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Native American Literature

Native American Literature

The racial lines, which once were bitterly real, now serve nothing more than marking out a living mosaic of human beings. So Zitkala-Sa writes in her 1902 essay published in the Atlantic Monthly, titled Why I am a Pagan. Zitkala-Sa is regarded as one of the most influential writers of Native American literature. But what is Native American literature? How do we define it, and why is it important? Native American literature offers valuable insight into the Native American experience, both past and present.

Content warning: this article contains themes of racism and violence.

Native American Literature Map of tribes of the Indian Nation StudySmarterMany different Tribes have a long history throughout the nation, Wikimedia.org

Native American literature: Definition

Native American literature is literature written by and about Native Americans and their heritage, traditions, and modern-day experiences. Its important to remember that it is not a singular type of literature. There are many different cultures, Tribes, and traditions within the American Indigenous population, so Native American literature encompasses the diverse Native American experience. Native American literature helps readers understand that Native American people are not historical but active participants in the countrys cultural mosaic today.

The historical context of Native American literature

Before coming into contact with Europeans, Native American cultures had rich oral storytelling traditions. These traditions included folktales, myths, and oral histories. When Native American peoples were forced to assimilate to Christianity and European missionary culture, members of Native American Tribes learned to read and write in English. This ushered in a new method of telling stories.

Assimilation: this is the process in which a minority culture is replaced by a dominant culture.

The early Native American writers in the 18th and 19th centuries wrote mostly autobiographical accounts, which was a departure from their oral storytelling traditions. Many wrote personal stories and political texts to advocate for proper treatment and rights for Native American peoples at the time. Zitkala-Sa (18761938), one of the most famous early Native American writers, wrote in American Indian Stories (1921) about her struggles with intersectionality—the pull between her Yankton Dakota reservation heritage and her European white formal education. This intersectionality would become a common theme in modern-day Native American literature.

Intersectionality: this refers to the overlapping of social categorizations, such as race, class, and gender.

Native American Literature Indian Boarding school in Pipestone StudySmarterIndian Boarding School in Pipestone, Minnesota, Wikimedia.org

Beginning in the 1960s and lasting through the 1970s, Native American literature experienced a renaissance. White readers became interested in reading about the lives and cultures of Native Americans, and Native American authors became activists for Native American sovereignty and rights. This first wave of Native American literature sparked Native American Studies programs at universities across the nation and brought Native American authors into the mainstream.

Examples of Native American literature

While it is problematic to highlight only a few books to represent Native American literature, the following texts have been chosen because they are the recipients of numerous awards.

Native American Literature: House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday

The book that brought Native American literature into the mainstream was N. Scott Momaday’s novel House Made of Dawn (1968), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1969. Abel, the novel’s protagonist, returns from World War II to his reservation in New Mexico. As a stranger in a familiar land, he faces tragedy and ultimately redemption as he navigates the debilitating effects of war and cultural separation. In the decades since it was published, House Made of Dawn has received praise for its rich and authentic depictions of the Native American experience.

Native American Literature: Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

Another key novel in the Native American Renaissance of the 60s and 70s was Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977). Like Momaday’s book House Made of Dawn, Silko’s novel features a young man who returns home to Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico after World War II. Tayo, the protagonist dealing with “battle fatigue” (called post-traumatic stress disorder today), relearns his Pueblo tribal ceremonies to heal his trauma and his land from its current drought. Regarded as an inspiration to Indigenous people, it has become an exemplary story of how a return to one’s roots can be healing.

Native American Literature: The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich’s novel The Night Watchman (2020) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2021. Set in the 1950s, it is about one man’s resistance to a new U.S. bill that would force the termination and displacement of his Ojibwe Tribe. It also tells the story of young Patrice Paranteau, who attempts to balance the different worlds of her native Tribe and modern America as she searches for her long-lost sister in Minneapolis. Louise Erdrich has become a prolific writer and is cited as a significant writer of the Second Wave of the Native American Renaissance.

The characteristics and themes of Native American literature

Themes of being caught between two worlds, identity crises, reverence for the natural world, and the use of traditional texts are commonplace throughout many Native American literary works.

Native American Literature: Caught between two worlds

Often in Native American literature, a character will experience tension between two different worlds. Usually, this is the pull between the traditional life on the reservation and the modern life in urban America. The tension that arises creates conflict and complexity for the character, who, as a result, undergoes a journey of self-discovery. Often, the resolution of this conflict is an embrace of the character’s intersectionality, as seen in House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday.

Native American Literature: Identity

In many Native American literature texts, the protagonist experiences an identity crisis, usually as a result of the tension they feel between their competing worlds. This search for an identity drives the story and its character development. Through rituals, ceremonies, meeting with elders, and other traditional acts, the protagonist can garner a renewed sense of self. One prime example of this is the narrator in James Welch’s 1974 novel Winter in the Blood. The unnamed narrator wrestles with his identity and turns to alcohol for coping but later finds redemption when he embraces his fragmented identity.

Native American Literature: Use of traditional texts

Native American literature often contains traditional texts, such as oral histories, folktales, creation myths, songs, hieroglyphics, and pictographs. These serve to inform the reader about the particular Native American culture represented in the book. They also help to draw out themes of identity and relation to one’s heritage. Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko uses the parallel narratives of the mythical world and the modern-day world to achieve these effects.

