Native American Heritage Month

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| By Scot Peacock, Content Strategist|

Native American literature originates from oral traditions dating back to the pre-Columbian era. During the colonization of North America, Native American songs, poetry, and stories were written down using European languages, often by Europeans who were at risk of mistranslating a work or misinterpreting its meaning. But by the eighteenth century, Native American authors, including Samson Occom, a Christian Mohegan who wrote an autobiography as well as hymns, were publishing works in their own voice. In 1854 John Rollin Ridge, a Cherokee, authored The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta: The Celebrated California Bandit, the first novel published by a Native American. Early twentieth-century Native American authors include Charles Eastman; Mourning Dove; and Zitkala-Sa, whose American Indian Stories retells fables and legends from a Sioux perspective.

In 1969 N. Scott Momaday, an author associated with a midcentury renaissance of Native American literature, received the Pulitzer Prize for the novel House Made of Dawn. Over the next few decades, writers such as Leslie Marmon Silko, Simon J. Ortiz, Louise Erdrich, and Joy Harjo rose to prominence across literary genres. Harjo, of the Muscogee Creek Nation, is currently serving a second term as the U.S. poet laureate.

The voices of contemporary Native American writers remain stronger than ever. Tommy Orange was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2019 for the novel There There, which explores issues of ethnic identity, alcoholism, and unemployment among Native Americans living in an urban environment. Natalie Diaz won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for the collection Postcolonial Love Poem. In a 2020 interview about the work, published in World Literature Today (available in the Gale Literature Resource Center), Diaz commented, “I thought of the language and the poems as my own body and the way it loves or is loved, the way it wounds or has been wounded.”

Emerging Native American authors include Layli Long Soldier, an Oglala Lakota poet and activist who won a 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, and Eddie Chuculate, a fiction writer who is enrolled in the Muscogee Creek Nation and of Cherokee descent. Chuculate’s short stories have been published in Ploughshares and The Kenyon Review, and he was selected as World Literature Today’s Emerging Author for the July/August 2010 edition. His stories “A Famous Indian Artist” and “Dear Shorty” can be found in Gale Literature: LitFinder.

A wealth of information and scholarship on Native American literature can be found in Gale Literature databases. Gale Literature Criticism contains a number of focused entries on Native American topics, such as:

The coverage of contemporary Native American writers in Gale Literature databases is extensive. For example, research on the authors mentioned above will yield results like:

Gale Literature databases also have a wide range of biographies, overviews, critical essays, and primary sources on the formative voices of Native American literature. For example:

  • Samson Occom
    • A critical biography published in Dictionary of Literary Biography: Native American Writers of the United States and accessed through Gale Literature Resource Center
    • An entry on Occom’s work from Gale Literature Criticism
  • Charles Eastman
    • A critical biography published in Dictionary of Literary Biography: Native American Writers of the United States and accessed through Gale Literature Resource Center
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