Cultural Perspectives: Native American Literature
My undergraduate focus was on the Native American plight, specifically the Miccosukee Tribe of South Florida. The Miccosukee and their cousins, the Seminole, are one of the few successful Native Americans on the continent due to a very successful casino business. Yet, there is much criminal behavior within the tribe, driven by alcohol and drug abuse. Native American culture is one that remains mysterious to some. They see the Native American as an Indian good only for drinking, smoking and gambling in their casinos and reservations. The stereotype is of an ignorant and uneducated drunkard, incapable of morals and intelligence. They are low-class individuals whose descendants were barbaric heathens (Blake, 2004; Wiget, 2004). No one sees!
Once upon a time, these same people roamed the American lands, considering every inch of it sacred. They lived in harmony with not only the land but also with all of its inhabitants. This was an organic worldview they lived by, one which had its own principles and values. Although there were warring groups, war was minimal; disease was minimal. They were not drunkards or ignorant people–alcohol was introduced by the white man. Each tribe was able to commune with the land and each other in synchronicity, resulting in balance of both mind and matter (Blake, 2004; Wiget, 2004).
Now, yes, alcohol and drug abuse runs rampant within the tribes. Diabetes is the number one killer due to the staples forced upon them by the government. Cancer is another problem for certain of the Native American as tumors pop like corn within their being. For these people, exposure to contaminated water has pierced their body and soul (Blake, 2004; Wiget, 2004).
It is baffling as to why more empathy is not shown to these strong minded and intelligent people. Horrendous massacres occurred that included the slaughtering of babies, women, and the elderly–this is known. That young children were torn away from their parents at a young age to “Christianize” and “Civilize,” in public schools is well-known. That most of these children, some as young as five, committed suicide is less known; that this is still going on is even less known. That racism still exists against this culture is known but yet most “others” remain indifferent. The suffering and the pain endured by the past generations, the genocide no different from Hitler’s, still pervades in the minds of the Native American people’s dreams–better said, nightmares. Native American literature, as far back as to Chief Seattle’s speech, exposes a nation whose voice pleads to be heard but who have been denied that need. Today’s Native American prose and poetry is the only voice that reveals truths that most “others” find humorous, indifference remaining the same.
The seven pieces I have chosen, Seattle (2004) “Chief Seattle’s Speech,” William Apess’ (2004) “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man,” Elias Boudinot’s (2004) “An Address for the White,” Thomas Whitecloud’s (2004) “Blue Winds Dancing,” Simon Ortiz’s (2004) “from Sand Creek,” Joy Harjo’s (2004) “The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window,” and Sherman Alexie’s (2005) The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven, delineate the progress of the Native American not through U.S. history books or through ancient oral stories, but through written literature, both prose and poetry, capturing the emotion of the experience in addition to the narrative in chronological order as well as in the order of the culture’s literature evolvement. This movement of literature shows the parallel in methods, techniques and strategies with the other cultural literatures of the same time.
Although not an essay and although its authenticity disputed, I include Seattle’s (2004) “Speech of Chief Seattle,” to illustrate how by the turn of the century, this great chief gave a not very bright prophecy for the future of his kind. By the time Chief Seattle came onto humanity’s scene, the Native American plight had already taken shape as many tribes were massacred and eradicated from existence. In other words, most of the Native Americans tribes that existed before Columbus’ wave of murderers simply became extinct due to genocide (Wiget, 2004). The narrative for the Indian had begun, the climax reached and passed. By the Seattle’s (2004) time, the resolution was well underway. Seattle (2004) accepted defeat in this address, at the same time questioning whether the White man’s God was the same as the Red man‘s since that God had not shown any sympathies for the Indian, their cultural narrative playing out like Greek tragedy. In fact, the chief asserts that the Red man’s God has also shown no mercy. Seattle (2004) sadly spoke:
Your God is not our God! Your God loves your people and hates mine. He folds his strong protecting arms lovingly about the pale face and leads him by the hand as a father leads his infant son–but He has forsaken His red children–if they really are His. Our God, the Great Spirit, seems also to have forsaken us. Your God makes your people wax strong every day. Soon they will fill all the land. (p. 660)
This speech by Seattle (2004) is but the last words of a once robust culture as Seattle (2004) states, “The Indian’s night promises to be dark” (p. 661) and the days numbered, specifically to the days when the Native American roamed free in their land. The narrative of what once was is over; the characters have all “ebbed away like a rapidly receding tide that will never return” (p. 660).
