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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Native Voices Native Voices – Activities

Overview Questions

Overview Questions

  • What is the relationship between Native American identity and American identity?
  • How does Native American literature reflect or help create a sense of what it means to be Native American in the United States?
  • What does this literature help reveal about the experience of having a multicultural identity?
  • How does the conception of American Indian identity depend upon the writer’s identity?
  • What is Native American literature?
  • What makes Native American traditions from different regions distinctive?
  • How has Native American literature been influenced by politics on and off the reservation?
  • How are Native American oral traditions shaped by the landscapes in which they are composed?
  • What role does the land play in oral tradition?
  • How does the notion of time in American Indian narratives compare with notions of time in Western cultures?
  • How does the chronology of particular narratives reflect differing notions of time?
  • How do Yellow Woman stories and the Nightway or Enemyway chant influence Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony and Storyteller?
  • How do Navajo chantways influence the poetry of Luci Tapahonso?
  • How does the Ghost Dance influence the vision of Black Elk?
  • How does the Ghost Dance challenge nineteenth-century European American notions of Manifest Destiny?
  • How do Yellow Woman stories subvert the genre of captivity narratives?
  • How do the poems of Simon J. Ortiz challenge the notion of what it means to be an American hero?

Video Activities

What is an American? How does American literature create conceptions of the American experience and identity?
Video Comprehension Questions: What are some differences between traditional Native American and European ways of seeing the world?
Context Questions: How do elements of a specifically Native American worldview inform the work of the writers featured in the video?
Exploratory Questions: How much do you know about Native American history and culture? To what extent is it important for non-Native Americans to know these traditions? What do you gain by learning about them? What would you lose if you didn’t know them?

What is American literature? What are its distinctive voices and styles? How do social and political issues influence the American canon?
Video Comprehension Questions: What are some elements of the “oral tradition”? What are some of the ways in which traditional Native American and European storytellers might differ? What social issues appear in Silko’s Ceremony?
Context Questions: How do the contemporary writers featured in the video draw on the oral tradition in their works?
Exploratory Questions: What topics, styles, or ideas would you expect to see in a contemporary Native American written text? How do you imagine the text might differ from—and be similar to—literary works written by Americans with European, African, or Asian heritages? Would the absence of typically Native American concerns in a book by a Native American affect your judgment of that book?

How do place and time shape literature and our understanding of it?
Video Comprehension Questions: What part of the United States are Tapahonso, Ortiz, and Silko from? What tribe is each writer from? What part does World War II play in Silko’s Ceremony?
Context Questions: How do the tribe, landscape, and environment with which each writer is familiar affect his or her work?
Exploratory Questions: Why do you think it might be important for these writers to incorporate the specifics of their own time and place into their texts? What would be lost if they did not incorporate such elements?

"God Is Red": The Clashes and Contacts of Native Religion and Christianity

[2466] John Eliot, First page, Genesis from the Holy Bible: Containing the Old Testament and the New (1663), courtesy of the Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania.

Although Vine Deloria Jr. argues in his classic and polemical book God Is Red: A Native View of Religion that Christianity and Native religions are polar opposites, since the very first days of European-Indian contact, many Native Americans have adopted and adapted Christianity for their own purposes. As scholars have noted, native religions always sought out new forms of power that could be incorporated into their religious practices. Thus while white New England missionaries often assumed that they were converting natives into “red Puritans,” practitioners of Native Christianity most often created an emergent religion: one that added new spiritual practices to an existing framework.

Although there are probably as many different forms of Native Christianity as there are Native Christians, a few basic generalizations provide an important starting point for understanding the forms taken by this melding of religions. For instance, Deloria argues that the fundamental difference between Christianity and native religion is an orientation to time in the former and an orientation to space in the latter. That is, Christianity is a time-based religion, predicated on the ideas that the universe has a definite beginning and a definite end and that human life is a sort of “dress rehearsal” for the last judgment and afterlife-placement. Native religion, Deloria claims, is space-based: it grows out of and accounts for the particular landscape of the tribe, has no conception of a primordial time when humans were pure but then fell into sin, and anticipates no future of a radically different order (as Christianity posits will come about at the Second Coming of Christ). For native religion, humans have always been and will always be the way they are, and the world will always be more or less as it is; even the afterlife is primarily a pleasant version of life in the tribe. Our job, writes Deloria, is to deal ethically and responsibly with each other and with the web of all creation to which we are here and now connected—the land, the animals, the plants, the spirits of the ancestors—rather than to prepare for some future moment in which all will be transformed. Deloria’s generalizations do not hold true for all native cultures: some tribes such as the Pomo of California do speak of a time in which the world was radically different. Even though Deloria’s abstractions have been hotly debated by scholars, this healing vision of spiritual practice is reflected in the work of many contemporary Native American writers, especially and most elaborately in Silko’s Ceremony, but also in the poetry of Ortiz and Tapahonso.

