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date: 27 October 2021

Native American Literaturefree

Native American Literaturefree

  • Margo Lukens

Subjects

  • North American Literatures

At the start of European voyages of exploration and empire building, the North American continent was populated by somewhere between 20 and 100 million people who spoke more than 300 different languages descending from 17 language families as different from one another as the Germanic from the Sino-Tibetan. Since their origins on the continent, each of the more than 300 distinct cultural groups had developed its own oral literature containing ritual drama, song, narrative, and oratory, all held in the vessel of human memory and transmitted through performance. These literatures—or “oratures” as some have called them—describe and express the abundant differences among culture groups, although there are some basic similarities among the worldviews of Native people in North America.

One salient similarity is a high value placed on community, the group within which one has one's identity and wherein lie the keys to safety and survival in a subsistence economy. North American Native peoples also share a belief in the close coexistence of physical and spiritual realities and the necessity for humans to maintain a harmonious connection with all parts of their world. In all cases, the Native peoples' oral traditions contain teachings and rituals for the specific purpose of keeping their relationships in balance with the universe. Finally, their cultural practices having evolved from making a living in a particular ecosystem (for example, coastal, woodland, desert, arid plains), Native peoples have identified strongly with traditional land and sometimes with particular features of familiar landscapes.

Oral Traditions: Preservation in Written Texts

Knowledge of the oral traditions of Native North Americans has been preserved in writing by Europeans and Euro-Americans since the early missionary incursions of the Spanish Franciscans and the French Jesuits. The first serious ethnographic collector in English was Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, an Indian agent who, with the assistance of his wife, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (Ojibwa), published Ojibwa stories in Algic Researches (1839). What followed in the wake of his effort was a wide variation in collectors' approaches to the oral traditional material. Some nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century collectors, like Charles Godfrey Leland and Frank Cushing, polished their material with an Anglo-American audience in mind, using elevated literary language, reaching for parallels with Greco-Roman mythology, and eliding the sometimes prevalent and often humorous references to bodily functions. Others, like Abby Alger (who trained with Leland) and the Reverend Silas Rand (Micmac legends) managed to preserve the sensibility of the original in their translations and often credited the Native storytellers from whom they got their material.

The twentieth century saw the “salvage anthropology” of Franz Boas and his students, who worked in reaction to the military subjugation of tribes in the United States and the institution of the reservation system during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Anthropologists like J. D. Prince and James Mooney made the objective preservation of “vanishing” cultures and languages their project. This approach sometimes resulted in the publication of transliterated oral texts along with ungainly word-for-word translations; however, this work was initially intended for a specialized academic audience. It has been suggested that work in collaboration with Native informants by such scholars as Ruth M. Underhill, Frances Densmore, and Ruth Bunzel may also have stimulated some Native communities to value and remain attentive to continued practice of their oral traditions. As the importance of ethnography rose in the early twentieth century, many “as told to” life stories were collected by anthropologists seeking to understand tribal cultures. Notable among these are such narrators as Sam Blowsnake (Winnebago), Mountain Wolf Woman (Winnebago), Maria Chona (Papago), and Helen Sekaquaptewa (Hopi), all of whom collaborated with scholars or with friends to whom they entrusted their stories.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, individual Native writers began to publish their own collected retellings of oral literature; one of the first was Joseph Nicolar (Penobscot), who published a version of the cycle of stories of Gluskap, the Wabanaki culture hero.

European Colonial and Missionary Period

The Franciscan missionaries who accompanied Hernán Cortés in his conquest of the Aztec empire and tributaries set to work in the 1520s to convert Native people to Catholicism, hand in hand with a project to make them literate, first in Nahuatl and then in Spanish. Within the next one hundred years Aztec writers produced texts describing the conquest from the Native perspective, both in narrative and lyric form, which can be found in codices preserved in European ecclesiastical libraries.

Although the Mohegan preacher Samson Occom was the first Native writer to publish in English, it is clear that some Native people had been literate in English for a hundred years before his sermon on the death of Moses Paul (1772); letters of negotiation were written during King Philip's War (1675–1676) by Narragansett and Nipmuck men who had become literate as part of their conversion to Christianity. Occom himself was converted to Methodism and learned to read and write during his late teens, and although some Native people had been literate a century earlier, the experience of coming to literacy in late adolescence and in conjunction with religious conversion was recapitulated in the lives of numerous Native writers (and recounted in their texts) until the late nineteenth century. Occom's letters, sermon, and short autobiography reflect his frustration that even in his work as a missionary he encountered the racism of white ministers in the church hierarchy.

