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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Misattribution and Repurposing the Captivity Trope: Teaching Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie with Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God

PALS Note: We are excited to have a guest post from Randi Tanglen on complicating the discussion of Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative through the work of two contemporary Native American poets. Tanglen is an Associate Professor of English and director of the faculty development and teaching center at Austin College. 

Update: PALS is pleased to have Randi on board as a full-time contributor!

9780312111519I often teach Mary Rowlandson’s 1682 Indian captivity narrative The Sovereignty and Goodness of God in early American and American frontier literature classes. The narrative tells of Puritan Mary Rowlandson’s six-week captivity with the Narragansett and Wampanoag people of New England during King Phillip’s War in 1676. Very popular with British and colonial audiences alike, it went through four editions in its first year of publication and 23 editions by 1828. Today Rowlandson’s captivity narrative is heavily anthologized and regularly taught in a wide range of American literature courses as an example of Puritan spiritual autobiography and the Indian captivity narrative form. In my classes, I teach Rowlandson’s captivity narrative to demonstrate how the captivity trope and its anti-Indian rhetoric have been deployed in American literature and culture to justify the perceived rightness of usually white-provoked wars and the ideology of Manifest Destiny.

PALS contributor Corinna Cook recently discussed how she asks student to consider the ways in which “Native peoples draw on and similarly repurpose aesthetic patterns, literary tools, and textual practices of colonial origins.” So in order to illustrate what captivity narratives scholar Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola calls the “the complicated nexus of politics, cultures, identities, and ethnicities at the heart” of any captivity experience and its various depictions, I make it a priority to teach Native representations of and responses to the trope of captivity when I teach white accounts of Indian captivity. To that end, I teach two Native rejoinders to Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative after my classes have read it: Louise Erdrich’s (Chippewa) 1984 poem “Captivity” and Sherman Alexie’s (Spokane Coeur D’Alene) 1993 poem of the same title.

Both poems suggest that Rowlandson did not leave her captivity experience with the absolute certainty about white cultural superiority that the captivity trope tries to reinforce and thereby subvert the political purpose and cultural meaning of the colonialist captivity trope.

The Misattribution

Both poems open with an epigraphic misattribution that might prevent students from initially seeing the powerful ways in which both poems repurpose the captivity trope. With the exception of a few changed words, Erdrich’s and Alexie’s poems both begin with the same epigraphic quote ascribed to Rowlandson:

He (my captor) gave me a bisquit, which I put in my pocket, and not daring to eat it, buried it under a log, fearing he had put something in it to make me love him.

The epigraph goes on to credit the quote to “the narrative of the captivity of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, who was taken prisoner by the Wampanoag when Lancaster, Massachusetts was destroyed, in the year 1676.” My students, familiar with Rowlandson’s narrative, point out that this quote addresses some of Rowlandson’s most accentuated concerns: food and sexual vulnerability.

However, when students go back to look for the epigraphic quote that spurs the dramatic situation of both poems, they realize that it cannot be found anywhere in Rowlandson’s captivity narrative. This is because the epigraphic quote actually comes from the more obscure 1736 captivity narrative of a different Puritan captive named John Gyles, who wasn’t necessarily afraid of “loving” his Maliseet captors, but rather their French Jesuit allies. Although to a present-day audience these words may seem laced with erotic implications, the most literal meaning is that Gyles feared a priest would convert him to Catholicism.

Although it could be that Erdrich and Alexie (who seems to be writing in response to both Rowlandson and Erdrich) purposefully included the misattribution, students sometimes grapple with the inaccuracy. Once they know the origin of the epigraph, I asked the students to consider the following questions for class discussion and essay prompts:

  • Do you think the incorrect citation was intentional or an oversight by the poets?
  • What is the poetic effect of this “misattribution”?
  • What does this specific epigraph bring to each poem that would otherwise be lost?
  • Is there a quote from Rowlandson’s narrative that would serve as a more effective epigraph?
  • How does the epigraph help us see something new about Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative?
  • How does the epigraph contribute to the cultural work of each poem?
Erdrich’s Use of “Captivity”

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Through John Gyles’s misattributed epigraph, Erdrich’s “Captivity” picks up on Rowlandson’s simultaneous desire for intimacy with and the fear of contamination by a Native other. Throughout the poem, a speaker in the voice of Rowlandson revisits scenes of her captivity, describing her repulsion to her captives’ culture, yet her attraction to the specific individuals within it. Early on, the speaker is able to “recognize [the] face” of her master, and is able to “distinguis[h] it from the othe[r]” “pitch devils.” Students usually note that even in the early lines of the poem, by discerning the sound of her master’s voice, the speaker engages the process of individualizing and, thereby, humanizing, her master. Immediately after this recognition, though, the speaker admits that “There were times I feared I understood/his language,” or, as students regularly point out, that the speaker fears identification and intimacy with her master and his culture.

