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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Sherman Alexie or How does #MeToo affect the Texts We Teach?

The recent events surrounding Sherman Alexie, first the accusations and then his kind of admission and sort of apology, started a conversation among a few of us at PALS. When the news broke, I was mostly indifferent. Should I have been surprised? Should I have been upset? Should I have been enraged? Should I have had some sort of pause about it all? Probably. But that wasn’t the case. I was bummed, disappointed.

My Positionality (in the world/in education)

Before I go on, I would like to take a minute to set up my perspective and the elements that influence my response to Alexie.

    • I am not a creative writer, nor am I writer of color. There is a wonderful and painful reflection about Alexie’s betrayal by a writer who identifies as both of those and as a woman. For me, however, Alexie has not had an impact on who I am. This isn’t just Alexie; I do not connect emotionally with any writers or written texts, or any “famous” people.
    • Amending point one: I am not devoid of emotion. There has been the discussion of how literature helps heal trauma. That was not the case for me; it never had that opportunity. Literature always functioned as escapism, a place not only to escape my situation but to escape all my emotions.
    • Based on my research interests, I spent years submerged in both critical race theory and criticism about representation of sexual violence in literary works, and sexual violence more broadly. So when revelations like Alexie’s come to light, I move them through a variety of frameworks to rethink how we understand it all.
    • Amending point three: this informs what I do in the classroom. My initial reaction is not to remove Alexie from the classroom. So now I am wondering, how might students benefit from reading Alexie’s work with this new information about the author?
    • Alexie’s works only makes it onto my syllabus every three years or so, and he is rarely the only Native American writer represented. Since I don’t teach Alexie heavily, not teaching his work doesn’t impact my courses nor does it serve as some sort of protest. This last part I say without judgment. If Alexie is the only Native writer you teach, there is no time like the present to remedy that. For those interested in exploring more Native writers, here is a starting point. (Note: This list is not complete. There are Native writers I teach who are not on it.) Also, we have had multiple posts here on several Early Native American writers, like Handsome Lake and protest literature, poet Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, and Haida poets.

When the question was raised among the PALS editors of whether or not we needed to make some sort of statement or amend our posts that include Alexie–Repurposing the Captivity Trope and Bookending the Survey Part 2–or to suggest alternative texts, my initial response, in my head of course because I do have a filter sometimes, was “Why?” I was confused by the discussion. Why wouldn’t we continue to teach Alexie’s works after this revelation?

My indifference isn’t because I don’t care about sexual assault and harassment because I do. It’s because it is such a normalized experience for me as a woman that I really had to take some time to figure out my relationship with authors I teach whose personal histories are deeply problematic. Also, because I am me, I took it to the streets—in academia this is also known as the classroom.

My Students’ Responses

I am currently teaching as a part of the San Diego City College CCAP (College and Career Access Pathways) program which involves teaching college courses at high school campuses, specifically targeting students who are undecided about pursuing college. I had these high school aged college students do some in class writing on a broad prompt to get us started on a discussion that took the entire hour and a half class period:

Should a person’s personal behaviors have an effect on their professional lives/achievement? Why or why not? Explain.

I intentionally kept the prompt extremely vague for two reasons. First, we had just finished a unit on social media use where students were adamantly against the practice of potential colleges and employers creeping on perspective students and employees’ social media accounts. Second, we read Sherman Alexie’s “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Super Man and Me” just weeks before he was called out for his sexual misconduct.

Of course my students, in all of their good faith in humanity and their buying into the American promise that hard work pays off, answered “no” to the question and followed with seemingly innocuous examples. People partying or getting a little crazy in their personal lives should not take away from their hard work or achievements in their professional lives. Because social media was on their minds, I had anticipated this response. Sexual assault and other crimes did not enter their thoughts on the subject.

I put the NPR article about Alexie up on the projector and read a few of the victims’ statements. My students were shocked and sad. They really liked Alexie’s essay. I changed the prompt to get at the question I have been trying to work through:

Should these revelations about Alexie’s personal behaviors keep me from teaching his creative writing in my classes?