Native American Literature: Reverence for the natural world

Because Native American people have been displaced from their lands since European colonization in 1492, the natural world and its landscape play a significant role in many works of Native American literature. Characters who flee from their native land struggle, wrestling with their identities and fate, whereas those who stay—or return—find freedom. In Louise Erdrichs novel Love Medicine (1984), the tribal land is tied to the characters identity. Uncle Eli, for example, maintains a deep connection to this land and, therefore, is healthy in his old age. His brother Nector, however, who grew up off the reservation, is now senile.

Popular Native American poets and authors

Joy Harjo, Simon J. Ortiz, and Sherman Alexie are three Native American writers who have garnered many literary awards for their writing.

Native American Literature A photograph of Joy Harjo StudySmarterPortrait of Joy Harjo, U.S. Poet Laureate (2019), Wikimedia.org

Native American Literature: Joy Harjo

In 2019, Joy Harjo was the first Native American to become the United States Poet Laureate, the official poet of the United States. In her role as Poet Laureate, she seeks to raise awareness about poetry, especially among Native writers. A member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Harjo focuses much of her poetic work on identity and social justice.

She had some horses.
She had horses who were bodies of sand.
She had horses who were maps drawn of blood.
She had horses who were skins of ocean water.
She had horses who were the blue air of sky.

(Joy Harjo, excerpt from the poem She Had Some Horses, 1983)

Native American Literature: Simon J. Ortiz

Another leading figure in bringing Native American authors to the mainstream is Simon J. Ortiz, a poet and short-fiction writer. His writing centers on themes of alienation, the wisdom of ancestral spirits, and reverence for natural landscapes.

Therefore, as humans, this we do:Sun Father begins redin the east.Stand and be humble.Red through trees,moments changing each instantinto the next change,each change tied to the next.To be human is to havea sense of being within self.

(Simon J. Ortiz, excerpt from the poem Becoming Human, 1994)

Native American Literature: Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie is a short story writer, novelist, and poet from the Spokane Indian Reservation. His best-known novel is The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven (1993). His semi-autobiographical young adult-fiction novel The Absolutely True Diaries of a Part-Time Indian (2007) won the National Book Award for Young Peoples Literature. Both novels explore themes of cultural and personal trauma, poverty, and the tensions between hope and loss.

The Absolutely True Diaries of a Part-Time Indian became enmeshed in controversy. In fact, it was a heavily challenged book between 2010 and 2019. Parents, school boards, and community members across the United States were outraged at its acknowledgment of alcoholism, poverty, racism, and sexuality. It was also challenged for its profanity and religious viewpoints. Many critics discussed its merits in defense of the book, such as its depictions of the effects of bullying and a call for more acceptance of cultural differences. The Absolutely True Diaries of a Part-Time Indian has paved the way for more Native American literature to enter the mainstream and young adult markets.

Native American Literature - Key takeaways

  • Native American literature is written by and about Native Americans. There is not a singular Native American culture or experience, as there are numerous distinct Tribes throughout the nation.
  • Oral Native American storytelling has been around for centuries.
  • Native Americans began writing autobiographies and protest literature after acquiring English writing and speaking skills from their (often forced) assimilation.
  • In the 1960s and 1970s, Native American literature experienced a renaissance as a result of N. Scott Momadays breakthrough novel House Made of Dawn (1969).
  • Other famous authors and poets include Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, and Joy Harjo.

Frequently Asked Questions about Native American Literature

Native American literature is written by and about the Native American people and their particular cultures, tribes, and traditions.

Three characteristics and themes of Native American literature are being caught between two worlds, identity, and reverence for the natural world.

Native American literature is important because it brings the experiences of Native Americans into the mainstream.

Common themes found in Native American literature are trauma, identity, cultural separation, and the use of traditional texts.

Although varied and diverse, Native American literature often focuses on the tensions between traditional and modern life.

Final Native American Literature Quiz


Who is the first Native American U.S. Poet Laureate? 

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Joy Harjo 

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What book is cited as the start of the Native American "renaissance" in the '60s and '70s?

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House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday 

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Who wrote American Indian Stories, published in 1921?

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Show question


What does 'intersectionality' mean? 

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'Intersectionality' is the overlapping of social categorizations, such as gender, class, and race. 

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What does 'assimilation' mean? 

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The process in which a minority culture is replaced by a dominant culture. 

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Why was The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian challenged and banned across the United States? 

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was challenged and banned because of its acknowledgement of alcoholism, poverty, racism, and sexuality and for its profanity and anti-religious viewpoints.

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Why can't we view Native American Literature as a 'singular' literature? 

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Native American literature comprises the various cultures and traditions among the distinct Native American tribes. There is no one singular Native American culture. 

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Who is cited as a significant writer in the second wave of Native American literature? 

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Louise Erdrich 

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What roles do the natural world and landscape play in many works of Native American literature? 

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Landscape and the natural world serve to provide an identity and sense of belonging for characters in Native American literature. 

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What is a source of tension for characters in many Native American texts?

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A character is caught between two worlds. 

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