Early Self-Determination and Sovereignty

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries produced conditions that required Native people to negotiate space and power with a new republic. A century and a half of occupation by Anglo-Americans had created mixed-blood and literate people for whom assimilation was a strategy for survival and for acquisition of power. In New England, the itinerant Methodist preacher William Apess (Pequot) published several texts including his autobiography A Son of the Forest (1829); his works range from religious conversion narratives to political protest and lectures on revisionist history, ending with A Eulogy on King Philip in 1836. Apess developed a concept of coalition among “people of color,” a term he used; his most widely anthologized work, An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man (1833), analyzes racism and its expressions in the early republic.

In the southeast, meanwhile, the Cherokee linguist Sequoyah had invented a system for writing his Native language; his Cherokee syllabary made possible the publication, in Cherokee and English, of the first Native American newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix. Elias Boudinot (Cherokee) was responsible for fund-raising to launch the paper and gave his Address to the Whites in 1826 as part of the Cherokee effort to convince Anglo-Americans that the Cherokee people were equal in their attainments to whites and ought to be trusted to remain on their traditional lands and govern themselves. Boudinot became editor of the Phoenix in 1828 and continued to write persuasively about the Cherokees' civilization until his death in 1839 at the hands of his own people.

Nineteenth-Century Autobiographers and Novelists

Black Hawk, an Autobiography (1833) is the first example of an “as told to” life story, collected from Black Hawk (Sauk) by Antoine Le Claire and edited by John Patterson. Another early-nineteenth-century life story tells about the role of Governor Blacksnake (Seneca) in the revolutionary war; it did not reach publication until 1989 under the title Chainbreaker. The genre's most famous exemplar is Black Elk Speaks (1932), which appeared a full century after Black Hawk's life story.

John Rollin Ridge (Cherokee) grew up in the traditional Cherokee homeland of Georgia, but like Elias Boudinot, his father and grandfather were murdered in the internecine struggle between traditional and assimilationist Cherokee parties facing the forced removal of their people to Indian Territory (the Trail of Tears, 1838–1839). Ridge fled from the site of family horrors and migrated west. On the wave of gold fever, he worked as a journalist in California and there wrote the first Native American novel, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta (1854), under the nom de plume Yellow Bird. The legendary California bandit provided Ridge with a story on which he could displace his own consciousness of injustice at the hands of white people and wreak a heroic revenge.

His contemporary George Copway (Ojibwa) first published an autobiography, The Life, History, and Travels of Kah-ge-gah-ga-bowh, in 1847; he revised that work twice and republished it several times in the ensuing years. The autobiography contains several genres, including tribal ethnohistory, conversion narrative, and an account of his people's struggles with Anglo-American policy. Like William Apess, Copway devoted much of his life to working on behalf of Indian people in resistance to U.S. government plans for their relocation.

The first Native American woman to publish a volume on her own was Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins (Northern Paiute), who, like Copway, came to write after embarking on a career as a lecturer about her people. In her lectures she emphasized the parallels between Paiute and Christian morality and strove to demonstrate their potential for citizenship. Her cause to raise funds to establish a bilingual school for Native children in her community was taken up by the philanthropist Elizabeth Peabody, who introduced her to influential easterners (including Senator Henry Dawes, the sponsor of the General Allotment Act) and whose sister, Mary Peabody Mann, helped Winnemucca edit her manuscript for publication. Life Among the Paiutes (1883) resembles Copway's book in its inclusion of tribal ethnohistory, a memoir of the tribe's first contact with whites, and a detailed chronicle of the tribe's political relations with white settlers, Indian agents, and military personnel as well as Winnemucca's own role in these relationships. The text's purpose is social and political; it ends with a petition for readers (presumably sympathetic and enfranchised American citizens) to sign and circulate in support of the reunification of her people in a traditional homeland.