Showing the progression in line with the other cultural literature of its time, Apess’ (2004) “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man,” uses the language of the elite. With scholarly words and perfect structure, the author laments the condition of his people at the turn of the century, the Native American. His point, however, is to illustrate how Native Americans are also capable of scholarly writing. Apess (2004) piece portrays images of a dying Native American culture. By Apess’ time, this death force came not only from without; the white wave had now infiltrated the within of the Native American, yielding destructive behaviors that resulted from oppressive conditions and the booze introduced by the encroaching white race. In particular, Apess (2004) asks us to take a few moments to look into the reservation and what the white people would find. He illustrates:
…as they wandered from one hut to the other they would view with the females who are left alone, children half starved; and some almost as naked as they came into the world. And it is a fact that I have seen them as much so–while the females are left without protection, and are seduced by white men, and are finally left to be common prostitutes for them, and to be destroyed by that burning, fiery curse, that has swept millions, both of red and white men, into the grave of sorrow and disgrace–Rum. (p. 645).
This liquid, rum, is the demise of the U.S. Indian–the elixir that dims the lights further sinking the Native American into what Seattle (2004) called the darkest of night for the Indian, introduced to them by none other than: The White Man!
Unlike Seattle (2004) and Apess (2004), who both realized the non-fixable, marginalized and oppressed state of the Native American within the United States, Boudinot (2004) was the Benedict Arnold of the Native Americans; he is known for having sold out his race by signing the Treaty of New Echota in 1835 (Boudinot, 2004, p,. 651). This Native American wrote like the white elitist who had massacred his kind, yet Boudinot (2004) remained erroneously hopeful that the white man would see that the barbaric heathen was no longer. His goal was to change the heart of the white man by proving to him through his polished and formal structured writing that the Native American was reaching a level of competency commanding respect from all cultures, especially the white one. Boudinot (2004) professes:
The Government, though defective in many respects, is well suited to the condition of the inhabitants. As they rise in information and refinement, changes in it must follow, until they arrive at that state of advancement, when I trust they will be admitted into all the privileges of the American family. (p. 655)
Unfortunately, Boudinot (2004) was too much of an optimistic and not much of a realist. His people killed him for his treason; his people remain stereotyped, marginalized and oppressed in the 21st century.
Fast forward a few decades and into post modernism, and we find the Native American completely changed. The change has been just as Seattle (2004) envisioned at the turn of the century. The Native American tribes and cultures as he knew them in his youth no longer exist. They are in darkness, broken people with lots of laments. Echoing the words of African American poet, Maya Angelou, in her poem “I Still Rise,” you may say the Native American writers have done the same and are the voices of the past fallen People, the present and the future.
We now find Native Americans writing poetry to depict the history of the Native American as in Ortiz’s (2004) poem, “from Sand Creek.” This poem represents a memorial for those Native American “600 Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho People, two-thirds of them women and children” (p. 2630)–people at peace and who had been assured that none would be harmed. “The People had been assured they would be protected by the flag” (p. 2631). Yet, “The reverend Colonel Chivington and his Volunteers and Fort Lyon Troops, numbering more than 700 heavily armed men, slaughtered 105 women and children and 28 men” (p. 2631). Ortiz brilliant works these statements into his poetry, illustrating the experimentation by post-modernist poets. He adds:
has been a burden
of steel and mad
but, look now,
there are flowers
and new grass
and a spring wind
from Sand Creek.
Ortiz’s (2004) poem is but a sentence structure like a poem. What was once a compound sentence, following a straight line has been fragmented by the writer, broken up to obscure the true format–the two independent clauses. In analyzing, perhaps Ortiz meant to show the reader how what is on the surface is deceiving. One must look deeper to see the reality of what one is looking at: Is it a line of stanzas? Or is it just a compound sentence? Are the flower and new grass and spring wind that are rising from Sand Creek hiding a terrible past? What is really springing?
Some readers will find Harjo’s (2004) “The Woman Hanging from the Thirteen Floor Window,” equally disturbing. This is another post-modernist poem written by a Native American poet, this time describing the life of a Native American in modern times. The author writes:
She hangs from the 13th floor window in east Chicago,
with a swirl of birds over her head. They could
be a halo, or a storm of glass waiting to crush her.
She thinks she will be set free. (p. 2657)
This poem is written in paragraph style. This is once again painting a flare towards post-modernist strategy. The most poignant part of this poem, however, is the message of this obviously marginalized, oppressed and hopeless Native American woman living in a huge city–Chicago. She has many relatives, children and more. Yet, the last stanza says it all: She would rather die than live because she believes she will be released from her suffocating environment.
Whitecloud (2004) is another prolific Native American writer whose prose is full of effective imagery that provides the picture of the life of a Native American in post-modern times. This time, the narrative provides the reader with what it is like for a Native American to leave the compound of the reservation, to yearn the reservation and finally what it feels like to return.
His piece, “Blue Winds Dancing,” is a descriptive narrative. Whitecloud (2004) chooses his words to paint vivid imagery for the reader. His well-picked words and the way he juxtaposes the natural with the human is intriguing and refreshing at the same time. Whitecloud (2004) echoes the word “going home,” which hints at the conflict that drives the plot, the focus and purpose of this piece:
Moon and stars and clouds tipped with moonlight. And there is a fall wind blowing in my heart. Ever since this evening, when against a fading sky I saw geese wedge southward. They were going home…Now I try to study, to study, but against the pages I see them again, driving southward. Going home (p. 2111).
