Indigenous Voices

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 litera­ture 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.

(continued below)

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 Ameri­can 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. 

The Voices of Power and the Power of Voices: Teaching with Native American Literature by Dr. Marlinda White-Kaulaity (Dine/Navajo)
“The Map Of Native American Tribes You’ve Never Seen Before” Map created by Aaron Carapella, a self-taught mapmaker from Warner, Okla., who has pinpointed the locations and original names of hundreds of American Indian nations before their first contact with Europeans. (Full map PDF available from NPR)

In her article The Voices of Power and the Power of Voices: Teaching with Native American Literature, the author and educator Dr. Marlinda White-Kaulaity engages with many of the questions and conversations that surround the subject of including diverse literature into ELA curriculum in schools.

“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)

Kay WalkingStick (Cherokee, b. 1935), Farewell to the Smokies (Trail of Tears), 2007. Oil paint on wood panel; 36 x 72 in. William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection at the Denver Art Museum, by exchange, 2008.14A-B

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.”

Our Favorite Books about

Indigenous History and Ways of Life

To find more books, search our website for “Indigenous Voices”!

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 experi­ences 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 experi­ences.

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 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.

Leslie Silko, Laguna Pueblo author

%d bloggers like this: