SAMPLE READING LIST: Contemporary Native American Novels


This field focuses on the way Native American writers have used the novel to imagine the 1) syncretism of literate and oral cultures and 2) the construction of ethnic identity in the late Twentieth Century. The novels below are intensely hybridized forms, combining genres from American Indian oral traditions with Euro American fictions and legends. Discourse analysis of these novels has been heavily influenced by Bakhtin and has tended to describe them as orchestrations of polyvocal, bi cultural dialogue. What these accounts have not fully considered is how the ideology of American ethnogenesis has conditioned the styles of this dialogue, and how the ideology has been challenged, in turn, by these styles.

According to Werner Sollors, ethnicity in America is a semiotic intent to mark boundaries between what are actually shifitng components of "external/voluntary" and "inherited" identifications. This noted, a given group's ethnic traits still tend to be understood by its members as internal, or ontogenetic. In other words, under the ideology of consensus, an American ethnic subject may decide what to appropriate to himself from an ancestral heritage, but typically, this selection transpires after the ancestral past has surfaced, been transmitted, or recovered in some genuine form. For Native Americans, however, the history of colonial deracination has left sizable gaps in cultural history and marked that history with the intercession of external power intent on destroying tribal traditions. Thus, the materials of culture are insistently hermeneutical objects, and that much more complex because they bear a genealogical burden. A need to articulate a continuous and internal cultural identity can be expected for those whose people have felt the coercion to assimilate and who have been administered and represented as marginal peoples. Many Native Americans nonetheless have believed that the articulation of their cultural identities has involved as much imagining anew as rediscovery. Questions of how to integrate ideas of the traditional with the modern mainstream and without a monolithic, abstract notion of "tradition" doubling and encasing Native Americans in immutable terms have been at the fore of the writers's projects.

Their freedom to construct re evaluative narratives, however, has been challenged by the legacy of savagism, the logic and symbology of the subjugation of non white indigenous peoples. That legacy continues to double Native Americans with a concept of authenticity, whether symbolized as primal Nature or as atavistic descent based traits. These writers parody savagist language, but they are also aware that their voices have been effected by the colonial project underpinning that language. Thus the ontological status of the /I/ in these novels is highly complicated. The fact that most of these writers feel an imperative to construct an authentic narrative self (with ties to more traditional, preliterate identities, no less) sets them at odds with what have been prevailing trends in post modernism.

How to describe this doubled consciousness and polyvocality and still comprehend a coherent narrative has generated various formal responses. Hence the inclusion on the list below of a few early texts by John Rollin Ridge, Simon Pokagon, Mourning Dove, and D' Arcy McNickle, which together offer some paradigms which later Native American writers will revise or displace. Since Native American fiction proliferates after N. Scott Momaday's Way to Rainy Mountain and House Made of Dawn in the late sixties, the bulk of the writers on this list are post 1970 and run parallel to the burgeoning of post modernism. Many of them, however, are aesthetically unlike post modern fiction, or approach postmodernist techniques gingerly. Welch, for instance, experiments with Pychonesque effects in his first novel, Winter in the Blood, only to turn to the mode of classical tragedy in his next two works. N. Scott Momaday, on the other hand, borrows modernist strategies from William Faulkner to address the tension between orally transmitted and written history. If the postmodernist has made inroads in these novels, it is in Gerald Vizenor's auto critical, self deconstructive texts or among the novels of Sherman Alexie, who has mined American mass culture (the noir mystery, the apocalyptic dasher horror film, rock `n roll music, rhythm and blues legends) for forms he has modified to make violent rhetorical gestures, dissenting from the cultural conservatism of more traditionalist authors.



— Is it possible to recover, or even approximate, oral tradition in literary forms? Do these writers have myths, when the cultural basis of their reception is gone?

— The Trickster/Transformer figure as a trope for modernity

— The construction of ethnic identity in the novels

— Inter generational revision among the writers, esp. as registered in the choice of generic frame (mass cultural forms v. traditional sources)



Yellow Bird (John Rollin Ridge): Joaquin Murieta (1854)
Simon Pokagon: The Queen of the Woods (1899)
Mourning Dove: Cogewea, the Half Breed (1927)
D' Arcy McNickle: The Surrounded (1936); Wind from an Enemy Sky (1978)
N. Scott Momaday: House Made of Dawn (1968); The Ancient Child (1989)
Leslie Marmon Silko: Ceremony (1977); Almanac of the Dead (1991)
James Welch: Winter in the Blood (1974;, The Death of Jim Loney (1979); Fools Crow (1986)
Gerald Vizenor: The Heirs of Columbus (1991); Griever: An American Monkey King in
China (1987); The Trickster of Liberty: Tribal Heirs to A Wild Tribal Baronage (1988); BearHeart: the Heirship Chronicles (1978)
Paula Gunn Allen: The Woman Who Owned the Shadows (1983)
Louise Erdrich: Love Medicine (1984); Tracks (1988); Bingo Palace (1994)
Sherman Alexie: Reservation Blues (1989); Indian Killer (1994)
Louis Owens: Bone Game (1994); Sharpest Sight (1992)
Linda Hogan: Mean Spirit (1991)



— Roy Harvey Pearce: Savagism and Civilization (1957)
— Leslie Fiedler: Return of the Vanishing American (1966)
— Richard Slotkin:; Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth Century America (1992)

— Werner Sollors: Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture (1986)
— Walter Benn Michaels: "The Vanishing American," American Literary History 2, no. 2 (Summer 1990): 220 241; "Race into Culture: A Critical Genealogy of Cultural Identity" Critical Inquiry, (Summer 1992): 655-736 [also the response to Michaels' "Race into Culture" by Avery Gordon and Christopher New field in same issue]; "American Holocaust and the Rise of the Cultural Nation" unpublished MS
— D'Arcy McNickle: Native American Tribalism: Indian Survivals and Renewals (1973)
— Jana Sequoya:"How (?) Is An Indian: A Contest of Stories," New Voices in Native American Literary Criticism, ed. Krupat (1992)
— Gerald Vizenor: Manifest Manners: Post Indian Survivors (1993)
— Karl Kroeber, ed.: American Indian Persistence and Resurgence (1994)

— Arnold Krupat: The Turn to the Native. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1976; The Voice in the Margin. Berkeley: University of California, 1989.
— Louis Owens: Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman: University of Oklahoma press, 1992. [introduction]
— James Ruppert: Mediations in Contemporary Native American Fiction. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996. [introduction]
— Gerald Vizenor: Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures (1989).
— Kathleen Donovan: Coming to Voice: Feminist Readings in Native American Fiction (1998), chs. 3 and 5.
— Oaks, Priscilla:"The First Generation of Native American Novelists." MELUS 5:1 (1978), 57 65.
— Lawrence Evers: "Words and Place: A Reading of House Made of Dawn." Western American
Literature 11 (February, 1977): 297 320.

— Ricoeur, "On Narrative Time"
— White, "The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality"
— Auerbach, Mimesis (1963)
— Bahktin, The Dialogic Imagination (1981)
— Kermode, The Sense of an Ending (1968)

Many of the primary authors claim they are re inventing, recovering, or approximating the techniques and ethos of oral culture in their novels. It might be useful to consider the theoretical possibility of these claims (can prose discourse in any way provide the literate equivalent of oral telling?) by consulting the following sources:

— Mary Austin: American Rhythm [prefatory essay] (1922); writing about her "re-expressions" of Native songs, Austin's modernist terms are suggestive of those employed by latter days Native American writers.
— Karl Kroeber: Artistry in Native American Myths (1998).
— Kroeber: "Oral Narrative in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," SAIL, 5:2 (1993 Summer)
— Deborah Tannen: Spoken and Written Language (1982).
— Wlad Godzich: The Culture of Literacy (1994).