Making Indian Literatures Fit

Kenneth M. Roemer
University of Texas at Arlington

Professor Roemer has recently edited MLA's Approaches to Teaching N. Scott Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain. This is the first volume in the MLA's Approaches to Teaching World Literature series to treat a "non-canonical" writer.

Up until a couple of decades ago, Indians were the academic territory of anthropologists, though historians might covet small allotments. Even during the mid-1970s when I told my English Department colleagues that I was teaching Native American literatures, I was usually greeted with blank stares (and an occasional Hollywood whoop).

Today, I still get a stare or two, but there have been striking developments since N. Scott Momaday received the Pulitzer Prize for House Made of Dawn (1968). Now there are comprehensive collections in the field, notably Paula Gunn Allen's Studies in American Indian Literature; useful surveys like Andrew Wiget's Native American Literature; and concise introductions, for instance, A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff's "American Indian Literature" in the October 1986 issue of American Studies International. Ceremonial texts, narratives, essays, poetry, and fiction are available separately and in anthologies and on videotape. Fine examples of the latter two are Larry Evers's anthology South Corner of Time and his video series Words & Place.

As with any new field, the first two steps toward convincing the unaware and unconverted are to demonstrate first, that the topic exists and second, that the topic is worth studying. Ironically, these two goals were initially advanced by the newest of the Indian literatures-fiction and poetry written in English-but profoundly informed by the tribal heritages of the authors. They broke ground in literature syllabi for the much older and continuing forms of ceremonial and narrative literatures. English professors often became interested in these performance arts after they had encountered the poetry and fiction of Allen, Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch, Simon Ortiz, Wendy Rose, Gerald Vizenor, Louise Erdrich, or Michael Dorris.

Of course, all English professors cannot as yet be counted among the aware and converted, but it would be rather difficult today for many of them to deny that Native American literature exists and to ignore the excellence of much of that literature. The next stage in the legitimization and popularization of the study of Indian literatures is to demonstrate that what is "there" and "good" also "fits." I am not suggesting that American Indian literatures should be bleached and melted down to accommodate some reductionist portrait of American literature. I am arguing, nevertheless, that unless teachers can present Native American texts in ways that place them in meaningful and imaginative relationships with mainstream and other non-mainstream American literatures, there is the distinct possibility that Indian literatures will be exiled to new forms of (academic) reservations: special topics courses and segregated "ethnic" or "minority" units. Once thus removed, it will be all too easy to isolate and then ignore Indian texts.

Fortunately, there are signs that this won't happen. Even in the early 1980s, several of the syllabi and course descriptions published in Allen's Studies and in Paul Lauter's Reconstructing American Literature demonstrated that English teachers had discovered ways to integrate Native and "classic" works. As more anthologies, including the forthcoming Heath Anthology of American Literature, make American Indian literature available to more teachers, this process of discovery will continue.

For instructors unfamiliar with Native texts, one way to begin this process is to introduce students to a work combining characteristics most students associate with "good literature" and familiar thematic discussions and characteristics (shaped by tribal aesthetics and traditions) that they may never have associated with the types of "literature" or literary themes presented in standard English courses.

A provocative example is Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969). It is a book of many journeys: the migration of the Kiowa from the mouth of the Yellowstone to Southwest Oklahoma; the retracing of that journey by a 20th-century Kiowa; the journeys between cultural and personal worldviews; and the magical journeys of assocation and imagination that transform a glorious but dead past into a vital and personalized present charged with tribal and family recollections.

Students who have been exposed to well-known American modernists can recognize and appreciate the complex structure of Momaday's multigenre work: twenty-four sections, each consisting of three voices--a storyteller of Kiowa and family narratives (on the left pages) answered by voices (on the facing pages) of an historian/reporter and of a Miranda-like persona who remembers, imagines, and wonders. Two poems and personal historical essays frame the sections. The intricate structure, comparable to the structures of canonized modernist texts, convinces students that Rainy Mountain is "good literature," while simultaneously expanding their definitions of good literature. Before reading Rainy Mountain, many students think that tribal narratives are "folklore" or quaint "fairy tales"--the stuff that ethnologists and children read, not the stuff that university literature students study. The unique placement of the tribal and family stories in Rainy Mountain--their intricate associations with the other voices, the poems, and the essays--helps to break down these limiting assumptions about literature.

This process of initial recognition followed by expansion of viewpoint can also be achieved with thematic discussions. Rainy Mountain is clearly a book about identity formation and can, therefore, be placed within the contexts of familiar examinations of identity associated with the "Puritan self," Franklin's Autobiography, Emerson's and Thoreau's essays, Whitman's and Dickinson's poems, and numerous well-known 20th-century works. But because Kiowa concepts of identity typically hinge on group consciousness and strong secular and sacred senses of place, the discussion of identity formation in Rainy Mountain will expand students' notions of American selves. Similar claims can be made about locating Rainy Mountain in familiar discussions of "Nature's Nation," the "Virgin Land," and the "Frontier." Rainy Mountain is about migrations to new lands and about relationships between people and nature. Nevertheless, when told from the perspective of a people whose home was the Euro-American "wilderness" and whose landscape was perceived, not as something way out there and sparsely populated, but as a rich network of story associations and relationships with plants, animals, people, and divinities, the story of the American frontier takes on important new dimensions.

The Way to Rainy Mountain is only one of many works that instructors can use to demonstrate that Native American literature exists, is good, and fits--fits in ways that will allow for continuity with familiar concerns of Americanists, while expanding those concerns in significant and exciting ways.

Contents, No. II