Sophia Alice Callahan (Muskogee Creek), the first Native American woman novelist, began Wynema, A Child of the Forest (1891) as a romance that celebrated both Creek traditional ways and the adaptability of Muskogee people to Anglo-American ways. The novel analyzes the prejudices of white people toward Indians and meditates on the issue of allotment of lands in severalty, a concern for Native reservation communities since the 1887 passage of the Dawes Act. However, before Callahan finished the manuscript, the December 1890 massacre of Sioux people at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, claimed her passionate attention, and her story swerves from its center at Muskogee, reaching out to incorporate Wounded Knee and in fact incorporating some of its survivors into Muskogee's mixed-blood center. After a successful reception in the twenty years following its appearance, Wynema lay forgotten in a few libraries until late-twentieth-century scholarly attention by Annette Van Dyke and A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff brought it to the light of republication.

Cultural Preservation and Instruction by Native Writers

In the mid- to late nineteenth century, Native writers like Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (Ojibwa) and Joseph Laurent (Abenaki) perceived that preserving oral traditions in writing was one way to counteract cultural erosion; Schoolcraft published retellings in English of individual stories, while Laurent's 1884 New Familiar Abenaki and English Dialogues detailed the grammar of what Laurent called “the uncultivated Abenaki language,” with the object of preserving it from “alterations.” The Penobscot writer and tribal leader Joseph Nicolar wrote his 1893 Life and Traditions of the Red Man, an English-language version of traditional Penobscot stories, as an act of cultural preservation dedicated to the young people of his own nation. At the turn of the twentieth century Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, who wrote under the pen name Zitkala-Sa, published Old Indian Legends (1901), a collection of Dakota stories retold primarily for a juvenile non-Native audience; her writing career included journalism, fiction writing, autobiography, poetry, and political writing. The novelist Christine Quintasket (Okanogan/Colville), also known as Mourning Dove, collected stories from Okanogan elders for the 1933 volume Coyote Stories.

Early Twentieth Century

Although literary scholars usually locate the Native American “renaissance” in the late 1960s and 1970s, the early twentieth century was a period of prolific activity by literate Native people in a wide range of genres and fields: autobiography, novel, short fiction, drama, poetry, ethnography, political writing, and publishing. The U.S. government's policies of assimilation had been aggressively advanced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by the General Allotment Act of 1887 and by a system of boarding schools for Indian children that removed them from the cultural influences of their home communities. In the process, however, children from numerous different tribes lived together at schools such as the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, where they used English as their common language, and published their exemplary work in school newspapers such as the Carlisle Arrow. This experience led to the rise of a pan-Indian consciousness, out of which grew both political organization and the creation of literary works in English.

One of the central figures at the turn of the twentieth century was Zitkala-Sa—“Red Bird” in Lakota, a name she gave herself. Educated at a Quaker missionary boarding school and at Earlham College, she was hired by Richard Henry Pratt to teach at Carlisle, the school he had founded on military principles to “kill the Indian and save the man.” Her first major publication, three autobiographical articles in the Atlantic Monthly during the first three months of 1900, revealed her deep disagreement with her employer's policy, creating a rift that led to her departure from Carlisle. These articles were collected, along with her essay Why I Am a Pagan (1901) and some short fiction, in a 1921 Ginn and Company volume entitled American Indian Stories. In the meantime Bonnin had collaborated with the composer William Hanson on the libretto and music of an opera entitled The Sun Dance (1913) and became secretary of the pan-Indian Society of American Indians and editor of its journal American Indian Magazine, to which she contributed numerous poems, articles, and editorials. In 1924, the same year U.S. citizenship was finally granted to Native Americans, Bonnin coauthored Oklahoma's Poor Rich Indians, an exposé of the land grab that followed the discovery of oil on Indian land. She founded the National Council of American Indians in 1926, several years after the demise of the SAI, and served as its president until she died in 1938.

Contemporary with Bonnin were Charles Alexander Eastman (Santee Sioux) and Luther Standing Bear (Teton Sioux), both of whom wrote autobiographies, published retellings of traditional Sioux stories, and wrote some books intended for young audiences. Eastman was particularly known for his contributions to the early formation of the Boy Scouts and Campfire Girls in the early twentieth century. Eastman's Indian Boyhood (1902) is a memoir of his Santee childhood that ends with an optimistic view of his conversion to Christianity and entry into Anglo-American education; From the Deep Woods to Civilization (1916) problematizes Eastman's experiences and includes his view, as the first physician on the scene, of the massacre of Big Foot's Oglala band at Wounded Knee. Standing Bear's autobiographical My People, the Sioux (1928) chronicles in positive terms his experiences among the first students admitted to Carlisle and as a performer in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show; his Land of the Spotted Eagle (1933) reflects more on Sioux traditions and provides a critique of white people's treatment of Native Americans.

