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Native American Literature: Remembrance, Renewal (part 2)

Written by eastern writer on Sunday, June 01, 2008

In 1992, a group of Native American scholars and activists created an international writers' festival, bringing together 360 artists from nine countries, chiefly the United States. Nearly half their number already had published at least one volume -- fiction, drama, memoirs, even cookbooks. Out of that convocation came two organizations -- the Native Writers' Circle of the Americas, and a mentoring group, Wordcraft Circle, bringing established Native American writers together with apprentice talents.

Each year since 1992, the Native Writers' Circle has presented awards for "first books" in poetry and fiction. For anyone wondering about the future of Native American writing, these prize-winning volumes offer an ample, positive response. Look, for example, to a young artist like Chippewa poet Blaeser - whose evocative debut collection of verse, Trailing You (1995), was followed by a well-regarded piece of scholarship, a study of the complex, even puzzling prose of fellow Native American writer, postmodernist satirist Gerald Vizenor.

Indeed, the expansion of creativity and interest in Native American literature is much more than a "boom." It represents, collectively, a renascence. More than a generation after it began, it is a part of American literature as a renewal, a continuance. It is remembering.

One can best illustrate the phenomenon of renascence through a classroom experience going back many years. My students had been reading copies of poems by Mohawk Indians from the upper sector of New York State, and the subject turned to the various Native American writers in other parts of the country. One student, probably reflecting the thinking of many in the room, marveled, "Isn't it amazing how Native American literature has just burst so suddenly upon the scene?"

The question was stunning at the time -- and remains so in my memory. For Native American literature did not merely "spring up." Like the life and culture of which it is a part, it is centuries old. Its roots are deep in the land -- too deep for a mere five centuries of influence by other civilizations to upturn in any lasting, complete and irrevocable way.

Remembering, continuance, renewal. Native Americans have been accustomed to recounting their histories and their ways of life through intricate time-proven processes of storytelling. It is only during recent decades that scholars have identified these ways of storytelling as "oral tradition." For millennia, Native Americans carried on their traditions in that fashion. Never more than a generation from extinction, as Momaday has written, it is all the more to be cherished by the people because of that tenuous link. In remembering, there has been strength and continuance and renewal throughout the generations.

In the words of Acoma Pueblo poet Simon J. Ortiz, "Indians are everywhere." From Refugio Savala of Sonora, Mexico, to Mary Tall Mountain of the Alaska Koyukon tribe; from the Navajo country of Geraldine Keams and Larry Emerson to the northeastern Maine of Joseph Bruchac, Native Americans are writing about themselves and their people. Their writings are based on firm ground, nurtured by strong roots, and are growing indomitable flowers.

It is interesting to note that even in written form, in English, Native American literature is quite venerable within the framework of U.S. literature itself, going back to the early 19th century, when early writers -- among them William Apess of the Pequod tribe, George Copway (Ojibway) and Chief Elias Johnson (Tuscarora) -- published books relating to their tribal cultures. There is evidence, too, that many tribes had variants of written language long before Sequoyah made his Cherokee nation literate virtually overnight. Even if the books of the Delaware Indians and Iroquois Confederacy were handed down orally for many generations, at an early date they were reproduced in various written ways. Ironically, even when U.S. writers such as James Fenimore Cooper and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow presented the American Indian from their perspectives, Native Americans were writing their own books and in the process, developing a literature.

If, in early periods, Native American writing consisted of storytelling -- or, as we would term it, fiction -- a sea change took place in the second half of the 19th century, chiefly with the development of the Indian reservations system in the 1870s and 1880s. Autobiography and biography became the most popular form, and continued to dominate well into the 20th century.

These memoirs were often written by others -- anthropologists or poets recording and editing the life stories of Native Americans who were standing at the crossroads of the 19th and 20th centuries. Perhaps the most famous of these is John G. Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks (1932). According to Neihardt, Black Elk told his story to his son in the Oglala Lakota language. The son then translated it into English for Neihardt, who then rewrote it. This was a common practice, with many examples in the middle years of the past century, ranging among the tribes, from Crows and Cheyenne of the northern tier of the United States to the Apaches and Navajos in the Southwest.

Of course, not every personal account was "told to" someone else. Some individual authors appeared, among them Charles A. Eastman, a Santee Sioux and university-trained medical doctor who wrote such books as Indian Boyhood (1902) and The Soul of the Indian (1911) -- and Chief Luther Standing Bear, author of My People The Sioux (1928) and Land of the Spotted Eagle (1933). Momaday's 1975 volume, The Names, was part of this tradition.

As the 20th century progressed, Native American literature broadened beyond memoir and biography into fiction, journalism and even playwriting. D'Arcy McNickle was the best writer of fiction of the period from the 1930s to 1970s, with books such as The Surrounded (1936) and Runner in the Sun (1954). He was also extremely active as a proponent of Indian Affairs. Will Rogers, the beloved U.S. newspaper columnist turned humorist whose heyday was the 1920s and 1930s, was a Cherokee Indian, as was playwright Lynn Riggs, whose most famous drama, Green Grow the Lilacs (1931), was transformed into the classic Broadway musical of the 1940s, Oklahoma!

In the early decades of the century's second half, chiefly from the 1960s on, Native American literature's blossoming was indebted to a variety of periodicals -- more established publications such as the South Dakota Review and Cimarron Review, and several smaller presses and magazines and publishing houses, among them Sun Tracks, Blue Cloud Quarterly and Strawberry Press. The poems of Hogan, Joy Harjo, William Oandasan and many others first appeared in these and other journals.

