For centuries, American literature has established its own unique historical context as a contemporary hybrid of European influences. But so few of what we consider essential traits of American literature take into account the influence of indigenous writing. Much of the Native American representation we see is merely a simplified, antiquated mascot based solely on western interpretations of history.
The Native American Renaissance, a creative boom of rich stories, art, and other pieces of media from indigenous Americans, has spread awareness about the definitive core of American literature. In this article, we’ll talk about those authors who initiated this Renaissance. We’ll discuss those who’ve become the face of Native Americans in literature, as well as historical figures who made great strides in preserving the life of their civilization.
Basil H. Johnston
Basil Johnston was born in 1939 on the Parry Island Indian Reserve in Canada, a member of the Ojibwa tribe. After being sent away to school, Johnston found his talent as a writer at a young age, graduating valedictorian and going on to become a teacher and historian. His many years in the Ethnology department of the Royal Ontario Museum were spent bringing Anishinaabe culture and language into light in a historical context.
Johnston was dedicated to keeping the traditions of this region’s indigenous peoples alive, especially the language that was at risk of being lost with each new generation. When Johnston passed, he would pass on all documentation of his research to McMaster University in an effort to preserve Anishinaabe culture.
The Manitous: The Spiritual World of the Ojibway is a fantasy story steeped in Objibwa myth, and is told in a narrative style similar to an old legend. The titular manitous are spirit creatures, both kind and mischievous, that lived in human form long, long ago. Johnston tells a humorous and awe-inspiring tale of four half-human brothers who brought tradition to the Objibwa after Mother Earth revealed the natural order of the world.
The collection of myths, despite expertly immersing the reader into the breathing earth and all her interwoven forces, are all centered on interpersonal conflict, specifically family dynamics. The mingling of humanity and divinity, for lack of a better term, perfectly encapsulates the consciousness of reality that’s so rarely seen in western culture.
Linda Hogan, like most modern Native American authors on this list, is mixed-race. She also feels deeply connected to her indigenous roots, which in this case, belong to the Chickasaw tribe in Oklahoma. Native American on her father’s side, Hogan took great inspiration from her father’s brother, who formed the local Chickasaw council in her hometown of Denver.
She’s worked as an educator and an activist throughout her career as an author, teaching creative writing and ethnic studies and even speaking at the United Nations forum. All of her work stems from a desire to educate on Chickasaw culture and to advocate for the prosperity and protection of Native American society.
Hogan’s works are primarily lyrical in nature, with melodic prose often characterized by themes of feminism, environmentalism, and politics. This is never more evident than in her 1999 novel Power, a coming-of-age story about a young girl torn between her tribe and westernized American culture. The poetic journey of self-discovery rooted deeply in the beliefs of the Taiga people monologues on the steady erosion of Native American sovereignty.
Hogan was inspired by the real-world battle for native peoples’ political and religious freedoms. As any piece of fiction illustrating vivid tapestries of history through the lens of memory and emotion, this recollection of the indigenous tragedy is a sobering one.
N. Scott Momaday
Navarre Scott Momaday considers himself majority indigenous blood, with a mixed-race mother and father who was full-blood Kiowa. Momaday’s family would move to the Momaday reservation when the author was a child, where he was exposed to other southwestern tribes like the Navajo and Pueblo.
In 1968, Momaday would release his first novel, House Made of Dawn, which would garner mainstream acclaim after winning the Pulitzer prize in ‘69. Such was the revolutionary literary prowess of Momaday’s prose that the novel would begin the Native American Renaissance. This period, the term for which was coined by literary critic Kenneth Lincoln, continued to spread through the U.S. as greater access to education and technology enabled a revision era of Native American history.
Native American literature, which before then had been a relatively small collection of authors, multiplied to populate the literary field with an endless stream of poetry, memoirs, and other enriching pieces from indigenous Americans.
“House Made of Dawn”
House Made of Dawn is a familiar soul-searching tale of a young man named Abel returning home from WWII, caught between the teachings of his father and the draw of the westernized world. On one side, he is taught to hear the heartbeat of the Earth, to find his place as so many Native Americans were forced to for the better part of the country’s recorded history. Meanwhile, the gluttony and depravity of the industrious society he’d become so embedded into also pulls at him, the hypocrisy of it all like a dangerous disease.
Momaday’s incredibly deep yet relatable protagonists define all of his works, and his first novel is no exception. Abel’s many tribulations, his flaws, his desire for companionship, and his trauma-scarred psyche are all recognizable pieces of the human experience. The reader is as desperate to understand the wisdom of the past and the inevitability of the future as Abel is.
Leslie Silko, a Laguna Pueblo woman born in 1945, is one of the foremost authors of the Native American Renaissance. She grew up on the outskirts of a Laguna reservation and wasn’t permitted to join any of the tribe’s rituals because she was mixed-race. Despite being shunned from her people’s culture, Silko still felt most strongly connected to those Laguna roots.
The author’s goal is to preserve Laguna heritage through her works, a portfolio that consists of poetry and evolved to include a number of novels. Silko dedicated her career to educating others on the Native American tradition of oral storytelling. Her emphasis on methods of writing beyond the norm established by white cultural imperialism has had a major influence on American literature.
