English Literature
Native American Literature

Native American Literature

Shiken premium Upgrade Banner

Exploring the Cultural Significance of Native American Literature: A Diverse and Important Perspective on Indigenous Identity

"The racial lines, once bitterly real, now serve only to mark out a living mosaic of human beings." These powerful words were originally written by Zitkala-Sa in her influential 1902 essay, "Why I am a Pagan," published in the Atlantic Monthly. As a prominent figure in Native American literature, Zitkala-Sa raises a crucial question: what exactly is Native American literature, and why is it so significant? In this informative piece, we will delve into the definition, historical context, and examples of Native American literature, offering valuable insight into the unique experiences and perspectives of Native American peoples.

Content warning: This article contains themes of racism and violence.

Native American literature is a vast term that encompasses both literature written by and about Native Americans. It encapsulates their rich heritage, traditional customs, and modern-day realities. It's vital to understand that Native American literature is not a monolithic genre, as it includes diverse cultures, tribes, and traditions within the larger American Indigenous population. This literature serves as a testament to the fact that Native American peoples are not simply a historical part of the country's mosaic, but rather active participants in shaping it today.

Before the arrival of Europeans, Native American cultures had rich oral storytelling traditions, including folktales, myths, and oral histories. However, when Native American peoples were forced to assimilate to Christianity and European missionary culture, many learned to read and write in English, bringing about a new form of storytelling.

The term "assimilation" refers to the process in which a dominant culture replaces a minority culture. This forced assimilation led to a shift from oral storytelling to written literature among Native American writers in the 18th and 19th centuries. They began writing autobiographical accounts, deviating from their traditional storytelling practices. Many of these early writers used their personal stories and political texts to advocate for Native American rights and proper treatment. For example, Zitkala-Sa wrote about the struggle between her Yankton Dakota reservation heritage and her European white formal education in her work American Indian Stories (1921), a recurring theme in modern-day Native American literature.

Intersectionality, the concept of overlapping social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, also plays a crucial role in Native American literature. This idea is evident in Zitkala-Sa's work and is a recurring theme among contemporary Native American writers.

In the 1960s and 1970s, a Native American literary renaissance took place. Non-Native readers became increasingly interested in understanding the lives and cultures of Native Americans, and Native American authors became activists for their sovereignty and rights. This led to the establishment of Native American Studies programs in universities, bringing Native American literature to the forefront and making it more accessible to the general public.

While it may be problematic to highlight only a few books to represent the vast landscape of Native American literature, there are some works that have received critical acclaim and numerous awards.

Native American Literature: House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday

The novel that paved the way for Native American literature in the mainstream was N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn (1968), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1969. The book follows the story of Abel, a World War II veteran who returns to his reservation in New Mexico. As a stranger in his own land, he faces tragedy and seeks redemption as he grapples with the effects of war and cultural displacement. House Made of Dawn has been praised for its authentic and vivid portrayal of the Native American experience.

Native American Literature: Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

Another notable novel from the 1960s and 1970s Native American Renaissance was Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony (1977). Similar to House Made of Dawn, the story centers on a young man, Tayo, who returns to his Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico after World War II. Dealing with "battle fatigue" (now known as post-traumatic stress disorder), Tayo reconnects with his Pueblo tribal ceremonies to heal both himself and his drought-stricken land.

The Power of Native American Literature and Its Impact on Identity and Culture

Native American literature has played a crucial role in inspiring and empowering Indigenous peoples, showcasing the healing power of reclaiming their ancestral roots. A prime example of this is Louise Erdrich's award-winning novel, The Night Watchman (2020), which won the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2021. Set in the 1950s, it tells the story of a man fighting against a new U.S. law that threatens to displace his Ojibwe Tribe, while also exploring the journey of a young girl searching for her sister in modern America.

Themes and Characteristics that Define Native American Literature

Native American literature often explores the themes of navigating between two worlds, facing challenges with identity, and having a profound reverence for nature. These recurring themes can be found in various literary works and serve as a powerful medium to showcase the unique culture and heritage of Native American people.

The Struggle of Balancing Two Worlds

In many Native American texts, characters struggle to balance their traditional life on the reservation with the modern world of urban America. This inner conflict leads to a complex journey of self-discovery. A notable example of this is N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn, where the protagonist must come to terms with his complex identity.

Exploring the Depths of Identity

The tension between competing worlds also often leads to an identity crisis for the protagonist in Native American literature. Through traditional rituals, ceremonies, and connecting with elders, the characters reclaim their sense of self. This is exemplified in James Welch's Winter in the Blood, where the unnamed narrator grapples with his fragmented identity and ultimately finds redemption by embracing all aspects of himself.

Incorporating Traditional Texts for Deeper Meaning

Native American literature often incorporates traditional texts, such as oral histories, folktales, and creation myths, to provide a deeper understanding of specific cultures and further explore themes of identity and heritage. Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony effectively uses parallel narratives of the mythical and modern worlds to achieve this effect.

The Sacred Connection to Nature

The displacement of Native American people from their land has greatly impacted their connection to nature, making it a significant aspect of their literature. Characters who remain connected to their land find freedom, while those who are forced to leave often struggle with their identities. In Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, the tribal land is intertwined with the characters' sense of self and well-being, as seen in the contrasting fates of Uncle Eli and his brother Nector.

Notable Writers in Native American Literature

  • Joy Harjo – In 2019, Joy Harjo became the first Native American to be named the United States Poet Laureate. Her poetic voice brings awareness to Native American culture and shines a light on issues of identity and social justice.
  • Simon J. Ortiz – As a prominent figure in promoting Native American literature, Simon J. Ortiz is a poet and short-fiction writer who sheds light on the unique experiences and perspectives of Native people.
  • Sherman Alexie – With a focus on themes of identity, displacement, and cultural heritage, Sherman Alexie is a highly acclaimed writer who has received numerous literary awards and recognition.

Exploring the Rich Themes of Culture and Identity in Native American Literature

Native American literature delves into the themes of culture, identity, and the natural world. With a focus on various tribes and their traditions, this writing provides a unique insight into the experiences of Native Americans.

Sherman Alexie, a writer of short stories, novels, and poetry, is heavily influenced by his Spokane Indian heritage, and his most famous work, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven (1993), portrays the struggles of Native Americans in modern society. As we continue to celebrate and elevate Native American authors and their literature, we gain a deeper understanding of their cultures and contributions to society.Another impactful novel, The Absolutely True Diaries of a Part-Time Indian (2007), was awarded the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. It delves into sensitive topics such as poverty, trauma, and hope.

However, this book faced controversy and numerous challenges between 2010 and 2019. Its honest portrayal of alcoholism, racism, and sexuality sparked outrage among some parents, school boards, and community members. Despite this backlash, many praised the book for addressing issues such as bullying and promoting acceptance of cultural differences. The Absolutely True Diaries of a Part-Time Indian broke new ground and paved the way for more Native American literature to reach mainstream and young adult audiences.

Discovering the Diversity of Native American Literature

The world of Native American literature is vast and diverse, encompassing a variety of cultures and experiences. Storytelling has long been a crucial part of Native American heritage, passed down through oral traditions for generations.

However, as the English language was forced upon Native Americans through assimilation, they began to use writing to share their stories through autobiographies and protest literature. In the 1960s and 1970s, a "renaissance" of Native American literature emerged, thanks in part to N. Scott Momaday's groundbreaking novel, House Made of Dawn (1969). Today, standout authors and poets in this genre include Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, and Joy Harjo.

The Significance of Native American Literature

Native American literature holds great importance in bringing attention to the experiences and perspectives of Native Americans. It also addresses important themes such as trauma, cultural identity, and the clash between traditional and modern ways of life. By exploring and immersing ourselves in this unique genre of literature, we can develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for the diverse and rich cultures of Native American tribes.

Join Shiken For FREE

Gumbo Study Buddy

Explore More Subject Explanations

Try Shiken Premium
for Free

14-day free trial. Cancel anytime.
Get Started
Join 20,000+ learners worldwide.
The first 14 days are on us
96% of learners report x2 faster learning
Free hands-on onboarding & support
Cancel Anytime