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©

1999

Claywoman

 

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 is land.

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....