Bookending the Survey Course with Native American Literature – Part One: Oral Cultures

Given the present clashes at Standing Rock and the irony of those voices telling Native Americans to “go home,” I’d venture to say the time is ripe for teachers of American literature to revisit the ways in which our classes construct—both explicitly and implicitly—Americanness.

I’m interested in how we begin the survey course, odd beast that it is, and how strategically that beginning can frame the course as a whole. This semester, I’ve bookended my Intro to American Lit class with Native American literature, and in this post I’ll report on teaching traditional oral literature at the beginning of a survey-style, intro-level course.

My priority in introducing students to American literature is to frame America as a place of literary continuity, or as a place always already literary: specifically, I do not want students to see the our literature as something that started with the Pilgrims. …When we do get to the Pilgrims, I want them to appreciate the enormity of interconnected social, cultural, and aesthetic transformations spurred by colonial contact. But in order for students to perceive the literary contours of this particular upheaval, they need a grounding in oral traditions.

Of course, teaching students about ancient oral literary traditions comes with challenges. What do they need to know in order to get their historic and cultural bearings? What are the related discourses, and what are the major questions driving those discourses? What analytic tools will give students traction to participate in said discourses? And how do we use existing textual literature to teach ancient oral literature, anyway? Furthermore… given that academic engagement with this content, like so much that we present for only one or two class periods in a survey course, comprises entire graduate degrees and by extension, entire careers—how do we retain any degree of nuance in our approach?

I lean heavily on the independent scholar, Robert Bringhurst: his writing is clear, Robert Bringhurst image.jpgaccessible, and full of provocative cross-cultural comparisons. A poet, translator, linguist, typographer, and critic, he has devoted a substantial portion of his career to studying Haida poets Skaay and Ghandl and John Swanton’s transcriptions of their works. Ultimately, Bringhurst understands the oral literature of the Haida to be one of the world’s great classical traditions (comparable to that of the Greeks, for example), and his translations and scholarship work toward establishing classical Haida literature as such for a contemporary, westernized audience.

Image result for haida gwaii mapAs political boundaries currently stand, Haida Gwaii (formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, and designated by the yellow/pink circle on the map to the right) is part of Canada, not the native-languages-mapUnited States. But there is also a strong Haida presence in Alaska, meaning some contemporary Haida are Canadian and some are American. Beginning an American literature class with a Canadian translation puts the logic of borders and the colonial scissoring of the Americas on the table for discussion; I encourage students to contrast current political boundaries with basic culture and linguistic maps.

Actual Class Material: First, Topics

In his 2014 interview with Guernica Magazine, Bringhurst lays out a spunky and rich introduction to oral culture, unpacks his claim that “a myth is a theorem about the nature of reality,” and suggests ways of reading—and reasons to read—translations of ancient works. This interview is a great place to start because it combines basic information on oral tradition with issues of live performance, transcription, and translation, and it’s grounded in a specific place (Haida Gwaii) and its culture. Before tackling a textual record of ancient oral literature, students need time to think about the great many wedges falling between what we will be able to access on the page, and what we won’t.

Bringhurst also offers tools by which to gain analytic traction. As students begin to see how much richness of traditional oral literature is ultimately inaccessible to us (because we simply can’t go back in time), students also need recognizable landmarks that are accessible, that can be found and followed on the page, and that do demand critical analysis. In my class, we focus on Bringhurst’s argument about the more-than-human world, for example, and how his idea of “mythtime” (in which rules of reality are malleable) interacts with “realtime” (reflecting things as they are now).

Actual Class Material: Second, Textual Analysis


The next reading I give students is the prologue and first chapter from Bringhurst’s book,
A Story as Sharp as a Knife. This chapter, “Goose Food,” is part essay and part poem, combining a historic discussion and textual analysis with an excerpt in Haida from Ghandl’s telling of the Goose Woman story and Bringhurst’s translation of it. We do two main things with this chapter: (1) we discuss Bringhurst’s arguments, and (2) we close read his translation of the Goose Woman story.

Perhaps most challenging for students was the word “mythology.” Bringhurst demonstrates that all humans in all cultures make myths: these are our oldest stories, “ones endlessly available for retellings.” In “Goose Food,” Bringhurst develops a comparison between Haida mythology and Christian mythology, discussing a painting by Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (“The Kitchen Maid,” roughly 1620-1622) in which mythtime is framed by realtime: the painting foregrounds a kitchen maid (realtime); behind her, Jesus, resurrected, is at the table (mythtime).

“The Kitchen Maid” (1620-1622), Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez

It’s a provocative comparison to bring into the classroom, because some students aren’t ready to apply a literary term (“mythology”) to their own traditions. On the other hand, some embrace it. Bringhurst’s emphasis on truth—for he argues vehemently that mythologies are fundamentally about reality—helps complicate the debate.

The Big Picture

Survey courses are characterized in no small part by the massive omissions we’re forced to make. But they’re also characterized by rather grand connections: large-scale thematic arcs emerge in survey courses, as do long-term formal developments. Big picture through-lines are, from this perspective, the bread and butter of the survey approach.

Beginning a survey of American Literature with ancient oral tradition puts several touchstones in place for the semester as a whole:

  1. Discussion of mythology entails discussion of creation. This makes for a profoundly spiritual literary backdrop to the remainder of the course, one that resonates with subsequent discussions of America’s religious/literary intersections.
  2. The politics of colonialism, westward expansion, othering, assimilating, and resistance all converge in discussion of why and how we have the records we do.
  3. Bioregional specificity of oral tradition both links to—and contrasts with—place-based priorities of, for example, 19th-century American Regionalism (and its future iterations and offshoots).

I’ll be following up in a future post with thoughts on returning to Native American literature at the end of a survey course, reading that literature as a contemporary call for sovereignty, and considering sovereignty—the freedom of people to flourish by governing themselves with their own ambitions at heart—as one of the lenses available for students looking back over a course in American literature as a whole.


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