Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Native American literature begins with the oral traditions in the hundreds of Indigenous cultures of North America and finds its fullness in all aspects of written literature as well. Until the last several decades, however, Native American literature has primarily been studied for its ethnographic interest. A fruitful intellectual discussion of the place of Native American literature within global literary study–a discussion that includes Native American intellectuals, artists, and writers themselves–only began during the activist period of the 1960s and 1970s.

The written Native American literary tradition commenced as early as the eighteenth century, when a Mohegan Methodist missionary, Samson Occum, published his Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian in 1772. William Apess (Pequot), also a Christian minister, wrote an autobiography that protested non-Indians' treatment of Indians, and he also collected the autobiographies of other Christian Indians in Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequot Tribe (1833). Other Native Americans published historical and cultural accounts of their peoples during the nineteenth century: David Cusick (Tuscarora); George Copway, Peter Jones, and William Whipple Warren (Ojibwa); Peter Dooyentate Clarke (Wyandot); Chief Elias Johnson (Tuscarora); and Chief Andrew J. Blackbird (Ottawa). These valuable writings represent a range of genres and reflect cultural issues of the times in which they were written.

Plains Indian oral literature includes literary expressions from cultures as different as Blackfeet (northwestern Montana) are from Kiowa (Southern Plains). By far, autobiographies comprise the bulk of written literary materials. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, academics–mostly anthropologists and historians–took up the idea that Native testimony or life stories needed to be preserved. Many believed that Native Americans were disappearing and with them their languages and histories; great efforts needed to be made to preserve cultural histories and literatures in writing. While many Native Americans wrote their own autobiographies during this period, many more had their life stories recorded as "as-told-to" autobiographies by anthropologists, ethnographers, and "Indian buffs." Plains Indian life stories, particularly those of warriors and chiefs, were so plentiful that they became a genre unto themselves.

Black Elk Speaks (Lakota) is probably the most famous as-told-to narrative, a text "told through" John G. Neihardt. Because the poet Neihardt was most interested in obtaining Black Elk's story for his poetic work on the American West, he omitted aspects of Black Elk's life that did not fit his own poetic purposes. In his study of Black Elk Speaks, entitled The Sixth Grandfather, Raymond DeMallie presents the transcripts of the initial interviews with Black Elk, enabling us to study the life of Black Elk and the textual creation of that famous work. Other well-known as-told-to Plains autobiographies include Pretty Shield: Medicine Woman of the Crows and Plenty-Coups: Chief of the Crows (both as told to Frank B. Linderman in 1932 and 1930, respectively) and Cheyenne Memories (by John Stands in Timber and Margot Liberty, 1967). Most notable among the self-generated autobiographies of the early twentieth century are Charles Eastman's (Dakota) Indian Boyhood (1902) and From the Deep Woods to Civilization (1916) and Gertrude Bonnin's (Lakota) American Indian Stories (1921), a mixture of short fiction, autobiography, and nonfiction. Contemporary Lakota as-told-to autobiographies continue, for example, Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions (1972) and Lakota Woman (1990), both written with Richard Erdoes.

European literary genres such as poetry and fiction, for the most part, began being employed by Native American people in the nineteenth century. John Rollin Ridge (Cherokee) wrote the first Native American novel in English, The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta (1854). The most famous Plains Indian writer is N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), whose first novel, House Made of Dawn (1968), won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1969. The Way to Rainy Mountain, the autobiography he published a year later, traces his journey from the mountains of Montana to Rainy Mountain in Oklahoma, the path Kiowa people followed as their culture was transformed through acquisition of the Tai-Me, the Sun Dance medicine bundle. Momaday's influence since the 1960s cannot be underestimated; through his writing, he created a new voice and a new place for Native American writers in the American imagination.

The era of awakening, dubbed the Native American Renaissance by literary critic Kenneth Lincoln, witnessed the production of many new Indian texts after Momaday's influential novel and autobiographical memoir, including works by Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna), Simon Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo), and Ray Young Bear (Mesquaki) as well as poetry by Roberta Hill (Oneida), Duane Niatum (Klallam), Joy Harjo (Creek), and Wendy Rose (Hopi-Miwok), and others. James Welch, a Plains writer of Blackfeet and Gros Ventre heritage, has been and remains prominent among Native American writers, with five novels, one book of poetry, and a nonfictional book on the Indian point of view of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

The substantial amount of writing by Native Americans now enables the identification of clusters of work based on genre, tribal affiliation, geography, theme, style, gender, and sexual preference. The blossoming of nonfictional essay writing and literary criticism by Natives themselves bodes well for the future study of Native American literature. Most notable among contemporary essayists is Elizabeth Cook-Lynn (Crow-Creek-Dakota); her collection Why I Can't Read Wallace Stegner (1996) hits at crucial contemporary Native American struggles, challenges, and grievances in tough-minded and bold terms. Although primarily a poet and fiction writer, Cook-Lynn presents "a tribal voice" (the subtitle of the text) that cannot be ignored. Most importantly, Native American literature owes its existence to continuing and vibrant oral traditions.

See also RELIGION: Black Elk, Nicholas.

Kathryn W. Shanley University of Montana

Allen, Paula Gunn, ed. Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs. New York: Modern Language Association, 1983.

Ruoff, A. LaVonne Brown. American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography. New York: Modern Language Association, 1999.

Weaver, Jace. That the People Might Live: Native American Literatures and Native American Community. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

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