Research Magazine 2006

Shedding light on the vast body of American Indian literature

book cover for Native American Literature
Co-edited by Ken Roemer, this book features American Indian works that date to the 1770s.

Suppose you were asked to edit an anthology of American literature, and the major criterion for inclusion was chronological distribution. In that case 99.99 percent of the contents would be American Indian literature.

Ridiculous, you say. Not really.

The thousands of years of narratives, songs and ceremonial liturgies created and performed by American Indians constitute the longest continual form of literature (certainly 99.99 percent) in the United States. And since the 1770s, that long history has been complemented by:

• non-fiction writing in English by Native Americans, including the first best-selling sermon in America; Will Rogers’ syndicated columns; and Vine Deloria’s best-selling Custer Died for Your Sins

• poetry, which is now routinely featured in all major American literature anthologies

• autobiography, both single-authored and collaborative works such as Black Elk Speaks

• drama and film scripts, including Sherman Alexie’s award-winning Smoke Signals

• fiction, which has been recognized with a MacArthur “genius award” (Leslie Marmon Silko), a National Book Critics Award (Louise Erdrich) and a Pulitzer Prize (N. Scott Momaday)

What is ridiculous is that this diverse body of literature was ignored for so long, to a large degree because of disciplinary territorialism: Indians were supposed to be in the domain of anthropologists, ethnographers, folklorists and sometimes historians, not literary scholars. This attitude began changing in the late 1960s and early 1970s because of the combined impact of the civil rights, ethnic studies and women’s studies movements, as well as the respect gained by individual writers, notably Momaday, whose 1969 Pulitzer for House Made of Dawn attracted international attention to the many forms of Native literature.

UT Arlington’s institutional research funding and other forms of support have allowed the English Department and the library to play significant roles in transforming the status of Native literature from invisible to marginal to expected.

Soon after I arrived at UT Arlington in 1971, my chair, Emory Estes (Cherokee), encouraged me to develop Native American literature courses and scholarship, even before the term “multicultural” existed. This positioned me on the ground floor of the field so that I could help found the Association for the Study of Indian Literatures, participate in the first Native literature National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) seminar and convince NEH that the University was the right place for future seminars (I directed four with $250,000 in funds from NEH).

The Indian literature in UT Arlington’s Multicultural Collection impressed NEH. These sources enabled me to write and edit the first volumes on Indian literature in three internationally recognized series: the Modern Language Association’s Approaches to Teaching World Literature, the Dictionary of Literary Biography and the Cambridge Companion to Literature.

Is the dramatic rise in the recognition of Native literature just a case of multicultural political correctness writ large? Put another way, are the contributions of this literature and its study significant enough to merit the attention? On several levels the contributions are clearly, even urgently, significant enough.

Studying the oral literatures raises basic questions about presentation and distribution. From aesthetic, academic and ethical viewpoints, is it best to present a Navajo song as text that looks like a printed poem in English, as a bilingual text, as a film in Navajo with subtitles, or as a live performance? Oral performances passed down for generations, books by collaborators like Nicholas Black Elk and John G. Neihardt, and authors who present themselves as “carriers” of tribal narratives—what do these forms of literature and writers do to our concepts of “text” and “author”?

Because of their knowledge of oral traditions and their expertise in Euro-American literature (and in some cases other media), contemporary Indian authors frequently create intriguing forms of literature that challenge our understandings of literary genre. Geographic, historical and societal notions of our nation, especially the “West” as “frontier” and “virgin land,” are upended by novels such as Ella Deloria’s Waterlily that describe homelands teeming with life and complex kinship networks.

Singers, storytellers, poets, novelists and scriptwriters pose further challenges to typical historical concepts by reminding us that one segment of the American population has already experienced an apocalyptic holocaust: the intentional and unintentional (disease) loss of more than 90 percent of its population. The literature revealing this tragedy and the astounding fact of Indian survival and sense of sovereignty force us to revisit standard concepts of America’s past and also help us to envision how future Americans might comprehend and endure the global problems of the 21st century.

By helping to raise awareness about American Indian literature, UT Arlington has done much more than participate in an academic fad. It has helped foster research that raises fundamental questions about literature and about how we define ourselves as past and future Americans.

— Kenneth Roemer

Dr. Roemer is a professor in the English Department and co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature.