MALS Introduction

American Indian Literature and Cultures

English 558


Week One

Reed College, Portland OR
Professor Laura Arnold

Welcome to English 558--American Indian Literature and Cultures! The readings for the first day of class, Tuesday June 17th, are as follows:

1. Black Elk Speaks, Neihardt (including the introduction and preface)

2. "Introduction to Native American Literature," Sherman Alexie (xerox)

3. "Native Peoples of the Northern Plains," Portrait of the Peoples, ed. Duane Champagne (pp. 161-94)

The purpose of this handout is to provide you with a background for the first day's discussion. You should come to class with questions you'd like to raise, whether they are on the topics below, or other ones that interested you as you were doing the readings. For more information on Sioux culture and religion, please see the previous page.

Click on any of the following topic for more information and relevant links:

I. What is American Indian Literature?

II. Approaches to American Indian Literature: Pan-Indianism v. Tribal Specificity

III. Reading Black Elk Speaks Within a Historical Context

IV. Reading Black Elk Speaks Within a Literary Context: the American Indian Oral Tradition

V. Reading Black Elk Speaks Within a Literary Context: American Indian Written Traditions

VI. Pictographic Writings from the Plains Tribes

Click here for a direct link to a Nineteenth-Century Sioux Ledger Book by Black Hawk

Click here for a direct link to a Nineteenth-Century Cheyenne Ledger Book by Morning Star

Click here for more examples of Plains Pictographic Writings


I. What is American Indian Literature?

One of the most highly contested topics in American Indian Studies is the question of what constitutes American Indian identity and, consequently, what constitutes American Indian Literature. One easy answer to this question is that American Indians are those who fulfill the legal definition of American Indian and that American Indian Literature is the texts written by such persons. As critic Ken Lincoln notes, "The working definition of 'Indian,' though criteria vary from region to region, is minimally a quarter blood and tribal membership."[1] This definition, however, is not without problems. First, this definition is at least in part a result of U.S. legislation. You might want to consider the potential problems of allowing an external force (particularly one such as the U.S. government, which has been known primarily for its oppression of American Indian tribes) to define Indian status. What are the disadvantages of such a system? Another potential problem with this definition it is not clear that blood is the most important factor in American Indian identity. For example, what if a full-blood Chippewa were adopted by a white family at birth and had no contact with any American Indian community; is (s)he more "Indian" than someone who is 1/8 Chippewa and was raised on a reservation and taught the "traditional" ways of doing things? What are the side effects (for any group of people) of insisting that genetics is the key to identity? You might want to think of groups for whom such a definition of identity has had negative results.

A second way of defining American Indian identity and literature has to do with the preservation of cultural traditions. Those who hold such an opinion would argue that the person in the example above who was 1/8 Chippewa and was raised on a reservation and taught the "traditional" ways of doing things was in fact "more Indian" than the full blood raised outside of Indian culture. Literary critics who rely on this definition tend to focus on aspects of "traditional" Indian culture in contemporary American Indian literature. Most commonly this means focusing on the influence of the oral tradition in American Indian written literature, whether that influences comes in the form of content (e.g. coyote stories) or style (e.g. circular rather than linear plot structures). This raises a perplexing problem for many scholars and American Indians alike: is any Indian blood necessary then for someone to produce "American Indian literature"? That is, if culture is learned and received, is it not possible that whites (or African Americans, or Chicanos, or Asian Americans) could "know" American Indian culture just as well as American Indians? This is an idea which has tended to appeal to members of the New Age movement more than to American Indians.

A third trend in American Indian Studies has been to define American Indian identity and literature not in terms of what it preserves (whether it be blood or culture) but in terms of bi-cultural production. That is, American Indian literature is both "Indian" [whatever that means] and "American" [perhaps only slightly easier to define]. For those of you who have read W.E.B. DuBois, such a definition will sound familiar to his notion of "double-consciousness": in The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois argues that African Americans are "gifted with second sight" or adouble-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on it amused in contempt and pity. He ever feels his two-ness--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder (Chapter 1: "Of Our Spiritual Strivings").

Scholars of American Indian studies have adapted DuBois' notion somewhat, tending to emphasize the "double vision" as cultural merger (or innovation) rather than as cultural conflict. American Indian authors, however, often emphasize the conflict aspect--as you will see this semester. Critics who rely on this definition tend to be interested in the ways in which American Indians and American Indian literature reflect both their Indian heritage and American culture. For such critics, the definition of American Indian literature as "bi-cultural production" is often paradoxical at heart, since it often relies on the argument that innovation is itself an American Indian tradition: that is, they argue that American Indian cultures have always assimilated aspects of other cultures (including other American Indian cultures) and hence to be Indian is to be bi-cultural.

It is worth noting that these definitions are not mutually exclusive; rather, they tend to exist on a continuum. As you read Sherman Alexie's "Introduction to Native American Literature" you should ask yourself how the various characters (including the narrator) and Alexie himself seem to be defining American Indian literature and identity. What does Alexie have against Black Elk Speaks? How does this relate to his understanding of what is authentic American Indian cultural production? How does this compare to Vine Deloria's or John Neihardt's implied definitions of American Indian literature?


II. Approaches to American Indian Literature: Pan-Indianism v. Tribal Specificity

A second area of contention in American Indian Studies has been the fight between those who favor interpreting literature in light of Pan-Indianism and those who emphasize tribal specificity. Many American Indians do not define themselves primarily as "American Indians" but as members of a specific tribe, whether it be Pomo, Sioux, Laguna Pueblo, or any of the other over 500 Indian Nations in North America. There are tremendous differences between American Indian tribes whether in terms of language, culture, oral tradition, architecture, or even physical appearances. What happens when these differences are erased and these diverse groups (often enemies) are lumped together "Indians"?

In spite of its potential drawbacks, pan-Indianism has been incredibly important in terms of both political and academic gains: one of the reasons that American Indian Studies has entered the academy has been that American Indians have insisted that there is a "common" American Indian experience that is an important part of American culture (just as African American Studies, Chicano Studies, and Asian American Studies have been recognized as representing crucial American subcultures). If writer and critic Greg Sarris were to insist that, as a Pomo, he had no authority to speak about the Sioux or Chippewas, or any other community besides his own, and that hence he could only teach Pomo literature, the weight of his enterprise (as a representative of a community of a few thousand people rather than one of over a million) would be substantially less satisfying to those who oppose questions of diversity. For these reasons, early scholars of American Indian Studies tended to focus on the shared attributes that American Indian literature and cultures.[2] However as the field has been increasingly legitimized over the past few years, critics have tended to rely upon and emphasize tribal specificity for interpreting American Indian literature.

In this class we will be discussing both types of readings strategies: that is, we will be looking for common themes, cultural attributes, and stylistic hallmarks in the texts we are reading. At the same time, we will be exploring the benefits of reading contemporary literature within the cultural production of that tribe: whether it be oral tradition, music, art, religion, or history. As you read Black Elk Speaks (BES) I would like you to pay attention to when Black Elk (and Neihardt) suggest that they are talking about an "Indian" phenomenon and when they are discussing a "Sioux" phenomenon (or more particularly a Lakota one). What is it about this book which has made it popular for members of other Indian tribes? (Deloria calls it the "bible" of American Indian tribes.) Why is this an important strategy for the book overall? (What is the goal of this book??)


III. Reading Black Elk Speaks Within a Historical Context

For Tuesday, I have asked you to think about BES within the context of its historical period and Sioux culture. The chapter on the "Native Peoples of the Northern Plains" in Champagne's Portrait of the Peoples will help provide this context. You will find further information about the Sioux on-line at the class home page. (See the address above.) After having read Black Elk Speaks the chapter in Native America: Portrait of the Peoples (and using the index) you should be above to answer the following questions and assess their importance for the Black Elk's Narrative. First, you should have a sense of the historical events Black Elk describes. What was the Ghost Dance Movement, when did it occur, what did it hope to achieve and by what means, and what was Black Elk's role in the movement? How does this compare to the goals and methodology of Black Elk Speaks? It is commonly accepted today that Neihardt changed the ending of Black Elk's story by adding the "death of the dream" speech and by removing most of the "warlike implications" of the vision.[3] What message does the current ending tell us? What message does the book send without the "death of the dream"?

Second, you should consider the fact that Black Elk and Neihardt are reshaping these earlier events in light of the circumstances facing the Sioux in the 1930s. Thus, while BES discusses the earlier period of the Ghost Dance Movement, the authors are speaking and writing during another important period of American Indian rejuvenation--the period leading up to the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) or "Indian New Deal" of 1934. John Collier, the mastermind behind the IRA, suggests that the "Indian New Deal...held two purposes. One was the conservation of the biological Indian and of Indian culture, each with its special purposes. The other...was the conservation of the Indian's natural resources."[4] By providing American Indian communities with financial resources, promoting academic interest in Indian cultures, and encouraging certain "traditional practices,"

The Indian Reorganization Act was a deliberate attempt to induce certain kinds of changes in Indian society and to control other changes. In its inception the authors made use of the knowledge...[that] constructive changes must not destroy psychological security and must preserve continuity in both the group and the individual so that personality integration and stability may be maintained.[5]

As an acquaintance of Collier (and later an employee of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the BIA), Neihardt was intimately acquainted with the movement leading up to the IRA.[6] Having read Black Elk Speaks, what would you argue is the relationship between this book, and the policies of the Indian New Deal (e.g. does it affirm, respond to, complicate, or negate such goals)? Does Neihardt (or Black Elk) believe in the "continuity of the group"? What must be continued? What "certain kinds of changes" should be induced and which should be controlled? What "traditions" must be "conserved"?


IV. Reading Black Elk Speaks Within a Literary Context: the American Indian Oral Tradition

The notion of preservation of tradition indicates one way that the historical and literary contexts for Black Elk Speaks are intertwined. There are two ways that scholars have tended to examine the influence of the American Indian Oral Tradition upon contemporary American Indian written literature: 1) the content and 2) the style. When people are interested in the how the content of the American Indian oral tradition has influenced contemporary literature, they usually turn to the Narrative Cycles of American Indian peoples. Narrative Cycles are groups of stories that tend to focus around particular characters and include standard events and elements. Critic and writer Paula Gunn Allen (a Laguna Pueblo/Sioux) has proposed the following as some of the most common Narrative Cycles: gambler, abduction, trickster, seduction, deviance, disobedience, propriety, creation emergence, migration, star spouse, death, encounters with mysteriousness, colonization, war, love, time immemorial, children (birth, lost death), and women's stories. We will be discussing (and reading) a number of these types of narrative cycles throughout the summer. (For example the Bingo Palace invokes the Chippewa Gambler Cycle, and Ceremony retells Yellow Woman Stories--a Pueblo Abduction Cycle.) One of the most important Narrative Cycles for Black Elk Speaks is the millenarian stories told during the Ghost Dance Movement (see Champagne, Black Elk, and the class web page for help). What is the central story told in the Ghost Dance? How does Black Elk's vision and life story revise or update this story?

Besides focusing around certain themes and characters (e.g. the gambler, the trickster, yellow woman, the six grandfathers), Narrative Cycles can also be identified by traditional elements. Common "elements" in these stories may include animals (e.g. buffalo, coyote, spider, salmon), vegetables (e.g. corn), minerals, landscape, weather, astro-phenomena, colors, directions, time, dances, and the supernatural.[7] Narrative cycles may also include extended metaphors ("tropes"). As you read Black Elk Speaks you should keep a running catalog of the important elements that occur in his dream. When do these elements reoccur in his story and what are their associations in his vision? (If you get frustrated or you feel that Black Elk is being vague, an excellent resource for the meaning of these elements in the Sioux tradition is William Powers' Oglala Religion.) It is worth keeping a list of these elements in a notebook to compare to elements in other books we will be reading this summer.

In addition to looking at the content of the stories, scholars have looked at the style of contemporary American Indian literature to examine the influence of the oral tradition. A useful resource for the theory of what constitutes an oral style is Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London: Methuen, 1982).[8] In this book Ong argues that the "oral style" is characterized by the following attributes: additive (not subordinate) sentence structure, aggregative (v. analytic) thought clusters, redundancy, a traditionalist mindset, proximity to the "human life world," an empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced narrative position, homeostasis (irrelevant memories are discarded), and an emphasis on situational rather than abstract concepts (Ong 36-49). You will notice that this is a rather "techy" list (not to mention abstract and hence, by Ong's own definition, literary), but let me provide you with a few concrete examples.