One such novel titled Ceremony involves a Laguna man traumatized by his experience as a prisoner of war in Japan during WWII. The man is also a mixed-race Laguna, and so is an outcast in his home reservation. Much like Silko, the man seeks deeper connection to his roots and contemplates his ancestry and his place in nature.
The vague flowing of the narrative centers fully on the main character’s introspection. The focus is the fracturing of the American identity and how that shattered image refracts something entirely new. There’s unapologetic honesty involving the devastation European settlers have wrought on the dwindling Laguna population, but it is all presented through the lens of the individual unifying with the whole, rather than a hero opposing his enemy.
Charles Eastman, a Sioux living on the Santee Dakota reservation, is perhaps the most historically involved author on this list. One of the first Native Americans to publish English works, Eastman was also the first native physician certified in Western medicine. He was the only field medic available to indigenous fighters during the Battle of Wounded Knee, one of the bloodiest confrontations between colonists and Indians. Working both as a physician and as a writer, he strove to connect the divide between his people and the white men. During his career as a doctor, Eastman found a profound purpose in closing the divide between Native Americans and the white men.
“The Soul of the Indian”
His 1911 novel The Soul of the Indian shows that that passion for connecting these two groups of people extended to his career as a writer. The book delves into his own experience as a Native American educated and living in a white man’s world, and describes how his own identity contrasts between the two. Perception of life, beauty, and humanity are all askew in westernized culture, and Eastman mourns the loss of his people’s ancient philosophy.
But it is not entirely lost, for the greatest historical value in any of Eastman’s books are his descriptions of Sioux culture and spirituality, the heart of his own beliefs, which value, above all things, peace and admiration for the earth. The Soul of the Indian is a glimpse at the individual hardships Native Americans were facing and continue to face, as the identity of the land they’ve always known becomes redefined.
Louise Erdrich is mixed-race, born to a German-American father and a Chippewa mother in Little Falls, Minnesota, in 1954. Her maternal grandfather was the tribe councilman, and since she learned to love writing as a young child, has always prioritized educating on Native American history and mythology. The author has won many awards over the years for her novels and poetry pieces, and she now owns a bookstore specializing in works by indigenous authors.
“The Night Watchman”
Erdrich is a seasoned author, whose narrative portfolio includes a literary universe set in a fictional reservation based on the one her relatives are from. The 2015 novel The Night Watchman breaks away from that story into the realm of realistic fiction based on the life and times of her Chippewa grandfather. She retells his experience as an overnight guard for the first factory built near their reservation, an ironic position considering the factory embodies the industry threatening to encroach on the tribe’s sacred land. His role as a councilman gives protagonist Thomas responsibility to protect the tribe from legislation that will allow their land to be stolen.
Parallel to Thomas’ story is that of a teenage girl named Patrice, who leaves her familiar life on the reservation to aid her older sister and finds herself in a frightening urban environment. The carefree nature of her existence thus far is put into harsh comparison to the danger and exploitation of the city. Interwoven between the tale of these two lives are tidbits of Native American spirituality, the Chippewa way of life, and their beliefs. Erdrich’s excellent prose and uniquely designed narrative continue her tradition of bringing the indigenous experience into a tragically relatable perspective.
John Joseph Mathews
Born in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, in 1895, Mathews and his family were excluded from Osage rituals due to their mixed-race heritage. Mathews served as a part of the American cavalry in WWI, a lieutenant who later became a flight instructor for fighter pilots. He’d attend university after the war and studied geology and would travel all over the world pursuing natural science before he returned home to focus on the culture and history of the Osage.
Mathews became a member of the tribe council, and as greedy companies in the area began fighting for oil-rich property, Mathews would take major part in the delegation and management of the land. With his authority and modest wealth, Mathews was able to settle in a cabin in the woods, where he would write about the oil craze as well as reflect on Osage culture.
Sundown is Mathews’ best-known book, an autobiography told through a fictional protagonist that brings light to the challenges faced by a man like Mathews. The main character, Challenge, seeks to be successful in the white man’s world with his college education and good business sense. But he always yearns to be back home on the reservation. Nevertheless, his status as a mixed-race Native American makes him equally as isolated from his clan, whom he considers family, his pride. Sundown is a telling vignette into the struggle of life for Native Americans who’ve felt the greatest impact from western colonization, as they cannot find a place to belong in the ever-changing world.
A later, lesser-known novel of his is one of my personal favorites, Talking to the Moon. The novel is an introspective piece where the reader is immersed into Mathew’s reflection on nature after his return from the war. His description of how the spirits move within every aspect of the Earth, the verse-like prose describing the vibrant beauty of the Osage county, is meditative and eye-opening. For those readers who enjoy a book with no plot and little stakes every now and then, this is a great choice.
Native American Representation is American Representation
Woven through each of these writers’ stories are common themes of love, compassion, and tragedy. The turmoil of the Native American story, of having their way of life eroded and homes stolen and sold, do not define them. Ever persistent is the desire to preserve their culture as it always has been, untainted by Western influence and industrial intrusion. There is compassion here, a desire to unify and to connect with those unfamiliar with Native American culture.
And yet there’s a stubbornness as well, a righteous indignation to not be snuffed out despite every effort on the part of white imperialism. And it’s a good thing for all of us that Native Americans have made such great strides to preserve their culture, for this is the core of the American identity. Whether you too wish to preserve and uplift their incredible way of life, or simply to enjoy a rich mythos like no other, do yourself a favor and check out these authors.