Skip to main content Skip to main content

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Native Voices

Resistance and Renewal in American Indian Literature

View Transcript

Native Americans had established a rich and highly developed tradition of oral literature long before the writings of the European colonists. This program explores that richness by introducing Native American oral traditions through the work of three contemporary authors: Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo), Simon Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo), and Luci Tapahonso (Navajo).

Instructor Overview

Native American traditions are rich and varied. There are over five hundred Native American languages, each one as different as English is from Arabic and as Arabic is from Swahili. Each Indian nation has its own myths, its own histories, its own personal stories. As Native American author N. Scott Momaday writes, “The voices are all around us, the three voices. You have the mythic and the historical and the personal and then they become a wheel, they revolve, they alternate. … Myth becomes history becomes memoir becomes myth.” What unites these Native American cultures? What does it mean to study American Indian literature? To answer these questions is to begin to consider what it means to be American and Native American simultaneously.

The definition of Native American literature is closely tied to what people think constitutes the essence of Native American identity. Three views stand out in this highly contested debate: those of legal bloodlines, cultural traditions, and bicultural production. As literary critic Kenneth Lincoln notes, one “working definition of ‘Indian,’ though criteria vary from region to region, is minimally a quarter blood and tribal membership”; Native American literature, then, would be those works written by someone who legally is Native American, regardless of their content or style. A second perspective links Native American identity and literature with the preservation of cultural traditions. Literary critics who rely on this view focus on aspects of “traditional” Indian culture in contemporary American Indian literature, such as the continuance of oral traditions. A third trend in Native American studies defines American Indian identity and literature not in terms of what it preserves (whether it be blood or culture), but rather as a bicultural mixture of Native and European American people and traditions. Some Native Americans have argued that since their indigenous cultures have always assimilated aspects of other cultures (including those of other American Indians), to be Indian is to be bicultural, or multicultural.

Many American Indians define themselves not primarily as “Native Americans” but as members of a specific tribe. It is important as you read the authors in this unit to remember that what you know about the Navajo and their religious traditions probably will not apply to the Chippewa, a people geographically, linguistically, and culturally separate from them. Some scholars have suggested, however, that Native American communities within a particular geographic region tend to be culturally more homologous because they are often from the same language family and because cultures are often shaped by the landscapes out of which they emerge. There are several key regions in Native American studies: the Southwest, Plains, California, Midwest, Northeast, Northwest, South, and Southwest. The video focuses on the Southwest; however, in the unit you will find information about the other regions. You will also find a balance between information that is specific to the tribe of each author and information about qualities that are shared among American Indian peoples.

Oral traditions vary by region and tribe, and scholars have tended to examine the influence of the American Indian oral tradition upon contemporary American Indian written literature in two ways: (1) the content and (2) the style. When people explore how the content of the American Indian oral tradition has influenced contemporary literature, they usually turn to the stories and songs of American Indian peoples. These stories tend to focus on particular characters and to include standard events and elements. Some of the most common tale-types include gambler, trickster, creation, abduction, and migration legends. Contemporary authors can use these tale-types in their works: for example, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony retells Yellow Woman stories—a Pueblo Abduction Cycle. 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. Oral style has been characterized as empathetic, participatory, situational, and reliant on repetition. In the oral tradition, repetition is crucial both for ceremonial reasons and because it aids in the process of memorization and provides narrative cohesion. To repeat words is also to wield a certain power. Perhaps most importantly, the oral tradition is tied to the land: as author and critic Greg Sarris explains, “The landscape becomes the bible and each stone, each mountain, each set of trees or a river, or a section of the river becomes a text, because they become a way of remembering stories, and stories associated with that place.”

The video, the archive, and the curriculum materials situate the writers featured in Unit 1 within several of the historical contexts and artistic movements that shaped their texts. Together, these materials articulate the diverse genres and cultural traditions that comprise and inform Native American literature.