The early twentieth century also saw Native authors writing short fiction, poetry, and political satire, much of which appeared in ephemeral publications such as local and Native-run newspapers but sometimes in magazines of national circulation. The poet of first importance during this period was E. Pauline Johnson (Mohawk), from Grand River Reservation of the Six Nations in southern Ontario. Her mother was English and her father was Mohawk; consequently her upbringing gave her grounding in the English Romantic poets as well as great respect for Mohawk traditions. When her family fell on hard times after her father's death, Johnson began a twenty-five-year career of writing poetry and performing it live for general audiences in Canada, the United States, and Great Britain. Her first volume, The White Wampum (1895), is still one of the most published books of Canadian poetry; she also wrote numerous short stories, many of which deal with the issue of mixed blood. The last of these stories were collected in The Moccasin Maker, a volume published by friends after her death in 1913.

Contemporary scholarship has brought to light some poetry by Zitkala-Sa, who had likely been influenced by Johnson; her energies, however, were expressed more aptly in her prose fiction and in her overt political work and writings. Their contemporary Alexander Posey (Creek) used poetry as his primary vehicle, basing the style of his early works on the Anglo-European classics he had read in school or at Bacone Indian University in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Posey's unique contribution to Native American letters, however, is a style he developed as a mature writer based in the customs, values, and speech styles of Creek people. In 1902 Posey bought and took over the editorship of the Indian Journal, and for the next six years it was his vehicle for publishing the satirical Fus Fixico letters, which were often picked up by mainstream newspapers. Posey became known as an insightful humorist and biting satirist whose works express and incorporate the language, social values, and aesthetic sense of Native American people. After his death by drowning in 1908, his wife, Minnie Posey, published The Poems of Alexander Lawrence Posey (1910), the first collection of his works; the Fus Fixico letters were finally collected in one volume by Daniel Littlefield and Carol Hunter in 1993. In a similar instance, Henry “Red Eagle” Perley (Maliseet) made a sixty-year career of writing short fiction and nonfiction for national magazines and Maine sportsmen's magazines and newspapers between 1911 and 1972; decades after his death Aboriginally Yours (1997), a volume collecting a portion of his works, was published by Perley's niece and granddaughter.

The novelists of the early twentieth century are few but notable for their adaptation of genre to Native concerns. The young Christine Quintasket (Colville/Okanogan) spent four years in a convent school and two at a BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) school in Washington state; four years at the Fort Shaw Indian School near Great Falls, Montana; and two years at a business school in Calgary, Alberta, learning typing and correspondence skills. During her youth she had conceived a love for two narrative genres: the traditional tales of Okanogan culture and the romantic and melodramatic novels popular in Anglo-American culture. It was with these materials and styles that she set to work as Mourning Dove, or Hum-is hu-ma. Between 1912 and 1914, when she was in business school, Mourning Dove completed the first draft of her novel Cogewea, the Half-Blood (1927), but it would take more than a decade of struggle to publish it, even with the assistance of a white collaborator, Lucullus Virgil McWhorter, an amateur ethnographer and supporter of Indian causes. The published novel, although marred by McWhorter's editorial incursions, weaves together Okanogan traditional story lines and a western romance plot, in which the mixed-blood hero and heroine establish a safe and prosperous future for themselves and their white and Indian relatives. Although Mourning Dove's collection Coyote Stories had been published three years before her death in 1936, other editors brought out volumes of her renditions of traditional stories, Tales of the Okanogans (1976) and Mourning Dove's Stories (1991). Her memoirs were edited by Jay Miller in Mourning Dove: A Salishan Autobiography (1990).

John Milton Oskison (Cherokee), educated at Stanford and Harvard, was the son of an English father and a Cherokee mother; he used his family's experience farming and ranching in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) as material and setting for numerous “western” short stories and novels of frontier life such as Wild Harvest (1925). The characters sometimes resemble Oskison or his family members, as in the dynastic novel Brothers Three (1935), and often his works meditate on negotiating mixed-blood identity amid the separations between Anglo and Native America. A world traveler who also possessed a degree in law, Oskison wrote numerous essays on topics as varied as scientific discovery, medicine, industry, international policy, and the political and economic issues affecting particular Native tribes.