Like me, this took a lot longer for students to process. There were a couple immediate “stop teaching him” answers. I was asked if I knew about his actions before I had them read his essay. Others said if they had known that going in, then they would not have read his work. Another student asked about the time frame, because if he had changed his behavior, then shouldn’t we give him a second chance?

Then the conversation shifted into one that involved understanding sexual assault. Not a single student in the room knew the name Harvey Weinstein or anything about the #Metoo movement. So we pulled up a list of films he has a producer credit on and the list of his accusers. Again, my students were surprised at how many of those names they recognized. This led down the road of how it happened to so many women over such a long period of time. Eventually we discussed the attitudes that dismiss or make light of women’s experiences and how all of it is compounded with race, class, and sexual orientation among other factors. And somehow we ended up talking about the back log of unprocessed rape kits and other logistical elements involving sexual assault.

We went down this long road in order for students to ask the question, “If we stop reading Alexie, does that mean we don’t watch any of Weinstein’s 300+ films?” I offered a few more comparisons for consideration: Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Even though I know my audience, I wasn’t sure if those examples were going to hold up, especially R. Kelly. But my students still listen to R. Kelly and still watch at least short clips from various Bill Cosby shows on Youtube, knowing about the allegations and charges against both of them. Why? Their answers: Because they still find enjoyment or connection with the art.

Do We Still Teach Alexie?

Bringing it back to the educational space, I asked them the question that particularly nags at me. Why Sherman Alexie? Why not others? Who else do we consistently teach despite their problematic behaviors and attitudes?

Ahem. Is it Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father? Or, Thomas Jefferson, Racist? Or, Thomas Jefferson, Rapist? Does Sally Hemings’ posthumous #Metoo count? What about Jefferson’s musings about race in Notes on the State of Virginia? Did I miss the memo about no longer teaching him in early American literature or history courses?

The first time I read parts Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia was in a southern history course among texts of white male southern historians. However, that wasn’t the first time I was exposed to the content of it. I first read about Notes in David Walker’s Appeal. And this is the way I teach Jefferson. Since I structure my courses thematically or by genre, teaching texts chronologically doesn’t come into play that much. So I teach Walker and include the excerpts from Jefferson along with it to enable students to see in writing what Walker is calling out. Students get a lot out of seeing this side to Jefferson that is sadly entirely new to them.

In grad school I did a research project for a film pedagogy course that involved D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. I strained a muscle from the amount of eye-rolling I did as critic after critic tried to downplay Griffith’s racism. I’ve read Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman, and Griffith added his own racist elements to the adaptation, in addition to claiming the film as representational of historical fact. Why is there the need to suggest Griffith wasn’t an awful person in order to acknowledge what he did for cinematography during the time period? Back to the classroom, I would not teach this film in an intro to film studies course. I might pull clips from it when teaching cinematography. I would possibly include it in an upper division film course. I would probably include it in a course that focused on the representation of race in film, along with proper set up and DJ Spooky’s remix Rebirth of a Nation.

Lakota woman

Likewise, I wonder about the importance of teaching Alexie in different ways. In another course, I often teach excerpts from Mary Crowdog/Bravebird’s Lakota Woman, primarily “Aimlessness.” Students LOVE her memoir. The chapter I bring in focuses quite a bit on the sexual assault of Native Women by both Native and white men. Perhaps one approach is pairing Alexie with narratives like Bravebird’s and bringing his sexual misconduct into the conversation of the course. What does it mean that Alexie is writing against power structures as he participates in and uses them himself? How many of his characters try to do that, and to what success? We don’t need to sing endless praise of those whose texts we choose to teach or try to explain away their transgressions in an attempt to make ourselves feel better about still finding merit in them. We can change the way we teach them. And, we can choose not to teach them.

Let’s not forget the presence of sexual assault on college campuses and all the times it has gone ignored or been swept away by the power structures that be. As a college student, I also saw plenty of inappropriate behavior between professors and both undergrad and grad students with respected professors looking the other way as though the power structure at play there didn’t exist or wasn’t a problem. Sherman Alexie who makes it a point of identifying as teacher and mentor in “Superman and Me” also opens up this conversation.

Whether or not we continue to include Alexie on our syllabi is an individual decision. But we should all take a moment to reflect on the personal backgrounds of all the writers we teach and continue to make purposeful decisions in our course designs.