One of the classes I'm taking this semester
is Native American (NA) Literature. For the first time I have a professor
who agrees what I've been saying all along. NA literature is different
from the norm! I'm right! I am not crazy! I've begun to think that I
shouldn't fight my way up the mainstream of thought. Like a salmon fighting
its way up a fish ladder to get to the stream, the headwater of his
birth, telling people there is a difference has exhausted me. But unlike
the salmon, I won't quit until I convince people there is a difference.
Our lecture today concentrated on dates,
dates that are important to NA writers. The day one of our own won the
Pulitzer Prize for literature and the establishment discovered what
we'd known for years, there is a difference. When we write, we write
to save our people, our traditions, our thoughts. As professor Palmer
told us today, there is a large circle called Anglo writers. This circle
encompasses all of what is accepted by the "white male" population,
works including Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, and Plato. Outside
this large circle is a smaller circle.
This smaller circle contains works labeled
other, works by women writers, and works by NA writers. The bridge between
the two cultures is the NA writer who is walking a fine tightrope. Most
NA writers are Metis, or mixed-bloods. To understand this you must also
understand NA culture. I will attempt to give the reader a crash course
in NA culture, remember, this is just a taste.
NA culture differs from Anglo cultures in
many ways. Most NA languages have no word for "I" because
individualism is discouraged for the good of the all. When all work
together much is accomplished, tribes are housed, fed, and peace reigns
within the group. Individuality is often considered a crime, to set
oneself apart is to put a rent within the fabric of the fabric, weakening
it, destroying it. Without group effort, hunting game or defending your
territory is all but impossible. If the tribe or band functions correctly,
all are fed even those with no means to support themselves such as widows
and orphans. This is one way that NA cultures differ and it's the hardest
concept for outsiders to grasp. Another concept that people don't understand
NA don't own the land, we have never owned
the land. The concept of land ownership is as foreign to us as say walking
on land is to say a whale. How can you own something that you didn't
create? Land or territory is given to us for our keeping by the Creator
not to possess, but to nurture and care. We hold the land in reverence,
we cherish every growing thing, every rock, every sandy pebble, for
they teach us so much. All living things, animal and vegetable is a
lesson from the Creator. I am not saying therefore if we don't own the
land, why cling to reservations? Because reservations are the only lands
left to us for the Creator. We shall tend the lands, nurture it, savor
it, and gladly give it back to the Creator only!
With these two fundamental differences,
I think I can tell you why NA writers are different, and why NA literature
differs. As previously stated, NA writers for the most part are mixed-bloods.
Tradition dictate that you don't talk about the tribe, you don't talk
about ceremonies, you don't talk about spiritual matters. Most mixed-blood
NA were not raised with tribal values or traditions, they've had to
adapt to both worlds, yet most feel they belong to neither, thus, they
try and bridge both worlds to show outsiders what it is to be Native.
NA writers sometimes break traditions and
are sanctioned for doing so by non-acceptance. But they usually are
not accepted by the Anglo community either, so most are dogged with
massive insecurities wondering where they do belong. NA writers try
and show what it's like to be emotionally cut away from their culture
but in doing so, they show the culture more vividly then previously
thought. If you read a autobiography of a Native, you will find few
references to themselves. But you will find descriptions of their surroundings,
their friends, the traditions they respect and love. Thus they show
themselves to the public in their entirety.
One book that comes to mind as an example
of this is "Ceremony" by Leslie Silko. She refers to herself
maybe once or twice, but she shows by example. In her preface she says
this: "I will tell you something about stories...They aren't just
entertainment. Don't be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we
have to fight off illness and death. You don't have anything if you
don't have the stories." This sums up NA writings for without the
stories, you have no culture. Without culture, you have no traditions.
Without traditions, you have no life.
So when you read a story or
poem written by a Native, take it slowly, savor it, taste it, touch
it, listen to it, and caress it for it is showing the soul of the artist,
and the cosmic teachings of those that came before....