And even though the speaker had “told myself that I would starve/before I took food from his hands,” when her master offers her the meat of an unborn fawn she eats it and finds it to be, “so tender/the bones like the stems of flower.” Students always pick up on these lines because they reference one of the most memorable moments in the captivity narrative. Rowlandson states that she would never eat the “filthy trash” offered by her captors, but a few weeks later finds the meat of a fawn “very good.” The next stanza of the poem intimates that Rowlandson had a sexual encounter with her master, after which the “birds mocked” her and the “shadows gaped and roared”—evidence that God was displeased. But as she becomes more accustomed to her captors’ culture, the speaker realizes that her master doesn’t notice these signs of a Puritan God’s displeasure, and eventually she too, figures that God might not punish her for whatever intimacy developed between her and her master.

When Erdrich’s Rowlandson confesses that “Rescued, I see no truth in things,” students see the connection to the end of Rowlandson’s captivity narrative when she admits, “I can remember the time, when I used to sleep quietly without workings in my thoughts, whole nights together: but now it is other wayes with me,” the only indication of uncertainty or doubt in Rowlandson’s account of her Indian captivity.  Students often conclude that Erdrich’s “misattibution” of Gyle’s words must have been intentional. By revealing the interchangeable nature of captivity texts, the poem is able to expose the instability of white cultural identity represented by the trope of captivity.

Alexie’s Malleable Mary Rowlandson
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via Wikipedia

Alexie continues with Erdrich’s appropriation of Rowlandson’s captivity narrative by  responding to her “Captivity” poem with his own of the same title. Since the poem similarly opens with the same quote from Gyles but attributed to Rowlandson, it enters an intriguing intertextual conversation with Erdrich, Rowlandson, and even Gyles, which leads to rich classroom discussion. The speaker in Alexie’s prose poem tells and retells a variety of captivity scenarios that transport versions of Mary Rowlandson into present day reservation life. In the first stanza of Alexie’s poem, the daughter of a white Indian agent runs out of the reservation classroom, “waving her arms wildly at real and imagined enemies.” Echoing the same language as Erdich’s shared epigraph, the speaker wonders, “Was she afraid of loving us all?” Students often associate this line with the white fear of intimacy with a Native other embodied in Rowlandson’s narrative and revealed in Erdich’s poem. By maintaining Erdich’s original use of John Gyle’s words, Alexie offers commentary on the power and malleability of cultural tropes; the speaker at one point reminds the reader that “The best weapons are stories and every time the story is told, something changes. Every time the story is retold, something changes.” The poem moves Mary Rowlandson from the seventeenth century into the twentieth—she is the scared new white girl at a reservation school, the only survivor of a car crash on the reservation, a woman drinking coffee at the reservation 7-11. As students come to realize through class discussion, Alexie’s modern Mary Rowlandsons aren’t captive of a Native other, but rather of the pernicious limitations of the colonialist captivity trope.

In each of the poem’s fourteen stanzas, Alexie makes Rowlandson herself a cultural trope, a representation of white contradictory and ambivalent responses to and fear of Native people and cultures in Rowlandson’s day and our own. Some students even wonder if a “white boy…who spent the summer on the reservation” is a reference to John Gyles, which the students see as an intertextual clue that Erdrich and Alexie were both conscious of the misattribution. The speaker reports that “It was on July 4th that we kidnapped him and kept him captive in a chicken coop for hours.”Bringing so many iterations of Mary Rowlandson and even John Gyles types into the present day emphasizes the historical nimbleness of the colonialist captivity trope, but also the power to change it. Alexie’s speaker asks: “Was it 1676 or 1976 or 1776 or yesterday when the Indian held you tight in his dark arms and promised you nothing but the sound of his voice?” Linking these words to the epigraph, students wonder if that Native voice will ask the white captive to “love him.”

Implications and Resources
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via Slabcity Gang on Flickr

When considering the goal of both poets to highlight the long-term impact of European colonization on Native cultures, the epigraphic quote shouldn’t be written off as a “misattribution” or poetic flaw. This limits students’ capacity to interpret the works. Rather the poems are commenting on the historical and on-going use of the captivity narrative to promote assumptions of white cultural superiority and the instabilities inherent in those assumptions. Teaching Erdrich’s and Alexie’s poems in conversation with Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative allows students to recognize the subversive re-salvaging of the colonialist trope of captivity. For many students, this diminishes some of the power of Rowlandson’s ethnocentric, anti-Indian rhetoric and they are able to engage more deeply with the narrative itself and consider its present-day implications.

Resources:

Ben-Zvi, Yael. “Up and Down with Mary Rowlandson: Erdrich’s and Alexie’s Versions of ‘Captivity.’Studies in American Indian Literature, 2012.

Fast, Robin Riley. The Heart as a Drum: Continuance and Resistance in American Indian Poetry. U of Michigan P, 1999.

Bio:

Randi-Tanglen6

Randi Tanglen is associate professor of English and director of the Robert and Joyce Johnson Center for Faculty Development and Excellence in Teaching at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. She is currently co-editing a volume of essays on “Teaching Western American Literature.”