Portland Community College | Portland, Oregon

Course Number:
ENG 240
Course Title:
Introduction to Native American Literatures
Credit Hours:
Lecture Hours:
Lecture/Lab Hours:
Lab Hours:
Special Fee:

Course Description

Studies oral and written composition by Native Americans from both before and after contact with Euro-Americans. Provides historical, geographical, political, social, cultural, religious, linguistic, aesthetic, and ethnopoetic contexts for understanding the various tribal literatures studied. Prerequisites: WR 115 and RD 115 or equivalent placement test scores. Audit available.

Addendum to Course Description

English 240 inevitably encompasses such issues as multiculturalism, ethnic identification, social justice, racism, genocide, land ownership, environmental degradation, and many others. Like most literature courses, English 240 ventures into the territory of many other disciplines, such as history, political science, sociology, ethics, religion, geography, mythology, folklore, and anthropology.

Intended Outcomes for the course

Upon completion of the course, students should be able to:

1. Recognize distinguishing characteristics of individual tribal literatures and their relationship to the historic and evolving art, ritual, theatre, religion, cultural ideas,
and daily life in which the literature is usually embedded.
2. Relate specific tribal literatures to the geographical, historical, and social environments which have produced them, emphasizing impossibility of separating
traditional Native literatures from the landscapes in which they were composed.
3. Explain the central role which language plays in cultural selfidentification.
4. Explain how culturally based assumptions on the part of both Native and EuroAmerican groups have influenced their perceptions, behaviors, and policies.
5. Recognize the varying and blurred genres of Native literatures and their relative acceptance by or invisibility to EuroAmerican literary standards.
6. Understand the importance of the concept of respect in many Native American tribal groups, and demonstrate respect for the tribal cultures whose literature the
course studies, particularly regarding limits established by tribal cultures regarding sacred matters and cultural theft.

Course Activities and Design

Class meeting time consists of lecture, group discussion, and various other activities, small group discussion, in-class writings, and perhaps some guest speakers and viewing and listening to videotape and audio recordings.

Outcome Assessment Strategies

Instructors vary on methods of assessment, but often instructors employ some combination of quizzes, exams, essays, and reading notebooks. Students who miss more than a week's worth of class may not receive an A; generally those who miss two weeks' worth of class may not pass the course. The final grade is based upon the quality and extent of students' understanding of the course readings and discussions, as demonstrated in writings, discussion in class, and conferences.

Course Content (Themes, Concepts, Issues and Skills)

Some of the concepts typically dealt with in the course include:

  • Ethnocentrism often makes it impossible to understand concepts alien to our own culture.
  • J-J Rousseau's concept of the "noble savage" often leads people to falsely romanticize Indian cultures.
  • North America before the influx of Europeans had between three hundred and six hundred distinct cultural groups; generalizations about "Indians" often impede understanding of the specific cultures which are course subjects.
  • Native American literature doesn't exist by itself; it's tied in to ritual, art, theatre, religion, daily life, dreams, seasons, geography, history, etc. To consider only the written text as the "literature" is to diminish the reality of Native American literature.
  • Language is culture. Ethnicity, skin color, locale, are of far less importance in understanding the cultural context of these literatures.
  • All English translations of Native American texts twist concepts into European terms; many concepts simply don't translate; much is often lost.
  • Connotations seldom translate.
  • Expecting or wanting "closure" or certainty about the meaning of Native American texts will lead to frustration. Many if not most of the stories mean different things at different times in the listener's life, even to the native listeners.
  • Euro-American culture is curious and acquisitive; many Native American cultures believe that there are appropriate times, places, and people for some knowledge to be known, and some things simply should not be known. This perspective leads to charges of cultural theft and arrogance against a class like this. Instructor and students should be circumspect and respect limits imposed by the cultures studied.
  • All the literature read and discussed in class is by Native Americans. Many Euro-Americans write stories with a native flavor, such as Barry Lopez's Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping with his Daughter: Coyote Builds North America, Don Berry's Trask, Anne Cameron's Daughters of Copper Woman, or Craig Lesley's Winterkill. While such writings often have great merit, they have each been filtered through a Euro-American consciousness and aren't by Native Americans, and therefore aren't "Native American literature" by this definition.
  • The geography of the region of the story or of the tellers of the story often must be considered to understand the story.
  • The new field of ethnopoetics attempts to discover "natively valid rules" guiding the composition of non-Western literatures.
  • Ritual numbers should be noted--4 and 5 predominate in many Native American cultures, much as 3 predominates in European cultures.
  • Many Native American stories take place in a time which Karl Luckert calls the "prehuman flux," when all creatures of the living world were equal. During prehuman mythical times, all living beings interchanged their external forms as easily as we change clothes. (The Navajo Hunter Tradition [Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1975], pp. 133ff)
  • "People" often includes not just humans and animals but also "trees, rocks, lakes, rivers, and celestial bodies" (Luckert 133).


