Native American literature is comprised of a collection of oral and written works that express the history, philosophy and culture of any one of the different groups of indigenous peoples of North and South America. The literature of Native Americans, as in other culture, is an expression of how one sees the world and one's role in it. In the Native American culture, particularly, there is a strong inclination to mesh the life of the individual with the greater cycles of nature and the greater powers believed to be responsible for creating and sustaining the world.
The Native American art of storytelling encompasses both oral and written traditions. Native Americans use language, imagery and metaphor to transcend the sometimes indomitable earthly obstacles to preserve the culture. The stories are inherently spiritual, shrouded in symbols from nature: plants, and animals, earth and sky, fire and water. Oppositions in nature are often used to emphasize mutualism rather than antagonism.
There are several themes found in Native American literature. One common theme is the characterization of the American nation, a particularly troublesome topic given the history of colonization in North America and the disparity in justice and equality for many Native Americans. The essence of what makes one a Native American, as opposed to just native, is an elusive concept to express. The notion of nationhood in general was a foreign concept. In PrairyErth (A Deep Map): An Epic History of the Tallgrass Prairie Country, the author, William Least Heat-Moon explains the incongruity:
"The white man asked, Where is your nation? The red man said, My nation is the grass and roots and the four-leggeds and the six-leggeds and the belly wrigglers and swimmers and the winds and all things that grow and don't grow. The white man asked, How big is it? The other said, My nation is where I am and my people where they are and the grandfathers and their grandfathers and all the grandmothers and all the stories told, and it is all the songs, and it is our dancing. The white man asked, But how many people are there? The red man said, That I do not know."
For those whose life as part of America can be described as less than ideal, who are sometimes subjected to national identity crises, who struggle with being an outsider on the inside, the topic is a compelling one. It is in stark contrast to the European personification of America in literature, particularly slanted towards individual rights and pursuits, both actual and perceived.
Another topic of interest in Native American literature is the concept of personal identity and definition. Again the struggle between the external view and the internal view is stressed. The question of exactly who is classified as Native American is a controversial subject since classifications vary based on the criteria. People are classified by their family, their community or the government, and labels are distributed: "full-bloods" and "half-bloods" or even "one-fourths" and "one-eighths." More than merely a genetic categorization, a person is generally considered who they are by cultural, linguistic and religious standards. Ultimately racial definitions are inadequate, and it is one's way of life that predominates in identification. As Native American writer Geary Hobson states, "A person is judged as Native American because of how he or she views the world, his views about land, home, family, culture, etc."
Other topics prevalent in 20th century Native American literature range from assimilation, messianism and apocalypticism. Native American assimilation and cultural transformation arose as a direct result of European immigration and Christian evangelism, with Indian boarding schools established as early as 1879 in the attempt to bring Native Americans into Western society. Native American resistance, through religious and cultural movements, has historically led to repercussions as evidenced by the Massacre at Wounded Knee (1890). The sentiment behind the movements was often echoed in Native American writing in the first half of the 20th century.
Many of the earliest Native American examples of literature in the English language can be attributed to Native American Christian missionaries writing in the mid-19th century. Of note is Samson Occom, a member of the Mohegan nation, who published A Sermon at the Execution of Moses Paul. In it he is praised for his delicate communication to both white and native audiences without the estrangement of either. Other writers of the era include William Apess (Pequot nation), David Cusick (Tuscarora nation) and Elias Boudinot and Richard Fields (Cherokee nation). Alexander Lawrence Posey (Muscogee) was also a noted poet, humorist and political satirist.