Storytelling is as essential to human survival as food and water. Without stories we cannot remember the past, understand the present, or look forward to a future. Without stories we cannot share our experiences with others or describe our sometimes intimate relationship with the earth, our kindred, or the power of creation. By telling a story, we give meaning to experience. Sacred narratives are simply those stories about ancestors who have provided significant and respected examples of how best to live in a complex world full of wonder.
Most Native American authors believe these assertions about the power of narrative. Despite the vast range of cultural differences existing among the 310 Native American tribes in the United States, writers from these varied communities acknowledge the relationship between orally transmitted narratives and single-authored works of short fiction. In fact, myths, rituals, legends, trickster stories, and folklore formulate the worldview against which Native American writers often measure their characters’ experiences. Both traditional storytellers and creative writers use language to maintain, transform, or heal their environment—an environment created to sustain all lifeforms in harmonious cooperation. In communal settings, storytellers are often intimate friends of the listeners. Individual authors try, through print, to extend such intimacy to unknown readers. For example, Gerald Robert Vizenor (Chippewa) calls printed texts “dead voice,” Greg Lesley names them “talking leaves,” and Clifford E. Trafzer (Wyndot) designates pieces of short fiction “paper spirits.” Such designations focus on discourse as a “saying” (continuing conversations or dialogues) rather than a “said” (something finished and therefore preempted).
In 1991 Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki) helped organize a festival of Native writers from North America. More than 200 published authors participated. Bruchac told this audience that their ability to write was given by the creator, and, therefore, writers have an “obligation to return that gift, to make use of it in a way that serves the people and the generations to come” (xix). The Pulitzer Prize winner N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa) also suggests that humans achieve their “fullest realization” of their “humanity in such an art and product of the imagination as literature—and here I use the term literature in its broadest sense. This is admittedly a moral view of the question, but literature is itself a moral view, and it is a view of morality” (105). Both these well-known authors treat writers as morally obligated to help readers relate with gratitude and respect to all that exists in the complex web of life.
Many Native American writers relate to each other as if they were members of a transtribal community. Most are familiar with the grandfathers of short fiction by Native writers: Ralph Salisbury (Cherokee; d. 2017), Maurice Kenny (Mohawk; d. 2016), Carter Revard (Osage; b. 1931), Gerald Vizenor (Minnesota Chippewa; b. 1934), Duane Niatum (Klallam; b. 1938), and Simon Ortiz (Aroma Pueblo; b. 1941). Literary production is not male-dominated among Native peoples; Native women have equal stature. The grandmothers of short fictions are Mary Tall Mountain (Koyukon Athabascan; d. 1994), Elizabeth Cook-Lynn (Crow-Creek-Sioux; b. 1930), Diane Glancy (Cherokee; b. 1941), Linda Hogan (Chickasaw; b. 1947), Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo; b. 1948), and Louise Erdrich (Chippewa; b. 1954). These award-winning authors are the best-known short story writers; however, numerous other gifted writers, including Sherman Alexie (Spokane and Coeur d’Alene) and Beth Brant (Mohawk; d. 2015), are quickly gaining equal stature.
Several themes are central to the concerns of Indian writers; storytelling as survival; trickster discourse as radical, comic, and fractious; the loss and importance of land and culture; the problems of assimilation—mixed blood conflicts, lost identity, alcoholism, domestic violence, poverty; kinship disillusion and reunion; the interdependence between the physical and spiritual environments; and the possibility of the reenchantment of the world. Historically, colonization and government policies pushed many tribes to near-extinction. Readers, therefore, might expect Native literature to constitute victims’ tragic tales. This is not the case, however. While most writers do describe the horrors Native peoples have experienced, their overall thrust is toward survival and reclamation. In many ways contemporary Indian writers have become autoethnographers. That is, these authors recontextualize their ethnic inheritance through imaginative works.
Leslie Silko’s Storyteller (1981) exemplifies this autoethnographic effort. Storyteller is a collection of Laguna creation narratives, ancestral stories, tribal folklore, and imaginative fiction woven together to show the synchronic or intertextual nature of these expressions. For Silko, time is like an ocean. Events occurring 500 years ago impact life as much as those occurring five minutes ago. And events occurring in time are often variations or reenactments of mythic events. Female characters in this text, for example, often resemble the mythic Yellow Woman whose adventures cause her suffering yet fulfill the pressing needs of her community. For Silko, these immemorial stories convey the endurance of the feminine (the grandmothers—birth, death, and rebirth).
Louise Erdrich’s collection of stories in Love Medicine explores the impact of the death of June Morrisey, an estranged tribal member, on various members of the Chippewa community in North Dakota. Few contemporary writers of any ethnic group have so clearly and empathetically communicated the tangle of genealogical ties in mixed blood, postassimilationist communities as skillfully as Erdrich. Euroamerican and Native American characters people her narratives as coinhabitants in each others’ stories.
Two Cherokee writers—Robert J. Conley and Diane Glancy—do for the Cherokee Nation what Silko and Erdrich have done for the Laguna and Chippewa. Conley’s The Witch of Goingsnake and Other Stories (1988) communicates the values of the Cherokee people as they have been passed down through generations. Diane Glancy’s Firesticks tells the stories of individuals who have been unable to share in such passed on narratives: “There was the darkness of a dream again. And in that darkness, the burning firesticks the men used to carry from the holy Keetowah fire to light the smaller fires in the cabins. Light of darkness. New life from ashes. . . . But now we had lost our ceremonies” (125). Glancy’s characters stumble toward forgiveness, remembrance, and the recognition of place. Their firesticks either pass down fragments of memory out of the ashes of ineffectual lives or are unconscious attempts to reconnect to what is holy.
Magical realism plays a huge role in contemporary Native fiction. The thread linking the stories in Clifford E. Trafzer’s collection Blue Dawn, Red Earth is that these “almost hallowed” stories contain “something good and magical . . . that might be given to others” (18). Witches, shamans, spirits, and spells impact the lives of the characters in many of the 30 stories by “not well known” authors in this collection. Characters witness “unspeakable” things that testify to the ongoing connection between the dead, the living, and the not-yet-born. If nothing else, these 30 authors demonstrate that a spiritual landscape coexists with the physical, one that is accessible in times of loneliness, need, misfortune, and misbehavior.
Humor makes so many collections of short fiction by Native Americans so unsentimental yet ultimately affirming. Trickster discourse erupts in many tales. Carter Revard, Gerald Vizenor, and Peter Blue Cloud (Mohawk) are noted for their contemporary uses of trickster patterns. Revard’s “Report to the Nation: Claiming Europe” is a very ironic, humorous tale turning the table on “discovery” narratives in America. “It may be impossible to civilize the Europeans. When I claimed England for the Osage Nation, last month, some of the English chiefs objected,” the story begins (Revard). Vizenor’s collections of short stories are primarily trickster narratives—comic tales and metaphors that challenge the truth claims of Natives and Anglos alike. Blue Cloud’s short story collections contain trickster tales on topics from the creation to elitist poets. An example of Blue Cloud’s wit is “The First Missiles,” a story about Coyote’s “full-stomach-greedy-for-more syndrome” (11). Coyote, a great thinker (and forgetter of the meaning of sweat baths), tries to horde the water in all the desert springs by surrounding them with arrows triggered to explode if anyone tries to drink from them. When his task is completed, Coyote travels to another desert to claim the springs there. To his amazement, Coyote himself becomes the object of many arrows. He has forgotten that his twin brother, in the eastern valley, was a thinker like him. He also has forgotten that bows and arrows are tools, not weapons, and such forgetfulness leads to Coyote’s death.
Native American short fiction continues to develop at an encouraging pace. Since the turn of the 21st century, several noted collections of short stories have appeared. Sherman Alexie published three collections: The Toughest Indian in the World (2000), Ten Little Indians (2003) and Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories (2012). Alexie’s works have gained him a substantial international reputation. His genius for particularizing individual tribal identities and circumstances with compassion and wit continues to draw high praise. The American Book Award recipient Maurice Kenny (Mohawk) turned his poetic talent to prose narratives in 2000 with his publication of Tortured Skins, and Other Fictions. Devon A. Mihesuah (Choctaw) published her first collection of short stories about the tragic impact of the move from Mississippi to Oklahoma on several generations of a close-knit Choctaw family in The Roads of My Relations: Stories (2000). The Nez Perce and Osage author W. S. Penn tells humorous stories of gender and cultural conflicts in This Is the World (2000). Winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for her novel The Grass Dancer, Susan Power (Sioux) published Roofwalker (2000)—a collection of stories about the tragic consequences of Native American displacement. And William Sanders (Cherokee), a noted science fiction author, published Are We Having Fun Yet?: American Indian Fantasy Stories (2002).
No doubt, Native short fiction will continue to be produced and interpreted. The attention paid to this literature, however, may wax and wane with the varying political will of the nation—from the desire to pose a united front in the face of external criticism to an understanding that unity can result from an acceptance of diverse, complex cultural/artistic voices. What is written about Native fiction today will be subject to continuous interpretation and changing literary and critical opinion. What will not change, however, is this: The gifts—the stories—will continue to be given and told.
Bruchac, Joseph. “Foreword.” In Smoke Rising: The Native North American Literary Companion, edited by Janet Witalec. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1995.
Blue Cloud, Peter. The Other Side of Nowhere: Contemporary Coyote Tales. Fredonia, N.Y.: White Pine Press, 1990.
Conley, Robert J. The Witch of Goingsnake and Other Stories. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.
Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. New York: HarperCollins, 1984.
Glancy, Diane. Firesticks. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.
Lesley, Craig, ed. “Introduction.” In Talking Leaves: Contemporary Native American Short Stories. New York: Dell, 1991.
Momaday, N. Scott. “Man Made of Words.” In Literature of the American Indians: Views and Interpretations, edited by Abraham Chapman. New York: Meridian, 1977.
Revard, Carter. “Report to the Nation: Claiming Europe.” In Earth Power Coming, edited by Simon Ortiz. Tsaile, Ariz.: Navajo Community College Press, 1983.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. Storyteller. New York: Seaver Books, 1981.
Trafzer, Clifford E. “Introduction.” In Blue Dawn, Red Earth. New York: Anchor Books, 1996.
Vizenor, Gerald. Dead Voices. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.