Native versions of Christianity often present a mixture of these two religious outlooks. For example, a popular story for missionaries was the idea that Native Americans were one of the lost tribes of Israelites. This story fit with the notion of Christianity as a time-based religion: from the missionaries’ perspective, American Indians’ history began with the arrival of the whites and moved forward with conversion and the eventual return of Christ. For early Native American Christian converts, however, the story was not so simple. Many, such as Guaman Poma of Peru and William Apess (Unit 4), argued that Native Americans were already Christians upon the arrival of the whites—in fact, they were much better Christians than the Europeans! This notion reflects the perspective that humans have always been and will always be the way they are and that the world will always be more or less as it is. Similarly, movements such as the Ghost Dance combine Christian apocalyptic thought with a basic faith in the interconnectedness of the land, the animals, the plants, the spirits of the ancestors. By appropriating elements of Christianity, Ghost Dance dancers and singers aimed to fight the enemy with its own weapons, in this case with religious firearms.

The history of Christianity and Native American communities has not always been uplifting. Since the earliest days of European settlement, Native Americans have been the object of strenuous conversion attempts that nevertheless failed to guarantee them equal treatment either before the law or in American religious life. Indeed, Native American converts were often viewed with suspicion both by their own communities and by European settlers: for example, Mary Rowlandson (Unit 3) has only unkind things to say about “Praying Indians” and indeed most praying Indians were forcibly interned and starved on an island in Boston Harbor during King Philip’s War. Samson Occom (Unit 3), a Mohegan from Connecticut who was converted to Christianity at sixteen and later became a popular preacher in America and England, recalls similar mistreatment. In his A Short Narrative of My Life (1768), he sums up the years of discrimination and abuse he suffered: “I must Say, ‘I believe [my mistreatment by white Christians] is because I am a poor Indian.’ I Can’t help that God has made me So; I did not make my self so.—”


  1. Comprehension: According to Deloria, what is one basic difference between Native American religions and Christianity?
  2. Comprehension: In what way does the Ghost Dance religion display the influence of Christianity?
  3. Comprehension: What is an emergent religion?
  4. Context: Find all the moments where the contemporary native writers in this unit blur the sacred and the secular. For example, is Tapahonso’s “A Breeze Swept Through” a religious poem? Why or why not? In what sense might Ortiz’s “8:50 AM Ft. Lyons VAH,” despite its basically secular surface, be religious in a native sense?
  5. Context: Using Ts’eh as an example, discuss the role gender plays in Pueblo religion.
  6. Context: Reformer John Collier (1884-1968) created the American Indian Defense Association in 1923 to fight the assimilationist policies of the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, and he was instrumental in salvaging religious rights for Indians. Consider the archive image of him and two Hopi men: what does their body language say about their relationship, and by extension the relationship in the early twentieth century between white and native cultures?
  7. Exploration: You may never have seen a version of the Bible written in a nonmodern language, as in the archive image of the Bible translated into Massachuset, a native language. The Bible was originally written mostly in ancient Hebrew and Greek, so even the contemporary versions with which you might be more familiar are translations and therefore at some distance from the original. How do you think translation of sacred texts might affect their meaning? Does this “Indian Bible” seem less strange than, say, Chippewa songs in English?
  8. Exploration: Compare Mary Rowlandson’s vision of the Narragan-setts and “Praying Indians” to Roger Williams’s vision of the Narragansetts. What is the relationship between Puritanism and Narragansett religion in each text? What is the potential for conversion?
  9. Exploration: Why do you think someone like Samson Occom would have converted to Christianity? How is it that a person can be brought up with one worldview and then later change it? Occom says that he was never really treated fairly by white Christians, but in what ways do you think he might have nevertheless benefited from being a Christian?
  10. Exploration: Challenge Deloria’s claims about Native American religions. For example, to what extent is myth an example of a “primordial time”?


[2059] N. C. Wyeth, The Supplicant (1919),
courtesy of Reed College Library Special Collections, Portland, Oregon.
Illustration from the N. C. Wyeth edition of Last of the Mohicans. Here Cora pleads with the Delaware sachem Tamenund for the life of her sister, Alice. The theme of white women at the mercy of “savage” natives was made popular by early American captivity narratives.


[2466] John Eliot, First page, Genesis from the Holy Bible: Containing the Old Testament and the New (1663),
courtesy of the Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania.
This translation of the first page of Genesis into Massachusett an Algonquian language, was done with the help of John Sassamon (Massachuset), whose murder in 1675 for being an English informant began King Philip’s War.


[2836] Bernard Picard, Illustration from Cérémonies et Coutumes Religieuses des Peuples Idolátres (1723),
courtesy of the Jay I. Kislak Foundation, Inc.
European depictions of Native American ceremonies, such as this one from Picard’s six-volume masterpiece on world religions, often tell us more about Europeans and their anxieties than about the actual experiences they record.


[3249] Joseph-Francois Lafitau, An Iroquois Funeral as Observed by a French Missionary, Early 1700s (1724),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Books and Special Collections.
Detail from Moeurs des Sauvages Amériquians Comparées aux Moeurs des Premiers Temps (Customs of the American Indians Compared with the Customs of Primitive Times [in Europe]). This drawing provides insight into Iroquois death rituals.


[4210] Anonymous, John Collier and Hopi Men (c. 1920),
courtesy of CSULB, National Archives.
Indian Commissioner John Collier helped fight the U.S. government’s assimilationist policies and argued for the protection of American Indian cultures, religions, and languages. He is best known for the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.


