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Fiction: Native American Fiction and Religion
Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. Vol. 5. 2nd ed. Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. p3089-3094.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning
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Given the many geographical, cultural, and spiritual differences among indigenous peoples in North America, compiling a historical narrative of religious themes in American Indian fiction is a complicated enterprise. Native groups do share common traditions of oral storytelling and episodes of contact with waves of colonizing Europeans. Themes that manifest themselves in this fiction include colonialism andPage 3090  |  Top of Article postcolonialism, identity and alienation, the loss of land, relocation, memory, healing, religious freedom, the repatriation of sacred objects and skeletal remains, experience with missionaries and boarding schools, cultural continuity, and community building. Native authors are politically and historically conscious, and, in a very real sense, their characters are struggling to survive in the modern world.

Native spirituality encompasses many traditions of belief, from Laguna creation stories to Ojibwa trickster tales, from the Sun Dance to the Ghost Dance, from puberty ceremonies to vision quests to peyote ceremonies at the Native American Church. Native religions embody worldviews without explicit creeds and principles. Vine Deloria Jr. defines tribal religions as "complexes of attitudes, beliefs, and practices fine-tuned to harmonize with the lands on which the people live" (1994, p. 70). "Every factor of human experience is seen in a religious light as part of the meaning of life," Deloria continues (p. 195). This further complicates the analysis of religious themes in American Indian literature, for spirituality pervades every aspect of the work. Further, works of fiction in English by Indian authors are inherently postcontact narratives and thus also address experiences with Christianity. As Kimberly Blaeser notes, much of Native literature compares Native beliefs to Christianity, rhetorically critiques Christianity, or focuses on the Christian/Native religious conflict (1994, p. 16). For many peoples, becoming Christian did not mean giving up tribal beliefs and customs. Often, the most favorable aspects of each religion have been combined in a syncretic or hybrid manner, and sometimes these religious variations cause irreparable rifts in communities and families. Since the 1970s, however, there has been a resurgence of traditional tribal practices.


That American Indians are competent storytellers is no surprise: entire histories and mythologies have long been passed on through story. Prayers, chants, and songs performed during ceremonies are also part of this tradition. LaVonne Ruoff writes, "Because sacred oral literature is so closely interwoven into the fabric of traditional Indian religious life, it is difficult to distinguish between literature and religion" (1990, pp. 141–142). Oral storytelling provides not only pleasure to an audience, but it often passes on knowledge, history, culture, and rules for living. Stories teach "abstract notions of behavior, cosmology, and ways of seeing or thinking about things" (Beck et al., 1995, p. 59). In Pueblo culture, explains writer Leslie Marmon Silko, no distinctions are made "between types of story—historical, sacred, plain gossip" (1996, p. 53). There are as many oral traditions as there are indigenous groups. Pomo author Greg Sarris points out that "it is as impossible to generalize about 'oral discourse' as it is about 'culture'" (1993, p. 47). "Storytelling is a communal act," writes Joseph Epes Brown (2001, p. 54). As it is the nature of oral tradition to take audience and circumstance into account for each telling, the storyteller can appeal to changing pities and fears—and incorporate contemporary elements.

In his essay "The Native Voice in American Literature," Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday writes that the "unconditional belief in the efficacy of language" resides "at the heart of the American Indian oral tradition" (1997, p. 15). Creek scholar Craig Womack concurs: "Native artistry is not pure aesthetics, or art for art's sake: as often as not Indian writers are trying to invoke as much as evoke. The idea behind ceremonial chant is that language, spoken in the appropriate ritual contexts, will actually cause a change in the physical universe" (1999, pp. 16–17). The same can be said for contemporary American Indian writing. With the introduction of the written word, storytelling was transformed, but orality was never abandoned. Oral tradition continues to inform Native expression, whether in poetry or the European form of the novel.


In many ways, Native novelists have followed the trends of Euro-American literature. In the late 1800s when Anglo- and African American women took up the sentimental plot, often for political purposes, Native women did the same. Three examples are S. Alice Callahan's Wynema: A Child of the Forest (1891), Zitkala-Sa's American Indian Stories (1921), and Mourning Dove's Co-ge-wea (1927), all of which address the "Indian problem." Other important early writers include John Joseph Mathews, an Osage writer whose novels include Wah'kontah: The Osage and the White Man's Road (1932) and Sundown (1934), and Lakota author Ella Cara Deloria, whose novel Waterlily was written in 1944 (but not published until 1988). In general, early Native authors were concerned with Euro-American contact, missionaries, and loss of land and language and culture. At the same time, they were working against the mainstream notion that their people would indeed become extinct.

The first known published work of fiction by a Native woman is Wynema by Callahan, a mixed-blood Muscogee (or Creek). Written in 1891 for a non-Native audience, the book was out of print until 1997. Like much early Native fiction, Wynema addresses the impact of colonization and missionization. Unfortunately, Callahan does not provide much description of traditional Creek culture (and, in fact, never mentions the word Creek in the text), a move that Susan Bernardin describes as an effort to write "a generic Indian story" that is "putatively pantribal" (2001, p. 4). However, Womack faults Callahan for "purposefully, not accidentally, misrepresenting culture" (1999, p. 115). He calls Wynema "a document of Christian supremicism and assimilation" (1999, p. 107). Callahan's most detailed ethnographic passage describes the green corn ceremony, which is practiced in this community even after the adoption of Christianity. There is also a funeral scene that combines Creek and Christian rituals. But, for the most part, Creek culture is completely negated by Methodism. The novel follows Wynema Harjo, a full-blood Muscogee woman who befriends Genevieve Weir, a Methodist teacher from Alabama, the place from which the Muscogees were removed on the Trail of Tears in 1830. Genevieve eventually marries thePage 3091  |  Top of Article local Methodist minister, Gerald Keithly, while Wynema marries Genevieve's brother Robin. In many ways, Genevieve is the novel's heroine, for it is she who must overcome stereotypes and develop as a character. Although Genevieve begins as a model Indian reformer, Gerald points out that acculturation is reciprocal. Wynema's domestic plot is infused with social commentary from the two young women, who often combine suffragist concerns with Indian affairs. At the end of the novel, Callahan shifts her focus from the plots at hand to a wider view of current events in Indian Country. The final two chapters give voice to Lakota rebels and Chikena, a sole survivor of the massacre of Wounded Knee in 1890. When a missionary tells one of the rebels, "Place yourselves in a submissive attitude and the government will protect you," he replies, "peace is not the watchword of the oppressed" (Callahan, 1997, pp. 80, 82). The reader is left with a vision of this very recent horrific carnage at the hands of the U. S. government and a critical voice on the doctrine of Christian submission.

D'Arcy McNickle's novel The Surrounded appeared in 1936 and was reprinted in the 1970s. Like other works of this era, The Surrounded is told in the mode of social realism. As McNickle explains in an epigraph, the title for the book is taken from the name of his Montana setting, Sniélemen, or "Mountains of the Surrounded," referring to the proximity of the settlers. The story follows the homecoming of Archilde Leon, a mixed-blood whose mother Catherine is Salish and father Max is Spanish. While his mother practices mostly traditional Salish religion, which includes public confession and whipping, Archilde's father is Catholic. Enacting modes of oral tradition, McNickle recounts three versions of how the Salish compelled the Jesuit missionaries to come to them. Father Grepilloux, who is characterized as a good-hearted man, tells Max Leon, "It was inevitable that a new age would come" (McNickle, 1994, p. 108). Archilde has learned the Catholic traditions and plays violin at the church. His nephews attend the mission school. In a crucial scene, Archilde recalls seeing a cross in the sky while at boarding school (p. 103). When he notices that a bird does not recognize the cross as a "sign" from God, Archilde begins to question the authority of the Catholic Church. After having a series of dreams, Archilde's mother renounces her baptism. In her dreaming, Catherine goes to white heaven, but there are no Indians there. She goes to Indian heaven, but they will not accept baptized Indians. Although the novel ends with uncertainty, Archilde's own doubts about Christianity remain constant. As Laird Christensen points out, McNickle's novel questions Christianity's impact on the "cosmology, values, and economy" of this Salish community. In particular, the "Christian concept of eternal judgment [acts] as a wedge that forces the Salish out of traditional patterns of relating to family, society, and ultimately the more-than-human world" (1999, pp. 2–3). McNickle's second novel, Wind from an Enemy Sky, was published in 1978.


The beginning of what Kenneth Lincoln has called the Native American Renaissance is marked by the 1968 publication of House Made of Dawn, for which N. Scott Momaday won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969. Momaday's novel begins with Abel's return home to his grandfather in Walatawa, New Mexico, after serving in the Korean War. Abel's grandfather Francisco is a tribal elder and a sacristan of the Catholic Church in this Pueblo. Soon after Abel's return, which coincides with the Feast of Santiago, he sleeps with Mrs. Angela Grace St. John, a white woman who comes to Walatawa for its healing waters, and he murders the albino man who is to represent the figure of Santiago during the festivities. The novel follows Abel to Los Angeles, where seven years later he lies in a ditch with broken hands. During a vision quest of sorts, he thinks about his childhood and his time in the city, which includes sermons by Reverend Tosamah, a Native preacher whose grandmother attended the last Kiowa Sun Dance. Abel once again returns home, and his grandfather dies seven days later. After preparing Francisco's body in the traditional way, Abel goes to town to inform the priest, then joins the Jemez dawn runners on the mesa.

Many critics have discussed the religious strains in House Made of Dawn. Kenneth Lincoln, for example, has argued that the murder of the albino is a reversal of the biblical murder of Abel. Harold S. McAllister contends that Angela St. John represents the Virgin Mary and shows Abel "the way to salvation" (1974, p. 115). Not all critics focus on the Catholicism in the novel, however. Robert Nelson focuses on the role of place in Abel's healing process, a relationship inherent to Pueblo spirituality. Susan Scarberry-Garcia discusses "Abel's illness in relation to Navajo theories of disease and his restoration in light of both Navajo song texts and Navajo, Kiowa, and Pueblo ritual patterns" (1990, p. 86). Bernard Hirsch describes Reverend Tosamah, a Priest of the Sun and Coyote figure, as "a priest whose saving message, because he has divorced his religion from his everyday life, has an ironic as well as a revelatory dimension" (1983, p. 319). Momaday's fiction also includes The Ancient Child (1989).

Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony (1977) offers a more overt affirmation of Pueblo mythology over Christian dogma. Incorporating traditions of oral culture, Silko begins Ceremony with a poem about Thought-Woman, who in Laguna cosmology created the world. The novel traces World War II veteran Tayo as he returns to his home in Laguna Pueblo. Like Momaday's Abel, Tayo is alienated and in need of healing. He feels responsible for the death of his cousin Rocky during the war. Because he cursed the rain that made Rocky's injury worse, Tayo is certain to have caused the drought that plagues Laguna. Suffering from postwar trauma, Tayo participates in a healing ceremony arranged by his grandmother. When Ku'oosh, the local shaman, cannot heal him, Tayo is taken to Gallup to see Betonie, a Navajo who uses a hybrid method of healing. In the mountains, Tayo encounters Ts'eh, a seemingly mythical woman reminiscent of Yellow Woman, who helps Tayo recover his uncle's lost cattle.

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Silko's novel focuses on the necessity of achieving balance in the world, of remembering the stories and knowing one's place in them, and of recognizing the relationships between all things, as Robert Nelson proposes. Much Ceremony scholarship focuses on aspects of Native spirituality—healing rituals, medicine wheels, witchery, star maps, and the function Ts'eh (see Lincoln, 1983, and Mitchell, 1979). Some critics have focused on the religious syncretism or hybridity in the novel (see Gianferrari, 1999). Jace Weaver points to the importance of community as religious practice in the novel—and that "Tayo is able to achieve wholeness only in remembering himself in the collective" (1997, p. 134). That sense of community, of working toward communal values, is an outward manifestation of traditional beliefs. One of Silko's short stories, "The Man to Send Rainclouds" (1981), also takes up the conflict between Christianity and Laguna spirituality. Silko's other novels include Almanac of the Dead (1991) and Gardens in the Dunes (1999).

Other novels published in the 1970s include James Welch's Winter in the Blood (1974) and The Death of Jim Loney (1979), and Gerald Vizenor's Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart (1978).


The 1980s saw a proliferation of American Indian novelists, Louise Erdrich included. Erdrich's first novel Love Medicine (1984, revised in 1993)—and later The Beet Queen (1986), Tracks (1988), Tales of Burning Love (1990), The Bingo Palace (1994), The Antelope Wife (1998), The Last Report of the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001), and The Master Butcher's Singing Club (2002)—follow certain Ojibwa, German, and mixed-blood families in North Dakota from historical times to the present. Throughout these novels, Erdrich also chronicles the relationship between the Ojibwa and the missionary Jesuits near the fictional town of Argus. Love Medicine is told through the voices of multiple narrators and spans fifty years, 1934 to 1984. The novel begins "the morning before Easter Sunday" when June Morrissey decides to walk home from Williston, North Dakota (1993, p. 1). A blizzard unexpectedly begins, and June dies in the snow: "June walked over it like water and came home" (p. 7).

