Self-Representation, Resistance, and Postmodern Native Americans: Twentieth Century Native Authors Literature Seminar 400

By Verderame, Carla L. | Studies in the Humanities, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Self-Representation, Resistance, and Postmodern Native Americans: Twentieth Century Native Authors Literature Seminar 400


Verderame, Carla L., Studies in the Humanities


I have had the opportunity to teach LIT 400 senior seminars on Native American literature with some regularity at West Chester University, which is part of the Pennsylvania State System of Education, for the past eight years. LIT 400 seminars are comprised of a maximum of 14 students who pursue either the Bachelor of Arts degree in Literature or the Bachelor of Science degree in education with a major in English. Both the BA Lit and the BSEd students are required to take three undergraduate literature seminars at the 400 level as part of their regular program in order to graduate with a major in English. While the BSEd students plan to teach English in the secondary school, grades 7-12, and are certified to do so upon graduation, the BA lit students enter either graduate school or a variety of careers in which they rely heavily on their skills in reading, writing, and research. The graduate level course on Native American literature is open to students who pursue either a Master's degree in Literature or English Studies or a post-baccalaureate certificate to teach English at the high school level I have also taught Native literature at the graduate level, but I focus this discussion on the undergraduate literature seminar which I taught most recently, in Fall, 2005.

My reading list begins with Mourning Dove's Cogewea and ends with Bell's Faces in the Moon. Louis Owens' Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel serves remarkably well as the critical text for the course in addition to articles about Native literature and Native studies by renowned scholars in the field, which I put together in a course packet. (See syllabus and annotated bibliography at the end of this discussion.) West Chester University does not have a Native Studies Program and I have not had Native students in class.

Because I want to avoid the generalizations that students might make about Native literature if they read only a few novels by Native authors, I deliberately assign a rigorous reading load. Each novel offers unique questions and themes that my students and I discuss throughout the semester and, what's more, we return to each text as a method of comparison and contrast as we make our way through Native texts published between the early part of the twentieth century and the present. I try to arrange the course chronologically (although I group one author's texts together regardless of publication date) to present an historic overview of Native literature. While I vary the reading list somewhat every time that I teach the course, the primary source texts typically include Cogewea; The Surrounded; Wind From An Enemy Sky; House Made of Dawn; Ceremony; Love Medicine; The Beet Queen; Tracks; Fools Crow; The Indian Lawyer; Medicine River; Truth and Bright Water; The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven; Reservation Blues; Solar Storms (sometimes I use Mean Spirit); and Faces in the Moon. In addition, I include some poetry by Paula Gunn Allen, Sherman Alexie, and Joy Harjo and some short stories by Thomas King and Leslie Marmon Silko. Overall, the course is successful; it gets approved regularly by the Undergraduate Literature Committee in my department. Students learn a great deal about a body of literature that is relatively new to them, and the course evaluations attest to the popularity of the class and verify that students grapple with issues of narrative and audience in new ways.

I begin the semester with an overview of some of the themes that we will encounter in the texts: mixed blood status, the oral tradition, the importance of stories, the significance of community and its connection to healing, religious oppression, as well as the role of the trickster and the effect of a non-linear narrative. We address a host of additional issues as we read about conflicted characters who struggle to find a comfortable place in the contemporary world. That is, most of the novels include mixed blood individuals who try to reconcile their traditional background within modern society. …

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