[6783] Edward S. Curtis, Altar Peyote with Rattle (Osage) (1930),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [E77.C97].
The Osage Indians of Missouri were ardent practitioners of the Peyote Religion. Ceremonies include a prayer meeting in a house designed for the ritual and the singing of Peyote songs. Taken from a cactus, peyote buttons have hallucinogenic properties. Peyote cults entered the United States from Mexico in the nineteenth century.


[7588] George Catlin, Dog Feast, from The Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians (1842),
courtesy of Tilt and Bogue, London.
In Letter no. 28, Catlin remarks, “The dog-feast is given, I believe, by all tribes in North America; and by them all, I think, this faithful animal, as well as the horse, is sacrificed in several different ways, to appease offended Spirits or Deities” (Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians).

Healing Arts: The Navajo Night Chant (Nightway)

Anonymous, [RATTLE SHOCK RITE (MNA: MS 63-34-10) (PLATE 2)] (1980-2002) courtesy of Museum of Northern Arizona Photo Archives.

Healing songs and chants are an important genre in Native American oral traditions. As a general rule, songs and chants seek to re-create a state rather than an event. Songs and chants are also rarely told in a vacuum: the Night Chant, for example, is composed of a whole series of practices—including dances, the construction of sandpaintings, and the use of prayer sticks—that constitute a nine-day healing ceremony traditionally performed by the Navajo. Although the Night Chant is specific to the Navajo, it provides an important example of the interrelatedness of language, healing, and spirituality in native traditions. It is one of the great masterpieces of the oral tradition.

The Night Chant is a “way” insofar as it attempts not just to break into the natural course of an illness, but in facts sets the “patient” on the path or way toward reestablishing the natural harmony and balance that allow for health. For the Navajo, who migrated to the Southwest from the northern lands sometime between seven hundred and one thousand years ago, the Night Chant is one of many ceremonial chants meant to affect the world in some concrete manner. The Night Chant is a healing ceremony, a treatment for illness, especially paralysis, blindness, and deafness. In the words of anthropologist and ethnographer James C. Faris, Night Chant practices are those that “order, harmonize and re-establish and situate social relations.” Hence the ceremony emphasizes humans’ ability to control their world and their responsibility to use that control in the service of balance, respect, and healing. If the Holy People—the ancestors or the spirits—inflict suffering, it is because people have broken the rules; the Night Chant attempts to put the rules back together, to restore the conditions conducive to order, balance, and health.

The ceremony begins at sunset when the chanter, the medicine man who conducts the ceremony and the only one with the knowledge of proper Night Chant practice, enters the home of the patient, the one who is to be cured. After a ritual call for participation (“Come on the trail of song”)—which emphasizes the role of not only the patient but all guests present to form a community of healing—the patient sits to the west of a fire. There follow elaborate chants, songs, and dances. The first four days are devoted to purification, after which the Holy People are called upon. On the sunrise of the ninth day, the patient is invited to look eastward and greet the dawn, representative of renewal. The chant is fundamentally narrative, although not necessarily continuous, and its specific details and enactments vary greatly among different medicine men and the particular needs of the patient. Faris emphasizes the flexibility and fluidity of the elements of the story. There is no central episode that must be retold in all cases for the ceremony to be effective; rather, specific episodes arise from local situations, and no single medicine man possesses the knowledge of every possible episode. But there is generally a basic storyline, which tells of a long-ago cultural hero of particular visionary power who gathers the details of how to properly conduct the ceremony from the Holy People. The Night Chant is therefore in part a perpetual retelling of itself; it is neither entertainment nor abstract teaching, but the ritual reenactment of its own origin. In this origin is the way toward order, which is the way toward healing. Through this retelling the singer aims to bring about hózhó, or holiness, harmony, beauty.

The sandpaintings reflect this goal of balance and harmony seeking. Created for the ceremony and immediately wiped away, the sandpaintings elaborately echo some of the main patterns and images of the chant. As sacred artifacts, they are not intended to be recorded through film or painting. Because they are designed specifically to attract the attention of (and eventually embody) the Holy People, it would be a dangerous violation to allow them to exist after the proper time for spiritual contact had passed. Those included in the American Passages archive were painted by a priest based on sketches taken from the work of a medicine man who authorized them to be shown to the public. Reproductions such as these have usually been altered to diffuse their power. Surviving notes suggest that there are several inaccuracies in the Rattle Shock Rite image; for example, the owl feathers on the central figure should be spotted and decorations should be added to the belt of the central figure. Like the multiple levels of transmission that Black Elk’s narrative went through (see above), the various mediations these images have undergone continue to define a communal center of identity and knowledge in opposition to the outsider—however sympathetic he or she may be.


