Native American Literature

Originally, we were going to read Face by Sherman Alexie. However, like many other men have been accused of recently, Alexie was outed for sexually harassing multiple women. Due to this, we decided to take a step back from his work and read poetry and prose from other Native American authors. Before we do this though, we need to discuss the Alexie problem. In other words: can we separate the artist from the work?

This is a difficult question and generally leaves people in disagreement with one another. For example, the author of the blog post “Why I’ll Never Teach This Powerful Book Again” is, obviously, against the idea to separate the artist and the work. This makes sense. She brings up the point that students who loved Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, will also remember the accusations against him. Their love with this novel will be tarnished by his actions. She writes that her and her partner immediately began searching for other Native American authors to study, which is the one positive from this situation.

For a while now, Alexie has been hailed as the be-all-end-all of the Native American experience. The author of BookToss reminds people of the danger of a single story in her post “The Single Story of ‘Part-Time Indian’“. She brings up the TED talk that Chimamanda Adichie gave on the single story (here is another link to it because she is amazing) and says that this single story mentality has been happening in regards to the Native American experience. Yes, it is upsetting to find out that Alexie, someone who has been a hero to many people, has sexually harassed a number of women; however, don’t forget about all the other amazing Native American authors out there with stories to tell. It is quite upsetting that it had to take Alexie’s misconduct coming to light, for these authors and works to be appreciated.

Cliff Taylor shares a brief background of his life and experiences with Alexie’s work in his post “What The F**k, Sherman?“. Over the years, Alexie’s work has impacted and inspired him, so it is safe to say that the news of Alexie’s misconduct would have thrown him for a loop. However, he ends the post by saying “I think Sherman is still a hero of sort of mine…I look up to him for his writing…”. Taylor separates the artist from his work; he realizes that despite the misconduct of the artist, his (or her) work can still have a profound impact on the lives of those who indulge in them.

Let’s take a quick look at the movie Wind River. This is an exceptional film and I highly recommend it. When the Harvey Weinstein scandal first came out, I was very nervous for this film. Originally, the Weinstein Company was in charge of distribution, but when the scandal first broke in the news, the cast and crew worked hard to get the film out of the Company’s hands. Thankfully, the film is no longer in the hands of the Weinstein Company, but even when it was, Wind River was a powerful film. And, honestly, I’d admonish anyone who refused to see it because of its previous connection to the Weinstein Company. It is a powerful film inspired by the true events of thousands of instances of sexual assault to women on reservations. Proceeds from the film are going to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center to help create a database for crimes against Native American women because, as the title card at the end of the film states, missing-persons statistics are kept for every demographic expect Native American women.

Personally, I think these works can still be taught; however, there needs to be a break. There needs to be some time away from the artist, and in that time away there should be exploration of other works that hold the same themes, history, and representation. In addition, the next time the work is studied, there should be a discussion on separating the artist and the work, and that although these works may be powerful, the actions of the artist are not supported. There are plenty of other Native American authors to discover, and I am excited that we will get a mixture of authors whose work we can appreciate and even fall in love with.

I think the final paragraph of Paula Gunn Allen’s article “A Stranger in My Own Life: Alienation in American Indian Prose and Poetry” says everything that we need to keep in mind when reading the work of Native Americans. She writes, “To be sure, American Indians are not the only people who suffer alienation in the modern world, but they are among the most beleaguered, the most wounded by it. For…they live in a land that is no longer their home, among strangers who determine, senselessly, the patterns of their lives, and, they are, for the most part, powerless to do much more than determine the cause of their deaths” (pg 19).

Since Europeans first started colonizing the United States, Native Americans have been uprooted, moved, killed, and alienated. In Wind River, one of the characters says, “The Tamis people were forced here, stuck here for a century. The snow and silence, it’s the only thing that hasn’t been taken from them.”. Unfortunately, this is true and it’s disheartening. The rich, diverse history and experiences of Native Americans are often forgotten about or glossed over in history and literature classes. The ancestors of the Native Americans who first lived in this country are under-represented and mistreated in the land that is their home. This has to stop, and I think studying literature, films, and art that illustrates the history and experiences of Native Americans is the first step in making changes. Learning about the history, experiences, and misconduct against Native Americans will, hopefully, inspire people to stand up and initiate change in their communities.

Here is another good article I found on why Wind River is important and the cast and crew got involved. And here is a link to lost of Native American books. Moral of the story: watch Wind River and read all the Native American literature that you can get your hands on.

Until next time, happy reading!

One thought on “Native American Literature”

  1. I personally am not mad that we didn’t read Sherman Alexie. I’m sure his work is great, but now is definitely not the time to be giving him more attention than he needs. Plus, the works that we were given were phenomenal. If we hadn’t read those instead I wouldn’t have to know about those authors at all. Now, part of that I guess is on me, my ignorance, and laziness from not doing the research myself, BUT this stuff should be taught! it’s good! It’s part of American History and it is American literature.

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