Mid-Twentieth Century

The middle decades of the twentieth century were characterized by two policies enacted by the U.S. government. The first was the 1934 Wheeler-Howard Indian Reorganization Act; this act ended allotment of lands in severalty—which had resulted in the loss of 60 percent of previously reserved Indian land to non-Indians since 1887— and reestablished the authority of tribal governments. This act seemed a “New Deal” for Indian people. However, in 1953, when popular post–World War II sentiment pointed toward ending government involvement with Native communities, Congress passed House Concurrent Resolution 108, a policy known as “termination” of the government relationship of trusteeship with numerous tribes. Termination led to the loss of reservations and federal recognition for many tribes and to the forced migration of many Indian people to big cities in search of a non–land-based livelihood. Ironically these events brought many Native authors into the milieu of alienation that characterized the modern period for European and Anglo-American writers.

Some, like the Cherokee playwright Lynn Riggs, chose an urban lifestyle; Riggs spent most of his adult life alternating between Greenwich Village and Santa Fe, New Mexico. His plays and screenplays, however, partake of New Mexico and the Oklahoma of his childhood. Riggs's most famous play, Green Grow the Lilacs (1931), provided the libretto for Rodgers and Hammerstein's Pulitzer Prize–winning musical Oklahoma! (1943); Phyllis Cole Braunlich notes that Riggs used the taming and dividing of western land as “a metaphor for the spiritual change that was being forced on Native Americans, who believed that the land was a gift to all people from the Great Spirit.” Some of Riggs's plays were more overt in their treatment of Indian themes and characters, most notably The Cherokee Night (1932), which deals with the situation of Native people in his day.

Two novelists who were most important and accomplished during this period were John Joseph Mathews (Osage) and D'Arcy McNickle (Salish). Mathews had experienced childhood in Indian Territory, military service in Europe during World War I, education at Oxford University, and world travel before returning to Oklahoma to gather material for his first novel, Wah'Kon-Tah (1932). Mathews was elected to the tribal council the same year his second novel, Sundown (1934) was published. Both of his novels deal with the effects of allotment and assimilationist education on Native communities and individuals. Mathews published an autobiography entitled Talking to the Moon in 1945, after which his career turned toward biography and an epic history of the Osage people based on oral accounts, The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters (1961). At his death Mathews left behind the unpublished novel Within Your Dream and was still at work polishing his compendious autobiographical Twenty Thousand Mornings. D'Arcy McNickle, the son of a Metis mother and a white father, was adopted into the Flathead tribe, and his family settled on allotted land. After being sent to the Indian boarding school in Chemawa, Oregon, McNickle went to public schools in Montana and Washington State, enrolling at the University of Montana in 1921. McNickle sold his allotment land to finance studies at Oxford, but when the money ran out in 1926 he settled in New York City, where he began work on his first novel, The Surrounded (1936). The novel went through numerous revisions before publication, corresponding with an evolution in McNickle's orientation toward his Indian and mixed-blood characters; he came to believe adherence to tribal ways and communities was better for Indian people than assimilation. The years John Collier served as commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (1933–1945) gave McNickle the promise of government employment as an Indian working on behalf of Indians. By 1936 he was living in Washington, D.C., working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and beginning his path of publishing works of history. He published a juvenile novel Runner in the Sun in 1954, and his last novel, Wind from an Enemy Sky, was published posthumously in 1978. McNickle was honored during his lifetime by an honorary doctorate from the University of Colorado; in 1972 he became program director at the Newberry Library Center for the History of the American Indians, which was renamed for him after his death in 1977.

Unique among mid-twentieth-century Native American literature was Black Elk Speaks, a collaborative work narrated by Nicholas Black Elk (Oglala Lakota) and fashioned into prose by the German-born poet John Neihardt. The volume presents special problems to readers looking for Black Elk's voice, since he narrated his visions and experiences in his Native language; almost simultaneously, Black Elk's son Ben translated his father's words into English, which Neihardt then rephrased for his daughter Enid to copy down in shorthand. She later typed them into longhand, from which Neihardt then composed the text. Black Elk Speaks is a work of hope perched at the edge of despair, the last-ditch effort of the Oglala holy man to provide spiritual teaching for his people and the world beyond; since the middle of the twentieth century Black Elk Speaks has provided a map for the spiritual seeking of many Native people outside the Oglala, as well as for non-Native people wishing to understand a Native American spiritual perspective.

