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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Native Voices 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?

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


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