Sean Teuton, Native American Literature: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford UP, 2018), 152 pp.
Sean Teuton, a specialist of Native American literature, divides his time between Fayetteville, Arkansas, and the neighboring Cherokee Nation, where he is a citizen. In the preface to this new introduction, he emphasizes the transformative power of literature and the unique ability of Native Americans to adapt to new cultures and environments: “Native American authors spoke or wrote not only to defend and to inspire their nations, but also in wonder for other worlds and peoples, and to reach them” (xix-xx). Teuton takes the 1970s (the subject of his previous book) in his first chapter “The Man Made of Words” as a point of departure for a structured short history of Native American literature, which he lays out in seven chapters. The chapters are arranged according to the following themes: contexts (chapter one), oral traditions (chapter two), writing in English (chapter three), the transition from artifact to resistance and assimilation (chapter four), Native American Literary Studies (chapter five), the Native novel (chapter six), looking ahead (chapter seven).
In the first chapter, Teuton starts with Kiowa writer Navarre Scott Momaday’s address to the First Convocation of American Indian Scholars, which took place at Princeton University in March 1970 while Native Americans occupied Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay “to raise hell about” the poverty on reservations (1). Momaday, characterized occasionally by The New York Times as “dean of American Indian writers” (Motyka 23), appealed to the Native American power of imagination to reclaim a freed vision of indigenous history, community, land, and knowledge in order to encourage liberation from the American story of Indian demise (Teuton 1). Teuton’s point of departure is the ensuing success of imagining a literature to serve a Native American movement (2). The chapter presents a historical overview of this literature, starting with Momaday’s famous novel House Made of Dawn (1968), and analyzes its structural preconditions by drawing a map of the landscape and history of Native American cultures (3-18).
In the second chapter on oral literatures, Teuton addresses creation myths, “oral philosophy,” “heroes and monsters” as well as “trickster teachings” (19-34). Chapter three, “To write in English,” begins with the famous seal of the Massachusetts Bay Company that has become an emblem of the early Protestant mission in New England (34-35). Its inscription “Come over and help us!” (cf. Acts 16.9) serves Teuton as a springboard for a wide array of incisive reflections on early modern cultural contact and Native American writing. He emphasizes the importance of Native American translators such as Job Nesuton (d. 1675) and Nipmuc Indian Wowaus, also known as James Printer (d. 1717), in John Eliot’s mission and in the production of his “Indian library,” the first major North American publishing house. Literate Native Americans such as Printer also wrote for their own communities. Teuton locates the origins of the residential school system in the mid-eighteenth century, specifically in the intensification of Eliot’s earlier plan for the Praying Indian villages by leaders such as John Sargeant, Sr., and Eleazar Wheelock (1711-79). Yet he does not examine the residential school system in any detail (in fact, it does not even appear in the index of this volume). This telling silence raises interesting questions concerning the relation between the literary history presented here and the darker side of that history—namely, that the residential school system has so fatally shaped later Native American education, experience, and writing. Teuton concludes his analysis with a suggestive observation: “This model of Native American education remained into the twentieth century” (36). Given that it was from schools such as Moor’s Indian Charity School, founded by Wheelock in Lebanon, Connecticut, in 1754, that the first modern Native American writers Mohegans Samson Occom (1723-92) and his son-in-law Joseph Johnson received their education, this silence is all the more striking. Another noticeable silence concerns the role of gender in light of the importance of (twentieth-century) female Native American writers such as Mourning Dove and Louis Erdrich.
Chapter six takes up the Native American novel, charting its history as a diachronic account from Cherokee newspaperman John Rollin Ridge’s Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit (1854) to Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water (1994), covering “modern problems,” the Red power novel, and Native American innovation (85-100). Chapter seven on “indigenous futurity” is especially valuable to experts in the field, since Teuton charts it from his Cherokee perspective, emphasizing the significance of Native American song. He refers to the 1914 filmic work by Edward Curtis (under the telling subheading “acting out”), which has been the topic of much recent scholarship (108-09). While he points out that the Kwakwakwa cast members were already well-trained actors, he passes over more recent research that argues they were staging a story rather than presenting traditions. Teuton could have made this aspect clearer for non-expert readers who are likely unfamiliar with this history. His immediate transition to Native North American ritual performances and the mainstream stage in the 1930s omits other important events (108–09).
Like other volumes in the series, this well-balanced and readable introduction includes a list of titles for further reading for each of the chapters (119–39). For the second edition, the editors may consider updating the reference section to include websites such as the one by the American Antiquarian society, From English to Algonquian: Early New England Translations. The focus of this introduction is clearly historical rather than literary. Nevertheless, this concise overview of the field should be mandatory reading for every American Studies scholar. After all, Native American literature may be read both as the expression of a social movement and as an exemplary celebration of the healing force of literature. On both accounts, it merits a wide readership.
Philipp Reisner (Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf)
American Antiquarian Society. From English to Algonquian: Early New England Translations, 2019. Web. 21 Mar. 2019. http://americanantiquarian.org/English toAlgonquian/.