Texts by and about Natives

The conventional historical synthesis places Native American voices first in the record of Northwestern literature. It is crucial to recognize that aboriginal peoples possessed a vital tradition of oral literature. Though we know about only a small fraction of this indigenous literature, because so much of it was lost, suppressed, or never shared, it remains important to point out that people in this region told stories of great merit long before the landscape was called “Northwest,” and that later generations—Indian and non-Indian alike—have continuously referred to them.

To appreciate the richness of Native literature, one must remember that it grew out of mentalities that are quite at odds with modern society’s comprehension of the world. Native understandings of virtually everything—nature, religion, morality—differed radically from how most Northwesterners view the same realms today. For example, Indians’ creation stories, such as one recounted by Charlie Depoe, from a group on the southern Oregon coast called the Joshuas, offer an account of how the world came into existence that diverges markedly from how most modern Northwesterners explain the beginnings of the world. That being said, however, we might also note that stories in pre-contact societies doubtless served many of the same purposes that they have served in colonizers’ societies. Among other things, they entertained and they instructed, and they helped to account for how the world worked.

Today some of those stories are still in service. In recent years, as the region’s attention has focused increasingly on endangered runs of wild Pacific salmon and steelhead, Native fish stories have received renewed attention as scholars have tried to understand how Indians regarded and used that natural resource. For example, a Nez Perce tale about salmon illustrates how Indians used stories which can teach lessons about conservation of resources. The tale comes from a collection compiled by Archie Phinney, a Nez Perce anthropologist trained at Columbia University.

Indian literature is the creation of both the pre-historic and the historic periods. Indeed, many events after the arrival of European colonizers were preserved in narrative form by both Native and non-Native peoples. By looking at those accounts side by side, we can begin to grasp how Indians constructed stories and, not incidentally, incorporated post-contact developments into their pre-contact explanations of the world. Jarold Ramsey, one of the most prominent collectors and analysts of Native stories, has collected four accounts—one white and three Native—of a moment in June 1808 when a canoe in the exploring party of Simon Fraser capsized on what would become known as the Fraser River. (Another opportunity to compare Native and non-Native accounts is offered by Owens 2001.)

Although Indian stories illustrate that Native views differed from those of non-Natives, the fact that those stories have been preserved and incorporated into the historical record indicates that, to some degree, the divergence between the two worlds had lessened. The arrival of whites such as Simon Fraser not only gave Indians new things to talk about; it also determined that the way that Indians spoke about the world would be altered through non-Indian acts of recording and preserving. Original stories were distorted (limited, modified, altered) when the technology of writing—the fixing of stories to pieces of paper—made old tales into products of the historic period. Prior to contact with non-Natives, virtually all stories were communicated orally. This mode of transmission and storage made texts fluid. To a limited extent, this oral culture has survived: despite devastating, systematic efforts to eradicate the original languages (the region was home to over fifty), some elder Natives have remembered their first tongue, while some younger Indians and non-Native scholars have learned the old languages so that some of the older stories have been preserved in their original voice. 

The process of translating between oral and written cultures, while necessary to save many Indian stories, entailed substantial loss. Most Indian tales that have been preserved were recorded on to paper. Thus, the fluidity of those stories was lost, as were the performers’ gestures and intonations, which could not simply be transferred to paper. Going from memory and speech to written text tended to fix stories into a single, mostly flat form. But it is important to remember, too, that just because a tale was transferred from oral to written form—from Native to non-Native teller—does not mean that it was necessarily fixed forever. Texts tended to become more rigid once they were inscribed on paper, but they were not always set in stone. Non-Natives altered the stories in recording them, then altered them again when publishing them for different audiences.

Three case studies of Native texts illustrate stories being “processed” by non-Native hands. The first is a trio of versions of the Quinalt tale about Thunder and his son-in-law Sisemo. Different renderings of this story suggest just how non-Natives added to and subtracted from the “original” version. The second example, two different versions of the supposed speech of Chief Seattle, makes it very clear that at times non-Indians put words into Indians’ mouths by appropriating Native imagery and identity for their own purposes. (The history of the Chief Seattle speech also shows how Indians have tried to reappropriate what whites had either invented or taken). The third example, Nez Perce Chief Joseph’s account of the conflict in 1877 between his people and the U.S. Army, illustrates how Natives got the assistance of white wordsmiths and editors to take their case before the American people.

Though each re-interpreted text raises questions about relations between the Natives and the newcomers, between the speaker and the recorder, not all early recorders superimposed as much of their intent—political, aesthetic, or otherwise—on the Natives’ words as others. Franz Boas, Frank Bird Linderman, Melville Jacobs, and others seem to have recorded the old stories respectfully, albeit it somewhat romantically. Their accounts of Native lives formed the bases for literary recreations of Indian worlds. James Welch’s masterpiece Fools Crow (1986), for example, draws in part upon stories Welch was told by his Blackfeet great-grandparent, and in part on the information recorded by writers like James Willard Schultz (in the late-nineteenth century). If only a few of what were once thousands of old tales, myths, devotions, family stories, and place names remain to the benefit of all who live here now, those stories nonetheless remain powerful.

