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Literature > American Literature > Native American Literature

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"That the People Might Live"

Loss and Renewal in Native American Elegy

by Arnold Krupat

The word "elegy" comes from the Ancient Greek elogos, meaning a mournful poem or song, in particular, a song of grief in response to loss. Because mourning and memorialization are so deeply embedded in the human condition, all human societies have developed means for lamenting the dead, and, in "That the People Might Live" Arnold Krupat surveys the traditions of Native American elegiac expression over several centuries.

Krupat covers a variety of oral performances of loss and renewal, including the Condolence Rites of the Iroquois and the memorial ceremony of the Tlingit people known as koo'eex, examining as well a number of Ghost Dance songs, which have been reinterpreted in culturally specific ways by many different tribal nations. Krupat treats elegiac "farewell" speeches of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in considerable detail, and comments on retrospective autobiographies by Black Hawk and Black Elk.

Among contemporary Native writers, he looks at elegiac work by Linda Hogan, N. Scott Momaday, Gerald Vizenor, Sherman Alexie, Maurice Kenny, and Ralph Salisbury, among others. Despite differences of language and culture, he finds that death and loss are consistently felt by Native peoples both personally and socially: someone who had contributed to the People's well-being was now gone. Native American elegiac expression offered mourners consolation so that they might overcome their grief and renew their will to sustain communal life.

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The Red Land to the South

American Indian Writers and Indigenous Mexico

James H. Cox

The forty years of American Indian literature taken up by James H. Cox—the decades between 1920 and 1960—have been called politically and intellectually moribund. On the contrary, Cox identifies a group of American Indian writers who share an interest in the revolutionary potential of the indigenous peoples of Mexico—and whose work demonstrates a surprisingly assertive literary politics in the era.

By contextualizing this group of American Indian authors in the work of their contemporaries, Cox reveals how the literary history of this period is far more rich and nuanced than is generally acknowledged. The writers he focuses on—Todd Downing (Choctaw), Lynn Riggs (Cherokee), and D’Arcy McNickle (Confederated Salish and Kootenai)—are shown to be on par with writers of the preceding Progressive and the succeeding Red Power and Native American literary renaissance eras.

Arguing that American Indian literary history of this period actually coheres in exciting ways with the literature of the Native American literary renaissance, Cox repudiates the intellectual and political border that has emerged between the two eras.

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The Road Back to Sweetgrass

Linda LeGarde Grover


Set in northern Minnesota, The Road Back to Sweetgrass follows Dale Ann, Theresa, and Margie, a trio of American Indian women, from the 1970s to the present, observing their coming of age and the intersection of their lives as they navigate love, economic hardship, loss, and changing family dynamics on the fictional Mozhay Point reservation. As young women, all three leave their homes. Margie and Theresa go to Duluth for college and work; there Theresa gets to know a handsome Indian boy, Michael Washington, who invites her home to the Sweetgrass land allotment to meet his father, Zho Wash, who lives in the original allotment cabin. When Margie accompanies her, complicated relationships are set into motion, and tensions over “real Indian-ness” emerge.

Dale Ann, Margie, and Theresa find themselves pulled back again and again to the Sweetgrass allotment, a silent but ever-present entity in the book; sweetgrass itself is a plant used in the Ojibwe ceremonial odissimaa bag, containing a newborn baby’s umbilical cord. In a powerful final chapter, Zho Wash tells the story of the first days of the allotment, when the Wazhushkag, or Muskrat, family became transformed into the Washingtons by the pen of a federal Indian agent. This sense of place and home is both tangible and spiritual, and Linda LeGarde Grover skillfully connects it with the experience of Native women who came of age during the days of the federal termination policy and the struggle for tribal self-determination.

The Road Back to Sweetgrass is a novel that that moves between past and present, the Native and the non-Native, history and myth, and tradition and survival, as the people of Mozhay Point navigate traumatic historical events and federal Indian policies while looking ahead to future generations and the continuation of the Anishinaabe people.

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Settler Common Sense

Queerness and Everyday Colonialism in the American Renaissance

Mark Rifkin


In Settler Common Sense, Mark Rifkin explores how canonical American writers take part in the legacy of displacing Native Americans. Although the books he focuses on are not about Indians, they serve as examples of what Rifkin calls “settler common sense,” taking for granted the legal and political structure through which Native peoples continue to be dispossessed.

In analyzing Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, Rifkin shows how the novel draws on Lockean theory in support of small-scale landholding and alternative practices of homemaking. The book invokes white settlers in southern Maine as the basis for its ethics of improvement, eliding the persistent presence of Wabanaki peoples in their homeland. Rifkin suggests that Henry David Thoreau’s Walden critiques property ownership as a form of perpetual debt. Thoreau’s vision of autoerotic withdrawal into the wilderness, though, depends on recasting spaces from which Native peoples have been dispossessed as places of non-Native regeneration. As against the turn to “nature,” Herman Melville’s Pierre presents the city as a perversely pleasurable place to escape from inequities of land ownership in the country. Rifkin demonstrates how this account of urban possibility overlooks the fact that the explosive growth of Manhattan in the nineteenth century was possible only because of the extensive and progressive displacement of Iroquois peoples upstate.

