|An Overview of Post- 1960 Native American Literature
Native American Renaissance, a controversial term, is frequently used to describe the explosion of literature created
after the 1960's by Native American writers of fiction. Momaday's House Made of Dawn, which won the Pulitzer Prize in
1969, has been given the credit for inspiring the new generation of writers. The authors included in this movement
include: Paula Gunn Allen; Barney Bush; Louise Erdrich; Joy Harjo; N. Scott Momaday; Duane Niatum; Nila northSun;
Simon J. Ortiz; Leslie Marmon Silko; Gerald Vizenor; and James Welch. We will provide an in-depth analysis of most of
these great writers.
This first generation of novels which have become the classics of the American Indian Literary Renaissance-- House
Made of Dawn, Winter in the Blood, Ceremony, Love Medicine --generally present a bleak picture of life in Indian
Country. Although the authors treat their subjects with humor and compassion, and the reader gets a full sense of the
characters' essential humanity, for the most part the protagonists are poor, shiftless, heavy-drinking drifters who are
usually out of work and often in jail.
Momaday's House Made of Dawn Momaday
For instance, Abel in House Made of Dawn is lost and alcoholic after returning from World War II. He serves eight years
for killing an albino Indian before finally adjusting to life in his tribe. Gerry Nanabush, if not the protagonist of Love
Medicine then certainly the most dramatic character, makes a specialty of escaping from prison. The nameless hero of
Winter in the Blood avoids jail and is less poor than broke, but he has little aim in life; he drifts from one bar to another,
picking up women, getting beaten up. Tayo, in Ceremony, is a lost bibulous soul who, with the help of a Navajo healer,
eventually pulls his life together.
In the past five years, with what might be called the second generation of novels, Indian fiction features middle-class
protagonists, Indians in the professions. Scott Momaday's Ancient Child is about a Kiowa painter who exhibits in galleries
in New York and Paris. In James Welch's most recent book, The Indian Lawyer, the hero, a Blackfeet, is a successful
corporation lawyer who runs for Congress.
Erdrich's The Crown of Columbus Erdrich
The Crown of Columbus, by Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, depicts the adventures of a mixed-blood professor at an
Ivy League university. The change from lumpen to haut-bourgeois protagonist represents a shift in focus of the Indian
novel from depicting ethnic experience of the tribal group to dealing with problems of personal identity of Indians who
have lost or weakened their ties to their tribe because they live their lives primarily among whites.
Early Native American Literature
In the earlier novels the authors were chiefly concerned with depicting the Indian ethnic experience, the texture of tribal
life. Although certainly there are many middle-class Indians, statistically most Indians on and off the reservation are
working-class. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that in 1980--the most pertinent date for the novels under discussion--
31 percent of Indians had finished high school, 17 percent had attended college (8 percent graduated), and 28 percent
were living below the poverty line.
So, an author concerned with depicting the Indian experience is not likely to make his protagonist a yuppie. Furthermore,
ethnic characteristics are more obvious at the lower end of the social scale. Poor Indians, especially rural ones who live
with their tribes, are more likely to retain traditional patterns of ethnic behavior, whereas generally speaking, an Indian
banker living in the suburbs is likely to live pretty much as his white neighbor does.
Also contributing to the depiction of the characters of the early novels is the archetype of the trickster, the most important
culture hero to the Indians of North America. Trickster takes different forms in different tribes--Coyote, Raven, Hare, Old
Man, Heyoka--but in all cases he plays tricks and is the victim of tricks, has prodigious appetites for food and sex and
adventure, is always on the move, and is totally amoral, beyond good and evil.
Modern Native American Literature
In contemporary Indian literature this means that Trickster is more likely to be a bum than a businessman. He is found far
more often in a bar than in an office; he is traditionally a drifter who is usually out of work and often in jail. He may be
lovable, but he is rarely respectable. This is the Heyoka a character in Native American literature who is also called the
In general, the first generation of novels of the Indian Renaissance is about tribal identity. The structure of Momaday's
House Made of Dawn is based on Abel's quest to find his place in the tribal community in which he was raised, Walatowa
Pueblo. That place is in question because, although his mother is a member of the tribe, Abel, as an illegitimate child, is
an outsider; he does not know who his father is, or even what tribe his father belonged to.
Throughout the book Abel is lost and disoriented. When he returns from World War II, he cannot adjust to tribal life.