Texts may be designated by the instructor based on the objectives outlined in this course content guide. The reading list should attempt to represent the variety of Native literatures, genres, and historical eras. Some of the many possibilities:
1. Anthologies

  • Allen, Paula Gunn (Laguna/Sioux), ed. Spider Woman's Granddaughters: Traditional Tales of Contemporary Writing by Native American Women.
  • Brant, Beth (Bay of Quinte Mohawk), ed. A Gathering of Spirit: A Collection by North American Indian Women.
  • Erdoes, Richard, and Alfonso Ortiz (San Juan), eds. American Indian Myths and Legends.
  • Lesley, Craig, and Katheryn Stavrakis, eds. Talking Leaves: Contemporary Native American Short Stories.
  • Nabokov, Peter, ed. Native American Testimony: An Anthology of Indian and White Relations from Prophecy to the Present 1492-1992.
  • Niatum, Duane (Klallam), ed. Harper's Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry.
  • Ramsey, Jarold. Coyote Was Going There: Indian Literature of the Oregon Country. Seattle:
  • Swann, Brian, ed. Coming to Light: Contemporary Translations of the Native Literatures of North America.
  • Swann, Brian, and Arnold Krupat. I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers.
  • Velie, Alan R., ed. American Indian Literature: An Anthology. ---, ed. The Lightning Within: An Anthology of Contemporary American Indian Fiction.
  • Vizenor, Gerald (Chippewa), ed. Native American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology.

2. Single-Language, Single-Culture Anthologies of Oral Literatures

  • Dauenhauer, Nora Marks and Richard (Tlingit). Haa Shuka, Our Ancestors: Tlingit Oral Narratives.
  • Pearson, Clara (Tillamook). Nehalem Tillamook Tales. Ed. Melville Jacobs.
  • Paul Zolbrod. Dinÿ Bahane': The Navajo Creation Story.

3. Works by Individual Authors

  • Michael Dorris (Modoc). A Yellow Raft on Blue Water
  • Louise Erdrich (Chippewa). Love Medicine ---.The Bingo Palace
  • Thomas King (Cherokee). Medicine River
  • N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa). House Made of Dawn ---. The Way to Rainy Mountain
  • Simon Ortiz (Acoma). Woven Stone
  • Leslie Silko (Laguna Pueblo). Almanac of the Dead ---. Ceremony ---. Storyteller
  • Gerald Vizenor (Chippewa). Griever: An American Monkey King in China ---. The Trickster of Liberty
  • James Welch (Blackfeet/Gros Ventre). The Death of Jim Loney ---. Fools Crow ---. The Indian Lawyer ---. Riding the Earthboy 40 ---. Winter in the Blood
  • Ray Young Bear (Mesquakie). Black Eagle Child: The Facepaint Narratives ---. The Invisible Musician
  • Black Elk (Sioux) and John G. Neihardt. Black Elk Speaks
  • D'Arcy McNickle (Salish). Wind from an Enemy Sky
  • Chrystal Quintasket / Humishuma / Mourning Dove (Okanogan). Cogewea, the Half-Blood: A Depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range ---. Coyote Stories
  • Gertrude Bonnin / Zitkala-Sa. American Indian Stories

Instructors new to the course should contact the campus literature chair, writing and literature SACC chair, faculty department chair, or administrative support person for further information. Other faculty members who have taught the course are also valuable sources of information.