In the oral tradition, repetition is crucial both for ceremonial reasons and because it aids in the process of memorization (i.e. how oral texts are preserved). In contrast, in written texts, we can turn back to earlier information if we need it and, hence, repetition is less necessary. You should pay attention in Black Elk Speaks both to what gets repeated and how many times. (In the Bible, the numbers 3, 4, and 7 are important. What numbers are important for Black Elk and why? What are their religious associations?) For many oral cultures, words have a great power to harm, heal and create (think of the opening of the Bible for example--originally an oral text.) Thus, to repeat words is to wield a certain power. What kind of power does language have in Black Elk Speaks? In addition to its ceremonial uses, repetition is also a crucial way of providing narrative cohesion in oral narratives. By repeating aspects of a story, two items are linked in the minds of the listener (the "narrative elements" that I mentioned above are important for this): what events and ideas does Black Elk link in his text and to what effect?

One result (or corollary) of this narrative repetition is that oral narratives tend to favor cyclical rather than linear plot structures. In the Western world, plots that involve a conflict, crisis, and resolution are seem as intensely pleasurable. (Consider not only high literature--Moby-Dick for example, but also TV commercials.) In most American Indian oral traditions, such plots are deemed highly unpleasant and unaesthetic. Paula Gunn Allen suggests that this is because the purpose of the oral tradition is to generate harmony rather than to do "problem solving." In addition, the oral tradition tends to require that the listener discern the moral rather than forcing a resolution upon the listener. Both of these elements--cyclicity and active-engagement--can be off-putting at first for the Western reader who may find that the stories seem to lack a "point" or direction. Part of your task in this course will be to recognize (and grow accustomed to) this alternate aesthetic system.


V. Reading Black Elk Speaks Within a Literary Context: American Indian Written Traditions

In the past few years, scholars have become increasingly interested in American Indian writing systems for discussing what is "traditional" (i.e. "Indian") in American Indian literature. While the Indians of Central American and Mexico tended to value writing more than the Indians living in what is now the United States, it is worth noting that certain forms of writing were important to some tribes.[9] For the Sioux, pictographic writings on buffalo-hides, tipis, and in sketchbooks are important predecessors to the texts written in English in the twentieth-century. (I will discuss these more in class on Tuesday, but you might also want to see some of the examples shown below.)

Mixed-blood critic Hertha Wong has argued that pre-contact written texts--as well as the oral tradition--help explain one of the fundamental differences between American Indian autobiographies and Western autobiographies. As Arnold Krupat pointed out in 1981,

"Autobiography" as a particular form of self-written life is a European invention of comparatively recent date....we may note that the autobiographical project, as we usually understand it, is marked by egocentric individualism, historicism, and writing. These are all present in European and Euroamercian culture after the revolutionary last quarter of the eighteenth century. But none has ever characterized the native cultures of the present-day United States.[10]

Wong argues that the pictographic writings of the Sioux and other Plains tribes tended, like the oral tradition, to tell stories about the self which might be more accurately described as "communo-bio-oratory" (community-life-speaking) rather than "auto-bio-graphical" (self-life-writing), since they were about the person's life in the context of their human, spiritual, and natural communities and the writings were intended to be part of an oral recitation, rather than to stand on their own.[11] Before you begin reading Black Elk Speaks, I suggest that you sit down and write out a one page version of your life story. How does your story compare with Black Elk's in terms of where it begins and its focus? Is Black Elk's story community centered? If so how and who is his community? What is the role of the spoken word in his text?


VI. Pictographic Writings from the Plains Tribes

A Ninteenth-Century Painted Hide (Lakota)


Ledger Book (Assiniboine c. 1897 - c. 1927)
Click on this ledger book for more information.


"Dream Visions"of Black Hawk, Sans-Arc Lakota, 1881. Courtesy of the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection,
New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, NY, Plate 18


See you Tuesday!