  1. Comprehension: Which tribe is the Night Chant associated with?
  2. Comprehension: What is the Night Chant used for?
  3. Comprehension: What acts does the Night Chant involve?
  4. Context: In Silko’s Ceremony, Betonie is a mixed-blood Navajo healer. In what sense can you see the Night Chant or something like it being used in this novel? How is what Tayo goes through like the ritual described above? To what extent does his ceremony take into consideration contemporary sources of illness? How does it seek to deal with these sources of pain?
  5. Context: Examine one of the sandpaintings in the archive. How does it seek to achieve harmony and balance? How does it exemplify hózhó? Compare the strategies it uses for achieving harmony and balance to those in Tapahonso’s poetry.
  6. Context: Examine the Rattle Shock Rite image in the archive. Note that it is centered around four figures that represent gods of the North, South, East, and West. Why might these figures be important in Ceremony? Why do you think four might be such an essential number for many Native American beliefs (as opposed, say, to the three and seven of Christianity)?
  7. Context: Compare the text of the Night Chant to that of the Ghost Dance songs. What strategies does each use to achieve harmony and balance? How are these strategies related to the goal of each text?
  8. Exploration: Why might a Navajo not want a non-Native American to know the details of the Night Chant? Does this seem reasonable to you? Are there things about your life you wouldn’t want others to know, even though their knowledge would not affect your life? Navajos believe that knowing things about people can affect people. If knowledge could give people power over you, would you be less likely to give people access to personal information?
  9. Exploration: Do you think the sandpainting images in the archive are aesthetically pleasing? How do you know “good” art when you see it? For example, to what extent is it reasonable to assume that realistic figures constitute good art?



[5741] Anonymous, Two Navaho Shaman Dry Painting to Cure and Illness (n.d.),
courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.
Navajo sand paintings, or “dry” paintings, are meant to summon and embody the spirits of the holy people and therefore are wiped away immediately after the Night Chant ceremony.



[5742] Anonymous, Navajo Shaman Drypainting a Remedy (n.d.),
courtesy of the American Musuem of Natural History.
The Navajo Night Chant is a nine-day healing ceremony that includes dances, sandpaintings, and prayer sticks. Sandpaintings reflect the Navajo value of hózhó, or holiness, harmony, beauty.



[5743] Anonymous, Navajo Shaman Puts Finishing Touches on Remedy Painting (n.d.),
courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Navajo use sandpaintings in an elaborate, nine-day ceremony designed to cure illness by restoring order, balance, and har-mony. The paintings are wiped away as soon as the ritual is complete.



[5951] Anonymous, Rattle Shock Rite (1980-2002),
courtesy of the Museum of Northern Arizona Photo Archives.
Sandpaintings are used in Navajo ceremonies and are designed to attract the attention of the Holy People. This reproduction has been altered to diffuse its power.



[5953] Anonymous, Whirling Logs (n.d.), from J. C. Faris, The Nightway: A History and a History of Documentation of a Navajo Ceremonial (1990),
courtesy of the Museum of Northern Arizona Photo Archives.
This reproduction of a Navajo sandpainting differs from the original in subtle but significant ways. The story told in Nightway Chant changes with every shaman and patient. Sandpaintings like this often reflect main themes or images from the narrative thread of the ritual.

Singing Mothers and Storytelling Grandfathers: The Art and Meaning of Pueblo Pottery

[5890] Henry Peabody, Pottery in the Interior of an Acoma Dwelling, New Mexico (c. 1900), courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Pottery is an important Native American art form that dates back thousands of years. As Simon J. Ortiz notes, “[Pottery making] has more to do with a sense of touching than with seeing because fingers have to know the texture of clay and how the pottery is formed from lines of shale, strata and earth movements.” Pueblo pottery is considered some of the most beautiful, and it has deep ties to storytelling traditions. Pueblo cultures, along with those of the Navajo and Apache, constitute the dominant native traditions in the American Southwest. Pottery dates back over fifteen hundred years to the Anasazi period, but in the past few decades there has been a tremendous revival in pottery-making among the Pueblo people, led in part by the Cochiti Pueblo potter Helen Cordero and her Storyteller dolls. Cordero’s pottery challenged the appropriation of Native American art by white art collectors.

Native works of art and craft have a troubled history in mainstream American culture. Like so much of native culture, objects such as bowls and dolls were at least potentially sacred: if used in certain ritual contexts, they acted as embodied prayers to ancestors or gods. The kachinas in the archive are good examples of this: they are dolls, but they embody a ritual significance as well [81108209]. As such, they were not to be handled and scrutinized by curious Europeans, even investigative anthropologists. Nevertheless, soon after the introduction of railroads into the Southwest, Indians (many of whom found themselves desperately poor after having their traditional ways of life disrupted) began producing pottery and other artifacts for European commercial consumption. This trade, which began in the 1880s, allowed a modest income for many Pueblo and other native peoples. In most cases, the objects differed in subtle but profoundly significant ways from the ones intended for tribal use, and so did not directly endanger the tribe’s traditions: this practice continues to be a concern for some native writers who incorporate traditional material in their work. Commercial production had the effect of making native-made objects into either mysterious oddities or “artworks” whose consumers had no sense of their sacred origin. Hence, for much of the twentieth century, many Indians felt invaded and exploited by the dissemination of their artifacts into white America.

As anthropologist Barbara Babcock and photographers Guy Monthan and Doris Monthan detail in their book The Pueblo Storyteller, in the late 1950s Helen Cordero began producing pottery that recaptured and transformed the traditional Pueblo ways of art. Cordero turned to the traditional construction of objects that possessed deep cultural significance: these are called fetishes (if used in ceremony), figurines, or effigies. Traditionally, clay for the Pueblo was a living substance with its own spirit, so that anything constructed from clay acquires, as Babcock writes, “a kind of personal and conscious existence as it [is] being made.” All Pueblo ceremonies used clay objects, which are closely associated with the original creation of life in every known Pueblo creation story. Some of these objects were vessels and some were human figures—for example, those known as “kachina dolls.” The dolls stand for kachinas, masked supernatural spirits who are said to enter into the bodies of Pueblo dancers during ceremonies and act as conduits between the world of humans and the world of spirits or gods.

