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Listening to the Land

Native American Literary Responses to the Landscape

Lee Schweninger

Publication Year: 2008

For better or worse, representations abound of Native Americans as a people with an innate and special connection to the earth. This study looks at the challenges faced by Native American writers who confront stereotypical representations as they assert their own ethical relationship with the earth. Lee Schweninger considers a range of genres (memoirs, novels, stories, essays) by Native writers from various parts of the United States. Contextualizing these works within the origins, evolution, and perpetuation of the “green” labels imposed on American Indians, Schweninger shows how writers often find themselves denying some land ethic stereotypes while seeming to embrace others.

Taken together, the time periods covered in Listening to the Land span more than a hundred years, from Luther Standing Bear's description of his late-nineteenth-century life on the prairie to Linda Hogan's account of a 1999 Makah hunt of a gray whale. Two-thirds of the writers Schweninger considers, however, are well-known voices from the second half of the twentieth century, including N. Scott Momaday, Louise Erdrich, Vine Deloria Jr., Gerald Vizenor, and Louis Owens.

Few ecocritical studies have focused on indigenous environmental attitudes, in comparison to related work done by historians and anthropologists. Listening to the Land will narrow this gap in the scholarship; moreover, it will add individual Native American perspectives to an understanding of what, to these writers, is a genuine Native American philosophy regarding the land.

Published by: University of Georgia Press


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p. vii

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pp. ix-x

Although I might not have known it at the time, the original inspiration for this book came as a result of a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar on American Indian Literatures directed by LaVonne Ruoff at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1994. Through the experiences of that seminar and the sharing of ideas about the texts ...

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Introduction: An Ethical Regard for the Land

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pp. 1-15

In his essay “Native American Attitudes toward the Environment,” Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday declares that an American Indian relationship toward the land “proceeds from a racial or cultural experience” (“Native” 80), and in the essay “An American Land Ethic,” he recalls finishing writing The Way to Rainy Mountain, insisting that in the ...

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One. The Land Ethic Stereotype: American Indian Wisdom

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pp. 16-35

Representations of American Indians as environmentalists, as keepers of the land, or as worshipers of a Mother Earth goddess are ubiquitous. These sometimes intricately constructed environmental attitudes attributed to American Indians, moreover, often provide a symbolic, if not a literal, means for both American Indians and non-Indians to articulate ...

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Two. Where the Buffalo Roam: Iconoclasts and Romantics

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pp. 36-56

In the concluding essay of his collection Mixedblood Messages, “ ‘Everywhere There Was Life,’ ” Louis Owens addresses the romantic stereotype of the ecological Indian: “It has long been fashionable . . . to speak and write of American Indians as something like genetically predetermined environmentalists. . . . In the past few years, however, a group ...

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Three. Between the People and the Land: Luther Standing Bear, Mother Earth, and Assimilation

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pp. 57-74

Luther Standing Bear receives no mention in Sam Gill’s discussion of the Mother Earth phenomenon in America, even though this Lakota writer refers explicitly to “Mother Earth” throughout his 1933 book Land of the Spotted Eagle. Indeed, by recounting his experiences as a boy and a young man, Standing Bear in this autobiographical work describes ...

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Four. Talking Back: John Joseph Mathews and Talking to the Moon

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pp. 75-95

After his return to Los Angeles from South Dakota in 1931, Luther Standing Bear quickly wrote an essay for the magazine American Mercury and evidently then turned immediately to writing his book Land of the Spotted Eagle (1933). At roughly the same time, Osage writer John Joseph Mathews returned from Los Angeles to his former home on the ...

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Five. “She Gives Me a Metaphor”: Survival and Louise Erdrich’s The Blue Jay’s Dance

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pp. 96-112

By the time John Joseph Mathews published the autobiographical work Talking to the Moon (1945), he had had his first novel republished as a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection, he enjoyed the widespread recognition that such a publication affords, and he had written and published a second novel. Mathews writes about the Osages in and around Pawhuska, ...

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Six. Cultural Identity, Storytelling, Place: Revision and Return in Louis Owens’s Wolfsong

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pp. 113-130

In her novel Four Souls (2004) Louise Erdrich picks up where the earlier novel Tracks ends, with Fleur’s leaving her deforested home. The opening passage of the more recent book includes a reference to the great trees that go into the building of rich people’s homes: “all this made of wood, fine-grained, very old-grown, quartersawn oak that still in ...

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Seven. “From the Land Itself”: Momaday’s Language, Landscape, and Land Ethic

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pp. 131-148

At roughly the same time Owens’s character Tom Joseph climbs into Amel’s truck for a ride home to Forks at the beginning of Wolfsong, N. Scott Momaday, according to his own recollection in an essay called “Navajo Place Names,” picks up a hitchhiker on his way between Gallup, NewMexico, and Kayenta, Arizona, to the northwest. As they drive along, ...

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Eight. Living with the Land: Deloria, Landscape, and Religion

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pp. 149-164

In the same year that N. Scott Momaday won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel House Made of Dawn, 1969, Vine Deloria Jr. published his first and perhaps still best-known book, Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. He opens his manifesto by challenging easy stereotypes, declaring that the mainstream American public feels that it knows all about the ...

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Nine. Liberation and the Land: The Environmental Ethos of Gerald Vizenor

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pp. 165-183

After his keynote address at a conference in Eugene, Oregon, in May 1997, Gerald Vizenor was asked by a member of the audience to recommend what one might do in order to understand his writings. The lecturer by the window chuckled spontaneously, paused a moment, then said “Read my haiku.” Everything he had written, he said, could ...

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Ten. “Changed by the Wild”: Linda Hogan’s Spirit of Renewal

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pp. 184-201

Early in Linda Hogan’s novel Power (1998), the sixteen-year-old narrator, Omishto, whose name means “One Who Watches,” remembers the panther: “I heard one of those gold-colored panthers once. Its cry was so loud I thought it could bring down the world. But now the world’s come down without a cry” (15). Omishto’s thought, as she expresses it here, ...

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Eleven. Killing the Whale: Sightings and the Makah Hunt

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pp. 202-218

In 1999 a group of Makah whalers killed their first gray whale in some seventy years, and in so doing, they reestablished or reinitiated a long dormant tribal tradition. Members of the hunting party were from traditional whaling families among the Makah Nation in extreme northwestern Washington State who, despite historical family connections, had ...

Works Cited

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pp. 219-232


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pp. 233-242

E-ISBN-13: 9780820336374
E-ISBN-10: 0820336378
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820330587
Print-ISBN-10: 0820330582

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2008

OCLC Number: 593295514
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Listening to the Land

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American literature -- Indian authors -- History and criticism
  • Indians of North America -- Ethnic identity.
  • Indian philosophy -- North America.
  • Indian ethics -- North America.
  • Environmental ethics.
  • Stereotypes (Social psychology) in literature.
  • Human ecology in literature.
  • Indians in literature.
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