Native American Autobiography: An Anthology

By Udel, Lisa J. | MELUS, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Native American Autobiography: An Anthology


Udel, Lisa J., MELUS


Native American Autobiography: An Anthology. Arnold Krupat. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995. xi + 546 pages, 20 illustrations. $17.95.

While the past three decades have seen a burst of creative work and attending literary scholarship in Native American studies, there has been a dearth of work on Native American autobiography. Only a handful of texts exist by a limited number of scholars such as Arnold Krupat, David Brumble, Hertha Wong, Jane Katz, and Gretchen Batille and Kathleen Mullen Sands. The scarcity of such work can be attributed, in part, to the problematic nature of the genre itself.

In his latest contribution to Native American Studies, Arnold Krupar has assembled a useful collection of autobiographical excerpts entitled Native American Autobiography: An Anthology designed for use in schools. Writing for an audience unfamiliar with the issues surrounding Native American autobiography, Krupat lays out a concise discussion of the field and its problems which he has explored in other works, most fully in For Those Who Come After: A Study of Native American Autobiography (1985).

Briefly, Krupat notes that both the "auto" and "graph" elements of the genre pose problems when applied to traditional, indigenous cultures. Western autobiography, celebrating the autonomous individual pitted against and victorious over social and cultural obstacles, is alien to communal-based cultures of Native America. The western tradition of a sequential, cumulative narration of a life, as well as the written aspect of autobiography, also conflicted with the traditions of Native America. Indigenous people recorded important events orally, performatively, and dramatically to an audience, even pictographically; but alphabetic writing was not practiced by Native Americans, Krupat argues.

This situation changed as Native people came into contact with "Euramerican invader-settlers," resulting in two genres of life stories that Krupat identifies as "autobiography by Indians"--narratives written by the story's subject him/herself--and "Indian autobiography"--narratives written by an outsider, usually white, about an individual Native American. Both forms require careful scrutiny for their context and subtext.

Krupat has divided the anthology into seven sections. Except for Part One, the anthology moves chronologically from the eighteenth century to the present, tracing the development of Native American and white relations and the autobiographical texts which result from this intersection. Each section contains four to five excerpts from previously published life stories. Krupat prefaces each section with a discussion of historical and cultural aspects which influenced the creation of the texts represented and which also serve as an ordering principle for that section.

Part Two, "The Christian Indians, from the Eighteenth Century to Indian Removal, 1830" focuses on the Indian reaction to the white settlers and their ultimate decision to become Christian in the face of Euramerican invasion. Christianized Indians provided some of the earliest written documents because they learned to read when converted by the Christian missionaries.

Parts Three through Five, "The Resisting Indians, from Indian Removal to Wounded Knee, 1830-90," "The Closed Frontier, 1890-," and "The Anthropologist's Indians, 1900-" include narratives written against the backdrop of events like The Indian Removal Act, and the infamous Trail of Tears where, of the twelve thousand Cherokees forced to march west of the Mississippi, four thousand died along the way. The nineteenth century was characterized by Andrew Jackson's anti-Indian settlement, the famous figures Geronimo and Black Hawk, the Dawes Act disbanding the 138,000 acres of Indian land and reducing it to 48,000-55,000 acres of poor land, the Ghost Dance, the Wounded Knee Massacre, and the Census's now famous report which announced the "Closing of the American Frontier. …

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