Late Twentieth Century

The late twentieth century in Native American letters is marked by a widespread literary flowering across the genres, the “Native American Renaissance,” heralded by the publication of Vine Deloria Jr.'s (Standing Rock Sioux) Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (1969), the first of his numerous works of philosophy, religious studies, and political and legal critiques of American society. The same year, the mainstream literary establishment recognized the talent of N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa); his first novel, House Made of Dawn (1968), received the 1969 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Momaday's poetry, fiction, and prose memoirs have influenced and inspired two generations of Native American and First Nations (Canadian-Native) writers. It is notable that many authors have published in multiple genres: for example, James Welch (Blackfeet) followed his first work of poetry with the influential novel Winter in the Blood (1974) and four more that have followed. Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna Pueblo) has produced a dozen volumes of poetry, fiction, and scholarship since 1973 and is probably most widely known for The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (1986). Louise Erdrich (Chippewa) began her literary career with poetry but, in collaboration with her husband Michael Dorris (Modoc), soon became a prolific writer of Faulkneresque novels including Love Medicine (1984) and Tracks (1988). Linda Hogan (Chickasaw) published numerous works of poetry before her work branched to produce the novels Mean Spirit (1990) and Solar Storms (1995). Diane Glancy (Cherokee) has published fifteen volumes including poetry (Brown Wolf Leaves the Res, 1984), short fiction (Lone Dog's Winter Count, 1991), and plays (War Cries, 1996). Foremost among these versatile writers is Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo), whose early work includes the volume of poetry entitled Laguna Woman (1974) as well as the appearance of a number of her poems and short stories in anthologies of Native American writing published in the mid-1970s: The Man to Send Rain Clouds (1974), Voices of the Rainbow (1975), and Carriers of the Dream Wheel (1975). Silko's career blossomed with the publication of her novel Ceremony (1977), which weaves together mythic stories of Laguna spiritual tradition and a plot dealing with the experiences of a young mixed-blood Laguna man who serves in World War II; the novel blends the stylistic elements of oral tradition and postmodern narrative. Her later novels Almanac of the Dead (1991), a complex vision of self-interest and violence in the Americas, and Gardens in the Dunes (1999) explore the world beyond Laguna but with the sensibility and values she derives from Laguna. Silko also continues to range across genres, publishing poetry, fiction, and memoir in Storyteller (1981), letters between herself and the poet James Wright in a volume called The Delicacy and Strength of Lace (1986), and essays in Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit (1996).

Among those who work primarily in verse, Simon J. Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo) has been an influential poet since the early 1970s. The best-known of his fifteen volumes is From Sand Creek (1981). Ortiz's work is based in his strong Acoma identity, incorporating Keresan language and the spiritual traditions of his community. Joy Harjo (Muskogee Creek) went to college to learn painting but decided to become a writer after hearing Ortiz read. While she is primarily a poet (She Had Some Horses, 1983; In Mad Love and War, 1990), Harjo's works include a screenplay and recordings of musical performances with her band, Poetic Justice. The Hopi/Miwok poet Wendy Rose, trained academically as an anthropologist, has published eleven volumes since 1973. Primary among her philosophical concerns is the negotiating of identity, since having a non-Hopi mother situated her as an outsider to that community; The Halfbreed Chronicles and Other Poems (1985) is in many respects a complex response to and meditation on the conundrum of identity. What Happened When the Hopi Hit New York (1982) contemplates the specificity of different landscapes and connects her with Maurice Kenny (Mohawk), a prolific poet since the late 1950s, whose works have twice been nominated for Pulitzer Prizes; he received the American Book Award in 1984 for The Mama Poems (1984). Luci Tapahonso (Navajo) writes poetry from the perspective of Navajo as her first language, using both Navajo and English in her work. Saani Dahataal: The Women Are Singing (1993) is rooted in Tapahonso's connection to her family and community and combines aspects of Navajo tradition and contemporary mainstream American life.