Another such figure was the “Singing Mother” found among the Cochiti. These figures, which may not have been ceremonial but certainly partook of the Pueblo assumptions that made ceremonies possible, are the ones that Cordero’s Storyteller dolls echo and revise. The figures of a mother singing to her child evoke fertility; as Babcock writes, they make “the connection between human reproduction and other, life-giving forms of generation.” As such, childbirth and child raising are linked to the passing down of stories and songs across the generations, emphasizing the interlinking of all creation, including the inextricability of human culture and the natural world. Between 1900 and 1960, Pueblo artifacts made for trade were weak in quality and few in number. But Cordero first created a figure that evoked the Singing Mother on commission for a white folk art collector, and in the process managed to transform the old tradition into a living art form for the present. As always in native traditions, she emphasized the local and the specific: she changed the mother figure to a male, modeled on her grandfather whom she remembers as a powerful storyteller, and she added multiple children to the figures (there are as many as thirty on some pieces). None of her hundreds of figures are identical, nor are the many figures created by Pueblo potters inspired by her work. They are images of the passing down of tradition that are themselves the evolution of tradition. For potters like Cordero, the importance of the clay and its relationship to the stories of the oral tradition help keep the art traditions alive.


  1. Comprehension: What does the Singing Mother represent?
  2. Comprehension: What is a kachina?
  3. Comprehension: When and why did Helen Cordero begin producing her pottery?
  4. Context: How can you see Native American artistic traditions being kept alive but transformed in the contemporary writers discussed in this unit? For example, how is Ceremony not only a reiteration of healing rituals but also a specific comment on the effects of World War II on Native Americans? What is Betonie’s relationship to the Navajo community? How does this inform the way he uses ceremonies?
  5. Exploration: It is a curious fact that there is very little evidence of Pueblo figurative ceramics from about 1500 to about 1875. This happens to correspond to the period of intense Spanish colonialism in the American Southwest. Why do you think we have this gap in the historical record?
  6. Exploration: How is passing down traditions analogous to childbirth? In what ways are these acts similar, and in what ways different?
  7. Exploration: Could those Pueblo who made pottery for white tourists be considered to be “selling out”? Would you have done the same thing? Does our contemporary culture show examples of once-sacred objects or ideas being used for profit?



[5890] Henry Peabody, Pottery in the Interior of an Acoma Dwelling, New Mexico (c. 1900),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
Pottery is an important part of Pueblo culture. Even clay is believed to be endowed with a “spirit” of its own. Here we see the inside of a traditional Pueblo home in which one family’s roof was another’s floor.



[6756] Anonymous, Frontispiece from The Land of the Pueblos (1891),
courtesy of J. B. Alden, New York.
Although Pueblo pottery has long been considered sacred and used in rituals, many pots today are made for the tourist trade and for non-Pueblo collectors. Potter Helen Cordero, however, rejects the Western sense of “art” as ornamental or merely entertaining.



[7312] Anonymous, Video of corn dancers (c. 1940),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
The people of Acoma have been making pottery for centuries, both for everyday use and for rituals such as the Corn Dance. The Corn Dance is held annually at a tribal site near Albuquerque, New Mexico. The dance was given by the supernatural Mother, who wanted her people to have a public dance which all could enjoy. Prayer sticks are used in the dance to bring legendary hero Koshari. Sacred clowns painted in black and white join the dance.



[8113] Huron Tribe, Pair of dolls (1830-50),
courtesy of the Portland Art Museum, gift of Elizabeth Cole Butler [88.43.6-7].
Dolls like these, made by the Huron Tribe in the mid-nineteenth century, played a number of roles in traditional Native American culture, including being used to teach children their people’s history. The dolls were made from wood, wool, and cotton cloth and were adorned with metal and glass beads, leather, and real hair.



[8116] Acoma and Santo Domingo, Jars (c. 1900, 1920),
courtesy of the Portland Art Museum, Elizabeth Cole Butler Collection.
Soon after the introduction of railroads into the Southwest, Indians (many of whom became desperately poor after having their traditional ways of life disrupted) began producing pottery and other artifacts for sale.



[8122] Santo Domingo Tribe, Jar (n.d.),
courtesy of the Portland Art Museum, gift of Elizabeth Cole Butler [1481].
Native American pottery, traditionally sacred or utilitarian, began to be produced in its contemporary “decorative” form in the late nineteenth century. In the 1920s and 1930s, dealers, archaeologists, and tribal members formed the Indian Arts Fund to collect traditional Pueblo pottery and encourage its production.

Native Weavers and the Art of Basketry

[6303] Anonymous, Pomo feather gift basket (n.d.), courtesy of the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, Reed College.

