As humans, we are by nature, selfish. We have a tendency to focus inward, often forgetting the vast and grand world that surrounds us. Unbeknownst to me, when I signed up for Professor Marranca’s, Topics in Literature course for the spring semester, I was also signing up for a shift in my perspective.
Upon our first interaction with the professor, the class learned that the primary focus of our studies would be Native American culture. The course allowed for us to observe aspects of the world through a Native American lens. It serves as a reminder of the importance of recognizing how cultures unlike our own live and view the world.
Throughout the course of the semester, we immersed ourselves in literature, film, and art relevant to Native America; some of the students have chosen to submit their reflections to the Visions Newspaper, and their submissions will be included at the bottom of this article.
Our first assignment entailed viewing two programs, Joseph Campbell’s “Power of the Myth,” and PBS’s “Native America,” a documentary on just that. We were prompted to reflect personally on the relationship between the “hero’s journey,” a topic prevalent throughout literary history, and Native America.
The PBS documentary was successful in stressing the importance of nature, and their relationship with the Hopi, a tribe in Southwestern America. Nature would prove to be a recurring theme throughout the course. The programs helped to project the stark contrast between the Native Americans’ relationship with their earthly surroundings, and the rest of the First World’s.
We were then tasked with reading works Chief Seattle, Black Elk, and Luther Standing Bear. Student and fellow Visions Newspaper contributing writer, Manuela Correa commented, “I loved the project! Reading these stories allowed me to think about and reflect on Native America. For them, their connection to nature is essential.”
According to some of these works, many Native Americans view nature as an extension of themselves, and in a sense, we are all deeply connected to in. Correa continued, “the way they see, feel, hear and taste nature…it is a part of them, a part that they cannot live without, that they value like their own lives.”
The films we viewed offered different insight into the Native American experience. “The Searchers,” an old John Wayne flick, reduces their Native American tribe to a savage enemy in this old-world, portrayal of western civilization.
“Smoke Signals,” a late 90’s coming of age story, portrayed Native Americans in a more modern setting and dealt with darker and more emotional themes like loss, and interpersonal relationships. It was interesting and refreshing to see yet, another shift in perspective through the Native American lens.
The final weeks of the course included examining Native American art, either in person at a museum, such as the Montclair Art Museum, which holds an extensive collection of Native American artifacts, or via virtual exhibition on the internet. Student Lee Tarazona said, “I enjoyed taking this class…I was educated more about Native American culture. Especially, the assignment where we had to pick 3 different art pieces from different tribes was very interesting to me and I learning how they were made and the meaning behind them.”
The class was also tasked with reflecting on 3 more works by Louis Erdich, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Sherman Alexie, on which I have submitted mine to the journal.
Overall, the course offered some refreshing insight into another culture.
You can find my submission and everyone else’s below!
Loss Through the Eyes of Native America
By John Rieg
At some point in time, everyone will experience loss in some form or another. One can lose a loved one, their wallet, or even themselves; when asked what inspired him to write his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “House Made of Dawn,” N. Scott Momaday explained, “it’s a story about the loss of cultural identity and the fight to regain it, and the question of whether or not [you do].” In Louise Erdich’s, “The Stone,” Leslie Marmon Silko’s, “The Man to Send Rainclouds,” and Sherman Alexie’s, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” each story’s respective main characters, the Girl, Leon, and Jackson, all struggle similarly with loss, and each utilizes a symbolic, inanimate object as a source of healing; the Girl’s stone, Leon’s priest’s holy water, and Jackson’s grandmother’s tribal regalia.
