LITR 5731 Seminar in American Multicultural Literature
Minority Literature

Lecture Notes


Objective 5
To study the influence of minority writers and speakers on literature, literacy, and language.

5a.  To discover the power of poetry and fiction to help "others" hear the minority voice and vicariously share the minority experience.

5b. To assess the status of minority writers in the "canon" of what is read and taught in schools (plus the criteria determining such status).



reception of Black Elk Speaks

1932 original publication--respectable critical reviews but poor sales (1929-1940s: Great Depression)

1950 Black Elk dies (b. 1863)

1961 reprinted, leading to renewed interest esp. by counter-culture (hippies, intellectuals; Vietnam War compared to Indian Wars; environmentalism renews interest in American Indian subsistence cultures)

1970 Neihardt (1881-1973) appears on Dick Cavett Show (1969-75; surprisingly intellectual talk show appearing opposite Tonight Show w/ Johnny Carson)--

1970s Black Elk Speaks appears on college reading lists for Literature, History, Religious Studies

1980s-90s Increasing criticism of authenticity of Black Elk Speaks; replaced on reading lists by Indian-authored texts

also potential: uncertainty how to deal with Black Elk's Catholicism and its apparent conflict with Romantic ideas of American Indians as counter-culture

2000s--revival of appreciation for Black Elk Speaks as unique product of historical moment, representative of early Indian authorship through white scribes, translators, etc.


Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, the White Woman of the Genesee (1824) trans. & ed. Reverend James E. Seaver

 Autobiography of Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak, or Black Hawk (1833) as told to and interpreted by Antoine LeClaire, edited by J.B. Patterson

cf. many slave narratives as told to anthropologists, government surveys

overlap of literary and cultural studies questions idea of "single author" as master of text




Does Black Elk Speaks romanticize American Indians? How?

What does "romanticize" mean?


noble savage theme < Rousseau

"close to nature"

nostalgia for lost world of innocence, organic relations


imposition of Genesis / Eden story on cultural / personal history



How much do these issues impact  the "assimilation-resistance" conflict in minority literature? Does Native American literature / culture offer alternatives to these extremes of cross-cultural interaction?




American Indians offer yet another option--a variant on assimilation that's sometimes called "acculturation." This is a form of change that's peculiar to traditional societies like Native America.

Broad distinction:

Assimilation: person or group gives up old culture to adapt to new culture; compare "conversion," where you give up old ways for new ones

Acculturation: old culture absorbs new items or ideas, incorporates them to pre-existing culture.

Example of American Indian acculturation: horses

Assimilation is more radical, revolutionary, more rapid and unsettling change.

Acculturation is more gradual--something relatively new can look like it's been there forever.


Examples of acculturation in Black Elk?



Treat, ed. Native and Christian




Black Elk Speaks as Indian + Christian?

survival technique?

violation of Romantic purity?



232 save the Indian people and make the Wasichus disappear and bring back all the bison and the people who were dead and how there would be a new earth

233 Jack Wilson, Wovoka

233 ghost dance; if they did this, they could get on this other world

234 Everything good seemed to be going away [loss]

235 people said it was really the son of the Great Spriti who was out there; that when he came to the Wasichus a long time ago, they had killed him; but he was coming to the Indians this time

240-1 maybe this land of my vision was where all my people were going, and there they would live and prosper where no Wasichus were or could ever be

245 cf. Jesus; arms spread wide; not a Wasichu and not an Indian

249-50 great mistake, followed lesser visions


Turner, Beyond Geography