Planning Native American Literature in the Beginnings to 1865 Survey of American Literature

I have always had issues with the canon and the periodization of literature. This in turn makes the struggle of what to include in the Early American literature survey course even more complicated. What does “Beginnings” actually mean? Sometimes the phrasing is “From First Contact” which I also wonder about. Depending on the anthology one chooses to use, or like me not use, those opening readings might belong to Native American tribes. Again, this brings up a variety of ethical issues from the writing down in English of Native American tribes’ stories to claiming them as apart of the American literary canon. There are plenty of places to read about these debates.

These issues are not my focus, but they do linger at the back of my mind when I design and redesign my American literature courses each time I teach them. PALS contributors have previously discussed different ways of framing both Native American writers and white American writers to challenge “misguided” dominant narratives, including ones that American literature anthologies continue to promote. For a variety of other approaches, see Randi Tanglen’s “Teaching Handsome Lake’s “How America Was Discovered” as Protest Literature” and “Misattribution and Repurposing the Captivity Trope: Teaching Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie with Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God,” Melissa Range’s “Teaching Jane Johnston Schoolcraft,” Elaina Frulla’s “History’s Inconsistent Characters,” and Corinna Cook’s “Bookending the Survey Course with Native American Literature – Part One: Oral Cultures” and “Bookending the Survey Course with Native American Literature-Part Two: Contemporary Texts and Authors.”

Part of my response is to daily frame literature prior to the American Revolution as British literature from the American colonies. I do not, however, include Native American literature within this. When designing my Early American Survey course for last fall semester, I decided to try a different positioning of Native American literature. I created an assignment for students to develop presentations in small groups that each featured a different Native American tribe.

The Logistics

First, I made two anthologies available on 2 hour reserve in the library: Dawnland Voices and The Literature of California, Volume 1: Native American Beginnings to 1945. I chose Dawnland Voices due to its self-representation from members of the tribes included in it, for more specifics about its creation and offerings see PALS’s “Anthology Spotlight: Dawnland Voices“ by Greg Specter and the anthology’s supplemental website. Conversely, I chose The Literature of California because I teach in California and wanted to provide my students the opportunity to connect with Native American experience in their region. The students who drew from the California anthology had to do more work in order to find background information for the tribes featured therein.

Second, I created space in the class for weekly presentations which generally ran 25-30 minutes because my students embraced the discussion portion of the presentations. I chose the weeks for each tribe to be placed on the syllabus and the tribes to include because there are more in those two anthologies than weeks in the semester. There are a few tribes in Dawnland Voices whose literature samples do not start until after the time period of the course, so those were cut from the mix first as I narrowed the field. Sometimes my choice was random, but other times it was more strategic. For instance, the week we read Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, students presented on the Nipmuc whose writings in Dawnland Voices include “Mary Rowlandson’s Ransom Note.” Likewise, the week we read Phillis Wheatley’s Letter to Samsom Occom and Samsom Occom’s narrative, students presented on the Mohegan which provided additional writing by Occom. In these cases, the presentations enabled students to recontextualize and add more perspectives for interpreting the texts on the syllabus.

Finally, I had students choose their weeks which formed their groups. I also created google docs through our LMS system for them to create the required handout in. Google docs is a great way of keeping students accountable in group projects because it enables me to see their individual contributions; this is something students were aware of.

The Assignment

I broke the assignment up into four parts to help focus students with the material. Since I had access to their shared google doc, I printed the handouts an hour before class. They would have been more than capable of doing this on their own, but I had the access to keep that cost from my students.

1) The handout: This should be 1-2 pages in length, 12 point font, and single-spaced. You may include bullet points, but please use complete sentences. Your handout should include key concepts for understanding the specific tribe you are presenting on, including brief background information about who these people were/are.

2) An excerpt from their writings: In addition to information about the tribe, chose an excerpt from their writings to include on the handout as a sample of their work. [This usually added an addition 1-2 pages to the handouts, so we had the occasional 4 page handout.]

3) Presentation: Explain what stood out to you about the people and the excerpt from their writing that you chose to include on the handout.

4) Discussion questions: Develop  two open questions for us to explore as a class. A possible place to start is with connections that can be made between what is showing up in their writings and what we have been reading as a class.

The first group decided to include the tribal seal, so the rest of the class followed suit. It added a visual element for the group to explain to the class and created a genuine sense of respect by acknowledging the symbol of each tribes’ identity.

The Payoff

Sharing the history of 15 tribes across the semester, enabled students to develop an understanding of the intricate differences between Native American tribes, both from their individual experience and their literature. We were able to address a wide variety of issues from boarding schools to California water rights to forced migration. These additional pieces of information provided more complexities to the historical contexts of Early American literature without front loading it or trying to get through as much as possible in a few class periods.

Students took initiative to expand the perimeters of the presentations to include current information about the tribes. They were surprised to learn that many of the tribes were only officially recognized by the US government in the 1980s and 1990s and disenchanted when learning about those tribes that are still not recognized. They would also occasionally include a contemporary piece of writing alongside the one from our time period of study in order to

Ultimately, creating this separate space across the entire course to study Native American literature outside of the more canonical readings on the syllabus changed the way students saw American literature. The sustained presence of Native American literature throughout the entire semester kept American colonization as a focal point of the course and made students better able to check the ways white American writers presented themselves and the themes addressed in their literature.

One of the biggests challenges of the survey courses is how much we can adequately cover in a 15 week semester or 10 week quarter, yikes! Like I tell my students at the beginning of the semester and again at the end of the semester, “I could teach this same course next semester and not need to repeat a single text or author. There is always so much more to read.” Finding additional ways to effectively incorporate more literature (see also Randi Tanglen, “Student-Centered, Collaborative Learning and ‘Literature Circles’ in the American Literature Classroom”), especially when students are responsible for teaching it, enhances what we are able to do within the confines of one semester.

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