative, in 1916 Mountain Chief agreed to demonstrate the ethnographic process for photographers. Here, he interprets a song in plains Indian sign language for the ethnologist Frances Densmore, who sought to preserve Native American music.

Red Power led Native scholars to announce that the study of a people will improve when those people themselves contribute to that study. More importantly, the scholars accomplished an imaginative shift in self-conception: Native Americans are not helpless victims of colonial devastation; rather, they are the shrewd protectors of indigenous thought. Like the Red Power activists on Alcatraz, these Native intellectuals underwent a moment of self-realization. Whereas mainstream academics had long held that Native Americans were spiraling in decline, Native intellectuals studied and publicized the fact that Native people still practiced the old ways and continually invented new ones—on Alcatraz, on reservations, in cities, in universities. If Native Americans were hopelessly conquered, how could they be sharing traditional knowledge at Princeton? At the close of the decade, Native scholars and organizers built from the ground up a process-oriented view of indigenous knowledge and a vision of cultural renewal to inform the criticism, politics, and art of Native America.

A Native American emergence

In the late 1840s the pioneering anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan sought the knowledge of the Parker siblings on the Tonawanda Seneca reservation to write what became League of the Iroquois (1851). Ely S. Parker was Morgan’s primary informant, and some scholars even believe that he should be credited as co-author. Parker was educated in the boarding schools, and his surviving papers show that he studied the rhetoric of William Apess. While other early Native writers, such as Elias Boudinot, were aware of Apess, Parker may be one of the earliest Native scholars to study indigenous writings. And for a rhetorical model Parker could not do better than Apess.

As the first Native American Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Ely Parker extended Apess’s example to write on Native issues, and by the early twentieth century his great nephew Arthur C. Parker, eventual head of the Society of American Indians (SAI), became an archaeologist at the New York State Museum and the foremost authority on Iroquois culture and history, writing The Code of Handsome Lake (1913) and The Constitution of the Five Nations (1916), among many other publications. The new century saw a number of other Native American scholars trained in archaeology and anthropology, such as Omaha ethnologist Francis La Flesche, who wrote one of the most thorough ethnographies on Osages; linguist J. N. B. Hewitt, who was Tuscarora; and anthropologist Ella Deloria, a Sioux woman.

In their hard-won positions of ethnographic authority, these Native scholars signaled a shift in age-old colonial relations of power, and Native Americans slowly gained some measure of control over the assembly and study of indigenous culture and art. Not surprisingly, these earlier Native scholars found empowering models in oral literature. For instance, Charles Eastman describes the importance of a Sioux child’s study to perform with precision their oral literature: “the household became his audience, by which he was alternately criticized or applauded.” Luther Standing Bear declares the depth and density of Sioux oral literature: “These stories were the libraries of our people.”

Later, as Red Power organizers took over indigenous lands, so Native American scholars reclaimed the study of Native literature. Like his predecessors Eastman and Standing Bear, N. Scott Momaday saw the capacity of indigenous oral literatures to serve contemporary Native American lives, even to inform a written literature, imploring Native writers to imagine their place in an ancient ancestral line of storytellers. For centuries language itself lay at the heart of Native American humanity: “Man has consummate being in language,” writes Momaday. This Man Made of Words goes on to share a Kiowa story from his childhood to express the crucial role of story in indigenous societies. “The Arrowmaker” describes mastery of language as key to a people’s survival. Long ago a wife and husband sat in their lodge, the man making arrows by the firelight. Soon the man noticed that someone was peering in through a seam in the lodge skin. He told his wife, “Someone is standing outside. Do not be afraid. Let us talk easily, as of ordinary things.” The man pretended to test an arrow in his drawn bow, taking aim in different directions, while he talked as if to his wife. But this is what he said: “I know that you are there on the outside, for I can feel your eyes upon me. If you are Kiowa, you will understand what I am saying, and you will speak your name.” There was no answer, so the man continued to point the arrow around, until training it on his enemy. He released the arrow and it pierced the enemy’s heart.

