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TRACING AMERICAN INDIAN LITERARY TRADITIONS
STANFORD - Those who think that American Indian literary traditions begin with N. Scott Momaday, whose House Made of Dawn won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969, are overlooking two centuries of work, says a Native American studies scholar.
Published writings by American Indian authors go back to the 1760s, "a fact that should change our perceptions about Indian history," said Robert Allen Warrior, Stanford assistant professor of English.
It is one thing to know about the "Trail of Tears" - the suffering of the people of the Cherokee nation who were forcibly removed from the American South to what is now Oklahoma, Warrior said. "It's another to see men like [Cherokee leaders] John Ross and Elias Boudinot writing about that episode, intervening in the debate, testifying before Congress," he said.
These activists add a new element of American Indian agency to history, Warrior said, making it clear that "Indians were not a helpless, voiceless group, but rather had among them a number of people who called into question many of the things we would question today, presenting the same sort of evidence."
The activist tradition among American Indian writers has a long history. In 1768, Warrior said, Samson Occom, a Mohegan who was doing missionary work among the Montauk Indians on Long Island, wrote an autobiographical piece about his work and about Indian customs.
However, Occom's real purpose in writing, Warrior said, was to complain to the mission board that he wasn't being paid as much as the white missionaries, and to point out that those missionaries also were supplied with paid translators - an added expense Occom did not require since he spoke the language.
Warrior is working on two major projects. One, a book titled Tribal Secrets, will compare two American Indian writers: John Joseph Matthews (1894-1979), an Oxford-educated Osage whose five books included Talking to the Moon, reflections on 10 years of living alone in a stone house in Osage County, Okla.; and Vine Deloria Jr., a Standing Rock Sioux and a leading contemporary American Indian intellectual, probably best known for his book of social criticism, Custer Died for Your Sins.
Matthews and Deloria represent two different ways of being intellectuals, Warrior said. Matthews was an international traveler who ended up writing in Osage County, while Deloria is engaged in national Indian politics.
His goal in comparing the two, Warrior said, is to talk about central issues in contemporary American Indian criticism and to use Indian sources in doing so.
Warrior said he agrees with those who say that American Indian intellectuals have to take themselves seriously not just as producers of literary work but also as critics of that work.
In a second project, Warrior will look at American Indian authors from around the turn of the century to 1945.
One group of authors, active from about 1900 to 1930, is interesting for political and historical, as well as literary, reasons. These authors - who include Charles Eastman, Gertrude Bonnin and Carlos Montezuma - corresponded with one another and were associated through their memberships in the same organizations, in particular the Society for American Indians, which began in 1911.
These authors, Warrior said, had been through the assimilationist educational programs associated with Richard Henry Pratt at the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania, and largely shared Pratt's assimilationist philosophy.
The intention of Carlisle and other Eastern boarding schools was to turn young Native Americans against the traditions of their culture by any means necessary, including beatings and forced separation from family, Warrior said.
Most of the authors associated with Pratt eventually rejected his paternalism, Warrior said, "but they stood by his belief that Natives must internalize the values of Anglo-American society. They were, at the same time, committed to preserving the memory of tribal life and to maintaining what they saw as the few laudable values of traditional life, such as honesty and family responsibility."
In an article on "Reading American Indian Intellectual Traditions," published in World Literature Today, Warrior writes that it would be easy to label these assimilationist authors as "misguided, brainwashed, self-hating collaborators."
"This, though, misses the point of their achievement," he wrote. "Their knowledge of Indian people, in fact, far surpasses that of many contemporary figures. This is not to suggest that we allow their sincerity to blind us to the perturbing implications of their work. Rather, their sincerity coupled with their often troubling politics calls for fair as well as critical reading."
Warrior also is interested in poetry which, he said, "represents, in my opinion, the widest range of creative literary expression in contemporary American Indian work."
American Indian poets, he said, range from highly skilled university-trained craftspeople to lesbian women in prison who want to get in touch with spiritual traditions. Some American Indian poets have been influenced by medieval forms, others by the Beats and still others by Indian oral traditions.
This range of work, Warrior said, "shows that Indian life is quite diverse and complex, resisting the attempts of lots of people to turn it into a monolith or boil it down to its essence."
Warrior, who grew up in Wichita, Kan., spent part of his childhood with family and friends in Osage County, Okla.
He earned a master's degree in religion from Yale University Divinity School, and master's and doctorate degrees from Union Theological Seminary in New York.
While he was in graduate school, Warrior said, his interests began moving in the direction of literary and intellectual history, which he explored in addition to his studies in religion.
He joined the Stanford faculty in September 1992. The English Department, he said, seems a proper home for the work he wants to do, which is often interdisciplinary in nature, on the model of American studies.
Like others in the English Department, he finds, for example, that most students know little about religion and therefore don't pick up on the Biblical allusions which are often central to American literature. When his schedule allows, he said, he hopes to fill in this gap with a seminar on American religions and American literature in which students will read theological and Biblical texts along with novels and poetry.
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