Rifkin reveals how these texts’ queer imaginings rely on treating settler notions of place and personhood as self-evident, erasing the advancing expropriation and occupation of Native lands. Further, he investigates the ways that contemporary queer ethics and politics take such ongoing colonial dynamics as an unexamined framework in developing ideas of freedom and justice.

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Shadowing the White Man’s Burden

U.S. Imperialism and the Problem of the Color Line

Gretchen Murphy, 0, 0

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A Short History of Indians in Canada

Stories

Thomas King

 Winner of the McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year and the Aboriginal Fiction Book of the Year—a collection of twenty short stories told in Thomas King's classic, wry, irreverent, and allegorical voice.

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Sky Loom

Native American Myth, Story, and Song

Brian Swann

Sky Loom offers a dazzling introduction to Native American myths, stories, and songs drawn from previous collections by acclaimed translator and poet Brian Swann. With a general introduction by Swann, Sky Loom is a stunning collection that provides a glimpse into the intricacies and beauties of story and myth, placing them in their cultural, historical, and linguistic contexts.

Each of the twenty-five selections is translated and introduced by a well-known expert on Native oral literatures and offers entry into the cultures and traditions of several different tribes and bands, including the Yupiit and the Tlingits of the polar North; the Coast Salish and the Kwakwaka’wakw of the Pacific Northwest; the Navajos, the Pimas, and the Yaquis of the Southwest; the Lakota Sioux and the Plains Crees of the Great Plains; the Ojibwes of the Great Lakes; the Naskapis and the Eastern Crees of the Hudson Bay area in Canada; and the Munsees of the Northeast. Sky Loom takes the reader on a wide-ranging journey through literary traditions older than the “discovery” of the New World.


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Strangers at Home

American Ethnic Modernism between the World Wars

Rita Keresztesi

Strangers at Home reframes the way we conceive of the modernist literature that appeared in the period between the two world wars. This provocative work shows that a body of texts written by ethnic writers during this period poses a challenge to conventional notions of America and American modernism. By engaging with modernist literary studies from the perspectives of minority discourse, postcolonial studies, and postmodern theory, Rita Keresztesi questions the validity of modernism's claim to the neutrality of culture. She argues that literary modernism grew out of a prejudiced, racially biased, and often xenophobic historical context that necessitated a politically conservative and narrow definition of modernism in America. With the changing racial, ethnic, and cultural makeup of the nation during the interwar era, literary modernism also changed its form and content.
 
Contesting traditional notions of literary modernism, Keresztesi examines American modernism from an ethnic perspective in the works of Harlem Renaissance, immigrant, and Native American writers. She discusses such authors as Countee Cullen, Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, Anzia Yezierska, Henry Roth, Josephina Niggli, Mourning Dove, D’Arcy McNickle, and John Joseph Mathews, among others. Strangers at Home makes a persuasive argument for expanding our understanding of the writers themselves as well as the concept of modernism as it is currently defined.

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Studies in American Indian Literatures

Vol. 16 (2004) through current issue

Studies in American Indian Literatures (SAIL) is the only journal in the United States that focuses exclusively on American Indian literatures. With a wide scope of scholars and creative contributors, the journal is on the cutting edge of activity in the field. SAIL invites the submission of scholarly, critical pedagogical, and theoretical manuscripts focused on any aspect of American Indian literatures as well as the submission of poetry and short fiction, bibliographical essays, review essays, and interviews. SAIL defines "literatures" broadly to include all written, spoken, and visual texts created by Native peoples.

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Transatlantic Voices

Interpretations of Native North American Literatures

Elvira Pulitano

Transatlantic Voices is the first collection of critical essays by European scholars on contemporary Native North American literatures. Devoted to the primary genres of Native  literature—fiction, nonfiction, drama, poetry—the essays chart the course of recent theories of Native literature, delineate the crosscurrents in the history of Native literature studies, and probe specific themes of trauma and memory as well as changing mythologies. These essays also incorporate incipient transnational and transcultural methodologies in their approach to Native North American writing.
 
Blending western critical approaches—from cultural studies to postcolonialism and trauma theory—with indigenous epistemological perspectives, the contributors to Transatlantic Voices advocate “the inescapable hybridity and intermixture of ideas” proposed by Paul Gilroy in his study of black diasporic identity. Native North American writers forcefully suggest that the study of American ethnicities in the twenty-first century can no longer be confined to the borders of the United States. Given the increasing transnational aspect of American studies, a collection such as Transatlantic Voices, presenting scholars from countries as diverse as Germany, France, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Finland, offers a timely contribution to such border crossing in scholarship and writing. 

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