Thank you for your interest in our seminar. I hope the information below will give you a good idea of its scope and of the potential benefit for participants. Summer seminars can be very rewarding experiences; I have participated in one myself and directed three, and in each and every instance I found that truly wonderful things can be accomplished in a congenial atmosphere by people devoted to an open and energetic discussion of literature. I look forward to participating once more in the process.
Our goal for this five-week seminar is to examine, closely and in great detail, four contemporary Native American novels:
- The Surrounded by D’Arcy McNickle (Métis),
- House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa),
- Winter in the Blood by James Welch (Blackfeet/Gros Ventre), and
- Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo).
We will examine these four “firsts”—the first extended narrative by each author—in the contexts of the cultures that they portray, the canons of the authors who produced them, and their centrality to contemporary issues of ethnicity. These novels represent the achievements of fledgling writers from very different backgrounds and experiences who faced very similar artistic and rhetorical challenges when they chose to write a novel. Each, in turn, provided noteworthy contributions to American literatures in general, and collectively have come to reflect a definitive center for the rapidly expanding canon of Native American fiction.
Looking at the early works of these prominent writers will allow us to discuss their contributions in the context of an “emergent,” written literature. (This is, of course, a problematic term with its implication of a “new” literature, which is obviously not the case.) Although these four novelists have very different “voices” and, perhaps, “visions,” they share some striking similarities; as they crafted their first novels, they faced similar challenges. They needed to be published in an industry largely indifferent to American Indians, as artists at least, so each author needed to discover means suitable for a non-tribal editor and audience, while conveying his or her primary message: that Native cultures are alive, dynamic and durable. The variations in their voices may be attributed to several influences: the differences in their backgrounds, including the cultural differences inherent in their tribal affiliations, literatures and experiences, but also their senses of self, as authors of mixed ancestry, and of audience.
We will explore these aspects of their writings, and also the qualities that mark them as “Indian literatures.” By considering ethnographic details of the cultures the novels examine and their inclusion in contemporary fiction, we will evolve a means of critical analysis that takes into consideration the potential for a non-western aesthetic. This means that we will discuss “non-literary” concerns: the role of women in cultures, the ways cultures define their cosmos, the histories that have come to shape cultures over the last few centuries. To put it succinctly, we will consider their narratives as attempts at mediation among numerous points of view, Native as well as non-Native. Although we will be working in small compass (focusing on only a few texts), we will consider the very nature of contemporary Native American written literatures. There are many other complex concerns that will surface in the heat of discussion and exploration. Such is the excitement of discovery. We will also extend these considerations into the medium of film (with film screenings at night), a growing site of interest for Native artists such as Sherman Alexie, Victor Masayesva Jr. and Chris Eyre.
In brief, we are going to experience some wonderful stories and have fun talking about what they do and how they do it. The stories are what attracted me to this body of literature in the 1970s. Since then, I have been actively involved with Native literatures: as a teacher, scholar, writer, editor, and collaborator, and have published books and articles that address our core authors. I will share some of the stories of my experiences, when appropriate, since this seminar is all about stories and what we can learn from them. And I won’t be alone in this; we will have a number of visitors who will share their own stories. They are: Sharon Kinley, the director of the Coast Salish Institute at Northwest Indian College (across the bay from Bellingham); Angelica Lawson (Arapaho) formerly of the Department of Native American Studies at the University of Montana and now at the University of Minnesota; Gordon Henry, Jr. (Anishinaabe), Director of The Native American Institute at Michigan State University; and D.L. Birchfield (Choctaw) from the University of Lethbridge, Alberta.
Seminar Structure and Procedures
Each week, we will follow the same format. We will concentrate first on the major text for the week, then move systematically through brief readings and/or discussions of supplemental ethnographic materials, to critical responses to the novel, and then to the writer’s later works. By doing so, we will be able to examine the works as part of the written tradition of American novels, using critical approaches familiar to most modern readers, but also as products of a unique, Native American cultural milieu and as texts that have evoked new critical discourse.
There will be substantial resources available to participants, although the seminar will be directly concerned with a very few primary texts. Based upon my past experience with these works, I expect that participants will be enticed to go beyond our reading list, into Native issues, histories, arts. I also understand that the results of the seminar may vary greatly, depending upon each teacher’s own interests, and employment situation. Consequently, I want to encourage participants to engage in a significant activity suited to their needs: a research or writing project, or perhaps a project that will allow for incorporating Native literatures into curricula. These will be negotiated individually and all of them will be available to all participants via our seminar’s web site. I will also ask all seminar participants to take active roles in facilitating discussions by individually presenting brief summaries of supplemental readings and then leading the discussion of a specific later work from one of our authors.
We will meet four days a week, Monday through Thursday, from 9 a.m. to 12:00 in a central seminar room. This will allow ample time for a group luncheon, afternoon research and reading, visits with the guests mentioned above, evening screenings of Native films, and week-end excursions to the reservations, museums and archives of northwest Washington and southern British Columbia, all within easy reach of Bellingham. We will, of course, meet individually periodically beyond the usual seminar hours, so that I may work closely with each person as the weeks progress. I hope this type of an approach will allow for the greatest diversity of experiences for all participants, encourage the continuation of study and correspondence long after the seminar is completed, and provide each person with the resources for future study.
I hope to arrange outings for the participants, so that we may make use of these resources while exploring the great diversity of Native cultures in our area. Depending upon the exhibits at the time, these may include the University of Washington and its Burke Museum (which houses the “Kennewick Man”), and the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, one of the world’s strongest collections of Northwest Coast First Nations’ art. Also, some participants and their families may enjoy a weekend in Victoria, British Columbia. This would include a scenic ferry ride through the San Juans, and visits to the renowned Butchard Gardens and the Provincial Museum, with its impressive First Peoples collection. Participants will not lack for satisfactory activities of mind and/or body to supplement their endeavors in the seminar.
Once again, I hope this letter has answered the questions you had concerning the seminar. However, if others arise, please feel free to call me. My office number is (360) 650-3243. If I am not there, you can either leave a message, or email me at: NEH@wwu.edu. I look forward to your application, and the prospect of our sharing five weeks together discussing these novels with others who share our interests. It should prove to be a lively, dynamic seminar.