Contemporary Native American Writers

 

N. Scott Momaday’s book of poetry and sketches, In the Presence of the Sun (1993). Special Collections’ copy is signed by the author and comes from the library of Jan Garden Castro.

Welcome back from Thanksgiving break!

Thanksgiving is a time when Americans like to tell stories about early settlers and their relationships with indigenous people. However, the way these stories are often told leads many people to see Native American people as ancient and long-dead, rather than as participating in rich and thriving cultures that still exist today. In fact, a 2015 study of representations of indigenous people in K-12 education found that over 85% of such representations are in a pre-1900 context, contributing to the sense that indigenous people have no place in the twentieth century (Shear et al).

It is important that we remember that although Native Americans have suffered greatly under European colonization, they and their culture still exist and thrive today. In honor of Native American Heritage Month, Special Collections would like to highlight some of the wonderful works by contemporary Native American authors that we have in our collections.

Leslie Marmon Silko

Perhaps one of the best known contemporary Native American authors is the Laguna Pueblo poet and novelist Leslie Marmon Silko. Her numerous short stories, novels, and poetry collections are grounded in beautiful prose and verse descriptions of the Laguna Pueblo history, traditions, and culture. Her unique poetic voice has won her wide literary acclaim, and she was one of the inaugural recipients of the MacArthur “Genius” Grant when it was established in 1981.

A broadside from a poetry reading Silko participated in in 1985.

The Edison Department of Special Collections has a special broadside created for a poetry series Silko participated in in 1985. The broadsides, designed and printed by Allan Kornblum, were printed at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts by Coffee House Press on the occasion of the author’s lectures at Walker Art Center.

Unedited proof pages of Leslie Silko’s Almanac of the Dead.

Special Collections also has a copy of proof pages for Leslie Silko’s second novel, Almanac of the Dead. The theme of both this epic 700-page work and her first widely celebrated novel, Ceremony, focuses on the conflict between Anglo-Americans and Native Americans.

Navarre Scott Momaday

N. Scott Momaday’s signature on the title page of The Gourd Dancer. From the library of Jan Garden Castro.

N. Scott Momaday is a novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet from the Kiowa tribe. He has won a number of prestigious awards for his writing, including the coveted the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for his novel House Made of Dawn (1969). A gifted writer with a wide appreciation for different genres, Momaday has written plays, novels, folklore, poetry, memoirs, and children’s literature, and he is also a talented illustrator. The page from In the Presence of the Sun  pictured below features one of his original illustrations alongside his poem “The Bear.”

A page from Momaday’s In the Presence of the Sun, featuring one of his original illustrations.

The copy of In the Presence of the Sun pictured above and at the top of this post is an autographed copy from the library of Jan Garden Castro, which also contains a signed copy of The Gourd Dancer. The Modern Literature Collection also has a few letters from Momaday written to William Jay Smith, who was himself part Choctaw, in the William Jay Smith Papers.

 

Ray Young Bear

Ray Young Bear is a Meskwaki poet and novelist who writes in both English and Meskwaki. His first novel, Black Eagle Child, mixes verse and prose narrative, English and Meskwaki, to tell a coming-of-age story about the fictional Edgar Bearchild. Elements of Bearchild’s history and conflicts with race, drugs, and the war in Vietnam mirror Young Bear’s own. Special Collections has a very unique copy of this book from the library of Mona Van Duyn, signed by Young Bear himself and congratulating Van Duyn for an unnamed accomplishment that most likely refers to her appointment as poet laureate that year.

The title page of Black Eagle Child, signed by Young Bear and dedicated to Mona Van Duyn, 1992.

Of course, Special Collections’ holdings only represents a very small selection of the Native American poets, novelists, and playwrights who are keeping their culture alive through literature, but we hope that this post has inspired you to explore more of these writings for yourself. Check back later this week for more posts on Native American heritage from the archives!

 

Sources:

Shear, Sarah B., et al. “Manifesting destiny: Re/presentations of indigenous peoples in K–12 US history standards.” Theory & Research in Social Education vol. 43, no.1, 2015, 68-101.

About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.