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  • Pitfalls of Tribal Specificity
  • Ron Carpenter (bio)

Since this essay may be read as a complaint, I want to begin by acknowledging the necessity of teaching Native American and other indigenous literatures both alongside and independent of Western texts. Instructors should teach these works by listening to the Native authors' worldviews and literary traditions. I'm sure many of us would like to see more literature professors able to integrate Native works into their reading lists and to do so competently—that is, in a culturally sensitive manner that allows students to recognize tribal influences. As Paula Gunn Allen's 1983 handbook for teaching Native literature asserts, "context and continuity are two of the most important areas to be taken into account in the study and teaching of American Indian literature" (xi). We who are teachers of Native literature occupy a critical role in contextualization because we are introducing many non-Native students to Native American peoples and literatures. We are responsible for teaching students to listen to Native voices in Natives' own tongues. If we are successful, "non-Indian students are forced to consider a culture alien to their own: a view of the world that is holistic rather than pluralistic and one to which writers and thinkers have continually turned for inspiration" (275).

In my experience teaching college English courses to non-Natives, students usually possess neither the analytical framework nor the historical context to evaluate Native expressions. Most English professors can assign novels like Uncle Tom's Cabin or The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass without a long lecture about slavery, African [End Page 209] American stereotypes, nineteenth-century American culture, and the duality of Christian morality. American college students generally possess some knowledge of slavery and the Civil War. But teachers of Native expressions cannot assume that students have prior knowledge about Native tribes and peoples. When we try to teach Native literatures conscientiously, we find ourselves in the challenging position of teaching a complex weave of subjects: we discuss aspects of history, law, federal and tribal politics, and clan/social relations before opening the first novel. We also have to explain the individual tribe's oral and written storytelling traditions to show the continuity of contemporary works.

This paper points out several problems instructors may encounter when including Native-authored materials and trying to interpret them appropriately. The problems of bringing tribal specificity to the classroom are manifold, and while we often review how best to approach teaching Native subjects, the applicability of our pedagogies have avoided critical scrutiny. There are four areas where teachers should be forewarned when incorporating Native literature into their teaching platforms: context selection, accessibility, time, and assessment.

Perhaps the most daunting issue facing our field is that we do not have a general consensus on what constitutes the tribal context for each tribe and how it should be applied effectively in the classroom. What is commonly called the Native American Renaissance is wonderful, in no small part because it shows the continuity of people and tribes surviving. As critics, we have been able to move away from pan-Indian generalizations, but it has confronted us with an old structural dilemma when it comes to devising syllabi—breadth versus depth. What are the salient cultural resources of each tribe all instructors need to include? Dorothea Susag's supplemental bibliographies in Roots and Branches are a good start, but currently our field lacks a respectable bibliography attentive to individual tribal nations or literatures.

There are at least four areas instructors should consider when reviewing context selection for a Native author: the tribe's spiritual perspective underpinning social actions like gender or clan relations [End Page 210] and conveyed through a specific language; the traditions and resources of the tribe as represented by themselves, including the oral and written forms of event keeping, ceremony, art, and self-expression; the legal relationships of the tribe, specifically, its treaties with governments and regional tribes; the contemporary tribal traditions, politics, economies, and political actions. Granted, nonstereotypical representations of specific tribes, sometimes authorized by tribal elders or citizens, are more available now than in the twentieth century. These written or visual texts can aid students in understanding a...


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pp. 209-216
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