Books of the Nations: Native American Literature

Introduction to Native American Literature

Native American literature is a diverse and vibrant field that spans from ancient oral histories to contemporary writings. It encompasses the stories, histories, and philosophies of various indigenous peoples across North America. This literature reflects the rich cultural heritage, struggles, resilience, and perspectives of Native American communities, offering insights into their relationships with the land, spiritual beliefs, and the impact of colonization. Through poetry, fiction, memoirs, and more, Native American authors continue to contribute profoundly to the wider landscape of American literature, ensuring their voices and stories are heard and valued.

The Rich Tapestry of Native American Storytelling

Native American literature encompasses the oral and written expressions of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. It is a vibrant and essential component of the cultural heritage of Native American Nations, offering insight into their rich histories, philosophies, and values. From the haunting beauty of traditional storytelling to the poignant narratives of contemporary authors, Native American literature provides a unique perspective on the world and our place within it.

Importance of Literature in Preserving Culture and History

For Native Americans, literature is more than just a form of artistic expression. It serves as a crucial vehicle for preserving and transmitting culture, history, and traditions across generations. Through stories, poems, and songs, the wisdom of ancestors is passed down, ensuring that the identity and heritage of Native American Nations endure.

Historical Context of Native American Literature

The historical context of Native American literature is deeply rooted in oral histories, encompassing myths, legends, and storytelling that served as the foundation for cultural transmission and community cohesion. With European colonization, these narratives began to be recorded in written form, intertwining indigenous perspectives with the influences of colonization. This transition marked the evolution of Native American literature from oral to written forms, reflecting a broad spectrum of experiences, resistance, and resilience. This literary tradition continues to evolve, highlighting contemporary Native voices and their contributions to American literature.

Early Oral Histories

Before the arrival of European settlers, Native American cultures thrived on oral histories. These stories, legends, and myths, often shared around communal fires, were imbued with lessons about nature, the spiritual world, and the social order. They were integral to the education of the young and the cohesion of Nation’s societies.

Impact of European Settlement

The arrival of Europeans marked a significant shift in the lives of Native Americans, including their literary expressions. The ensuing centuries of colonization, displacement, and assimilation efforts profoundly affected Native American communities and, by extension, their oral and written literature.

Evolution of Native American Literature

From Oral to Written

The transition from oral to written forms of literature among Native American Nations was a gradual process influenced by interactions with European colonizers. Initially, this involved the transcription of oral stories into written formats by anthropologists and ethnographers. However, over time, Native Americans began to write their own stories, blending historicall themes with contemporary issues.

Contemporary Native American Writers

Today, Native American writers are recognized for their contributions to both the American literary landscape and the preservation of their cultural heritage. Authors such as N. Scott Momaday, Joy Harjo, and Leslie Marmon Silko have garnered critical acclaim for their works, which explore themes of identity, tradition, and resilience.

Genres and Themes in Native American Literature

Mythology and Folklore

Mythology and folklore remain at the heart of Native American literature, reflecting the deep spiritual connection indigenous peoples have with the natural world. These stories often serve as allegories for understanding human behavior and the mysteries of the universe.

Autobiographies and Memoirs

Autobiographies and memoirs are significant genres within Native American literature, offering personal insights into the experiences of Native Americans in a changing world. These works provide a powerful counter-narrative to the historical accounts written by outsiders.

Fiction and Poetry

Native American fiction and poetry are vibrant fields where authors experiment with form and narrative to tell stories of contemporary indigenous life. These works challenge stereotypes and offer diverse perspectives on the struggles and triumphs of Native Americans.

Key Figures in Native American Literature

Curtis H Freese

Curtis H. Freese is an ecologist and a key figure in conservation, notably co-founding American Prairie to restore the Great Plains' ecosystems, once rich in biodiversity. His work encompasses the evolutionary history of these grasslands, detailing species collapses and conservation efforts. Freese's leadership in establishing a significant wildlife reserve in Montana underscores his commitment to ecological restoration. His extensive experience includes directing conservation programs globally, highlighting his significant impact on preserving natural habitats and species.

Wendy Red Star

Wendy Red Star is a celebrated Apsáalooke/Crow artist known for her thought-provoking art that merges photography with elements of installation and collage. Her work critically addresses and reinterprets Native American history and culture, offering a fresh, feminist, and Indigenous perspective. Red Star's art is characterized by its innovative use of imagery, archival materials, and cultural symbols to challenge traditional narratives and highlight the resilience and richness of Native American life.

John M Shaw

John M. Shaw is a historian who dives into the intricate relationship between the Turtle Mountain Band of Pembina Chippewa and European American settlers, focusing on the challenges to cultural identity and land ownership. His work is critical for understanding the nuances of federal policy, Native American resistance, and the legal battles that shaped the Turtle Mountain Chippewa's fight for sovereignty and recognition. Shaw's analysis is invaluable for those interested in Native American history, legal studies, and the ongoing struggle for indigenous rights.

Notable Works of Native American Literature

Native American Literature

"The Inconvenient Indian" by Thomas King.

In "The Inconvenient Indian", Thomas King offers a deeply knowing, darkly funny, unabashedly opinionated and utterly unconventional account of Indian-White relations in North America since initial contact.

Ranging freely across the centuries and the Canada-U.S. border, King debunks stories of Indian savagery and White heroism, takes an oblique look at Indians (and cowboys) in film and popular culture, wrestles with the history of Native American resistance and his own experiences as a Native rights activist and articulates a profound, revolutionary understanding of the cumulative effects of ever shifting laws and treaties on Native peoples and lands.

"Crazy Horse Weeps" by Joseph M. Marshall III.

For Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota people, historical trauma, chronically underfunded federal programs, and broken promises on the part of the US government have resulted in gaping health, educational, and economic disparities compared to the general population. Crazy Horse Weeps, offers a thorough historical overview of how South Dakota reservations have wound up in these tragic circumstances, showing how discrimination, a disorganized tribal government, and a devastating dissolution of Lakota culture by the US government have transformed the landscape of Native life. Yet these extraordinary challenges, Marshall argues, can be overcome. Focusing on issues of identity and authenticity, he uses his extensive experience in traditional Lakota wisdom to propose a return to traditional tribal values and to outline a plan for a hopeful future.

"The Rediscovery of America" by Ned Blackhawk.

Ned Blackhawk presents The Rediscovery of America, a transformative view of U.S. history that highlights the critical role of Native Americans, often overlooked in traditional narratives focused on Europeans. His synthesis spans five centuries, revealing that:

  • European colonization was not inevitable and faced significant influence from Native Nations.
  • Native American involvement was pivotal in England's imperial crises and the American Revolution.
  • Indigenous peoples were deeply impacted by federal policies, from Civil War-era conflicts to 20th-century activism shaping American law.

Blackhawk demonstrates that acknowledging Indigenous history is essential for a comprehensive understanding of America, showcasing the resilience and agency of Native communities and offering a more accurate portrayal of the Nation's evolution.

How to Support Native American Authors

Supporting Native American authors involves more than just reading their works. It includes advocating for the inclusion of Native American literature in educational curricula, purchasing books from Native-owned bookstores, like Prairie Edge and participating in events that celebrate indigenous storytelling. By engaging with Native American literature, we not only enrich our own understanding of the world but also contribute to the preservation and recognition of indigenous cultures and voices.