In Louis Erdich’s story, the girl finds the titular stone seemingly out of place in a forest. The stone quickly becomes a long-term source of solace for the girl, as she comes to the personified rock whenever matters trouble her. This begins after a boy in class cuts off the girl’s hair and is propelled further years later when he makes unwanted advances at her. The stone becomes representative of the sum of the girl’s troubles, and she carries it with her everywhere; to college, to work, and even during performances as a professional pianist, until it finally breaks. She marries a man and abandons the stone. Erdich writes that, “her piano playing was now filled with such emotion, in addition to her precision and clarity, that she was invited to tour Europe. She took her husband and left her stone behind.” When her marriage falls apart, she returns to the stone and eventually dies next to the stone. Having lost herself in youth by way of Vic, the boy, and again in adulthood after the end of her marriage, the stone remained her only source of solace her entire life.
In “The Man to Send Rainclouds,” by Leslie Marmon Silko, Leon deals with the loss of his grandfather. The old man, Teofilo, is found dead under a tree. Leon and the rest of the community are clearly distressed; the old man seems to be revered and respected among his people. When he is found, Leon encounters the priest, but he does not explicitly mention the death of his grandfather. This is done seemingly in avoidance of Christian burial. Leon and the others prepare a funeral, only missing the priest’s holy water so Teofilo can, “send [them] rainclouds.” (Silko) Despite his distress, the priest abides and pours holy water on the blanket that wraps the corpse of Tiofelo. Leon is comforted, and the sense of grief and loss that pervaded him subsides.
Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” finds the main character, Jackson, dealing with loss in a similar fashion. He is a homeless Indian living on the streets in Washington. He struggles with alcoholism. One day he stumbles across a seemingly magical pawn shop, where he notices regalia that he believes to be his grandmother’s. The pawn shop owner agrees to sell it to Jackson one dollar under cost, $999, should he be able to come up with the money in 24 hours. On his quest, Jackson loses his friends, but makes new ones. He comes across money, and although he is homeless, shares it with those around him. We learn that his grandmother struggled with cancer, at one point stating, “I wondered if my grandmother’s cancer started when somebody stole her powwow regalia.” (Alexie) Jackson is clearly troubled and has lost everything. He has lost his grandmother, his home, and himself, yet he continues to remain selfless in his quest, spending money on others that he should in theory be saving. The story ends in a final act of selflessness, when the shopkeeper returns the regalia to Jackson. He begins to dance with it, symbolic of his troubles’ resolution.
Much like the character in M. Scott Momaday’s, “House Made of Dawn,” the girl, Leon, and Jackson, in “The Stone,” “The Man to Send Rainclouds,” and “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” by Louise Erdich, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Sherman Alexie all deal with a similar loss of identity and a struggle to reclaim it. Whether each character did is up to the reader. Some of the endings may appear positive in nature, others more ambiguous, but the similarities in each character’s journeys are clear.
Nature and Spirit: A Reflection on Native American Writings
By Manuela Correa
Native Americans and the United Sates. When someone reads those words, the first thought that pops out in their mind is History and the end of the Civil War. However, there is more than that in history. Native Americans have more information and a deep history that still influences the XXI century. The stories of Chief Seattle’s letter, written in 1855; Black Elf Speaks, written by John G. Neihardt in1932; and Luther Standing, a book written in 1933 by Luther Standing Bear are examples of that. Chief Seattle, Black Elk Speaks, and Luther Standing have some similarities, such as the love for nature, which makes them great examples of the native American’s characteristics.
Chief Seattle’s Letter was written by the Chief Seattle and it represents one part the native American culture in some way. In the chief’s letter, he not only devotes, but describes the environment as something magical and beautiful. It is like he has certain relationship with the mother nature. For example, when Chief says, “We are part of the earth and it is part of us” (Chief Seattle). In this quote, the author lets the reader assume that the environment is something essential in people’s lives. For instance, when the Chief states, “The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to earth” (Chief Seattle). The chief tries to explain that human beings should not let their ego above themselves. They must realize that mother nature is more powerful than they think, and they should respect that. That is why the Chief Seattle’s Letter represents the native American culture in some way.
