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Native American Literature: Remembrance, Renewal

Written by eastern writer on Sunday, June 01, 2008

By Geary Hobson

In 1969, the fiction committee for the prestigious Pulitzer Prizes in literature awarded its annual honor to N. Scott Momaday, a young professor of English at Stanford University in California, for a book entitled House Made of Dawn.

The fact that Momaday's novel dealt almost entirely with Native Americans did not escape the attention of the news media or of readers and scholars of contemporary literature. Neither did the author's Kiowa Indian background. As news articles pointed out, not since Oliver LaFarge received the same honor for Laughing Boy, exactly 40 years earlier, had a so-called "Indian" novel been so honored. But whereas LaFarge was a white man writing about Indians, Momaday was an Indian -- the first Native American Pulitzer laureate.

That same year, 1969, another young writer, a Sioux attorney named Vine Deloria, Jr., published Custer Died For Your Sins, subtitled "an Indian Manifesto." It examined, incisively, U.S. attitudes at the time towards Native American matters, and appeared almost simultaneously with The American Indian Speaks, an anthology of writings by various promising young American Indians -- among them Simon J. Ortiz, James Welch, Phil George, Janet Campbell and Grey Cohoe, all of whom had been only fitfully published at that point.

These developments that spurred renewed -- or new -- interest in contemporary Native American writing were accompanied by the appearance around that time of two works of general scholarship on the subject, Peter Farb's Man's Rise to Civilization (1968) and Dee Brown's Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee (1970). Each struck a responsive chord in U.S. popular taste, and statistics show that even today, some 30 years later, their popularity has not abated.

Steadily, other volumes, and other writers, surfaced. Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, Welch's A Winter in the Blood, Gerald Vizenor's postmodern fictions, and the poetry of Paula Gunn Allen, Simon J. Ortiz and Linda Hogan have led in turn, over the years, to newer writers like novelists Sherman Alexie, Greg Sarris and Thomas King, and poets Kimberly Blaeser, Janice Gould and Janet McAdams.


"I have considered my writing to come from close observation of the life around me," Native American poet Linda Hogan suggests, "a spoken connection with the earth and with the histories of the earth."

There is rarely a discussion of Native American writing -- and never an anthology -- that does not include the expansive, and forceful creativity of this writer of Chickasaw descent whose life has been totally encompassed by the goings and comings of the natural elements of her native Colorado, where she was born in 1947, and its surrounding regions and denizens, both human and animal.

"More and more I find that my writing comes from a sense of traditional indigenous relationship with the land and its peoples, from the animals and plants of tribal histories, stories and knowledge," she has said. "I am trying to speak this connection, stating its spirit, adding to it the old stories that have come to a new language."

Writing gracefully in free verse (a 1985 poetry collection, Seeing Through the Sun, won the American Book Award), she has also written fiction of note, focusing on the clash between nature and contemporaneity, in novels such as Mean Spirit (1990) -- which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize -- and two subsequent books, Storms (1995) and Power (1998). She has also written a lilting volume of nonfiction, Dwellings (1995), a study of the idea of what constitutes home, be it a residence or the earth itself. For her, once more, it was about "a coming together of traditional systems, of ways of seeing the world, of years thinking about where our systems of belief have led us," she said at the time of its publication.

"Writing is how I process life," she told an interviewer in 1994. "It gives you access to a part of yourself you can't usually get to. Writing shows me what's going on inside." But, she added, she tries not to be too esoteric. "I want my work to be accessible, but I want it to have layers beneath the story. I want people to feel it."

Hogan is the child of working-class parents. Her father, a carpenter, is descended from Indians who traveled from Mississippi to Oklahoma in the 1830s as part of a torturous journey known as the Trail of Tears, and her mother is white, or, as Hogan wryly terms it, "pink." Shy as a child, young Linda left home at 17 to begin what was to be a peripatetic lifestyle, working first as a teacher's aide with handicapped children, then in a nursing home, then as a clerk. She enrolled in the University of Colorado at 26, continuing her education at the University of Maryland, where she began writing in earnest. Eventually, her writing enabled her to learn more about her heritage, as she elicited stories from relatives and friends. Her first collection, Calling Myself Home, was published in 1978.

Over time, she has worked as a teacher, as a specialist in wildlife rehabilitation, and in various capacities with her own tribe and others. She hasn't worked in a classroom in years, though, and misses it sorely. "There was such satisfaction," she reflected in a recent conversation. "When someone would learn a word, or when somebody's writing would take off through the use of words, it's the happiest thing -- incredible! There's nothing better for a teacher than to see a student `get it,' to be able to expand."

She is spending most of her time these days working with her own tribe, commuting regularly from her Colorado home to the tribal land in Oklahoma, taking on the editorship of its quarterly magazine, The Journal of Chickasaw History. She has just completed her latest book, a family memoir she has titled The Woman Who Watches Over the World .

Writing this personal history is not distracting her from her fundamental goal. "I love the earth and everything on it," she says firmly. "And everywhere I can, I am trying to have that feeling reinforced by writing about it."

-- Michael J. Bandler

to be continued part 2


Geary Hobson, a poet and essayist of Cherokee-Quapaw heritage, is a member of the faculty of the Department of English at the University of Oklahoma. This article is an expansion of Professor Hobson's introduction to an anthology, The Remembered Earth, originally published by Red Earth Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1979, and reprinted by the University of New Mexico Press, 1981. It has been used by permission of the author.

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