He breathed on her and gave her something that she could not see or hear or smell or touch, and it was preserved in a little basket, and by all of the arts of design and skilled handwork.
—Kotai’aqan, Columbia River Basketry

Basketry, like pottery, is an art that is found in numerous Native American cultures but differs greatly from tribe to tribe. As Mary Dodge Schlick, the author of Columbia River Basketry: Gift of the Ancestors, Gift of the Earth, points out, for centuries baskets have been part of vast trade networks in which friends and acquaintances meet, gamble, and trade food stuffs and goods: baskets are one way of carrying these valuables. Baskets also play important roles in spiritual and medicinal rituals, as attested to in Greg Sarris’s work on Pomo basket weaver and healer Mabel McKay. McKay wove her baskets for collectors and for general consumption, and all were made under the guidance of a spirit who taught her healing songs and imbued her baskets with a spiritual power. Baskets like the Pomo feather baskets featured in the archive [630381188119] should be thought of as spiritual, as well as material, objects.

As archaeologist A. L. Kroeber and many others have noted, Pomo baskets are among the finest in the world. He writes, “To the Pomo, these served as gifts and treasures, and above all, they were destroyed in honor of the dead.” The Pomo live in Northern California and are known for the intricacy of their baskets, particularly their beaded baskets, feather baskets, and miniature baskets [6303]. Sometimes the baskets held medicines, but other times nothing at all; as Susan Billy, a Pomo basket weaver, explains, “People frequently ask me what these ceremonial baskets hold. They did not have to hold anything, because the basket itself was all that was needed. The basket contained the prayers and the wonderful, good energy that made it a ceremonial basket.” Gift baskets were given to people of stature or people with whom one wanted to cement a relationship [80818119]. Small gift baskets were sometimes worn.

Other Native American communities, including the Nez Perce of Oregon and Washington, also wore baskets. Baskets hats, such as the one in the archive [8118], play a part in the oral tradition of the Columbia River peoples. For example, in one Wishxam myth, Grandmother uses a basket hat to teach Little Raccoon about the consequences of misbehavior. In many Native American communities, baskets play an important role in women’s culture. Knowledge of how to make a basket hat, among other skills, was a sign that a young woman had reached adulthood in Columbia River culture. Women still wear these hats at powwows and other ceremonies.


  1. Comprehension: How is basketry like pottery in its significance for native cultures?
  2. Comprehension: How are Pomo baskets potentially spiritual as well as material objects?
  3. Context: In his book The Gift, Marcel Mauss argues that gifts must be reciprocated in honor and prestige, if not in kind. How might the Pomo gift baskets create a reciprocal relationship with the giver? How does this compare to other instances of giving, in, say, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony?
  4. Context: Look carefully at one of the baskets in the archive and take note of the strategies it uses to create order and harmony. Compare it to one of the coyote or trickster tales in The Norton Anthology of American Literature. How does Coyote undo society’s order? Is balance reinstated by the end of the tale?
  5. Exploration: If baskets such as the Pomo gift baskets have a “wonderful, good energy,” do we have any right to keep them in museums? What do you think happens to this energy in museums? How should items with spiritual significance be displayed? (You may want to read the essay by Greg Sarris, “A Culture Under Glass: The Pomo Basket,” in Keeping Slug Woman Alive.)
  6. Exploration: What women’s traditions exist in your family? How are they passed along from one generation to the next?



[6303] Anonymous, Pomo feather gift basket (n.d.),
courtesy of the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, Reed College.
The series of quill stitches in this coiled Pomo basket indicates the weaver’s desire to continue her work during a menstrual period, which would be bad luck if she did not substitute bird quills for plant materials.


[6307] Anonymous, Water jar, pitched with horsehair lug handles (n.d.),
courtesy of the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, Reed College.
Basketry objects found on the North American continent have been dated to as far back as 9000 b.c.


[6310] Anonymous, Coiled basket tray, rattlesnake design (n.d.),
courtesy of Reed College, Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery.
Like pottery, basketry is important for storing and transferring food and other supplies.


[7416] Anonymous, Tray, Apache, San Carlos, Arizona (n.d.),
courtesy of the New York State Historical Association, Thaw Collection.
Beginning in the late 1800s, many Native Americans used the American flag as a decorative motif in their arts and crafts. Notice the crossed flags in the design of this Apache basket.


[8081] Pomo tribe, Gift basket (c.1930),
courtesy of the Portland Art Museum, Elizabeth Cole Butler Collection.
The Pomo are a coastal native group in Sonoma County, California. The basket is made of willow, sedge root, clam shell beads, abalone shell, meadowlark feathers, quail feathers, mallard duck feathers, flicker feathers, and dogbane. Pomo baskets are known for their spiritual, ceremonial, and healing properties.

[8118] Plateau Indians, Basketry hat (c. 1900),
courtesy of the Portland Art Museum, Elizabeth Cole Butler Collection.
Nimíipuu (Nez Perce) women wore fez-shaped basket hats as part of their everyday clothing. This hat is made from vegetal fiber, wool yarn, and a leather fringe. The Nez Perce were one of the tribes encountered by Lewis and Clark during their search for the Northwest Passage.

[8202] Yokut, Basket (c. 1900),
courtesy of the Portland Art Museum, gift of Elizabeth Cole Butler.
Yokut Indian women (Central California) learned to weave at an early age. Baskets were indispensable to Yokut daily life. Yokut baskets are known for their ornate designs, including human figures and animals. This basket is made of sedge root, red bud, bracken fern root, grass, and quail feathers.


Sacred Play: Gambling in Native Cultures

[6693] Anonymous, Bone Game, Makah (c. 1900), courtesy of Larry Johnson and the Washington State Historical Society.

Gambling has long been a part of Native American cultures. Hand games, like gift exchange, are an important way to redistribute goods among community members. Gambling is not all fun and games, however. In the oral traditions of native peoples, gambler figures, like tricksters, tend to be threshold figures who can move between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Gambler myths, however, tend to have a more gothic edge than trickster tales. Gamblers often preside over the world of the dead, rather than merely visit it, and they are often associated with the end of the world. In contrast, the transgressive nature of the trickster is often a creative or generative force. Thus, gambler stories often are about an individual or community facing fear of annihilation. In Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, for example, the tribes’ Cultural Hero challenges the Gambler. The stakes are high: the Hero works on behalf of the community, but wages his life. These crucial encounters dramatize the people’s belief about how the original world was altered to its current form.

As Kathryn Gabriel points out in Gambler Way, gambling can be seen as a way of tapping into cosmic forces. At times an attempt to gain insight into or even control the otherwise unpredictable future, the outcomes of games can suggest what the cosmic forces have in store. Dice and other gaming equipment are even sacrificed on Hopi and Zuni altars. As Gabriel says about gambling in these communities, “It is likely that the rites were performed to discover the probable outcome of human effort, representing a desire to secure the guidance of the natural powers that dominated humanity.” Various native games, such as dice or hoop and pole, invoke and elaborate basic assumptions about the universe, from the nature of causality to the constant tension between opposing forces. Moreover, the communal nature of the games fosters identity within the group. Still, the games are competitive: winning was often seen as a blessing and an assurance of continued order and balance—hence the high stakes and profound meaning of native gambling (medicine men sometimes perform ceremonies to invoke the aid of spirits in winning). Many native myths involve gambling, where divine power helps the protagonist win games of chance over antagonistic opponents. Because these are sacred rites, tribal members are reluctant to discuss their details. The Navajo, for example, fear speaking about gambling away from sacred times and places, lest doing so bring down the wrath of the cosmic forces (much as they would be loath to casually discuss the Nightway). In cultures where there is no need for a straight-edge distinction between the sacred and the secular, practices like gambling both reveal and maintain profound cultural values and beliefs. Never trivial or merely parasitic to “real” or “productive” activity, gambling always conveys deep meaning in native culture.

These traditional associations of gambling are present in contemporary debates over bingo palaces and Indian casinos. Because Indian Nations are sovereign states, gambling is legal on tribal ground. For many native communities, such as the Pequot of Connecticut, casino revenues have led to an economic and hence cultural renaissance. Libraries and museums as well as educational and language programs are now available where none existed before. Critics, however, argue that legalized gambling in any form is merely a way of taxing the poor and disenfranchised.

Indeed, Indian gambling has long had its detractors. Europeans settlers professed shock when confronted with the intensity of Native American gambling. In 1775, Captain Bernard Romans said of a Choctaw hoop and pole game that it was “plain proof of the evil consequences of a violent passion for gaming upon all kinds, classes, and orders of men.” And indeed, from a Western point of view, the stakes of native gaming seemed high; traditionally, players would sometimes continue betting until losing everything they owned (even including the clothes on their backs), and Captain Romans notes that several Choctaw committed suicide after such losses. Gambling in most native cultures is not an idle pastime and certainly is not understood as vice or bad habit. First, it is a very pragmatic way of redistributing goods and food without the bloodshed of fighting or even war. But more profoundly, gambling is a form of what has been called “sacred play”; like many aspects of native life, it is inseparable from spirituality.

Teaching Tips

  • Although Longfellow based his Song of Hiawatha on Iroquois history and mythology, chapter 16 on the gambler Pau-Puk-Keewis is based on the Chippewa oral tradition (as collected by Henry Schoolcraft in the first half of the nineteenth century). Kathryn Gabriel considers Pau-Puk-Keewis “the nearly perfect archetype of the destructive Native gambler”; she notes that he is “derived from Paup-pu-ke-nay, the Ojibwa/Chippewa trickster grasshopper who has the ability to shape-shift.” Ask your students to read the excerpt from Hiawatha in the archive and use it as a backdrop for discussing Native American Gambler figures and for understanding the characterization of Fleur in Erdrich’s story.
  • Lawrence Johnson’s 1999 documentary Hand Game is an excellent introduction to traditional Native American gambling practices. Hand Game looks at eight Indian communities including the Crow, Spokane, Flathead, and Blackfeet. It investigates the world of bone, grass, or stick game—the most widely played gambling game in North America. This video includes interesting interviews with gaming participants and could be usefully paired with stories about gambler figures.


  1. Comprehension: Why was gambling important to many Native American cultures?
  2. Comprehension: What are the main attributes of a gambler figure? How does Silko’s gambler fit within this paradigm?
  3. Comprehension: Compare gambler and trickster figures.
  4. Comprehension: What is the relationship between the gambler and the cultural hero?
  5. Context: Why do the men in “Fleur” react so strongly to Fleur Pillager’s uncanny winning of the game? How do gender politics and religion operate in the story to provoke the men’s rancor?
  6. Context: Read the Winnebago trickster tale. How does the Winnebago trickster compare to the gambler? What is the role of each in creating culture?
  7. Context: Compare the depiction of gambling in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony and Louise Erdrich’s The Bingo Palace. What role does the oral tradition of the Pueblo and Chippewa, respectively, play in each?
  8. Exploration: Imagine that you are an advertising executive who has been asked to design a campaign to gain acceptance for a new Indian gambling facility near your community. What rhetoric will you employ? What claims will you refute?
  9. Exploration: Compare the role of gambling in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony to the role of gambling in the high society novels of Edith Wharton and Henry James (Unit 9). To what extent is gambling in these novels also about characters’ attempts to control the otherwise unpredictable future? How do their experiences differ?