When an albino Indian named Fragua humiliates him at a tribal ceremony, Abel kills him and is sent to prison for eight
years. When Abel finishes his term, the government relocates him in Los Angeles, where he attacks a policeman while
drunk and suffers a terrible beating.
Having lost his job in Los Angeles, Abel returns home, and the novel ends on a positive note with his reintegration into
his mother's tribe. When his maternal grandfather dies, Abel buries him in the prescribed Walatowan fashion, then runs
in the ritual race for good hunting and harvests that his grandfather had won decades before. He has discovered that his
father was Navajo, and so as he runs he sings "House Made of Dawn," a Navajo prayer song, acknowledging the
paternal side of his cultural identity.
Welch's The Winter in Blood Welch
James Welch's Winter in the Blood also treats the theme of a lost soul finding his place in his family and tribe. The hero,
whose name we never learn, suffers from emotional numbness brought on by the death of his father and brother. He
drifts through life, cruising bars, picking up women, losing fights. At the climax of the novel the hero discovers the identity
of his grandfather, the man who kept his grandmother alive during the great Blackfeet famine.
Like House Made of Dawn, Winter in the Blood ends with the funeral of one of the hero's grandparents. In this case the
funeral does not follow tribal traditions--there is a coffin and a grave--but following the Blackfeet custom of burying the
deceased's possessions with him or her, the hero throws into the grave his grandmother's last possession, a tobacco
pouch with an arrowhead in it, a relic of the days when she was the wife of a great chief.
Silko's The Ceremony Silko
Leslie Silko's Ceremony deals with similar themes. Like Abel in House Made of Dawn, Tayo is an outsider because he is
illegitimate. His mother was a prostitute who raised Tayo in a shelter of rusted tin in an arroyo in Little Africa, a ghetto in
Gallup, New Mexico, where poor blacks, Mexicans, and Indians lived in terrible squalor. When his mother died, Tayo went
to live with his aunt and grandmother.
Like Abel, Tayo serves in World War II and has a hard time adjusting afterward. Both characters are reminiscent of Ira
Hayes, the Pima Indian who happened to be among those U. S. Marines who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi, Iwo
Jima. Hayes died of alcohol-related problems when he returned to New Mexico after the war. Tony Curtis's film The
Outsider made Hayes into a literary stereotype: the Indian who can die for his country but not live in it.
Tayo suffers severe mental problems from the trauma of having seen the Japanese kill his cousin while on the Bataan
Death March in the Philippines. Tayo's problems are compounded by the guilt he feels because he believes that his
prayers to stop the rain on the march have caused the drought on his tribe's lands in New Mexico. When military and
civilian psychiatrists are unable to help him, Tayo enlists the aid of the Navajo healer Betonie. Betonie knows that the
proximate cause of Tayo's problems is his experience with the Japanese, but that the ultimate cause is the witchery, the
supernatural evil set loose centuries ago by Indian witches.
Betonie sets Tayo on a quest; when Tayo completes it, he not only cures himself but also ends the drought that has
plagued the tribe. Tayo is the modern avatar of Sun Man, the trickster hero of Laguna myth who defeats the Evil
Gambler who had caused a drought by imprisoning the rain clouds.
Erdrich's The Love Machine Erdrich
Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine may seem at first reading to be more a set of related stories than a novel with a coherent
structure, but there is a framework to the book: Lipsha Morrissey emerges as the central character, the protagonist
whose adventures and discoveries give the novel its shape. The narrative begins with the death of Lipsha's mother June,
climaxes with Lipsha's discovery that his father is Gerry Nanapush, the trickster escape artist (Nanapush is the Chippewa
name for Trickster), and ends with Lipsha's helping Gerry escape to Canada.
Lipsha is an unprepossessing figure, a man who says of himself, "I never really done much with my life, I suppose. I never
had a television." He inadvertently kills his adoptive grandfather Nector while trying to work a love-medicine spell that will
make the old man fall in love with the wife he has cheated on for years. Lipsha is a figure of fun, a man given to hilarious
malapropisms (he confuses the Philippines with the Philistines, for instance). He does not gain a great deal of stature
even at the end, but when he helps his fugitive/trickster father escape, the novel concludes on an upbeat note.
All these novels close on a note of hope, the protagonists having increased their sense of self-respect by discovering
who they are and how they belong to the tribal community. Still, although their degradation seems to be behind them,
and they are personally better adjusted, they end socially as they began, marginally above the poverty line, uneducated,
without much chance--or desire, for that matter--to be successful in middle-class white American terms.
The novels of the last decade have begun to write about a different type of protagonist: the Indian professional who has
gained success and great prestige in the world of the whites.
While reading the more recent books of Momaday, Welch, and Erdrich it is clear that they have turned away from
depicting the life within a tribe, to an issue with more meaning to them personally: the cultural identity quandary
experienced by a tribal member who leaves the tribe and lives in the midst of whites and when he becomes successful he
feels he cannot return to the tribe.
Welch's The Death of Jim Loney Welch
There had been middle-class Indian characters in minor roles before: Kate Loney in Welch's novel The Death of Jim
Loney (1979), for instance, has a prestigious job with the federal government, and Myron Pretty Weasel, in the same
book, is a successful rancher.
Vizenor's The Griever Vizenor
Albertine Johnson in Love Medicine, who seems like a young Erdrich, is in medical school. In fact, one might argue that
Gerald Vizenor's Griever de Hocus, who appears in several novels and short stories, starting with "Luminous Thighs," is
the first middle-class protagonist. Griever, who functions as Vizenor's alter ego, is a filmmaker who receives a grant from
Robert Redford's Sundance Institute in "Luminous Thighs" and teaches English at Zhou Enlai University in Tianjin in
Griever: A Monkey King in China. Griever is primarily a trickster, however, a protean character who evades easy
classification and seems to strain the limits of the term middle-class.
Momaday's Ancient Child Momaday
The first real, honest-to-God yuppie protagonist in Indian fiction is Locke Setman in Momaday's Ancient Child. "Set," as
he calls himself, is a highly successful painter in San Francisco, counted "in the first rank of American artists." He exhibits
in galleries in New York and Paris, and "it was fashionable--and expensive--to own one of his paintings". Although his
father was Kiowa, Set has very little knowledge of his Indian cultural heritage. His parents died when he was a child, and
after a few years in an orphanage he was adopted and raised in San Francisco by a white philosophy professor. He is in
love with a beautiful and talented blonde woman, a pianist and archivist who graduated from Berkeley.
On one level Set represents one side of Scott Momaday. The author is also Kiowa on his father's side but not on his
mother's. Like Set, Scott was not raised among the Kiowas; he spent most of his youth in New Mexico at Jemez Pueblo,
where his parents taught in the reservation school.
Although there are pan-Indian movements, Indians generally identify themselves as members of a tribe; and so although
Scott was an Indian, as he relates in The Names he was an outsider among the Jemez, not simply an Indian among
Indians. From the time Scott went away to boarding school, he has lived mostly among whites. Much of the time, like Set,
he lived in the Bay area. Although Scott is better known as a novelist and poet, like Set he is a painter of some renown.
Still, The Ancient Child is very complex, and there is more than one side to Scott Momaday. Another side, what we might
call his traditional, tribal side, is represented by the wild young medicine woman known only as Grey, who calls herself
the "mayor of Bore, Oklahoma." Bore is the Kiowa word for cow (originally buffalo) innards, a dish the Kiowa eat raw. A
taste for bote is a test of ethnic authenticity.
Grey is Kiowa on her father's side and Navajo on her mother's. In his youth in the Southwest Momaday spent some time
in the Dine (Navajo country) and became familiar with Navajo culture and language. His first love as a young man was
riding his horse, and Grey is a wonderful rider, able to perform a trick that Scott himself used to do: picking up a dollar
from the ground while riding at a gallop.
Perhaps the strongest resemblance between Momaday and Grey lies in the fact that in The Ancient Child the latter is the
author of a collection of essays and poems called "The Strange and True Story of My Life with Billy the Kid." Momaday
had published some of the essays in the Santa Fe New Mexican in the early 1970s and had added the poems shortly
afterward, though he never published the work as a whole. He now makes a few minor changes (e.g., when Scott rode
with Billy, he saved a young woman from the Indians, whereas Grey saves a young man) and works the whole piece into
the novel as Grey's dream vision.
The Ancient Child is more than a realistic novel; there is a strong mythical element to it. It may sound like belaboring the
obvious to mention this, since the book begins with the Kiowa myth of the transformation of a boy into a bear and ends
with the transformation of Locke into a bear.