At work in his own direction before the 1969 flowering, Gerald Vizenor (Anishinaabe) began his prolific literary career in poetry after encountering haiku and other Asian literary forms while stationed in Japan with the U.S. Army. During the 1960s he published nine volumes of poetry, including some reworking of traditional Ojibwa (Anishinaabe) lyrics. During the mid-1960s he worked on behalf of urbanized Indians in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area and through this work began writing journalistic pieces; he wrote and edited for the Minneapolis Tribune from 1968 to 1976. In the 1970s Vizenor began publishing essays and fiction and made a transition from community service to college teaching and leadership in Native American studies. Vizenor's theoretical work on Indian identity as a construct (“terminal creeds are terminal diseases”) and his stance on mixed blood as creative, similar to the energy of the “compassionate trickster,” inform most of his work, including Earthdivers: Tribal Narratives on Mixed Descent (1981), Griever: An American Monkey King in China (1987), Landfill Meditation (1991), and Chancers (2000). N. Scott Momaday has called Vizenor “the supreme ironist among American Indian writers of the twentieth century,” and for Louis Owens, Vizenor's work provides the most “outrageous challenge to all preconceived definitions.”

Louis Owens (Cherokee/Choctaw) wrote novels and taught writing at the college level, becoming one of the most respected Native literary scholars of his generation. Owens published American Indian Novelists: An Annotated Critical Bibliography (1985) with his friend and colleague Tom Colonnese (Lakota), following that with Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel (1992) and Mixedblood Messages: Literature, Film, Family, Place (1998). His works of fiction partake of the popular genre of murder mystery but are always informed with tradition and sensibilities from his Choctaw heritage: The Sharpest Sight (1992), Bone Game (1994), Wolfsong (1995), and Nightland (1996) all rely on a Choctaw mixed-blood protagonist to unravel the mystery. In Owens's last novel, Dark River (1999), his protagonist Jake Nashoba dies of a gunshot wound in the process of discovering the answer to the puzzle, an intimation of Owens's untimely death in July 2002. Shorty Luke, “the surviving twin” of the story, gives him this epitaph: “It is said that Jacob Nashoba went home.”

Directions for the Twenty-First Century

Most of the writers from the end of the twentieth century have survived into the twenty-first, and readers should expect an ever-increasing and changing body of work from Native American writers whose careers have lately begun. Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene) has kept up a pace of producing at least one book a year in his first ten years of writing, and two of his titles have been made into films: The Business of Fancydancing (1992) retained its title, and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993) became Smoke Signals. He has also worked on a screenplay based on his novel Indian Killer (1996). Greg Sarris (Pomo/Miwok) too has made the crossover into screenplay with his “novel in stories” Grand Avenue (1994), which is set in the tough Santa Rosa, California neighborhood where Sarris grew up. His biography of Pomo basketmaker Mabel McKay and his 1993 critical text Keeping Slug Woman Alive hold substantial promise for the future. Readers might also hope to see more from Betty Louise Bell (Cherokee), whose first novel, Faces in the Moon, a multigenerational story of women in one mixed-blood Cherokee family, appeared in 1994, and Susan Power (Dakota), author of The Grass Dancer (1994).

Another emerging direction in Native American literature is the proliferation of drama, a genre that flowered sooner in Canada than in the United States, with government support for the work of highly popular playwrights such as Tomson Highway (Cree), author of The Rez Sisters (1988) and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing (1989). In the United States, the Kiowa/Delaware playwright Hanay Geiogamah has been at work in theater since the early 1970s, publishing (Body Indian, 1972; Foghorn, 1973), directing, producing, and teaching Native American theater. For the past twenty years William Yellow Robe Jr. has acted, directed, taught, and written forty-two plays including The Independence of Eddie Rose (1986). The contemporary writers Gerald Vizenor (Ishi and the Wood Ducks, 1994), Diane Glancy (The Truth Teller, 1993), and LeAnne Howe (Indian Radio Days, 1993) have contributed to this growing field.

Increasingly it will be important for the field of Native American literary studies to be enriched and interrogated by the perspectives of Native American literary critics such as Paula Gunn Allen, Greg Sarris, Robert Allen Warrior (Osage), and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn (Dakota). Cook-Lynn has been an arbiter in Native American studies, having founded Wicazo Sa Review and operated it as an entirely Native-edited journal since 1985. She and fellow Native critics, teachers, and publishers like Jeannette Armstrong and Joseph Bruchac will help foster the talent of new writers as well as the ongoing growth of the field.

Further Reading

  • Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston, 1986; rev. 1992.
  • Bataille, Gretchen M., and Kathleen Mullen Sands. American Indian Women: Telling Their Lives. Lincoln, Neb., 1984.
  • Bruchac, Joseph, ed. Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets. Tucson, Ariz., 1987.
  • Brumble, H. David, 3d. American Indian Autobiography. Berkeley, Calif., 1988.
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