An Approach to the Study of American Indian Literature at the College Level
Bataille, Gretchen M.
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Although few English students in American colleges and universities have been exposed to the materials of the American Indian tradition, such literature has been available for a number of years. The works of American Indians, whether individual or tribal, have generally gone unnoticed by the majority of teachers, who have usually favored non-Indian interpretations of Indian experiences. Most literature students have studied the works of James Fenimore Cooper and have read "Hiawatha," but few have read the Navajo "Night Chant" or heard traditional Indian tales, and courses in twentieth century literature have routinely omitted American Indian novelists and poets. An increasing interest in minority and ethnic literature, however, has resulted in more publication of American Indian materials for the classroom. While this is to be applauded as a long-awaited realization that American literature is multi-cultural, there are difficulties inherent in the assumption that one can pick up a lesson plan or curriculum guide and teach a novel by N. Scott Momaday or a group of poems by Ray Young Bear. To understand and to teach American Indian literature is more difficult than is apparent on the surface. Although a teacher could "get by" with a superficial treatment of a novel or poem, such activities do justice neither to education nor to the literature. Teaching minority literature is difficult because we lack a critical past that exists for most American and British literatures. The problems are intensified by the negative attitude toward minority groups that has been nurtured by the very exclusion of their literature from courses. In excluding these literatures from regular academic programs, English departments have left students with mostly popular culture to determine their images of and knowledge about Native Americans. Chapter One discusses some of the stereotypes which in the past have hindered and still today limit our understanding of American Indian literature. The study of American Indian literature should begin with the traditional oral materials of the People. What have been passed down as poems were originally songs, which usually are presented in a printed page context rather than through the oral tradition within the cultural context. Also as a part of the oral heritage are a large number of tales and myths. There are religious accounts of creation, trickster tales, explanatory tales, and both serious and humorous stories. Such literature is found among all American Indian tribes and, although much has been lost, there is a great deal remaining as a part of living American Indian cultures. These oral materials are at the core of later biographical and autobiographical works which tell the stories of individual lives as well as tribal lives. The ceremonies recounted in Black Elk Speaks and the account of the religious lives of his people in Charles Eastman's Soul of an Indian can be directly traced to the power and pervasiveness of the oral tradition. Most often selected for today's classrooms are the contemporary fiction and poems, written in English rather than the native languages and often reflecting twentieth century concerns. Here too are the vestiges of the traditional cultures of Indian people, sometimes directly related to a particular tribe and sometimes reflecting a pan-Indian philosophy. Writers such as N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Wendy Rose, Leslie Silko, Ray Young Bear, and others represent the vitality and imaginations of the Indian writers of this century, but they do not ignore their heritage, nor do they deny its influence. Because none of the contemporary literature of the American Indian can be fully understood or appreciated without a solid knowledge of the traditional materials--the symbols, the characters, the themes, and their significance to tribal lives--this study will emphasize the traditional heritage that continues to perdure and to influence and direct contemporary writers. The emphasis of Chapter Two will be on this essence of American Indian literature. Chapter Three will then illustrate the influences of traditional elements on contemporary writing. It is impossible to prescribe a plan for a course in American Indian literature that will be appropriate for all college classrooms; nevertheless, it is possible to describe a variety of approaches and materials which might be used. To this end, the concluding chapter will present several suggestions to the teacher of American Indian literature. These suggestions plus the annotated bibliography will provide substantial material from which to organize a course designed to meet the needs of an individual teacher and class.
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