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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Search for Identity Diane Glancy (b. 1941)

[4203] Anonymous, Protest Against the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) (1970), courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History Collection.

Born in Kansas City, Diane Glancy is a poet, short story writer, playwright, and professor. She received her B.A. from the University of Missouri in 1964, her M.A. from Central State University in 1983, and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop in 1988. Currently, she teaches creative writing at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her father’s Cherokee heritage is evident throughout her fiction; Glancy concentrates much of her writing on her dual identity as a mixed-heritage Native American. Her stories, including “Jack Wilson or Wovoka and Christ My Lord,” address the difficulties of being “half” rather than “whole”: half white, half Native American, her narrator defiantly wrestles with her position as both insider and outsider within her community.

Glancy’s characters are honest–some readers have commented that they feel as if the characters are personal friends making confessions. For example, in “Jack Wilson or Wovoka and Christ My Lord,” the narrator, using the informal (some say conversational) language that is typical of Glancy’s characters, tells us, “I believe in being generous up to a point and then I think to say things like they are.” Glancy often uses such colloquial language, sometimes with unusual punctuation, to tell stories about her identity, her family, and her spirituality. Her writing style often echoes the Native American oral tradition and, like oral storytelling, her fiction provides details that appeal to all five senses: she writes evocatively of the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings that her characters experience, thus drawing her audience more intimately into the work. Glancy’s publications include Trigger Dance (1990) and Firesticks (1993), from which the stories in The Norton Anthology of American Literature are taken.

Teaching Tips

  • Students may have a difficult time understanding some of Glancy’s writing because of its nontraditional punctuation. You may want to teach them to read the more confusing sentences as if they were poetry. Also, ask them to read sentences aloud so that they can more easily find the rhythm and, accordingly, the meaning in the prose.
  • Discuss the importance of oral tradition in Native American cultures. You could pair these stories with earlier Native American texts. You could also ask student volunteers to read aloud from the stories and, while doing so, to remember that they’re not just reading aloud: they’re storytelling. For more information about the Native American oral tradition, see Unit 1.
  • Students may more usefully discuss elements of oral storytelling and other Native American beliefs/traditions in Glancy’s stories if they have some background first. Wovoka, also known as Jack Wilson (c. 1856-1932), was a Native American prophet, considered by some to be a messiah, of the Paiute tribe. After receiving a command from God during a fever- and delirium-induced vision, he taught his tribe members a “ghost dance” that was to help them live prosperously and peacefully, recover their lost lands, and regain contact with their ancestors. You might start a discussion of Glancy by asking your students to read one or two of the Ghost Dance songs or a selection from Black Elk.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: In “Jack Wilson or Wovoka and Christ My Lord,” Glancy’s punctuation is untraditional and her language is colloquial. How do these formal techniques influence your understanding of the stories?
  2. Comprehension: Why do you think the narrator of “Jack Wilson” so frequently reminds us of her mixed-race heritage?
  3. Comprehension: What happens to the old woman at the end of “Polar Breath”?
  4. Context: The narrator of “Jack Wilson” tells about an Indian man who “can’t fly really so heavy with his heritage.” What does this mean? Compare this passage to Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” in which Dee/Wangero tells Maggie, “You just don’t understand . . . your heritage.” What is heritage and what does it mean to these characters? Is it a blessing or a burden?
  5. Context: The female narrator of “Jack Wilson” states of her relationship with men: “if he’s willing to stay you usually let him empty as the house is even with him in it.” And consider that although the old woman in “Polar Breath” seems to enjoy her solitude, she eventually moves toward reunion with her late husband. Compare these descriptions to Bambara’s description of Sweet Pea and Larry’s relationship in “Medley.” Why do the women seem to want to be alone, yet return to these men?
  6. Context: Analyze [4203], in which Native American students protest the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1970 (the BIA is an often-criticized governmental agency charged with handling matters related to Native Americans). What do you make of the signs in this image, especially “Indians Are Red/B.I.A. What Are You” and “Stop Persecuting Indians”? Why might these people have been protesting?
  7. Exploration: The narrator of “Jack Wilson” tells us that the “changing surviving ole Coyote finally teaches in the end that there’s no ultimate reality no foundation and whatever he/she believes is true.” What are the implications of a belief in shifting realities, or of an ideology characterized by relativism? What would it mean for there to be no “absolutes”?
  8. Exploration: Compare Emily Dickinson’s poetry with Glancy’s prose, for example, when Glancy says, “Me and all the runny-nosed reservation children suffering alcoholism poverty want close-mindedness growing up to engender the same in their own.” How do these authors’ unique punctuation and word use either restrict or enlarge the possible meanings of their works? Why might they reject traditional punctuation and grammar?
  9. Exploration: The mixed-race narrator of “Jack Wilson” says, “it was years before I started saying what I thought” and “I saw right away I was invisible to him.” In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey’s narrator Chief Bromden is also half white and half Native American. Chief pretends to be deaf and mute, making him, in a sense, invisible. Read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and compare Chief’s experiences with those of Glancy’s narrator. What does it mean to be “invisible”? Is silence an effective mode of resistance in an oppressive society? What does it mean when the bird in “Jack Wilson” says, “presence. Substance. Something visible”?
  10. Exploration: The old woman in “Polar Breath” is described as “an exile in herself.” What does this mean? How, if at all, is this possible? What is the significance of her dead husband and the spirits? Is she really alone?