[1092] William J. Carpenter, Life on the Plains (1915),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-99804].
Navajo and cowboy playing cards. These cards show the type of interethnic male-male bonding seen in James Fenimore Cooper’s novels. Interaction like this largely died out when white males started to bring their families to settle in the West.



[6651] Anonymous, Men Playing a Game in Subterranean Lodge at Chino Village (n.d.),
courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.
In what looks not unlike a ritual or ceremonial formation, these men are engaged in game-playing in an underground lodge. In Native American cultures, gaming is a sacred activity that in some cases allows the players to tap into cosmic forces.


[6693] Anonymous, Bone Game, Makah (c. 1900),
courtesy of Larry Johnson and the Washington State Historical Society.
This game, called the “bone game” by the Makah Tribe of the Pacific Northwest, is often referred to as the “hand game” or the “stick game.” The activity is guessing which hand is holding a piece of bone, but the game is complex and involves drumming, singing, and trickery.


[8225] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Pau-Puk-Keewis,” from The Song of Hiawatha (1855),
courtesy of Ticknor and Fields, Boston.
The sixteenth chapter of Longfellow’s famous Song of Hiawatha tells the story of the gambler Pau-Puk-Keewis. Although Longfellow based this work on Iroquois history and mythology, Pau-Puk-Keewis comes from the Chippewa oral tradition.

Creative Response

Creative response

  1. Journal: First, freewrite in your journal on whatever you know about Native American literature and cultures. Then, write a narrative from the point of view of a person of your own age who has just encountered Native American culture for the first time. What do you imagine that person would be thinking? What would he or she find most memorable? What emotions would he or she be feeling? What would he or she say to or ask the Native Americans (assuming communication could occur)?
  2. Poet’s Corner: Use one of the poems by Tapahonso or Ortiz as a model for a poem about an experience of your own. What about this model is helpful to you in expressing yourself? What seems to interfere or be bothersome? If you have written poems in the past, “translate” one of them into this form so that it echoes elements of the oral tradition. How does changing the form of your poem affect what you understand to be its meaning?
  3. Doing History: Stage a fictional dialogue between Wovoka, the Paiute prophet of the Ghost Dance religion, and a thoughtful, middle-class white person in the Midwest United States, in which they try to explain themselves to each other. Imagine this exchange takes place in early 1890, after the Ghost Dance has begun to spread but before the catastrophe of Wounded Knee. Wovoka is preaching a peaceful yet clearly anti-white spirituality (read the Wovoka selection in The Norton Anthology of American Literature before you do this assignment). The white person, sympathetic to human suffering and not prejudiced against Native Americans, is both anxious about the subversive potential of the Ghost Dance and unavoidably implicated in the society that has nearly decimated native culture. What can these two people say to each other that might build a bridge between them?
  4. Multimedia: As Paula Gunn Allen says in the video, virtually all objects and practices in traditional American Indian life are “messages”: “content-laden information that you can read.” Using the American Passages image database, construct a multimedia presentation in which you analyze the images of such items as pottery, baskets, sandpaintings, masks, and dances. What “argument” about their culture do they seem to be making? In what sense can these objects or practices be seen as messages, indicating the values or beliefs of the culture that produced them?

Problem-Based Learning Projects

Problem-Based Learning Projects

“”How can I get my students to think?” is a question asked by many faculty, regardless of their disciplines. Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional method that challenges students to “learn to learn,” working cooperatively in groups to seek solutions to real world problems. These problems are used to engage students’ curiosity and initiate learning the subject matter. PBL prepares students to think critically and analytically, and to find and use appropriate learning resources.” — Barbara Duch, University of Delaware

  1. You are a United States congressperson in 1924, speaking in favor of the act to grant citizenship to American Indians. Using texts and cultural artifacts from at least three different communities, prepare a presentation for Congress using images as well as testimony on why American Indians deserve to be full citizens.
  2. You are a spokesperson for a museum that has been asked to return to a local tribe the five-hundred-year-old human bones and burial objects in its collection. What will the museum do with these objects if they aren’t returned? How should the museum present information about Native American cultures if it doesn’t use the burial objects? Help design a new exhibit for the museum.
  3. You are part of a team charged with composing a new American history textbook for high school students. You have been asked to provide a brief sketch of the effects of European colonialism on Native American culture. How would you write such a sketch? Where would you want your reader to feel sympathy, anger, frustration, satisfaction? What is our current responsibility toward evaluating the actions of people in the past? Are the Europeans the bad guys? Are the Indians the good guys? Should our judgments be more complicated? Is there reason to believe any of us would have acted more ethically had we been alive four hundred years ago? Consider, as you write, that your audience will consist of readers from European as well as Indian backgrounds.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey