Native American Author Spotlight: Sherman Alexie

The Native American Renaissance opened doors for many Native American authors to flourish. Authors like these are now able to publish stories about their own experiences and continue to bring awareness to the issues that plague the modern Native American. In this post-renaissance period, we find Sherman Alexie.

Sherman Alexie was born in 1966 and grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. There, he lived around Spokane culture, but was never really accepted by his community. In infancy, he developed a condition that lead to surgery. This caused him to be in and out of the hospital for much of his adolescence and left his head larger than usual. He was constantly teased and not able to participate in many of the activities that are considered a rite of passage for young Native American male’s due to the side effects of that condition. This did not stop him from being academically successful.

He excelled during his high school career, leading him to receive a scholarship at Gonzaga University. After switching his major multiple times, the only place he seemed to find solace was in his literature classes. After a couple of years, he left Gonzaga and transferred to Washington State University. There, he found Alex Kuo, a respected poet that served as a mentor for Alexie. In these classes, he was able to begin writing and publishing his own works.

The themes of these works encapsulate the life of a contemporary Native American person living on a reservation. Despair, poverty, and alcoholism are riddled in this community and directly affects the characters in his stories. Through irony and dark humor, Alexie paints the picture of life as a modern Native American and the challenges they face on a reservation.

While being successful in his literary career, he has also dabbled in film. He created the first all-Native American movie, Smoke Signals, which got top honors at the Sundance Film Festival. Much like his books and poems, this is a story that reflects on the many struggles that Alexie encounted during his time on the reservation.

Alexie now lives in Seattle, Washington and is still active in the literary community. He most recently published a memoir titled You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me which sheds light on his trials and tribulations at the Spokane Indian Reservation.

Have you ever read any of Alexie’s work? Are there any other Native American authors that you think we should know about? Leave a comment or visit us at Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to tell us!

Native American Author Spotlight: Zitkala-Sa

Though the Native American Renaissance was a time that developed awareness for the Native American community and their struggles, there were other extremely influential Native American authors before this movement. These people preserved the oral history of the Native American community by writing and publishing it for readers. This helped to convey the rich and diverse cultures in the Native American community. One of the most well-known of these authors was Zitkala-Sa. She was not only a published author, but an advocate for the Native American community. Her story, like the many of the other authors, is one of trying to bridge the gap between two worlds.

Zitkala-Sa was born in the Yankton Sioux Agency on February 22, 1876. She lived there for eight years and was raised in the culture of the Yankton people. However, like many of the Native American children during the late 19th century, she was recruited and taken to the White’s Manual Labor Institute. This was a boarding school created for Native American people that was supposed to teach them, but the educational quality of the school was so poor that many could only acquire low paying positions. There, she was able to learn English, reading, and the violin. She excelled and was able to take her efforts to achieve bigger goals.

Against her family’s wishes, she enrolled at Earlham College until 1897, when she was forced to leave due to ill health and monetary issues. In 1899, she began teaching at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.  She was uncomfortable with the harsh discipline and curriculum of the school, but it provided her the opportunity to focus on writing and starting her literary career. She was able to publish a few short stories and essays in monthly magazines that described her struggle of retaining her Native American roots in a world that was so against it. She also wrote the first American Indian opera, The Sun Dance Opera. But Zitkala-Sa is most well known for her anthologies of Native American stories she curated by writing down the oral history of different Native American cultures. These are called Old Indian Legends and American Indian Stories.

Though she was well known for these anthologies, she was also a political activist for the Native American people.  She worked in the Society of American Indians (SAI) as a secretary and moved to Washington D.C. to be a liaison between SAI and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). She also founded the National Council of American Indians in an effort to unite the tribes so that they could gain full citizenship rights.

She continued writing political articles and books that influenced Native American civil rights reform until her death in 1938. She was an artist, an author, and an activist for her community. Check out some of her work this month to celebrate Native American Heritage Month!

What are your thoughts on Zitkala-Sa? Leave a comment or visit us at Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to tell us!

Native American Author Spotlight: N. Scott Momaday

June 2001: N. Scott Momaday during the Saint Malo Book Fair in France. (Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

The late 1960s to 1980s are regarded as the Native American Renaissance in literary history. During this time, many literary works by Native Americans in the United States were published. This lead to national awareness of Native American writers and the development of Native American Studies departments at many notable universities. This widely celebrated movement’s creation is usually attributed to N. Scott Momaday, the spotlight Native American writer for this week.

Though born in Oklahoma, Momaday was raised in Arizona on the reservation. There, he was able to learn and experience the myriad of Southwest Native American cultures. He then went on to attend the University of New Mexico and complete his graduate schooling at Stanford University with a PhD in English.

After graduation, Momaday wrote and published his first book, House Made of Dawn, in 1968. This book later won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and is regarded as the beginning of the Native American Renaissance. Much like many of the other Native American authors, Momaday’s most well-known story is of one about someone at a crossroads of cultures, that of their Native American heritage and modern America.

Through this, Momaday was able to advocate for Native American education and representation in the arts. He has supported the Native American community through writing introductions and reviews for many Native American authors, bringing attention to Native American heritage, and even making himself available to talk to students from reservations who are entering university.

He continues to work in academics. He has been a visiting professor for many universities; he even was the first professor to teach American Literature in Moscow, Russia. He is currently the Regents Professor of the Humanities at the University of Arizona. Momaday continues to be a part of the Native American community as a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan. Has this post inspired you to read Momaday? Check out one of his books today in honor of the Native American Heritage Month!

What are your thoughts on the Native American Renaissance? Do you have any other Native American author suggestions? Leave a comment or visit us at Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to tell us!

Native American Author Spotlight: Leslie Silko

Reading stories from other cultures is essential to understanding our diverse world. During the month of November, we celebrate National Native American/Alaskan Native Heritage Month. For the next four weeks, we will be spotlighting four different influential Native American authors. Today, we will be highlighting the works of Leslie Silko.

Leslie Silko was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico on March 5, 1948. She was raised in a family of Laguna Pueblo, white, and Mexican ancestry on the Laguna Pueblo reservation in New Mexico. Much like the characters in her stories, Silko’s upbringing left her at a crossroads between cultures. This caused her to not feel fully accepted by either the Laguna Pubelo people or white people because of her mixed background.

After graduating from the University of New Mexico, she went on to pursue law school but found that it wasn’t the right environment for her to make an impact for her community. She realized that her efforts for Native American justice would be better invested in storytelling and writing. Through her writings, she has created a dialogue about the struggles of the modern Native American and other issues that the Native American community faces.

All of these themes and personal experiences are encapsulated in her most well-known book, Ceremony. This is a story of a war veteran with mixed Laguna and Anglo heritage. The protagonist meets a tribal wise man who teaches him Laguna folklore and traditional ceremonies that help him heal the psychic wounds caused by war. This is a story of contrasting cultures, mental illness, and transformation through his Native American roots. It is critically acclaimed and has given Silko the title of the “first female Native American novelist”. She later received many accolades for this book including the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas Lifetime Achievement Award.

She is still alive today and has most recently written a memoir called The Turquoise Ledge in 2010. She teaches currently at the University of Arizona at Tucson. Check out one of her books this month!

What are your thoughts on Ceremony? Have a favorite Native American author? Leave a comment or visit us at Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to tell us!