American Indian Arts in the Twentieth Century
November is Native American Heritage month and so I thought that I might shine a spotlight on U.S. Native American authors, writing in the English language. I was completely unaware of the official designation until I chanced upon a table of books authored by American Indians. This small display was located in downtown Santa Fe at the Santa Fe Public Library. By coincidence, the Institute for American Indian Arts (IAIA) exhibition space is located just down the street. This institution is a national arts college for American Indian students, where many disciplines are taught, including creative writing.
An Overview of American Indian Writing
Though American Indian oratory has been an important part of American history for many years, creative Native American writing has been largely a contemporary phenomena. In recent years, American Indian writers have become more noticeable in the literary marketplace. Perhaps, all of this began, when M. Scott Momaday published House Made of Dawn, a short novel that achieved literary fame, when the tale of the Southwest won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1969. Following is a quick look at Native American writers, who are readily available in most bookstores, along with a short selection of eclectic writers, who may not be as readily available.
The Big Names
Sherman Alexie – Mr. Alexie has been writing novels for years, but when The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian received the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2007, the author from the Spokane reservation in Eastern Washington was suddenly thrust into the national spotlight. Most of his captivating titles are readily available in any bookstore.
N. Scott Momaday – Already mentioned for his Pulitzer Prize, Momaday is an Oklahoma native of the Kiowa nation, who has written may books of stories and fiction. Besides The House Made of Dawn, you might come across The Way To Rainy Mountain along with some of his more obscure titles in your search for Native American authors.
Louise Erdrich – Louise is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewas. She has written many novels and stories about Native life in the upper Midwest and Great Plains. She also owns and operates a Native American bookstore, Birchbark Books, in the Twin Cities of Minnesota.
Linda Hogan – Though more obscure than the above three authors, Ms. Hogan (Chickasaw) has over the years put out an impressive array of novels, short stories and non-fiction titles. Some of her more prominent titles include Mean Spirit, Solar Storms and People of the Whale.
Leslie Marmon Silko – Leslie grew up on the edge of Pueblo society in central New Mexico in the 50s and 60s. Nonetheless, she would receive national acclaim for some of her stories and books. Her short story, The Man to Send Rain Clouds, received a National Endowment for the Humanities Discovery Grant shortly after the story was first published in 1969.
Not all Native American writers produce written works that go on to find national distribution and acceptance. Still, that does not mean that these “lesser works” are without inspiration, merit or good storytelling. Many of these writers have found an important niche as observers of the American scene on a local or regional level. Following are a very select few taken from a much larger group that always seems to be getting bigger. Please note that only a few of the following poets and writers work solely in the literary mode. Many have expanded their voice to the realm music. To paraphrase one Native American poet turned performer, Roxy Gordon, “you have to go where the audience is”
Louis “Little Coon” Oliver – Louis died in 1991 and during his lifetime he only published two books. Nonetheless, his ramblings about tribal life and modern society filled with his humorous and satirical observations were enjoyed by many. Louis was born in Oklahoma, when it was still a territory and was a part of th the Muscogee Creek nation. He was ostracized by many of his tribal members for attending high school and actually obtaining a diploma.
Joy Harjo and Poetic Justice – Joy Harjo is an Oklahoma (Mvskoke Creek) poet , who after publishing several books of poetry, decided to form a band and go on stage. Still essentially a poet, Joy often performs around the country with her musical ensemble, Poetic Justice.
Joseph Bruchac – Though a long-time resident of the Iroquois country in upstate NY, Joe comes from Vermont, where he is connected with the Abanakis. Not only has Joe written numerous articles, stories and books about the Indian life in the Northeast and elsewhere, but also he is a major organizer of Native American literature and American Indian authors. Check out his Greenfield Review Press, for a major who’s who in tribal literature.
Without Rezervation – Without Rezervation was a Native American rap group from Oakland, California. During the 90s they cut 2 CDs and achieved some notoriety as on of the few (or possibly the only) Native American rap groups. The trio consisted of Chris LaMarr, Mike Marin, and Kevin Nez. The members of this group had Native roots in California (Pit River) and Arizona (Navajo)