Isolating Indian texts as simply “first,” or as prehistoric creations, creates the mistaken impression that Indians’ major contribution to Northwestern literature was prior to their contact with explorers, settlers, and ethnographers eager to record traditional stories. While considering that Indians were once 100% of the population, and that their languages described all human experience in the region before most of their languages were lost and their land renamed, it is still important to see how what has been saved of the old stories and languages grounds a lively record of more recent literature. The prehistoric record continually adapts to and informs American story-telling as Indian writers have shored up this region’s literature by re-telling their old stories and by creating a great many new ones. The Indian literary tradition has revived from what was nearly subdued into what has become a powerful record of Indian people who have mastered and in some ways reinvented the region’s language to tell contemporary stories. A key figure in keeping alive traditions of Native story telling was Christine Quintasket of the Colville Confederated Tribes of northeastern Washington (Quintasket also used the pen name of Mourning Dove or Humishuma). Like others in her lifetime (c. 1885-1936), Quintasket recorded numerous Native tales in Coyote Stories. But she also became one of the first Indian women to publish a novel, Cogewea, The Half Blood.

Quintasket was one of the earliest writers of poems, novels, and autobiographies among Northwest Natives. Her career shows how Native writing could evolve from recording older tales for their own sake, to incorporating those tales into works of literature that reflected as well as spoke to broader American society. Without abandoning traditional stories, Quintasket adopted the dominant culture’s literary forms, even though the act of writing itself was a tremendous struggle, given her limited education. Thus she helped to open the door for a host of other Northwest Native writers who became more prolific and more widely appreciated as the years of the twentieth century passed. She also contributed to a culturally significant process through which Indian stories, as products of the written word, became less the shared property of Native communities and more the product of individual authors. 

Since the time of Quintasket, Indians from the Pacific Northwest have become internationally renowned writers whose work illuminates all the world’s literature. Such authors as D'Arcy McNickle, Duane Niatum, Elizabeth Woody, James Welch, Gloria Bird, Simon Ortiz, Inez Peterson, Anita Endrezze, and Janet Campbell Hale have brought new understanding to the region, whether or not they re-use the early stories to inform the complicated lives of contemporary Northwesterners. If Native storytelling was often public theater, contemporaries extend that theatrical tradition in public readings, slam poetry (Sherman Alexie has been the United States champion), film, and oratory. A chronology of the region’s literature must recognize who was here first, but it must also recognize that Native literature continues as an important record of what has been done to and by the succeeding generations of those original tribes, bands, and families.

Some Native writers, like poet Duane Niatum, are city Indians. James Welch, Sherman Alexie, and many others were raised on reservations. Still other American Indians, like thousands upon thousands of non-Indian migrants, moved to the Northwest from elsewhere and made the place their adopted home. The half-Cherokee writer Vickie Sears moved as a young girl from the Southwest to eastern Washington. It wasn’t until she sought out the urban, eclectic, Indian community of Seattle, though, that she began to feel at home in the Northwest:

At twelve, when my father died and my mother forbade me to travel crosstown [in Walla Walla] to his family, I began to sneak off to the Indian Center in downtown Seattle. I became an intertribal person, learning from all the different tribal people who came there. I probably learned most of the Northwestern peoples, eventually becoming, as an adult, an adopted Quilieute. Many things were viewed differently from Father’s [Cherokee] beliefs, but there were enough comparable attitudes that allowed me not to feel so alone. I began to really lead the life of a breed—fighting internalized oppression and the overt racism of my mother and her community. My sense of place now came with the winds that swept down from the Olympic mountains, spun the waters of Puget Sound, and whipped the city valleys. My sense of strength became the sounds and smells of the Pacific Northwest (Sears 2000:315).

Native stories, from pre-written history to the present, show great range and have demonstrated wide appeal. Consequently, Indians are not the only ones who have often consulted the first words and stories for their later inspiration. Other poets and novelists, such as David Wagoner, Richard Hugo, William Stafford, the action-story writer Dorothy Johnson, William Kittredge, Craig Lesley, and, near his life’s end, Theodore Roethke, turned to Indian stories, traditions, artwork, or language for inspiration. As Northwest ecosystems have become increasingly beleaguered, some writers have turned to prehistory and to their notions of Native religions for environmentalist grounding. No single regional document has inspired more environmentalist oomph and inspiration than the multi-formed speech of Chief Seattle.

Environmental imperatives and literary borrowings aside, it is important to review the history and read the body of Indian literature in order to keep perspective on the needs and desires of all the regions’ people. Native literature provides the longest memory of this region. Native literature best displays the choices between tradition and modernity. The Tlingit poet, Nora Marks Dauenhauer, shows these choices or split memories as well as anyone in this excerpt from her poem “How to Make Good Salmon from the River”:

Have some cool water from the stream
with the salmon
In this case,
water from the faucet will do.
Enjoy how the water tastes sweeter with salmon.

When done, toss the bones to the ravens
and seagulls, and mosquitoes,
but don’t throw them in the salmon stream
because the salmon have spirits
and don’t like to see the remains
of their kin thrown in by us
among them in the stream.

In this case, put the bones in plastic bag
to put in Dumpster.

Now settle back to a storytelling session
while someone feeds the fire.

In this case,
small talk and jokes with friends will do
while you drink beer.
If you shouldn’t drink beer,
tea or coffee will do nicely.
Gunalche’esh for coming to my bar-b-q.

Salmon, deer, berries, roots, fry bread, and pure water combine with pizza, Safeway groceries, commodity cheese and powdered milk, beer, green apples, and potlucks in the regions’ Native literatures. James Welch’s Indian Lawyer (1990) eats in the best restaurants. Sherman Alexie’s young basketball players eat “jam sandwiches,” made by pushing two bare pieces of bread together. Indians respect animals and land: Indians hunt whales and sell the reservation timber. And Indians (and others) tell and retell Native stories.

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Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest