American Nature Writers

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Title: Nature in Native American Literatures

Author(s): Hertha D. Wong

Source: American Nature Writers. Ed. John Elder. Vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1996. From Scribner Writers Series.

Document Type: Topic overview, Critical essay

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1996 Charles Scribner's Sons, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning


IN 1969, for the first time, the Pulitzer Prize for literature was awarded to an American Indian writer. N. Scott Momaday 's receipt of the prestigious award for his novel House Made of Dawn (1968) initiated what some scholars have called a Native American Renaissance, a period of renewed interest in and publication of American Indian writers. Whereas Vine Deloria, Jr., has noted that fascination with American Indians seems to ebb and flow in twenty-year cycles, interest in literature by Native American writers has been growing consistently since the 1960s. The importance of place, the narrative dimensions of history, the potency of storytelling, the possibility of (re)connection to cultural traditions, the struggle to define Indian identity, the translation of oral literatures into print, the interconnectedness of all forms of life, the sacredness of the earth, and the insistence on the power of language to articulate and influence are all central aspects of contemporary Native American literatures. Because indigenous people have long been written about (particularly by anthropologists) but less often have written for themselves, because educators are increasingly committed to a broadly multicultural curriculum that reflects the diversity of the United States, and because some of those concerned with the challenges of the postmodern age (such as environmental destruction and spiritual skepticism) seek alternative models to those originating in Western Europe, it seems likely that Native American literatures will continue to grow in appeal.

The association between nature and Native American cultures is well known. A wide array of Indians and non-Indians · from environmentalists to spiritualists, from academics to history buffs · routinely invoke a vaguely defined "love of Mother Earth" and a kinship with all living things as defining features of Native American modes of thought. Even though there is great diversity of culture, language, and geography throughout the hundreds of nations in Native North America, a sense of intimate connection to the land is central to most, and such a geocentric perspective is reflected in Native American literatures. What follows is an attempt to sketch in very broad strokes the inclusive conception of nature shared by many indigenous peoples. More particularly, the focus here is on how place · precise geographic locations and the network of relations enacted within them · is important in American Indian literatures.

Definitions and Terminology

Before considering how the natural world is represented in Native American literatures, it is important to clarify a few terms and ideas used throughout this essay. The term "Native American," for instance, is used interchangeably with "American Indian." Both are used to denote indigenous people, that is, descendants of those culture groups who have lived longest in a particular region. Since many Native Americans refer to themselves simply as "Indians" subverting the European misnomer to make it their own, "Indian" is used occasionally as well. Also, in this discussion, "Native American," "American Indian," or "Indian" refers to persons indigenous to what is now the United States rather than to the Americas generally. Although "indigenous" is associated with an intimate connection to a specific geography, the term applies also to nomadic peoples and to those who have been dispossessed of or removed from their homelands, because people can be linked to a particular place (via tradition, history, memory, or story, for instance) even when physically separated from it.

Native American Perceptions of Nature

The distinction between Western and non-Western notions of nature has often been noted. Although any generalization has limitations and an element of misrepresentation, it is true to say that, in general, European Americans consider themselves separate from, and often superior to, nature, whereas indigenous people see themselves as part of the interconnective web of the natural world. As a consequence of such culture-specific assumptions, European Americans have seen naure as a potent force to be subdued and as a valuable resource to be used, whereas Native Americans have viewed nature as a powerful force to be respected and as a nurturing Mother to be honored. In contrast to the hierarchical Judeo-Christian tradition, Native American traditions emphasize egalitarianism. Native people, says Laguna Pueblo writer and English professor Paula Gunn Allen , "acknowledge the essential harmony of all things and see all things as being of equal value in the scheme of things" (Studies, p. 5). "Even a rock has spirit or being," explains Leslie Marmon Silko , "although we may not understand it" ("Landscape," p. 84). Nature, then, which includes all celestial bodies, animals, plants, rocks, and minerals, is not separate from humans.

Native American cultures and the narratives they generate both arise from and refer to specific geographic sites. Just as European Americans often define themselves in relation to a specific social geography, so Native Americans often define themselves in relation to a precise physical geography that is mapped in a network of social relations (such as kinship and clan relations). A set of binary oppositions (itself a western mode of thought) oversimplifies the issue and might better be replaced by a spectrum of positions that reflect the diversity of perspectives within both groups. Nevertheless, the contrast between European American and Native American perceptions of nature accurately describes some of the basic assumptions that illuminate the dominant behavior of these two sets of cultures.

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