Masterpieces of American Indian Literature

Masterpieces of American Indian Literature

Masterpieces of American Indian Literature

Masterpieces of American Indian Literature


The five complete and unabridged works collected here are parts of a long and passionate testimony about American Indian culture as related by Indians themselves. Deep emotions and life-shaking crises converge in these pages concerning identity, family, community, caste, gender, nature, the future, the past, solitude, duty, trust, betrayal, leadership, war, and apocalypse. Each work is also regarded as a classic of Native literature and has much to teach. The Life of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh (1847) by George Copway, a Canadian Ojibwe writer and lecturer, describes his unique and difficult cultural journey from the tiny village of his youth to the legislatures of the world, speaking for the rights and sovereignty of Indians. The Soul of the Indian (1911) by Charles Eastman, a physician and mixed-blood Sioux, depicts "the religious life of the typical American Indian as it was before he knew the white man." American Indian Stories (1921) by Zitkala-Ša, one of the most famous Sioux writers and activists of the modern era, includes legends and tales from oral tradition, childhood stories, and allegorical fiction. Coyote Stories (1933) by Mourning Dove, an Okanagan writer, retells the popular trickster tales of Coyote, the most resilient character in all of American literature. Black Elk Speaks (1932) as told through John G. Neihardt, is the spacious religious vision and candid life story of a Lakota holy man. Neihardt and Black Elk collaborated to produce a unique and inspirational work.


The five works collected here are parts of a long and passionate testimony about American Indian cultures as related by Indians themselves. For too long, images of American Indians have been formed by white authors—James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans, for example, or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha—or by TV and movies. This anthology seeks to restore balance and perspective. It is meant to begin a library, not complete one.

In the 1980s a “Native American Renaissance” was proclaimed. An outpouring of superb new Indian writing attracted readers from coast to coast. More than a rediscovered sentiment or point of view, this renaissance renewed a long literary tradition. It returned America's attention to primary questions, to beginnings, to first Americans.

It is with some misgivings that this anthology uses the word “Indian.” The term has provoked protests; it's a swarm of confusions. It mixes up the peoples of India (or Bharat, to use India's name for India) and America (or Turtle Island). It is an imposed term, never the name of any Indian tribe. The term blurs differences between tribes and encourages stereotypes. But “Indian” is used anyway. It is the term used in the works collected here; these authors enrich it. The Blackfoot author Long Standing Bear Chief takes up the term in his Ni-Kso-Ko-wa: “The word Indian … is an anglicized version of Indios … Indios means with God…. I cannot be insulted by someone calling me an Indian, because he is saying I am with God.”

George Copway was an Ojibway missionary, one of the first authors from a tribe that can also boast Louise Erdrich, Basil Johnston, and Gerald Vizenor. Mourning Dove, an Okanogan, is the author of Cogewea, one of the first novels to be written by an American Indian woman. Charles Eastman was Santee, Zitkala-Sa was Yankton, and Black Elk was Oglala, three different divisions of the Sioux. Other Sioux authors have sustained and built on their heritage: Luther Standing Bear, Ella Deloria, Vine Deloria, Jr., Elizabeth Cook-Lynn.

We are fortunate to have them. Mayan libraries and Aztec codices were incinerated in the name of Christianity; in the name of civilization, Indian children were taken from their parents and punished if they tried to be Indian. Loss gapes like a canyon through American . . .

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