(Shared Places): Tribal Cultures and Histories
isem 101 (42)  

Description and Goals
Course Themes
Course Requirements
Class Schedule
Your Guide to Writing a Reading
Indigenous Aesthetics
Indian Humor
Historical Trauma
Federal Indian Policy


Native American Aesthetics: Literature

How does our text define “Indian literature”? Indian people writing about Indians.
What is the earliest Native literary tradition? The oral tradition.
What were/are some of its principal forms? The tale and songs.

Indians Writing in English
1768     Samson Occom (Mohegan), autobiographical essays and sermons
1854      first Indian novel: John Rollin Ridge (Cherokee): The Life
and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, the Celebrated
             California Bandit
1968      “Indian Renaissance” begins with (Kiowa) N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, which won the
             Pulitzer Prize.

More than 200 novels by Indians have been published since 1968. Many Indian writers work in both poetry and prose forms such as the novel, which is unusual for American writers.

Although works by Indians reflect particular tribal viewpoints, as well as general American views and values, we may discern certain aspect of pan-Indian aesthetic. In particular, this manifest itself in a series of interrelated themes, most important of which are
         the relationship of a tribe to particular lands
         connections to tribal traditions and languages,
         relationships of Indians to  nature in general and animals in particular,
         assumptions about concepts of time. 

**Careful description of place and setting, including land, animals, people
**Intense love and longing for particular places

Indians' emphasis on Place vs. European/American emphasis on time or event.

  • Traditional Indians believe ritual and ceremony can restore balance and heal
  • Myths are often incorporated into the story/novel
  • In traditional Indian societies telling sacred stories is a way of maintaining the order of the world, or restoring it if it has been damaged
  • “Supernatural” elements. Sacred land and spirits in places/things
  • Magical realism: mythic world incorporated into the “real” world of the novel or story.
  • Trickster as archetypal figure: comic, imaginative survivors, liberators and healers
  • Incorporate Native languages in their work
  • Repetition (in poetry, which is traditional and powerful)
  • Use of surrealism of dreams (dreams traditionally guide people)
  • Humor
  • Irony (postmodern aesthetic): critique history, your situation
    (saying one thing but meaning another or the opposite)
  • Postmodernism Native American Style

    Postmodern era in American and English literature began around the 1960s; although postmodern elements are present in much earlier literature, the degree to which they permeate contemporary art sets this era apart from earlier ones.

    Two aspects of postmodernism influence many contemporary writers and artists. The first is a set of themes common to many postmodern texts:

    Ø      The lies of history, the revision of history

    Ø      The complexity of identity and the deconstruction of stereotypes

    Ø      Increasing ethnic heterogeneity

    Ø      Holocaust and apocalypse

    Ø      The cold war

    Ø      The influence of television and pop culture

    Ø      The influence of computers and other technologies

    Which of these themes might be of most concern to Native American writers?

    Second aspect of Postmodernism is aesthetics, a set of formal and stylistic elements that generally include:

    Ø      Experiments in form

    Ø      Blurring of genres (blending poetry, fiction and nonfiction in the same text, for example)

    Ø      Use of pastiche (a kind of cut-and-paste from other sources, such as other literary texts, songs, advertisements)

    Ø      Contradictory voices in a single text (so that multiple perspectives complicate our search for any simple “truth”)

    Ø      Fragmentation (with the text broken, disordered, and/or incomplete)

    Ø      “Open” forms (that demand that the reader actively work to construct meaning)

    Ø      Playful irony

    Ø      Overtly political intentions

    Theme Studies of Alexie
    Sports and Dancing
    Crazy Horse and Buffalo Bill
    Postmodern Aesthetics

     Terms to Know in Reading Alexie

     BIA  For nearly two centuries the Bureau of Indian Affairs has had a major influence on the lives of Native Americans. As early as 1775, the US government had established department of Indian Affairs and in 1789 those departments were consolidated under the War Department. In 1824 the BIA was established and was responsible for accounts and expenditures related to the “civilizing” of Indians, deciding claims between Indians and whites, and handling Indian correspondence with the War Department. In 1849 the BIA was transferred to the Dept. of the Interior. The BIA then took over more and more responsibilities, including administering food and other supplies to offset the inevitable starvation caused by reservation life. By the 1880s, the BIA was responsible for schools, tribal justice, supplies, allotments, and the management of tribal resources. In effect, the BIA became the tribal government—a government without real representation of the Native peoples themselves. Throughout its history the BIA has been rife with corruption and incompetence. Early government agents stole food and supplies, aided white settlers in “stealing” Indian allotted lands, and allowed the teachers at Indian schools to punish children for speaking their own languages or practicing traditional beliefs. Currently there is a billion dollar lawsuit (“Cobell”) against the BIA currently for mismanagement of funds it was supposed to be collecting for Indians (for leases, etc.). In the 1970s tribal governments gained more control over the administration of their natural resources and the policing of the reservations. Today the BIA is trying to transform itself into an advisory agency.  
    Blood Quantum  This is a term used to designate what percentage of “Indian blood” is required to qualify an individual for tribal membership. While the BIA has traditionally designated one-quarter as the amount necessary for benefits, the individual tribes are the ones who actually set the standard. As a result, the requirement varies widely, from 5/8 to none at all. There is much debate in and out of the Native community about the idea of blood quantum, ranging from its positive role in preserving the integrity of tribal membership to its negative racist roots and its abuse by the federal government in denying tribal membership for whimsical reasons.
    Buffalo Bill   (William Frederick Cody) (1846-1917) Born in Iowa and raised on the prairies, William Cody was a man of many talents, taking turns as a trapper, gold miner, Pony Express rider, and stagecoach driver and supplier of buffalo meat for Kansas Pacific Railroad (For which he received his nickname). Form 1869 to 1872 he served as a scout during the Indian Wars. He was most famous, however, for his Wild West Show, with “real Cowboys and Indians,” which he began in 1883. The show toured the United States and Europe for thirty years. 
    Commodity food
      Surplus food distributed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to low-income people in the United States.
    Crazy Horse  (Ta-sunko-Uitco) (1842-1877): A visionary leader of the Lakota Sioux, Crazy Horse was a ferocious and brilliant warrior who helped to defeat Fetterman’s brigade at Fort Kearny and Custer at the Little Bighorn. He resisted the enforced reservation life and its attack on Native traditions, fighting the U.S. army until May 1877, when he finally surrendered. A few months later, however, he attempted to leave the reservation to take his sick wife to her parents, and the army, fearing the possibility of another uprising, had him arrested. During his arrest, while one soldier had Crazy Horse’s arm pinned behind his back, another soldier killed him by running him through with a bayonet. Today Crazy Horse is often seen as a symbol of Native American resistance and spiritual strength.
    Fancydancing   One of many dances performed at a powwow. The fancy dance, invented in the 1950s, differs from most traditional dances in its fast pace, intricate moves, and sheer athleticism. Dancers in elaborate, colorful outfits compete for pride and prizes.
    HUD  The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is responsible for helping low-income families find adequate housing and offers special mortgage packages for qualified buyers. Native Americans are one of many groups serve by HUD.
    Powwow   A Native American dance festival that includes dancing, singing, socializing, contests, giveaways, food, and vendors. The powwows serve as times of tribal and intertribal communal gathering, with family members often returning year after year.