The other story Black Elk Speaks is another example of one of the characteristics of the native American culture. In one part of the story, the author wanted to show how the elements of the environment are so essential for the human being. For example, Neihardt states, “Now there was a wooden cup in his hand and it was full of water and the water was the sky” (Neihardt, 20). In this quote, the reader can assume the water that the character was drinking was something with value. The reader also can interpret that water is life for the characters. Also, the character describes his experiences with horses, the sky, people of different ages, trees, and some other elements of the environment. Neihardt says, “Now we were on the first ascent, and all the land was green. And as the long line climbed, all the old men and women, palms forward, to the far sky, yonder and began to croon a song together, and the sky ahead was filled with clouds of baby faces” (Neihardt, 28). This is where the Neihardt story is a representation of one the characteristics of native Americans.
Lastly, Luther Standing has a kind of relationship with nature. Similar to Neihardt, the author states, “Kinship with all creatures of the earth, sky, and water was a real and active principle” (Luther Standing Bear, 148). This quote is similar of the Neihardt’s water quote since it shows the meaning of the water in human life. Besides, the author focuses on the animals. Luther says, “The animal had rights—the right of man’s protection, the right to live, the right to multiply, the right to freedom, and the right to man’s indebtedness—” (Luther Standing Bear, 149). In this example, the author says how people should take care of nature, but most importantly of the animals. Also, he tries to show that the animals should have the same rights, respect, and value as humans. Luther Standing Bear’s quotes and the whole chapter describes the harmony that he has with nature. This is why this chapter represents the native American culture.
To conclude, the stories Chief Seattle’s Letter, Black Elk Speaks, and Luther Standing are symbols what was one of the more important elements in life for the native Americans: the mother nature. They show appreciation and importance to the environment. They want the future generations to realize and take care what they have in front of them. Native Americans have been advising the whole world that respect for ourselves, the human nature and the universe is the key to live in harmony.
A Reflection on 3 Native American Films
By Keith Burton
The Raid scene - This was without context so it’s a little hard to understand what was happening or why. The family in the cabin was clearly aware that they were about to be attacked, and it seemed like they wanted their daughter, Debbie, to escape, while they had resigned to being stuck in the house, awaiting their lethal fate. As our ostensible protagonist views the leftover carnage and flames still billowing, the music cue helps inform the horror of what he is seeing; the death of an entire family, their corpses burning before his eyes. Debbie’s fate is left uncertain, as we the audience are unsure if she was killed as well, spared, or taken by the Native Americans. Without any context, it is unclear if this was unprovoked or in response to something that family, or a member of that family, had done. Either way, it was grim and unfortunate to see a family die.
Cowboys vs. Indians scene - Not one but TWO Christian religious references. This is tied into the manifest destiny theme, that Americans are God’s chosen people, that was so popular in the late 19th century. Again, without context, this is just a brutal depiction of slaughter and murder. John Wayne’s character seems to be hellbent on killing as many of the Native Americans as possible, while the reverend attempts to dissuade him from any further and unnecessary killing, suggesting the remaining Native Americans can tend to their wounded and dead, which Wayne expresses frustration with.
Dances With Wolves
Dunbar’s journey to better understand the Souix people, and in essence, question everything he thought was right or accepted prior to this. He is clearly jaded and suicidal from the war, and he seems to accept his fate as death could come at any minute. The portrayal of the army, the superior officer who pisses himself, and then sounding pathetic while bragging that he is basically untouchable. Dunbar, on the contrary, for all his suicidal bluster, he does have a pride that won’t be broken. That pride and curiosity, along with being jaded with the country or at least white people’s part in it, leads him to open up to the Souix and see them for who they are - human beings. They learn to live and thrive with one another, and Dunbar eventually goes so far as to relinquish his own native language when he is being spoken to by his former comrades who interrogate him. Dunbar’s rejection of his past and acceptance of the Souix’s way is a rebirth of sorts, and an atonement for his former ignorance.