However, the way Momaday employs and blends myths is not at all obvious and can use some elucidation. For one thing,
although the Kiowa myth is the most important, it is not the only one. Locke's childhood nickname is "Loki," the name of
the Germanic god famous for his ability to change shapes.
Locke calls himself "Set," which is not only the Kiowa word for "bear" but also the name of the Egyptian god of the desert
often regarded as the embodiment of evil. Locke's transformation occurs in the desert near Lukachuki, New Mexico, and
as Locke feels the power of the bear within him, he senses it as the power of evil.
The primary myth, however, is the Kiowa story of the boy who is playing with his sisters when he turns into a bear. He
chases them to the base of Tsoai, the rock tree, which they clamber up and escape as the stars of the Big Dipper. This
myth is particularly important to Momaday, since his tribal name is Tsoai-talee, "Rock Tree Boy." Tsoai is a granite
monolith in Wyoming that is sacred in Kiowa mythology; Momaday exercises poetic license in moving it to New Mexico for
the novel. It is at the base of Tsoai, outside Lukachuki, that Locke turns into the boy and then into the bear.
On one level it appears that Locke's transformation into a bear represents a form of wish fulfillment. Momaday, living in
the tame, white world of academia--he has been a professor at Santa Barbara, Berkeley, Stanford, and now Arizona--
perhaps feels cut off from his tribal culture and thus from a more feral sense of himself. To return to tribal culture is to
move closer to nature, as the beautiful passages about the grasslands of western Oklahoma indicate; but to become a
bear is to become part of nature, as revealed in the transformation passage, when Set as bear can hear the feathers of
a hawk ruffling in the sky and smell rain in the mountains miles away.
Welch's Indian Lawyer Welch
Nothing so dramatic happens in Welch's Indian Lawyer, a novel that follows the conventions of traditional realism. There
is a transformation, however: Sylvester Yellow Calf develops from a shy, lonely child, abandoned by alcoholic parents,
living in poverty on the Blackfeet reservation, into a highly successful lawyer with the most prestigious law firm in
Montana. Sylvester achieves this transformation in easy stages, one success after another. He is a basketball star in
high school, leading his reservation team to the Montana state championship. He is all-conference in basketball at the
University of Montana as well as a good prelaw student. He attends Stanford Law School.
As the novel opens, Sylvester has just won a major court case against the Anaconda Company, the most powerful
corporation in Montana. The national Democratic Party has heard of Sylvester and wants him to run for Congress. Like
Locke Setman, Sylvester is dating a beautiful blonde, a relationship which seems to be a symbol of an ethnic's
integration into white society. The woman, Shelley Hatton, has degrees from Swarthmore and the University of
Pennsylvania and is the daughter of a wealthy rancher and politician.
Despite his success, Sylvester is uneasy, partially because he has guilt feelings at succeeding where so many of his
tribal members have failed. In Montana, Indians excel in basketball much the way that African Americans do in other
states. A major difference is that although many African Americans have used basketball as a way out of the ghetto and
into college, Indians by and large have not. Perhaps because of a tighter sense of tribal community, Indians in Montana
have felt so lonely and alienated when they left home, even to attend state schools, that they rarely play sports in college.
Sylvester's success has made him an outsider in his tribe, and he feels uncomfortable. He knows that although he has
made it, the rest of his high-school teammates, the rest of his people, are trapped in a life of poverty and failure on the
reservation. Perhaps it is this feeling of guilt that causes Sylvester unconsciously to undermine his career. As a member
of the Montana Parole Board, he meets the wife of a prisoner and has an affair with her. As a result, the prisoner's
friends attempt to blackmail Sylvester. He is able to face them down, but he abandons the race for Congress. The book
ends inconclusively; Sylvester defeats his enemies and avoids destroying his career, but that career, which has been
one triumph after another, has temporarily stalled.
Welch paints a far bleaker picture of Indian life than does Momaday. It is not that Sylvester Yellow Calf endangers his
career, but that his success is so uncharacteristic of Blackfeet. Like Momaday, Welch portrays an Indian who succeeds in
white America, as Momaday and Welch themselves have (Welch teaches at Cornell), but he heavily emphasizes the point
that an Indian who succeeds in white America is an anomaly who is likely to feel as much concern as satisfaction with that
Erdrich's Crown of Columbus Erdrich
The latest of the Indian novels with a middle-class protagonist is The Crown of Columbus by Louise Erdrich and Michael
Dorris, her husband. The novel centers on the adventures of Vivian Twostar, a mixed-blood ("Coeur d'Alene-Navajo-Irish-
Hispanic-Sioux-by-marriage" is the way she describes it professor of anthropology at Dartmouth.
Vivian is in a precarious position as the novel opens: she is ponderously pregnant with the child of a man she refuses to
marry, and she is coming up for tenure but has only a slender publication record. She is not given to self-pity, however;
she has a marvelously wry way of looking at herself ("a sort of backyard-barbecue Colette", her field ("Native American
Studies, my so-called discipline", and the world in general. The father of her child is Roger Williams, a caricature of the
repressed, upper-class, WASP professor of English. In the section narrated by Vivian she lampoons him: he "knew a lot
about the world, and little about himself". In the section Roger narrates he lampoons himself: in thinking about his as yet
unborn child, he wonders, "Would it expect me to play baseball?".
Erdrich and Dorris make Vivian so attractive and paint such a ludicrous picture of Professor Williams that it is hard for the
reader to want Vivian to marry him, although that is clearly where the novel is headed. In a sense Roger represents white
America in the way that the blonde women did in The Ancient Child and The Indian Lawyer: having a relationship with a
prototypical WASP is the sign that the protagonist has arrived in the white world. Vivian needs Roger, but she is full of
soul and is appalled at his whitebread ways.
Through Vivian, Erdrich and Dorris give a humorous yet very complex and perceptive view into what it feels like to be a
token ethnic surrounded by whites. The plot revolves around the Columbus quincentennial, an event about which the
Indians are understandably ambivalent: "My primary urge, the same as every other sensible person of full or partial
American Indian descent, was to duck it". The politically correct editor of a local journal won't let her duck it, however; he
wants a "revisionist" account of Columbus from an outraged Indian, and although Vivian objects to the way he is using
her, she agrees under pressure to do an article for him.
Vivian's research on Columbus takes her to the Caribbean, and with the change of setting we get a totally different novel.
The half that takes place at Dartmouth is a subtle and hilarious comedy of manners about life in academe, a book
reminiscent of David Lodge's Brummidge novels.
The Caribbean portion of the book is more like a Peter Benchley novel: white beach, blue skies, and improbable violence
at sea, as Vivian, though tied to an aluminum chair, manages to win a fight on board a boat, kicking her tormentor
overboard. Roger tries to make it to shore with Vivian's baby but punctures his rubber raft and has to abandon the child
in it. The raft is pursued by a shark. In the most improbable development of all, the crown of Columbus that Vivian is
pursuing turns out not to be a Renaissance treasure but Jesus' crown of thorns. When Vivian discovers it, all the thorns
fall off--a provocative image, possibly symbolic of the fact that things will no longer be thorny for the heroine.
Naturally there is a happy ending to this melodrama: Vivian is recognized as a world-renowned expert on Columbus. The
villain who tried to kill her goes to jail. She and Roger build a house and live together, presumably happily ever after. She
has achieved fame, fortune, love, and a happy family. The book needed to change from a satire to an adventure fantasy
to accomplish this, and that is what happens.
Locke Setman, Sylvester Yellow Calf, and Vivian Twostar are three examples of the new breed of Indian protagonist,
Native Americans who make it in the white world. Their fates are quite different: Locke not only eventually leaves the
white world; he ceases to be human altogether. Sylvester takes a sabbatical from his law firm but seems poised to return
to the world of corporate law, though perhaps with a heightened consciousness of ethnic and ethical considerations. And
Vivian exits a winner; she keeps her ethnic integrity and conquers the white world.
Native American poet Linda Hogan uses environmental themes and historical wrongs to express the Native view of the
world. In her studies she has concentrated on environmental issues and its effect on the Native tribes. For more on
For in-dept analysis and multimedia presentations click on the tabs above.
Allen, Paula Gunn (1990) Spider Woman's Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native
Hobson, G. The Remembered Earth: An Anthology of Contemporary Native American Literature. 1981.
Momaday, N. Scott Momaday (1889) The Ancient Child.
Moore, MariJo (2003) Genocide of the Mind: New Native American Writing.
Velie, A. R. Four American Indian Literary Masters: N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald
Welch, James (1990) The Indian Lawyer.
The Worlds Best Poetry: Supplement IV (Minority Poetry of America; An Anthology of Asian, Black, Hispanic and Native
American Poetry. Roth Publishing. 1986.
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