Selected Archive Items

[4203] Anonymous, Protest Against the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) (1970), 
courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History Collection. 
“To look upon that landscape [Rainy Mountain] in the early morning, with the sun at your back, is to lose the sense of proportion,” writes N. Scott Momaday in The Way to Rainy Mountain. “Your imagination comes to life, and this, you think, is where Creation was begun.” Along with the expansion and development of contemporary Native American writing in the late 1960s and 1970s, protest movements arose against the discrimination suffered by American Indians.

[4219] Western Photograph Company, Gathering Up the Dead at the Battle Field of Wounded Knee, South Dakota (1891), 
courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. 
U.S. soldiers, gathering bodies from the battlefield at Wounded Knee, standing in front of a wagon full of dead Sioux. A blizzard delayed the burial of the dead. Eventually, the Sioux were buried in a mass grave, with little effort made to identify the bodies.

[5595] Gales and Seaton’s Register, Register of Debates, House of Representatives, 23rd Congress, 2nd Session, Pages 1007 through 1010, Cherokee Memorial (1835), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress. 
This is a record of the reception of the Memorial of the Cherokee Council by Congress. Despite the eloquence of the petitions and their invocation of the republican ideals of natural rights and independence, the Cherokee people were brutally forced off their ancestral lands in 1838.

[8008-not found] Greg Sarris, Interview: “Native Voices” (2003), 
courtesy of American Passages and Annenberg Media. 
Greg Sarris, author, professor of English, and Pomo Indian, discusses the trickster figure Coyote.

[8101] Blackfeet, Dress (c. 1890), 
courtesy of the Portland Art Museum, gift of Elizabeth Cole Butler. 
The Blackfeet of Montana are a Plains Indian confederacy of three politically independent tribes: the Peigan (Poor Robes), Bloods (Kainai or Many Chiefs), and North Blackfeet (Siksika or Blackfoot). Blackfoot author James Welch helped start the Native American Renaissance with works like Winter in the BloodFools Crow, and Riding the Earthboy 40. This woman’s dress, made of leather, glass beads, and wool cloth, is similar to what women would have worn during the Ghost Dance movement of the 1890s.

[8688] Arch C. Gerlach, editor, Map of Early Indian Tribes, Culture Areas, and Linguistic Stocks, from The National Atlas of the United States, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Geological Survey (1970), 
courtesy of the General Libraries, University of Texas at Austin. 
The Cherokee originally lived in the south-eastern part of what is now the United States, but after the unsuccessful petitions of the Sandra Cisneros, they were removed to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Contemporary writer Diane Glancy is of Cherokee descent; her 1996 novel, Pushing the Bear, is about the Trail of Tears, the Cherokees’ long, forced march to Indian Territory, during which thousands died.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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