Learning Objectives

After students have viewed the video, read the headnotes and literary selections in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and explored related archival materials on the American Passages Web site, they should be able to

    1. identify some of the genres, meanings, and purposes of American Indian oral narrative and song;
    2. recognize the ways in which contemporary American Indian writers draw upon and transform the oral tradition in their written texts;
    3. generalize about typical themes, concerns, and narrative forms in contemporary American Indian literature;
    4. compare the migration legends and creation myths of the European explorers and the Iroquois and Pima Indians;
    5. sketch out some differences between the values, beliefs, and assumptions of Native North Americans and Europeans at the time of first contact during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Using the Video

Video Authors:
Luci Tapahonso (Navajo), Simon J. Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo), Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo)

Who’s Interviewed:
Greg Sarris, author, professor of English (Loyola Marymount University) (Miwok chief) (Pomo); N. Scott Momaday, author (Kiowa); Simon J. Ortiz, author (Acoma Pueblo); Paula Gunn Allen, author, professor of English (University of California, Los Angeles) (Laguna Pueblo/Sioux); Joy Harjo, poet/musician, professor of English (University of California, Los Angeles) (Muscogee/Creek); Rex Lee Jim, author (Navajo)

Points Covered:
• American Indian oral traditions link people to the culture, myths, and land. Traditionally, the oral storyteller is a human individual who relates the mythological to others. Contemporary American Indian written literature draws on oral traditions even as it translates them into European forms. These stories are necessary for the culture to survive in the era after European contact. A kind of “cultural contact,” this written literature deals with the interaction of Native and European cultures and identities. This video focuses on three Native American writers from the Southwest: Luci Tapahonso (Navajo), Simon J. Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo), and Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo).

• Luci Tapahonso’s poems “They Are Silent and Quick” and “A Breeze Swept Through” draw on and are a product of Navajo language, tradition, and landscape.

• Simon J. Ortiz’s writing reflects a renewed transmission of Acoma Pueblo cultural memory, as in “My Mother and Sister.” It also conveys the often fractured and besieged state of being a Native American today, as in his poem “8:50 AM Ft. Lyons VAH.” These poems reflect the bicultural world of contemporary Native Americans.

• Like “8:50 AM Ft. Lyons VAH,” Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony deals with the post-World War II experience of Native Americans. The novel attempts to reintegrate the shattered experience of its protagonist, Tayo, with the old stories and worldviews. The Laguna ceremonies must be adapted to cope with the current world, or else the old ways will die. In Storyteller, Silko demonstrates the ways in which language does not merely reflect the world, but can directly affect it.

• Native American literature is particular to tribal people in its invocation of the concrete power of language to heal and guide, but it is also like all American literature in probing what it means to be American.

• Preview the video: Contemporary American Indian writers creatively employ and adapt native traditions even as they address contemporary American Indian life, and therefore American life in general. Luci Tapahonso, Simon J. Ortiz, and Leslie Marmon Silko are three writers who draw on their different southwestern native heritages to keep the old ideas and cultures alive in the form of new, relevant stories.

• What to Think About While Watching: What are some of the characteristics of Navajo and Pueblo oral traditions? In what sense do these writers draw on native oral traditions and beliefs? How do they speak to the experience of being American Indian? What does their written literature hope to do or achieve?

• Tying the video to the unit content: What are some specific Navajo or Pueblo oral traditions or beliefs that you can see reflected in the written literature of these writers? What do these writers seem to be doing, or trying to say, by employing these traditions? How does Native American history, and the history of the contact between natives and Europeans, affect their contemporary writing? How are their texts a combination of Native American and European literary traditions?

Suggested Author Pairings

Luci Tapahonso and Louise Erdrich
Both Luci Tapahonso and Louise Erdrich emphasize the relationship of female power to Native American culture. Tapahonso’s poems explore the relationship among generations of women, the image of birth as a renewal and a healing, and the power of such mythical female figures as Dawn Woman. She explores a worldview that itself emphasizes connection and change. You may want to contrast this female-centered space with the white town in “Fleur.” At the beginning of “Fleur” Erdrich casts the male Chippewa as frightened by the spiritual connection Fleur has to nature, marked most clearly by her supposed multiple deaths and resurrections. Fleur (whose very name implies a link to nature) makes the men panic. Even Pauline, although a less sympathetic character than Fleur, manages to have a profound effect on her world and certainly can’t be considered weak or yielding. You may also want to compare Tapahonso’s verse style with the light-hearted Chippewa love songs, or compare their view of gender relations with that in Erdrich’s work.

Leslie Marmon Silko and Simon J. Ortiz
In their works Leslie Marmon Silko and Simon J. Ortiz engage with the intersection of modern warfare and native cultures. Tayo, the protagonist of Silko’s Ceremony, takes a journey away from the European American contexts of World War II and alcoholism toward the native contexts of the Ts’eh, a mountain spirit. This journey is healing, a movement away from the corruption and destruction of the West and toward wholeness, harmony, and peace. Ortiz paints a powerful yet simple image of European American violence in “8:50 AM Ft. Lyons VAH”: the straight line of the hospital wall blocks the view of the geese. That line stands not only for the hospital built to cope with the ravages of Western war, but also for the entirety of the West’s antinatural worldview, where the living contours of the land and its creatures are cut and divided by the rigid measures of an arrogant technology. Both writers emphasize the power of the oral tradition and its constant adaptation to new contexts and experiences. Have your students compare the differences between the oral traditions of these closely related communities.

Stories of the Beginning of the World and the narratives of Roger Williams and Thomas Harriot
Stories of the Beginning of the World and the narratives of Roger Williams and Thomas Harriot provide two different views of the world and of native peoples. In the Stories of the Beginning of the World, we hear, through translators, of the cosmographies of the Iroquois and Pima peoples. These accounts contrast with Harriot’s and Williams’s views on how native cultures (specifically the Narragansett and Roanoke) are structured and what the communities value. It is worth calling students’ attention to the differences in content and form of these accounts. In addition, you may want to discuss the different goals of the stories and Renaissance travel accounts. While the creation stories aim to integrate the listener into the community and its worldview, both Williams’s and Harriot’s works are in a sense advertisements for European settlement of the New World. While neither author’s narrative is virulently racist and ethnocentric in the ways of many of their contemporaries’ works (compare, say, the works of John Smith and William Bradford, two important Englishmen who have little or no sympathy for the Indians), they still aim to assimilate the “other” into the European cosmography.

Black Elk and Ghost Dance Songs
Black Elk’s narrative is usefully read alongside the Ghost Dance songs. It recounts the period of the Ghost Dance and the devastating experience of Wounded Knee, and it provides important contextual information on the goals of the Ghost Dance movement. Black Elk’s vision might also be usefully compared to that of the Ghost Dance songs, as in many ways it signals the continuing renewal of Lakota culture, long after the Ghost Dance movement has ended. Students should pay attention to the use of repetition and significant numbers in both the vision and the songs. These texts illustrate the ways in which native spiritual traditions often appropriated and reinvented Christianity. Students should pay attention to the messianic nature of the Ghost Dance songs and their use of the Shaker (Christian) tradition, as well as to Black Elk’s own continuing dedication to a Lakota brand of Catholicism. These texts provide a superb opportunity to discuss the problems inherent in translation. To what extent is the power of vision in the songs lost in the movement into English and into a Western “literary” form?


bicultural production – A text or object that retains the nature of the creator’s original culture as well as influences from other cultures.

creation stories – American Indian narratives of how the world or the tribe began. The biblical book of Genesis also contains two creation stories, but Native American creation stories tend to emphasize the number four, the humanlike nature of the original gods, a race of proto-humans, the essential connectedness of all creation, and the centrality of the tribe in question to the cosmic order.

cultural hero stories – Stories involving a hero who is human or has human characteristics and works on behalf of a community. These stories help dramatize the native people’s belief about how the original world was altered to its current form.

emergence stories – Stories that describe how the people originated in the womb of the Earth Mother and were called to the surface by Sun Father. Despite the many differences among various tribes’ versions of these stories, they generally establish how the world was created; how people developed out of ambiguously formed beings (who often had both animal and human characteristics); what each tribe took to be the basic relationships among people and between people and nature; and the origins of important tribal customs and structures.

emergent religion – A religion in which new spiritual practices are added to an existing framework.

gynocratic – Governed by women, as opposed to patriarchal, meaning governed by men. American Indian communities such as the Pueblos were matrilineal (i.e., traced their descent through the maternal line) and/or matrifocal (female-centered).

hózhó – A Navajo term meaning holiness, harmony, or beauty. This term is used to describe Navajo art, song, and ritual that seeks balance and harmony.

manitos – Extremely powerful beings in the Chippewa cosmology who could be characterized as “spirits” or gods. Manitos provided people with food (through hunting) and good health. They include Pau-Puk-Keewis, the Chippewa gambler, windigos, Nanabozho (the Chippewa cultural hero/trickster), and the underwater manito.

oral tradition – The tradition of songs, stories, chants, and performances that comprised pre-Columbian Native American literature (actually “traditions,” for each community had its own set of traditions). “Literature” is problematic here, however, insofar as these cultural events were never written down, frequently sacred, and always community building. Many contemporary Native American writers employ themes and structures from the oral tradition in order to keep those traditions alive.

performative – One or more words that have immediate, concrete effects in the world. In the West, phrases such as “I now pronounce you husband and wife” or “Case dismissed” are examples of performative utterances. For many Indian cultures, much of the oral tradition was inherently performative—for example, it was used to cure or to invoke the spirits.

tale-types – Groups of stories that tend to focus on particular characters and include standard events and elements. Some of the most common tale-types include Gambler, Trickster, Creation, Abduction, Migration, and Women’s stories. Contemporary authors can use these tale-types in their works: for example, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony retells Yellow Woman stories—a Pueblo Abduction cycle.

trickster – A common Native American legendary figure, usually male, but occasionally female or disguised in female form, and notorious for exaggerated biological drives and well-endowed physique. Partly divine, partly human, and partly animal, he is an often amoral and a comic troublemaker. Because stories about Trickster often represent him as transgressing cultural mores, they serve to explain and investigate the origins and values of those mores.

Yellow Woman stories – Told by the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest, these stories dramatize how humans interact with spirits in the world once it has been created. Although there is always variation, Yellow Woman stories often involve a young married woman who wanders beyond her village and has a sexual encounter with a spirit-man; sometimes she is killed, but usually she returns to her family and tribe having grown spiritually, and therefore exerts an empowering influence on the people in general.

Bibliography & Resources

Selected Bibliography
Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

Babcock, Barbara A., Guy Monthan, and Doris Monthan. The Pueblo Storyteller: Development of a Figurative Ceramic Tradition. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1986.

Deloria, Vine Jr. God Is Red: A Native View of Religion. 2nd ed. Golden: Fulcrum Publishing, 1992.

Faris, James C. The Nightway: A History and a History of Documentation of a Navajo Ceremonial. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1990.

Gabriel, Kathryn. Gambler Way: Indian Gaming in Mythology, History, and Archaeology in North America. Boulder: Johnson Books, 1996.

Harjo, Joy, and Gloria Bird, eds. Reinventing the Enemy’s Language: Contemporary Native Women’s Writings of North America. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1997.

Hynes, Williams J., and William G. Doty, eds. Mythical Trickster Figures: Contours, Contexts, and Criticisms. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1993.

Sarris, Greg. Keeping Slug Woman Alive: A Holistic Approach to American Indian Texts. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

Mabel McKay: Weaving the Dream. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994.

Schlick, Mary Dodds. Columbia River Basketry: Gifts of the Ancestors, Gifts of the Earth. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1994.

Schubnell, Matthias, ed. Conversations with N. Scott Momaday. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1997.

Swann, Brian, ed. Smoothing the Ground: Essays on Native American Oral Literature. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983.

Vecsey, Christopher. Traditional Ojibwa Religion and Its Historical Changes. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1983.

Further Resources
American Indian Music of the Southwest. Folkways Records, 1951.

Bates, Sara (curator), Jolene Rickard, and Paul Chaat Smith. Indian Humor: American Indian Contemporary Arts. San Francisco: American Indian Contemporary Arts, 1995.

Horse Capture, Joseph D., and George P. Horse Capture. Beauty, Honor and Tradition: The Legacy of Plains Indian Shirts. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001.

Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story. Directed by Michael Apted. Miramax Films, 1992.

Leslie Marmon Silko: A Film By Matteo Bellinelli. TSI Swiss Television, 2000.

Lovett, John R. Jr., and Donald L. DeWitt. Guide to Native American Ledger Drawings and Pictographs in United States Museums, Libraries, and Archives. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Moffitt, John F., and Santiago Sebasti�n. O Brave New People: The European Invention of the American Indian. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1996.

Monroe, Dan L., et al. (curators). Gifts of the Spirit: Works by Nineteenth-Century and Contemporary Native American Artists. Salem: Peabody Essex Museum, 1996.

Phillips, Ruth B. Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast, 1700-1900. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1998.

Rushing, W. Jackson III, ed. Native American Art in the Twentieth Century: Makers, Meanings, Histories. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Winds of Change. A Matter of Promises. Narrated by N. Scott Momaday. Wisconsin Public Television. PBS Video, 1990.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6