In his analysis of this single story Momaday models for his audience an oral literature’s ability to signify in multiple ways, from its purposes and meanings to its forms and aesthetic ideals. The tale, he explains, had been told to him since childhood, and through the years he has often interpreted it differently. In this manner Momaday reminds us that we and our literatures continue to grow together, always constituting and reconstituting one another. We must honor the ultimate mystery in story, the author suggests. “The Arrowmaker” lures us to consider the singular power of the word. Here we must face the necessity and stakes of language in the very decision to sustain or take life. With a simple declaration the man gambles everything and wins, in part because he has shown himself to be deft with language, unlike his mute and fallen enemy. Momaday here offers a few aesthetic ideals as well. The arrowmaker is nameless and “unlettered,” and he enlists the most basic, honest language: “Let us talk easy, as of ordinary things.” “The Arrowmaker” above all calls on Native American writers to imagine the supreme risk and thus responsibility in the holy task of language, story, and literature to restore cosmic order and community well-being.

In other early critical writings Momaday asks us to meditate on ancient pictures preserved on rocks throughout North America, which display the deep mystery of indigenous language. Such depictions, he declares, do not display the mere characters of writing, but more; they celebrate a people’s culture. They are literature. In fact North American literature began when the first person looked to the land and felt compelled to express her response in language. In tying Native American literature to community and, here, to land, Momaday articulates ways to value and appreciate Native literature—he offers an indigenous criticism.

By 1979 Native American intellectuals collaborated to publish The Remembered Earth, a body of creative and critical writing seeking to build this indigenous literary thought. The collection owes its title to Momaday’s statement: “Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it.” Here the author prescribes a behavior, even an ethic, through which to value Native American land. In inviting this kind of contemplation, Momaday acknowledges that some Native people may have lost that relationship or, even if they do know their ancestral land, that relationship nevertheless can be improved through an actively pursued, deepening experience with the remembered earth. Momaday thus offers a model of Native American identity and literature as an evolving process founded in speculation and adaptation.

In this same collection the Laguna and Sioux writer Paula Gunn Allen delivers a rebuttal to Momaday. In “Iyani: It Goes This Way,” Allen rejects Momaday’s portrayal of indigenous land relationships and, by extension, his views on Native American culture and literature. She writes:

We are the land. To the best of my understanding, that is the fundamental idea embedded in Native American life and culture in the Southwest. More than remembered, the Earth is the mind of the people as we are the mind of the earth. The land is not really the place (separate from ourselves) where we act out the drama of our isolate destinies. It is not a means of survival, a setting for our affairs, a resource on which we draw in order to keep our own act functioning.

In this unflinching declaration Allen challenges those Native Americans like Momaday who imagine that the land may be known through a relationship mediated by experience, the senses, or history. Indeed, such musing to Allen is ultimately self-serving of “our own act” and therefore individualist in the most western and colonizing sense. Instead, she affirms: “the Earth is, in a very real sense, the same as our self (or selves), and it is this primary point that is made in the fiction and poetry of Native American writers.” To Allen, free-ranging thought of the kind Momaday invites is not necessary for those Native writers who already know the land. Also this self-absorbed contemplation might come at the expense of stewardship in actual indigenous communities.

In a later essay Allen intensifies this perspective as “a solid, impregnable, and ineradicable orientation toward a spirit-formed view of the universe, which provides an internal structure to both our consciousness and our art, …[and is] shared by all members of tribal psychic reality.” In delivering this explicit definition of a Native American perspective, Allen gives desiring Native writers and readers a strong statement on the secure state of indigenous consciousness.

As Native American literary studies further emerged in the 1980s Momaday and Allen became central voices in a growing body of Native criticism. While the two display a good deal of complexity on many issues, on those outlined above they differ rather starkly, and even prefigure the shape of conversations in the field as they continue into the present. And these cultural debates ultimately inform literary debates. As Momaday suggests, Native American culture as well as its literature “should” grow through study or contemplation. Such an openly speculative position on indigenous knowledge recognizes the reality of cultural loss, on the one hand, and the possibility of its recovery, on the other. From Momaday’s view there is an openness to the world and the place of Native peoples in it. Allen, by contrast, affirms the stability of indigenous life as intact and thriving, and often against western culture, whose people have misinterpreted Native people and thought for centuries. Momaday imagines the “process” of Native American becoming; Allen defines the “state” of indigenous life as more or less enduring, and often in opposition to settler colonies.

Into the 1990s and still today Native American scholars seek to claim more autonomy for indigenous nations and the literature that grows from them, but their means at times differ like Momaday and Allen. Choctaw intellectual Louis Owens’s Other Destinies (1992) affirms the process of cultural exchange in colonial contacts as figured in the multiheritage “mixedblood.” But in Tribal Secrets (1995) Osage critic Robert Warrior calls for “intellectual sovereignty” through which to build a criticism primarily from Native sources, while in Red on Red (1999) Creek researcher Craig Womack delivers his clarion for “literary separatism.” More recently scholars argue that such Native American nationalism comes at the expense of indigenous feminism and hemispheric vision, such as in Yup’ik intellectual Shari Huhndorf’s Mapping the Americas (2009). So swings the critical narrative. While no Native thinker denies the need for Native American freedom, they disagree on the measure it can or should be gained in connection with other nations, especially settler nations and peoples.

The Native American burden

In Word Arrows (1978), the Anishinaabe writer Gerald Vizenor recognizes the importance of Momaday’s formative talk at the First Convocation of American Indian Scholars in 1970. In fact Vizenor combines the personification of the Man Made of Words with the Arrowmaker to create “word arrows,” an early neologism honoring the power of indigenous story to defend Native American communities from hegemony. Vizenor offers a personal story in the same vein. A Native couple sat in his office at a community center, the man’s face wearing a “powerful sense of personal doom.” The woman was visibly homeless, intoxicated, and “ancient from abuse.” The man began to blame white people and racism for all his misfortunes, including alcoholism. Vizenor replied: “You need white people, more than they need you now to blame for your problems…. You need them to keep you the way you are so you can moan in self-pity.” Just then the woman pointed to the door and, in her confusion, asked the men to stand for the powwow grand entry—then broke into song. On completing an honor song she began to cry and “through her singing she became sober, her dark eyes were clear.” Invoking Momaday, Vizenor recognizes in this woman the force of oral literature to awaken life and order the world.

Vizenor tackles the problem of internalized colonialism. The Native American man above relied on white oppression for self-pity. Vizenor calls such attachments “terminal creeds.” Pursuing this “victimry” throughout his critical and fictional writings, Vizenor has invented a vast satirical world of Native people who are “victims of their own narcissism,” as well as those who reject terminal creeds to become “postindians.” At every turn Vizenor denounces tragic, debilitating reactions in Native American literature, and he celebrates the humorous, life-affirming replies of oral literature to North American colonialism.

Though the notion of terminal creeds helped found Native literary studies, the literature still often remains troubled by the image of the Vanishing Indian as well as encumbered by tragic literary themes and plots. Far too often in Native American literature, particularly novel, Native protagonists get drunk and in self-hatred self-destruct, leaping off bridges or cliff sides. While alcoholism and suicide rates remain highest in indigenous communities, Native American authors run a risk in providing a mainstream readership with this portrait of Native self-destruction. For too many North American readers the unacknowledged Vanishing Indian legacy remains, only now Native Americans do not melt into the land (as in Walt Whitman’s fantasy) but quietly shoot themselves. For Native writers the impossible literary challenge lies in having to write for two often competing audiences, one wishing to understand and heal an often troubled social world, another often desiring to consume negative stereotypes to satisfy the colonial narrative of providential indigenous demise.

Native American literature often responds to colonial narratives tragicomically. In Blackfeet and Gros Ventre writer James Welch’s novel Winter in the Blood (1974), a nameless narrator discloses a mystery in his family’s oral history, that his grandparents had a defiant commitment to one another during conquest and famine. This hopeful vision, however, is complicated by an irreverent narrator, surreal dreams, and black humor, as at his grandmother’s funeral:

The hole was too short, but we didn’t discover this until we had the coffin halfway down. One end went down easily enough, but the other struck against the wall. Teresa wanted us to take it out because she was sure that it was the head that was lower than the feet. Lame Bull lowered himself into the grave and jumped up and down on the high end. It went down a bit more, enough to look respectable. Teresa didn’t say anything, so he leaped out of the hole, a little too quickly.

