We don’t talk about it much outside of studying a few incidents during the Pioneer years of the 1800′s. I’m speaking of the atrocities committed against Native Americans. We hear about the Trail of Tears, Squanto, Sacagawea, maybe Chief Joseph. But do we ever listen to the stories they have to tell or do we just relegate them to historical indifference? This question has been bothering me as I’ve been reviewing my curriculum for a U.S. literature course I teach. I try to be aware of the voices and stories I’m sharing with my students, and which ones are not being given the stage. As I reviewed what I was teaching I realized that the Native Americans were given some creation myth stories lumped together with the Puritans and Spaniards as part of the “Colliding Cultures” unit. But then they didn’t really surface until Chief Joseph’s “I will fight no more forever” speech. But for a people who were here first and who have intervened into the history and development of the U.S., we don’t give their stories and culture a piece of the literary stage.
Recently, such writers as Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko and N. Scott Momaday have contributed many quality works and have added Native American voices to the literary choir. But what about in years past? Were Native Americans really quite all these years? Where are their stories? To answer these questions I turned to the internet and my local library.
The problem I face is that the contemporary Native American writers were writing for an adult audience. And the domestic violence, rape, politics, and language were too heavy for my young adult readers (i.e. their parents and my administrators). So I turned to looking for young adult Native American novels. Many were biographies of famous Native Americans like the Code Talkers in WWII or Sacagawea. These aren’t bad, but I don’t want them to the only stories we tell. So I happened upon a book written in 1936 called, Waterless Mountain.
The 1930′s are not known for being racially progressive so I was prepared to put the book down at the first sign of prejudice and racism. I was also prepared for the European-American author to demonstrate her lack of knowledge o the Navajo culture, the Native American nation the book focuses on. However, I was pleasantly surprised I didn’t have to abandon the book.
Laura Adams Armer, the author, actually lived among the Navajos for many years and even became accepted enough amongst the local tribe to be given a viewing of a sacred sand painting; something the Navajos have tabooed for non-Navajos. The point-of-view is from a young Navajo boy and follows him as he comes of age and becomes a man. Clearly Armer has absorbed enough of the culture to be able to tell the story without stumbling over her white perspective. The Navajos never come across as savages nor do the white locals come across as saints. The plot is straight forward and written in poetic language that weaves conflict, mythology, religion and culture into an incredible tale.
I’m actually shocked that this book isn’t part of the mainstream curriculum. The brief mention of events in the Navajo’s history would be perfect for history teachers to assignment as research projects and the poetic language is an English teacher’s treasure trove. The writing itself isn’t complex so readers with low comprehension have access while more advanced readers could be challenged to identify the philosophical and historical elements and the subtle conflicts that are mentioned in the novel.
Now that I’ve found a voice to add to the choir I’m compiling, my new challenge is where to teach it. I want to respect the story that is being told and the culture from which it was born. So sorry Pioneers. These Native Americans are not going to be signing next to your tales. I’m thinking Jack London and Willa Cather would make good neighbors.