Paper #1: A Brief History of American Indian Literary Studies

N. Scott Momaday

N. Scott Momaday, Pulitzer Prize Winner for House Made of Dawn (1969)

As many scholars of American Indian literary studies will argue, a vast and diverse body of indigenous works–in the form of songs, ceremonies, poetry, fiction, nonfiction, oral, written–existed long before most literature departments did.  However, as Kenneth Roemer notes in the introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature, it was not until the Civil Rights and Feminist movements of the 1960s, and the accompanying academic movements of Ethnic and Women’s studies, that American Indian Literature(s) found a real entrance into academia. These historical movements, along with a rise in publications from Native American authors, the 1969 publication of Vine Deloria, Jr.’s Custer Died for Your Sins, and the awarding of the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for fiction to Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday for House Made of Dawn, paved the entrance for American Indian literary studies into the academy, as a subdiscipline to literature and American Indian Studies (an emerging discipline itself in the 1970s) (Roemer 2).

Indeed, it’s difficult to trace or study the emergence of the subdiscipline of Native American literary studies, as this field tends to be labeled as an emphasis in literature within English departments, or becomes a part of the interdisciplinary work of an American Indian Studies scholar. Though many English departments have created a specialization in Native American Literature since the 1970s, and though many universities have created interdisciplinary Native American Studies programs, there are a few universities which can distinctly lay claim to developing or supporting a niche for Native American literary studies.

The American Literary Studies program within the English department of the University of New Mexico (Albuquerque) holds the significant claim of being the central hub of the Native American Literary Renaissance of the late sixties and seventies. Though “renaissance” is a somewhat problematic term (see below), UNM has produced undeniably significant alumni who are central to the First Wave of the field, including: N. Scott Momaday (who is currently a visiting professor in the UNM English department), Native-Feminist critic Paula Gunn Allen, and writer Leslie Marmon Silko.

However, it is the University of Oklahoma English Department that asserts it was the first in the country (in 1969) to teach a Native American Literature course. The university now offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in this literary emphasis, but since 1994, over 100 hundred students have graduated from OU’s Native American Studies program, a department completely separate from English.

Similarly, UCLA’s English department does offer an emphasis in Native American Literary studies, but it is the UCLA American Indian Studies Interdepartmental program, which was created after student and faculty petitioning in 1969, that “strives to merge the concerns of the academy with research aims of the Native community” and “advocates a holistic framework for studying American Indian society, transcending traditional disciplinary boundaries.” Additionally, the UCLA American Indian Studies Center has published The American Indian Culture and Research Journal since 1971.

Due to the demands of the 1969 campus group the Third World Liberation Front, UC Berkeley created the Department of Ethnic Studies, which, as is written in its mission statement, “encourages the comparative study of racialization in the Americas, with a focus on the histories, literatures, and politics of Asian Americans, Chicanos/Latinos, Native American Indians, and African Americans.”

In 1974, a number of academic journals were established to support the growing need for critical scholarship in the field. The University of Nebraska Press began publishing the now prominent academic journal Studies in American Indian Literatures (SAILs), which began as a newsletter and went on to become “the only journal in America that focuses exclusively on American Indian literatures.” The U of Nebraska Press also publishes the journal American Indian Quarterly (AIQ).

As Kroemer asserts in the introduction to his anthology, the emergence of Native American Literary Studies was in response to the cultural and Civil Rights movements of the sixties and seventies, and its emergence in higher education could not have been possible without the pressures applied first by civil rights activists and feminists. Nevertheless, the guiding movement was the American Indian Movement (AIM), which demanded recognition of and aid in the struggles of real American Indians and their respective communities. As James Ruppert notes in his essay “Fiction: 1968 to the Present,” it was the Indian activist demonstrations and sit-ins at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington and of Wounded Knee in 1973 that “brought Native social criticism to the television,” and brought the resulting demand for more criticism, scholarship, study, and programs based around American Indian literature and perspectives to the academy (174).

This time period–specifically starting with Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize for House Made of Dawn–has been termed the Native American Renaissance. Rupport notes, however, this term is problematic, “because it might imply that Native writers were not producing significant work before that time or that these writers sprang up without longstanding community and tribal roots” (173). But, he goes on to note that “there is no question but at this time, the landscape of Native American literature changed” (173), for there was an enormous increase in publishing of Native American writers  between Momaday’s novel and Leslie Marmon Silko’s 1977 novel Ceremony. With the rise in publications and social pressure, the need and desire for scholarship in the discipline had never been greater (whereas before, it barely existed). Thus, the First Wave of American Indian literature began, and most scholars will agree, is quickly reaching a Fourth Wave.

As David Treuer notes in his 2011 conference talk “The Cultural Twilight” at the fortieth anniversary celebration of American Indian Studies at UCLA,  the First Wave of Native American Literary Studies “united activism and legitimization because Native American studies were seen as derived from and interfaced with Native American communities and cultures,” and that scholars of the First Wave “argued, rather counter to mainstream critical practices, that its subject and method was other, different, because its subject was its method” (48). Treuer praises the writers, artists, scholars, and literary critics of the First Wave in his speech, but uses the majority of his speech to call for the emergence of the Fourth Wave, a call which most modern literary critics in the field seem to echo. Though much was accomplished over the past fifty years in higher education, Treuer and others note there is much to be done, and he asks specifically that the field consider how specific tribal “language and cultural revitalization” become the “new activism” that ignites American Indian literary studies (53).

Works Cited

American Indian Quarterly. U of Nebraska P. n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

American Indians Study Center Press. UCLA. 2014. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

American Literary Studies Program. U of New Mexico (Albuquerque). n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

Department of Ethnic Studies. UC Berkeley. 2009. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

Interdepartmental Program in American Indian Studies. UCLA. 2014. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

Native American Literary Studies, Department of English. U of Oklahoma. n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

Native American Studies Program. U of Oklahoma. 2014. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

Roemer, Kenneth M. The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature. Introduction. Eds. Joy            Porter and Kenneth M. Roemer. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. 1-35. Print.

Ruppert, James. “Fiction: 1968 to Present.” The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature.             Introduction. Eds. Joy Porter and Kenneth M. Roemer. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. 173-188. Print.

Studies in American Indian Literatures. U of Nebraska P. n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

Treuer, David. “The Cultural Twilight.” University of California in Los Angeles. UCLA American Indian               Studies Center, Los Angeles, CA. Gathering Native Scholars and Artists–A Celebration of Forty Years. 22       Oct. 2009. Conference Speaker.

Works Consulted

Baym, Nina and Robert S. Levine, Eds. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 2: 1865-                  Present. 8th Ed. New York: Norton, 2013. Print.

Bloom, Harold. Ed. Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Native American Writers–New Edition. New York:                Infobase Publishing, 2010.  Print.

Krupat, Arnold. “Native American Literature and the Canon.” Critical Inquiry 10.1  (1983): 145-171. Web. 7        Sept. 2014.

5 thoughts on “Paper #1: A Brief History of American Indian Literary Studies

  1. Meredith, your discussion of Native American literary studies recalls both our class discussion of linguistics, specifically in the discussion of translation, and our own disciplinary mission statement, in which we defined the study as “literary” as opposed to strictly “English.” What strikes me is the perhaps tenuous place of many literary studies, and minority studies, within the broad spectrum of “English” studies, which are so determinably canonical. By way of personal response, I can say that I’ve never heard or seen of any Native American studies being offered within English or literature departments, and have only found the discourse with those who are directly involved in the current tribal politics and social navigation. It seems logical to me, then, that the University of Oklahoma has established a separate department.

    Because you may find it of interest, I wanted to point you to Multicultural Comics, edited by Frederick Luis Aldama. In Part I, Margaret Noori situates Native American graphic traditions within the space of contemporary comics, arguing that traditional art and pictorial lodge laws of governance can be understood to be “comics” by McCloud’s famous definition – that “comics are ‘juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response’” (qtd. in Noori, 59). Noori’s primary sources range from ancient works of art to contemporary multimodal artwork and traditional modern graphic novels.

    I’d also like to hear your take on the problem of translation and language – how we as scholars should approach texts offered in translation, especially when we may be unable to read the text in its original (either because the language is lost, or one personally does not speak the language). I know that the cultural and linguistic range in Native American literature is vast; Noori says, “the definition of ‘Native American literature’ needs to be understood in the context of 1,681 sovereign nations now situated within the borders of the United States, in Canada, and in Central and South America” (56).

    With all of these “sovereign nations,” and all of these languages, who undertakes the task of translation? Does the legitimacy of translated materials fit more into our discussion of OoS?

    • Thank you so much for your response Aubrey! I’m absolutely interested Noori’s work (which I’ve hard about only briefing, in passing), and it sounds like Noori tackles the problem (or rather, one of the central questions) of the field, as you also did in your response to my paper: who can or should undertake the task of translation? Who is best suited to work on Native texts and literatures? Is it as Craig Womack suggests in Red on Red, that members of a tribe are the best (or only) authority on a work produced by that tribe or a member of that tribe? And perhaps you’re right (I’m torn right now myself): maybe universities should follow Oklahoma’s lead and establish a separate department…

  2. Meredith,
    Most of the Native American Studies programs you mentioned are at large universities where Native Americans are historically underrepresented. Is there a push to have these programs in smaller colleges or reservation colleges so that it’s not just an academic endeavor, but also a social and cultural one? I’m also interested in whether or not there is some debate over who teaches or who should teach these classes? I’m also interested in how literary studies of an oral tradition is created and developed.

  3. Meredith – This was such an interesting and eye-opening paper on the history and place of Native American Studies within the curriculum. As I am looking at L2 studies, but from a writing standpoint, I can’t help but wonder how original language Native American oral tradition – the stories, etc…might play into the literature – have they been lost? Are there calls for efforts to not lose the languages, as mentioned in last week’s Barton and Burt readings – risking Native dialects becoming totally moribund? From your last lines – and the call for more work to be done in the areas of “specific tribal ‘language and cultural revitalization’” it seems this “new activism” is begin called for.

  4. I’m sure you’ll get into this in other posts, but I’m curious how the “waves” are delineated. How does one know that one wave has ended and the next has begun? Why are there calls for more? I’ve taken a class in Native American Literature, but I don’t remember learning that. We have a very good relationship with the local tribe at my community college, to the point that many of our structures and spaces have names from both local languages. Sherman Alexie makes his home in a town about 45 minutes from mine, so we get lots of events surrounding him around here. Good stuff!

Leave a Reply to Meredith Privott Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *