Would you like a side of guilt with that order?
My personal experience with Native American literature can be described with one word, adoration. I believe Native American literature is funny, entertaining, and extremely informational. Unfortunately, because the literature is so informative, it brings up issues from the past. History cannot be escaped. People have tried to rewrite history, but the truth has a way of resurfacing.
I was completely aware of the racism and hostility shown towards the Indians, even though history books record a loss with the Indians as a massacre and a victory with the Indians a battle. I have come to know what happened, accept that it has happened, and realize that it is still affecting their race. My reaction to their literature is of course guilt because I am a white descendent, and feel personally responsible for things that I have no control over. I come from both sides; I am German and Native American, and I have always wished growing up that I were more Native American than white because the Indian in me can be represented with a tiny fraction. Because my white heritage dominates my blood, I feel this sense of guilt overwhelming the pride I should feel for American Indian literature. It is hard to come from a heritage that has displayed immoral behavior and dishonorable actions. Sometimes we can forget that even though where we come from as a people is important, who we are as a person is more important.
So, it is an established fact that while reading Native American literature as a white American, guilt is a natural response. What I don’t think is a “natural response” is the responses I have come across when people are dealing with white guilt. I was completely baffled by what these critics have to say about American Indian literature.
Some people shut down all at once, or reject Native American literature. “I can’t believe this. I don’t want to read this. This isn’t even literature.” Well, what qualifies literature to become part of the Canon? Why is it important enough to be studied by scholars? People approach these questions from a biased angle. American Indian literature cannot be held to the standards of Western literature. In Western literature, the stories are put on paper to be read in a romantic way. Choosing the right word is a crucial factor in Western literature because the goal is to state something in two different ways or insinuate something else in a witty way. When love is compared to a rose, the writer is insinuating that love is beautiful, fragile, short-lived, etc. In Native American literature, the stories are put on paper just so the world has documentation of a version of a moral that used to be told. It is difficult to read something that is meant to be spoken. American Indians expressed their stories orally and were specific to certain types of audiences. The classic trickster tale of how Possum lost his hairy tail is aimed toward teaching modesty and discouraging boastfulness.
Still, others react to Native American literature in an exponentially negative way. “This is bullshit. This is disgusting. I don’t have to read this because I don’t owe it to anybody to participate in this nonsense. This literature contains racism all right, racism against whites.” Obviously, American Indian literature is diversity intensive, not because of its crude humor, but because it is different from what we are used to reading. People claim that reading jokes about private parts, bodily functions, and profanities is insulting. This can be proved to be quite the opposite. Not only can this type of humor be found in Italian and African literature, but Western literature as well. Exhibit A: THE MOST WIDELY READ BOOK IN AMERICA AS WELL AS ACROSS THE GLOBE – the Holy Bible. The Bible is a beautiful piece of literature that is studied by Christians and atheists alike because of its astounding stories. It is an ancient text full of poems and morals that anyone can learn from. Although the Bible is very beautiful, its contents are far from a PG rating. Where did we coin the term “sodomized?” From a story in the Bible at Sodom and Gomorra where full grown men were raping other men. If that story doesn’t make you puke, the story of two daughters who manage to get their father wasted on wine so that he would have sexual relations with them because they believed the human race would end with them will make you vomit. These stories and more are contained within the pages of the Bible, yet it is one of the most esteemed books of all time.
It is natural to feel guilt while reading Native American literature. No, this generation of whites is not responsible for Wounded Knee, broken treaties, or reservations, but we owe it to us to learn what happened because this generation can be responsible for positive outcomes. We should thirst for more knowledge of the past instead of denying it or pushing it away.
“Knowing is half the battle.” –G.I. Joe
This expression is stupid but true. At least if we are educated diversely and open-minded, we empower ourselves with the ability to change and learn from our mistakes.