Assistant Arts Editor
November is National Native American Heritage Month.
“The month is a time to celebrate rich and diverse cultures, traditions and histories and to acknowledge the important contributions of Native people,” said the National Congress of American Indians. “Heritage Month is also an opportune time to educate the general public about tribes, to raise a general awareness about the unique challenges Native people have faced both historically and in the present, and the way in which tribal citizens have worked to conquer these challenges.”
Also known as American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month, the event began in the early 1900s when Red Fox James, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, rode horseback to 24 state governments to get endorsements for what would then become American Indian Day. This day of respect for the “First Americans” expanded to a week during President Reagan’s term in 1986; in 1990, President George H. W. Bush dedicated the entire month of November to honoring Native heritage.
One way Native American culture can be celebrated this month—and beyond—is through the written word. Native American literature is an up-and-coming genre in the literary world with works from Native authors gaining traction even with non-Native audiences. Novels such as “House Made of Dawn” (1968) by Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday and “There There” (2018) by Cheyenne and Arapaho author Tommy Orange have earned places of honor in the literary scene, winning the coveted Pulitzer Prize and American Book Award respectively.
With the voices of Native peoples having been all but smothered for a vast majority of the country’s history, this emergence of Native literature—and with it, the Native voice—has opened the door for discussing dark parts of history and how to grow from them. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 9.1 million people in the U.S. identified as Native American and Alaskan Native in 2020—that’s 2.9% of the population who have stories to tell, whether of their ancestors or themselves. Literature, according to Orange, is a great way to hear them.
“We can’t heal from something unless we acknowledge it and accept it for what it is, and if we can’t do that together, it feels like the American consciousness is actually denying our basic narrative about what happened,” said Orange in an interview. “It’s really hard to move on and heal together. If we want to not only heal as a Native community, but as Americans too… it’s hard to feel like you even want to be an American if your whole narrative is being spoken against or denied or not listened to.”
The “whole narrative” has been slowly shifting over the years as more and more Native writers and artists have been put in the spotlight. The past few decades have seen an introduction of Native histories and traditions into the mainstream American culture, though the healing Orange speaks of has yet to be fully grasped. According to Momaday, though, the future of Native American writing—and with that, the Native voice—is bright.
“[Native literature] is pretty healthy and becoming more so all of the time,” said Momaday in an interview “When I started publishing, it was not nearly as widespread as it is now. We have kids out there who are doing good things, writing well, and many more than ever. It is something that is on the incline, and we’ll hear from many more Native American writers in the future.”
OBU has also stepped up to educate students on Native American heritage and the literature that has come out of it through the multicultural literature course, which this semester is focused solely on Native American works. The class, taught by assistant professor of English Dr. Edward English, addresses themes of healing, spirituality, and identity through a Native American lens.
“You can learn a lot about other cultures just by reading them,” said creative writing major Tanner Hernandez. “What we’ve read in this class has been great for that.”
Other books by Native Americans to check out include “Ceremony” by Leslie Marmon Silko, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie, and “American Indian Stories” by Zitkala-Sa.