Listening to the Land: Native American Literary Responses to the Landscape

Listening to the Land: Native American Literary Responses to the Landscape

Listening to the Land: Native American Literary Responses to the Landscape

Listening to the Land: Native American Literary Responses to the Landscape


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.


When we examine myths, we find that they are a high form of truth.
They are the deepest, innermost cultural stories of our human
journeys toward spiritual and psychological growth. An essential
part of myth is that it allows for our return to the creation, to a mythic
time. It allows us to hear the world new again.

Linda Hogan, Dwellings

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 person of “Ko-sahn and in her people we have always had the example of a deep, ethical regard for the land” (Man 105). In the words of the Laguna Pueblo author Paula Gunn Allen: “We are the land… that is the fundamental idea embedded in Native American life and culture in the Southwest” (“Iyani” 191). Louis Owens, Choctaw and Cherokee, declares that the ecological perspective is important for him in a way that is typical of many Indian writers. As he explains in the introduction to his work of literary criticism, Other Destinies, “Native American writers are offering a way of looking at the world that is new to Western culture. It is a holistic, ecological perspective, one that places essential value upon the totality of existence, making humanity equal to all elements but superior to none and giving humankind crucial responsibility for the care of the world we inhabit” (Other 29). In the final chapter of Mixedblood Messages, Owens again articulates his idea of a land ethic, one garnered from an understanding of . . .

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