The question "how should we read Native American literature?" is problematic for many reasons usually discussed on a course in aesthetics.
Should implies correctness, standards, objective norms. One debate in the field of aesthetics is Subjectivist Theory vs. Objectivist Theory. The general canons applicable to all aesthetic objects are unity, complexity and intensity (Hospers 55). Another debate involves Contextualism vs. Isolationism. Contextualist critics hold that a work of art "should be apprehended in its total context or setting . . ." including such considerations as the following: other works by the same artist; other works in the same medium; external facts about the medium; study of the age, spirit of the times, complex influences that molded the artist; study of the artist's life; study of the artist's intentions (Hospers 45). At least a semester could be spent discussing these questions.
The next problem is the word we. Are we graduate students or high school students? Are we white or Native American? Does our age, level of education, ethnic background matter in this question?
Presuming that we are non-Indian, post-graduate readers who agree with Subjectivist and Contextualist theories, a suggested method of reading Native American literature, specifically The Surrounded, Fool's Crow, and Almanac of the Dead follows.
The first requirement for reading any text is close reading: making annotations, noting point of view and other linguistic-literary devices. After the first reading the student can research the historical, sociological, anthropological, and religious background of the characters in the text (unless she is lucky enough to have a professor provide her with this information in lectures). Historical information on the Salish, Pikuni and Laguna tribes, the chronology of the text related to contact with Europeans, anthropological information on such things as the Sun Dance, and an understanding of the role of the medicine man can provide relevant context for the novels.
The role of religion in the texts is also significant. In The Surrounded, Archilde abandons his Catholic faith and begins to feel his Indian heritage in his blood; unfortunately this conversion occurs too late for him. His mother has significant dreams, but he seems cut off from the tradition of dreams and visions. Fool's Crow, however, participates in the Sun Dance as a form of purification and embarks on a vision quest that transforms him into a leader for his people. He trusts his vision and grows spiritually. Catholicism in Almanac of the Dead is a hypocritical religion that victimizes people and abuses children. Lecha has a spiritual gift of prophecy, but she sells out to the television talk shows and drugs herself nearly into oblivion. Ironically she can only contact the dead, no living spirits. If reading all three of these texts for a class, the student can make comparison-contrast charts and can write personal responses in a journal.
Another consideration is the form of the text. The Surrounded is a Western novel; Fool's Crow is a historical novel; Almanac of the Dead is a dystopian or apocalyptic novel. Comparison-contrast of these novels with others in the same form will add another dimension of inquiry.
The Surrounded contains overlapping texts that conflict with each other in linguistic style and that pull the protagonist in diverse ways. The European education Archilde has acquired conflicts with the Salish stories told by the elders, which conflict with the Jesuit narratives embedded in the text, which conflict with the Western law narrative of which Archilde is the unwitting victim. Because Archilde cannot tell his own coherent story or choose from among the conflicting narratives, he falls tragically but not heroically. Literary allusions to Western texts such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Death Comes for the Archbishop can add to the comparative analysis.
Fool's Crow, on the other hand, is a historical novel that occurs before the time of The Surrounded. Fool's Crow follows his vision, listens to the voice of Feather Woman, and leads his people to believe in peace and ritual. Because the initiation and purification quests that Fool's Crow follows are historically accurate, the reader can gain insight into the Pikunis through this text.
Almanac of the Dead is a dystopian novel with an apocalyptic tone. Comparisons of this book with the Book of Revelations or such novels as One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1984, and Brave New World illustrate interesting parallels and contrasts.
Almanac of the Dead is also a political indictment of all things European and a call to arms for all tribal peoples to take back their lands. This raises the aesthetic question of the intention of the author. If McNickle and Welch want non-native readers to experience vicariously the tension of indigenous peoples and Europeans through Archilde and Fool's Crow, Silko apparently wants white readers to feel the rage and impotence she feels. Her intentions could provide subject for a long debate.
Discussion of form also includes the "shape" of the novel and its relationship with theme, Aristotle's notion of matter and form. The Surrounded is shaped like concentric circles that surround Archilde and destroy him. The conflicting narratives overlap and contain him. Fool's Crow follows the step-by-step initiation ritual of the main character with his dreams and visions propelling him along each step of the quest. It ends in a timeless place, foretold by Feather Woman, where all is as it should be. Almanac of the Dead is a series of fragments, fragments of the Almanac itself, sewn into the garments of migrating children, eaten to sustain them, partially reconstructed by Lecha. Disconnected tales of disconnected and broken people are also juxtaposed with the main story of prophecy and fulfillment leading to the apocalyptic ending. Tribal peoples are told in the Almanac to forsake anything European, abandon their weapons, and peacefully, harmoniously retake their land. The Indians, many of them mixed bloods, become involved with radical groups, arm themselves, and drive off in different directions. The fragmented structure fits the theme.
Other methods of literary criticism could be applied to novels when relevant: archetypal and psychological. The Surrounded and Fool's Crow both follow the hero's quest narrative described by Campbell and Jung. The application of mythic and ritualistic research of Frye and Eliade could highlight the texts. Psychological criticism might provide insight into Almanac of the Dead. Freudian analysis applied to the characters or author could be fun (but may not be the key to the text). Another method of analysis is deconstruction. Reading carefully for self-contradictions and discontinuities in the texts provides insight. Art works are the products of an individual writer, not necessarily a spokesperson for the tribe or race. Not all Pikunis, for example, may be as pure hearted and enlightened as Fool's Crow; not all Lagunas are as revolutionary as Calabazas or as lost as the other characters.
Reading Native American literature should not be dramatically different from reading any literature. Perhaps greater care should be taken in research into cultural elements to prevent stereotyping; however, the same standards of critical analysis apply to these texts if they are novels. Some critics refrain from any negative comments about ethnic literature in an attempt to be "politically correct." Art is a dynamic expression of culture. Application of objective norms of aesthetics can be foolhardy for any literature, not just ethnic literature. Artists are often creating new forms that audiences may not understand on first or second reading.
How we should teach Native American literature depends on the educational level of the class, the time sequence, the course requirements, and the personality of the teacher. A series of lesson plans for undergraduate students follows. The pedagogy is based on many educational theories: Bloom's Taxonomy, Reader Response Theory, Paulo Friere's work, Myers-Briggs Temperament-Learning Styles, the Socratic inquiry method, and my own experimentation over the past thirty years of teaching senior high school and community college.In the below outline, links are provided to subsidiary webpages providing details on the methods.
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