In the final sentence the narrator “throws” his grandmother’s medicine pouch into the grave. Though some readers find no humor in this passage, others discover the irony in Native Americans themselves dishonoring a burial. Blackfeet once used above-ground scaffolds to lay to rest their dead and began using burials only on the arrival of missionaries, and so the author underscores the absurdity of this “forced” western burial. Here the ancestral earth cannot accommodate such unwieldy losses. Critics are often divided on whether the narrator has healed the “winter in his blood”: in throwing in the pouch does he turn from or reconnect with ancestors? This final passage invokes the Vanishing Indian and yet refuses it at every turn through irony and humor.

Literature as decolonization

A successful story re-creates the sacred order of the people in the universe, affirming what Laguna writer Leslie Silko calls a “communal truth” that renews the world. From these insights Native American critics have derived models for a Native literature that help nations recover from nothing less than genocide. Native American literature still raises consciousness: too often Native people, especially children, absorb narratives of defeated Indians and become as we say “internally colonized.” But Native American literature can awaken us to inaccurate histories and damaging stereotypes, and thus embolden us not only to resist plunder of lands and resources, but also to revalue our own Native bodies and minds. Native American Studies promote literature as decolonization.

Native literary scholars remind us that service to the indigenous community may appear in many forms, from residing at home and revitalizing a language to living overseas and writing about Europeans. Indeed any rigid standard for Native American literary purpose is in the end self-defeating, for it dangerously narrows the space for Native imagining and invariably relies on the same litmus test of authenticity that misled anthropologists more than a century ago. In answering this question of authenticity again we need only look to Red Power and the emergence of Native American literary studies, where another essay continues to shape the field. In “Towards a National Indian Literature,” Acoma poet Simon Ortiz begins with a story about his Uncle Steve, who used to participate in their fiesta days, in pueblo-wide ceremonies held on Catholic saints’ days and that reenact the arrival of Spanish soldiers with Oñate in 1598. Uncle Steve was a fine dancer and would holler in Spanish the names of saints, and a man dressed as Oñate, his face painted in a hideous jeer, would curse the crowd, the children running in mock fear. Ortiz explains that the townspeople at Acoma are not seeking to perform the Catholic sacrament or even to imitate the ways of Spaniards. Instead they have taken a catastrophic event from their Acoma history—the vicious invasion of Spanish soldiers—and absorbed it “in the people’s own terms” within Acoma consciousness, thereby defusing its ability to control, that is, to colonize them:

And this, of course, is what happens in literature, to bring about meaning and meaningfulness. This perception and meaningfulness has to happen; otherwise the hard experience of the Euroamerican colonization of the lands and people of the Western hemisphere would be driven into the dark recesses of the indigenous mind and psyche. And this kind of repression is always a poison and detriment to creative growth and expression.

In his essay Ortiz replies to the anthropologist, who for a century searched for those Indians who were still “uncorrupted” by European arrival and, in the process, dismissed as “inauthentic” those other indigenous communities that did not satisfy the standard. Those who spoke English or Spanish or French or who performed an adulterated fragment of liturgy were among these. Ortiz, however, also offers his essay to other Native Americans who have internalized a component of colonialism that upholds this false standard still today. While some scholars may contend that Acoma is now a mixed or “hybrid” culture that blends both European and Acoma values and practices, Ortiz sees it differently. For him and many other Native critics it comes down to adaptation—and resistance. For this reason “new” knowledge may enter a community to be incorporated within an indigenous worldview. In fact Ortiz explains that this adaptive process is not simply artistic but indeed political. Native Americans consciously shape their bodies of knowledge with new practices, values, and even languages to resist domination and nurture indigenous nations: “This is the crucial item that has to be understood, that it is entirely possible for a people to retain and maintain their lives through the use of any language. There is no question of authenticity here; rather it is the way Indian people have creatively responded to forced colonization. And this response has been one of resistance; there is no clearer word for it than resistance.”

In today’s Native American literature characters return home, but may also leave for cities sometimes across the globe, where they learn to speak foreign languages and might plan to stay. It may be that to embrace this diversity in the literature will not threaten but in fact serve the cultural security of indigenous worlds. Perhaps owing to this travel Native literature today bears an international readership, and its quality and visibility have placed Native American literary scholars at the vanguard of Native American Studies. In his 1983 essay, Ortiz explains this expanding cycle of search through his father’s song: “[T]he song was the road from outside of himself to the inside …and from inside of himself to outside.”