Many Native American writers and scholars first made their marks writing about non-Indian subjects. Momaday's first venture was a collection of the works of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, a lesser-known poet of the Emersonian circle in mid-19th-century Massachusetts. Louis Owens, who has expansively reconsidered and affirmed his Choctaw-Cherokee heritage in his later writings, started out with scholarship on the works of John Steinbeck. (As an aside, I began my career in education, poetry and writing as a specialist in Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville.)

Who are Native American writers? This question has preoccupied me for years, even before I compiled my 1979 anthology, The Remembered Earth. For that volume, I decided to maintain as broad a spectrum of definition as possible. For instance, I included Dana Naone, a young and gifted native-born Hawaiian writer, because we "mainland" Native Americans are becoming increasingly aware that while Hawaiians are not, properly speaking, American Indians, they are, nonetheless, Native Americans, in a real sense. Unsurprisingly, Naone's verse contains themes and concerns similar to those of Allen and Silko.

Anthropologists and historians have postulated that inclusion as Native Americans depends on three essential criteria: genetic, cultural and social. The genetic distinction is "full-blood," "half-blood," "one-fourths" and so on. Culturally, a person is characterized in terms of where he or she emanates, and their distinctive ways of life, religion and language. Socially, someone is adjudged to be Native American because of how he or she views the world, land, home, family and other aspects of life.

But as the years progress, identity has become less of a motivating factor among literary themes than sovereignty, and as part of it, reclaiming the past. Native Americans are concerned about who they are as a people, and write from the community's perspective -- whether the setting is urban or rural -- and that sense of community reaffirms and bolsters sovereignty.

Novelists Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie and poets Linda Hogan and Ray Young Bear are examples of writers who, truly, are doing what Charles Dickens did in London more than a century ago. That is, they are creating a sense of place. Literature, invariably, emerges from that, and even though the best writers strive to be universal, it is the sense of place with which they are deeply imbued. Erdrich, a poet and writer of fiction, is best known for her Native American tetralogy -- Love Medicine (1984), The Beet Queen (1986), Tracks (1988) and The Bingo Palace(1994). She recently brought her Ojibwa roots to the foreground in The Antelope Wife (1999), a portrait of two contemporary urban Native American families against a tapestry of 100 years of history. Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan's verse -- bonded to south central Oklahoma -- has focused on the landscape and on history. More recently, though, as she has grown and developed, she has dealt with such issues as animal preservation and feminism.

Alexie, one of the finer young writers who blends realism and sardonic humor with a strong lyricism in writing fiction, poetry and screenplays, is most noted for Indian Killer (1996), a dark novel about the search for a serial killer against a contemporary urban setting. Greg Sarris, a native-born Californian writer of Miwok and Pomo extraction, found a wide readership for his first volume, Grand Avenue (1994), a collection of short stories set within his native multicultural neighborhood in urban Santa Rosa, California -- populated by generations of Pomo Indians as well as Portuguese, Mexican and African Americans. His first novel, Watermelon Nights (1998), is an urgent glimpse of tradition, crisis and renewal within a Native American family. Lately, he has moved into playwriting as well.

In the final analysis, though, the most important concern is not whether one is more or less Indian than his or her fellow American Indian. It is much more imperative that both recognize their common heritage, and strive together for the betterment of Native Americans as an entity. After all, in the end, the writing we leave behind us will be there for the people who come after us. And yet, it is the individual writer's duty to comment on things he or she feels to be important, regardless of whether the subject of the writing deals exclusively with Native American concerns. If we didn't have Momaday's writings on Russia, Aaron Carr's short poems about outer space or Russell Bates' science fiction tales and television scripts, Native American literature would be poorer for their absence.

(As Indians write about subjects other than their community, a wealth of non-native authors -- before and after Oliver LaFarge's Laughing Boy -- have probed Native American life, some quite successfully. More than a half-century ago, Frank Waters fashioned what may be the finest such novel, The Man Who Killed The Deer (1942), a study of cultural conflicts among the Taos Indians of northern New Mexico. These days, in writing his series of best-selling novels centered on Navajo tribal police, Tony Hillerman has taken pains to learn the culture and lore as he creates his stories.)

Ultimately, then, Native American writers are those of Native American blood and background who affirm their heritage in individual ways -- as do writers of any culture. Some write of reservation life, others depict urban surroundings. Some delve into history, others are fiercely contemporary. Joseph Bruchac, who has had an enormous influence on a generation of younger writers as a mentor and enabler, is noted today as a writer of children's stories, such as Between Earth and Sky (1996) and The Arrow Over the Door (1998), presenting tribal legends in a modern context for new audiences.

"Literature is a facet of a culture," Paula Gunn Allen writes, and as such, gives something of value back to the people of which she is a part.

Heritage is people. People are the earth. Earth is heritage. In remembering these relationships -- to the people, the past, the land -- we renew in strength our continuance as a people. Literature, in all its forms, is our most durable way of carrying on this continuance. By making literature, like the singers and storytellers of earlier times, we serve the people as well as ourselves in an abiding sense of remembrance.

We must never forget these relationships. Our land is our strength, and our people the land -- one and the same -- as it always has been and always will be.

Remembering is all.


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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