But, this piece is more about than just going home. It’s about finding one’s soul again–that’s what Whitecloud hints at in this piece. What he discovers when he returns home is what it truly means to be happy, alive and full of soul, something he had forgotten while living in the white man’s world. Whitecloud proclaims:
Strange, I think, and then remember. These people are not sharing words–they are sharing mood. Everyone is happy. I am so used to white people that it seems strange so many people could be together without someone talking. These Indians are happy because they are together, and because the night is beautiful outside, and the music is beautiful. (p. 2116)
In my own cultural sort of way, these words make me want to go camping in the great outdoors without my family since they would drown out Nature with their loud squeals. But, I do know what it is like to commune with people as those described above. Words cannot capture the essence of what is sensed or felt other than it feels real! It is as though we are all one, connected.
One more part of Whitecloud’s (2004) essay that captures the soul of the piece pertains to the oneness and connection the Native Americans feel when it comes to each other and a universal power that is so much greater than they are–a connection with God. Whitecloud (2004) continues,
I watch and see now that the old people are speaking to me. They nod slightly, imperceptibly, and their eyes laugh into mine. I look around the room. All the eyes are friendly; they all laugh. … I am happy. It is beautiful. I am home. (p. 2116)
The reader thinks, “I am happy. It is beautiful. I am home.” The author realizes that his people shine soul through their eyes. His people know how to connect and become one. The reader thinks, “Perhaps there is still hope. Perhaps through these beautiful Native American images, people can learn how to be quiet, be still, and shine soul through their eyes.” On the other hand, perhaps the opposite will be true. I’ll remain a realist.
Finally, the final but absolutely not the least of the Native American literature is not a speech nor a poem nor an essay; instead, it is a combination of all, wrapped up neatly in a novel called The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven, first published in 1993; its author: Sherman Alexie. In this novel, one of the themes found is about alcoholism. Showcasing his prolific and creative abilities as a Native American artist, Alexie provides descriptive images of particular situations. At the same time, he is able to highlight the seriousness of the disease that is claiming the life of his tribal members and has further destroyed reservation life. Most importantly, he is able to reveal the thought process involved as well as a rationale for this behavior clearly and in a way that any reader should be able to empathize for the decision taken by those Native Americans who succumb to this drinking disease. Alexie (2005) writes:
Victor was drunk again.
A night in the wooden-floor bar and she wanted to dance, but he wanted to drink and ease that tug in his throat and gut.
“Come on, you’ve had enough,” she said.
“Just one more beer, sweetheart, and then we’ll go home.”
It happened that way. He thought one more beer could save the world. One more beer and every chair would be comfortable. One more beer and the light bulb in the bathroom would never burn out. One more beer and he would love her forever. One more beer and he would sign any treaty for her. (p. 88)
A postmodernist, Alexie combines both prose and poetry, resulting in true prose and poetic justice.
As a reader, Seattle’s (2004) words and all of the words of the works analyzed resound within my being. The Native American has suffered more than any other human being on the planet and yet most remain indifferent to this fact, choosing to remain blind to the true plight and reason behind the superficial appearances and behaviors. Delve deeper and you will see; then, and only then, will you understand.
Copyright 2013 by Hakes Publishing
Alexie, S. (2005). The long ranger and tonto fist fight in heaven. New York, NY: Grove Press. pp. 1-242.
Apes, W. (2004). “An indian’s looking-glass for the white man.” In P. Lauter (Ed.), The Heath Anthology of American Literature (pp. 645-650). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Blake, S. (2004). Late nineteenth century 1865-1910. In P. Lauter (Ed.), The Heath Anthology of American Literature (pp. 1338-1340). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Boudinot, E. (2004). “An address to the whites.” In P. Lauter (Ed.), The Heath Anthology of American Literature (pp. 651-658). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Harjo, J. (2004). “The woman hanging from the thirteenth floor.” In P. Lauter (Ed.), The Heath Anthology of American Literature (pp. 2657-2659). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Ortiz, S. (2004). “from sand creek.” In P. Lauter (Ed.), The Heath Anthology of American Literature (pp. 2630-2636). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Seattle (2004). “Speech of chief seattle.” In P. Lauter (Ed.), The Heath Anthology of American Literature (pp. 659-662). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Whitecloud, T. (2004). “Blue winds dancing.” In P. Lauter (Ed.), The Heath Anthology of American Literature (pp. 2111-2116). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Wiget, A. (2004). Late nineteenth century 1865-1910. In P. Lauter (Ed.), The Heath Anthology of American Literature (pp. 14-45). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.