Indigenous Voices

“My voice and the voices of other Natives on campus were not simply our own. We spoke the voices of our nations, our clan relations, our families. To tell or re-tell our story is not pleasant. And it is not short. It did not begin with the civil rights movement. It is not as simple as the word geno­cide. It is every voice collective. It is mixed-blood, cross- blood, full-blood, urban, rez, relocated, terminated, nonstatus, tribally enrolled, federally recognized, non-fed­ erally recognized, alcoholic, battered, uranium-infested” –Esther G. Belin, American Indian writer of the Dine (Navajo) Nation

native children's lit

In her article The Voices of Power and the Power of Voices: Teaching with Native American Literature, Dr. Marlinda White-Kaulaity, a a Dine (Navajo) author and educator engages with many of the questions and conversations that surround the subject of including diverse literature into ELA curriculum in schools. Responding to Belin’s statement about her college experience (quoted above), Dr. White-Kaulaity goes on to say that:

“Belin’s eloquent statement reveals that there is no one­ size-fits-all “Indian” or “Native American,” an impor­tant point to understand for anyone choosing to teach Native American Literature. Many teachers may feel that using Native American voices is too complex, too controversial, too risky, too time-consuming, too political, too painful, and too many other things. It may seem easier to leave them out of the curriculum, stick with the literature textbook, concentrate on the big test, and stay in the comfort zone. If such attitudes are prevalent among language arts teachers, my hope is to change this way of thinking.”  (White- Kaulaity, 10)

Simon Ortiz, Puebloan writer of the Acoma Pueblo tribe shares his viewpoint on integrating Indigenous voices as well:

“It is vastly important and necessary that Native (or Indigenous) American literature be a basic part of high school education for three reasons:

1. Indigenous cultural knowledge is an essential part of the cultural community of the present American world.

2. Land, culture, and community are intrinsically the binding elements of overall cultural connection to the natural landscape of the environment and the world as a whole. 

3. The power of the Indigenous voice comes from the cultural connection to the world. Native American literature is an expression of that connection.” (White- Kaulaity, 8)

“In relation to choices and young minds, author John Gaughn says in his book Cultural Reflections, “School is a controlled environ­ment. We condition children to behave in certain ways, to assume certain attitudes, to become certain kinds of Americans” (23). Will our students learn to be thoughtful and appreciative of other voices, viewpoints, and perspectives? Many voices wait at the doors of classrooms, and it is up to teachers to say, “Welcome. Come into our classroom.”” (White- Kaulaity, 11)

The inclusion of Native American Literature in non-native classrooms “invites inquiry, and it sometimes carries limitations, risks and boundaries”, and “Teachers must be prepared to answer, explore, and handle questions and issues that arise not only from the literature but from student voices and their responses and reactions. The encounters and experi­ ences of Native Americans, both past and present, are not always pretty pictures. Sometimes, Native authors’ writing could be misinterpreted rather than under­ stood because they write honestly about their experi­ ences. Their voices evoke emotion while they express anger for being misunderstood, disrespected, op­pressed, and colonized. They may speak of mistrust for non-natives who abuse their culture and language, exploit their talents and resources, imitate and abuse their sacred ceremonies, and they distrust people who generally look down upon them as inferior and invisible. Teachers must be prepared to guide students in their awareness and understanding that there are contrasts in the American experience and literature reminds us of this.”  (White- Kaulaity, 12)

The importance of including Native American literature in classrooms is further discussed in White-Kaulaity’s poignant end to her piece:

Teachers must realize that Native American Literature exists as a literature and its purpose is to be read. Literature lives “out there” among people and voices call for readers. Contemporary Native American litera­ ture is comprised of subjects that are not “Indian writing” (the notion that Indian writers write only about Indian topics) and fit with universal themes studied in classrooms: poems of love and loss, stories about basketball, essays about family, and many other topics that can be used in class­ rooms. Native people should not be viewed as so “out of this world” that non-natives cannot relate to them. They are human beings who while they have unique culture, language, lifestyle, and worldview, they live in this world as global citizens and indigenous people. Their story is not a romanticized or stereotyped one as the movies often depict, nor is their story always a positive or a tragic one. This aspect of Native Ameri­ can life cannot and should not be overlooked. Stu­dents ask questions; young people look for meaning and want to know more. Literature can inform them; thoughtful and caring teachers can guide them. 

Literature is powerful and can change lives. In her article, Laura Mellas speaks with Leslie Silko, re­nowned Native American writer originally from Laguna pueblo who believes that literature cantransform. Silko insists:

The way you change human beings and human behavior is through a change in consciousness and that can be effected only through literature, music, poetry—the arts. (14)

These changes reflect the new ways of teaching language arts: a curriculum of inclusion rather than exclusion, a curriculum that utilizes and advocates for the power of voices rather than only the voices of power. If we teach our young about other cultures living with and among them, we help shape personali­ ties, attitudes, and lives. As teachers, perhaps we could transform for better understanding and appre­ ciation among people. Native American Literature can help this happen now and for the future. (White-Kaulaity, 15-16)

Online Resources:

Image Used: picture of Michael Munson, instructor of Native American Studies at Salish Kootenai College, reading with student Malaysiah Shewade John. From the Montana State University article about her Phd work.

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