This was the more contemporary story of the three that felt the most relatable. The story of Victor & Thomas (and Victor’s father) was heartbreaking and inspiring. The stakes were lower in this film than the other two, but it felt higher. The movie had a way of turning more mundane events (redemption after an accident, a basketball game) into monuments of character and potential. Victor’s constant defense and armor were the most heartbreaking, and completely understandable. The breaking down of his walls, the cutting of his own hair, his redemption, and finally the beginnings of acceptance that his father was just a flawed man were all so touching and universal. This movie above all the others also had the most interesting vernacular, and actually give a voice (figurative and literal) to the native american characters.
The order of the movies peeled the curtain back further and further, from a non-speaking native american seen as an enemy in The Searchers, to the misunderstood Sioux in Dances With Wolves that we are close to yet so far removed from, finally to the everyday people style story of the Coeur d’Alene native americans in Smoke Signals, showing that learning, acceptance, discovery, curiosity, and understanding are keys to seeing people as they should be, which is as our equals.
A Comparison of Nature: A Reflection on 3 Native American Works
By Lee Tarazona
The world now has changed drastically and along with it so have human beings. Nature and humans have been damaged from how advanced we’re becoming and how attached we are to technology. It controls us to the point where we have lost touch with the earth, but with these 3 readings, “Chief Seattle’s Letter”, “Black Elk Speaks”, And “Land of the Spotted Eagle” it is a helpful reminder how deep of a connection the Native Americans had with nature. In the first reading it is a letter about the importance of nature and not owning it, the second reading is about one having vision of his past being connected to the beauty of nature, and the third reading tells us about the traditions and customs the Lakotans lived. Learning from these readings it proves how close humans were to earth before losing ourselves to the influence of technology.
The “Chief Seattle’s Letter” was written by the chief for land buyers to understand that one cannot simply own nature itself. In his letter he describes that every part of the earth is scared to his people for they all carry memories, that the rivers have his ancestors’ blood, and the wind it shares its spirit for life. There is a line in the letter it states, “This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.” (Chief Seattle). The chief explains the earth does not belong to humans, but we belong to the earth itself and that we do not control life, we are a part of it, and what we do to it affects both of us.
“Black Elk Speaks” it is about a man, named Black Elk, who was a warrior and a medicine man who also experienced visions. When he was young man Black Elk recounts a time in his life where he experienced having a vision of being led to a spiritual place. He is led to six grandfathers who pass on to him knowledge and objects to help him with his people. In his spiritual journey he says, “You see, I had been riding with the storm clouds, and had come to earth as rain, and it was drouth that I had killed with the power that the six grandfathers gave me.” (Nicholas Black Elk 26). This line in the story shows us how close he was connected with nature and spirits.
The 3rd reading, “Land of the Spotted Eagle” tells us about how Lakotans once lived such as their practices, manners, and traditions. The author compares how the white man do not have any care about life or understand how Native Americans live. The introduction explains when the Europeans came to America the natives were open to welcome them and offered help to guide them into settling onto the lands with ease, but instead were ignored and destroyed everything. Luther Standing Bear writes, “The Lakota was a true naturist—a lover of nature. He loved the earth and all things of the earth, the attachment growing with age. The old people came literally to love the soil and they sat or reclined on the ground with a feeling of being close to the mothering power.” (Chapter 7). It’s amazing to know how close they were to the earth and mother nature how it lives and dies.
All 3 readings we can understand how each of them had a bond with the earth and the spirits that are connected to nature. In “Chief Seattle’s letter” it is powerful speech about the value of possessing land that does not belong to them or anybody it is free. The “Black Elks Speaks” is a beautiful reminder how Native Americans attachment towards nature is important. With “Land of the Spotted Eagle” it explains to us that being one with nature can better ourselves. It is important to explore how the world is and take a breath of fresh air and be one with the earth because we are all connected together which is through life.