I’ve been teaching my American Literature class for a number of years, tinkering with it, switching out texts, and trying to find the right balance of stories. Originally, the only Native American stories in the curriculum were some myth retellings from the first chapter of an old literature textbook. And those retellings were not by Native American authors.
I began a quest to read more Native American fiction, to explore that rich field of literature. It started as a way to better include their voices in my classroom, but has since introduced me to new favorite authors, more wholesome ways to see the world, and has taught me numerous important lessons. Firstly, I learned that there is no commonly accepted terminology for referring to the indigenous peoples of the American continents. Some prefer Native American, some American Indian, and others First Americans, Indigenous Americans, or First Nations. And yet all prefer to be closely associated with their tribe, rather than to be lumped together with others that often have very different beliefs, customs, and ways of living.
Trauma and Healing
N. Scott Momaday, Kiowa writer and winner of a Pulitzer prize made for a great starting point in my reading. His novel House Made of Dawn and his folklore collection The Way to Rainy Mountain were not only very well written but utilized a dream-like language that provided both a distinct distance from where I sat reading but also a strange intimacy.
I learned that trauma is not only a thing of the past, but something that continues on into the present. The repercussions of tragedy in the past rippled into the present and the future, are passed from generation to generation. Leslie Marmon Silko of the Laguna Pueblo likewise captures this in her excellent and heart-breaking novel Ceremony. What I loved about it is the focus on healing through reconnecting to ones roots, and that the internal wounds of war need not require more violence.
A Different Kind of Justice
One of all time favorite authors is Louise Erdritch, an Ojibwe writer from Minnesota/North Dakota. Hands-down, she’s one of the best writers I’ve encountered in the last few years, with novels such as The Plague of Doves and Love Medicine. But my first introduction to her writing was The Round House which absolutely captured my admiration. I found the portrayal of justice in the book a poignant and timely reminder that we don’t all define justice the same way and that we don’t all experience its privileges and deficiencies the same way. The main character’s father is a judge on their reservation in North Dakota, and so watching young Joe grapple with what happened to his mother while navigating the overlapping justices of native vs non-native lands is a stark reminder that what we value and our position in the world colors how we view justice.
The Present Matters
Most people do not think of Native Americans in the present. Their names, cultures, and triumphant achievements are often relegated to the past and when we do think of them in the present, we often bring up only images of poverty on reservations, casinos, and alcoholism. Yet this is an unfair and hugely detrimental portrayal. Tommy Orange of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma writes specifically about lives of urban Natives, setting his novel There There in Oakland, California. While I found the number of characters a bit disjointed, the blend of stories, the mixture of personality types, and the powerful experiences in the novel were not only eye-opening, but inspiring and hopeful. I so much appreciated his conversations around cultural identity, adapting to changing times, finding family, and speaking out stories.
Similarly, Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley, who is Ojibwe from Michigan, traces a vibrant native community in modern day Sault Ste. Marie. Her main character, 18yr old Daunis is biracial and is navigating multiple worlds while also being a teenager trying to find her place. Many of the elements of the book are reminiscent of so other YA novels but are heightened by her journey of finding out what it means to be a Native American woman. The combination of well-trodden teenage concerns and unfamiliar cultural navigation make for an unforgettable mix. This was not my favorite of the books I read, yet Daunis and her journey keep coming back to mind.
Wisdom of the Elders
A common image that runs through almost all these stories is the wisdom of the older generations. We from most western countries have lost some aspects of the role that older people can and should play in our societies. While the world moves on and changes, their experience and wisdom can attain an ageless quality if we are willing to listen.
Perhaps my favorite discovery was Darcie Little Badger’s Elatsoe. She is Lipan Apache, which infuses her story through her main character, Ellie, and her family. Besides just being a fantastic story, what stood out to me was the role of the whole family. So much young adult fiction is about teenagers going out and making dumb decisions, trying to cut the strings to their families, and striking out on some individualistic quest. Not so here. Ellie constantly comes to her parents and elders for advice, uses their wisdom, and as such makes wise and mature decisions. This was such a refreshing book in that it reflects the capabilities of a smart teenager and does not rely on gimmicky plot devices to provide tension.
There are a lot more excellent Native American stories out there and I’m looking forward to discovering them. Any recommendations are heartily welcomed. This only reaffirms my belief that when I read outside of my own experience and upbringing, I learn a lot more about the world and the many different people in it.
*Image is the Jacket Art for Elatsoe drawn by Rovina Cai*