Louis Owens has called June "the feminine Christ-figure resurrected as trickster" (1992, p. 196). Kimberly Blaeser agrees: "By intermingling the symbolism from both religions in June's story, Erdrich seems to challenge not only the exclusiveness of religious myths, but also the exclusive nature of religious ideas themselves" (1994, p. 28). During the remainder of the novel, the community works on coming to terms with June's death. Among the numerous plot lines is Marie Lazarre's experience with Sister Leopolda at the Sacred Heart Convent in 1934. Marie's back is scalded and her hand stabbed by Sister Leopolda, who is trying to save young Marie from the "Dark One." "Christ has marked me," Marie says ironically (p. 60). Marie describes the sisters as windigos, half-starved creatures from Chippewa lore, again in a combination of religious imagery (see Jaskoski, 2000). Sister Leopolda is in fact Pauline Puyat, Marie's own mother, which is revealed in Tracks. Traditional Ojibwa religion does not go unscathed, however. The love medicine of the title, which Lipsha Morrissey creates to reunite Marie and Nector Kashpaw, ends up choking Nector to death. When Nector Kashpaw had once yelled his prayers at Mass, Lipsha agreed that "God's being going deaf" for years, or that maybe Chippewas "just don't speak its language" (pp. 235–236). Critic Dennis Walsh discusses this "spiritual failure of Catholicism" in the novel (2001, p. 125). Two later chapters also carry enormous religious significance. In "Crown of Thorns," alcoholism is just that for Gordie Kashpaw. In "Resurrection," Marie reclaims her Ojibwa spirituality by speaking the language and preparing to pass down Nector's ceremonial pipe to Lipsha. In Love Medicine, Erdrich enacts what Patricia Riley calls "mythological synergy," a move beyond religious syncretism that offers a counternarrative to the story of the vanishing Indian and ensures the survival of her mixed-blood characters (2000, p. 14). Erdrich certainly questions the beneficence of Catholicism throughout her work. In a 2001 interview, Erdrich explains, "Missionary work is essentially tragic. Those who enter the field from the religious side often do so out of love, and out of love they destroy the essence of the people they love."

Like many contemporary Native novels, Greg Sarris's Grand Avenue: A Novel in Stories (1994) takes place off the reservation, which for Sarris is Santa Rosa, California, where families of Pomo descent have relocated. The Pomos have created an "in-town reservation" (Sarris, 1994, p. 198). By transporting traditional ceremonies and familial ties to the city, Sarris offers a different type of narrative. He highlights the traditional as a reclaiming of what has been lost to missionizing and time. Sarris's focus on community and the need for healing in a displaced locale makes Grand Avenue what Jace Weaver calls a "communitist" text. The character Nellie Copaz (based on Mabel McKay, a renowned Pomo basketweaver and medicine woman who helped raise Sarris) demonstrates the delicate balance between surviving in the city and preserving tradition. Nellie is the firmest believer in communal values and is sought in times of illness. The two strongest cultural practices in this novel are traditional basketmaking and healing, which are both performed by Nellie.

In the chapter "Waiting for the Green Frog" Nellie recalls hearing the singing frog near her shed on ancestral land. The frog is not specific to tribal lands, for he follows Nellie wherever she moves, including Santa Rosa. Mary Mackie argues that "the green frogs serve as predictors of change, foretellers of a new healer, and the continuance of Pomo culture" (2001, p. 216). Nellie's medical instruments are a combination of the traditional and the modern: "the old canoe basket, the flint piece, a tobacco pipe from a mail order catalog, and a cocoon rattle" (Sarris, 1994, p. 78). When Nellie teaches young Alice Goode how to make baskets, she is performing an act of healing. Nellie also tells Alice how and where to collect the materials, making connections to geographicalPage 3093  |  Top of Article and ancestral space. Although Alice is often quiet during these lessons, Nellie tells stories. In the last scene, Alice is visited by the green frog, signaling her future as a healer. Even in the direst of circumstances, Sarris imagines the continuity of Pomo traditions. Sarris's second novel, Watermelon Nights, which follows many of the same families, was published in 1998.

American Indian fiction has grown dramatically in recent decades. Novels published in the 1980s include Paula Gunn Allen's The Woman Who Owned the Shadows (1983), Janet Campbell Hale's The Jailing of Cecilia Capture (1985), James Welch's Fools Crow (1986), Michael Dorris's A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (1987), and Anna Lee Walters's Ghost Singer (1988). Novels of the 1990s include James Welch's The Indian Lawyer (1990); Linda Hogan's Mean Spirit (1990), Solar Storms (1995), and Power (1998); Gerald Vizenor's Dead Voices (1992); Louis Owens's The Sharpest Sight (1992) and Bone Game (1994); Ray Young Bear's Black Eagle Child (1992) and Remnants of the First Earth (1996); Betty Louise Bell's Faces in the Moon (1994); Susan Power's Grass Dancer (1994); Adrian C. Louis's Skins (1995); Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues (1995) and Indian Killer (1996); and Diane Glancy's Pushing the Bear (1996). Novels of the first decade of the twenty-first century include James Welch's The Heartsong of Charging Elk (2000), LeAnne Howe's Shell Shaker (2001), and Adrian C. Louis's Bone and Juice (2001). Short story collections include Anna Lee Walters's Sun Is Not Merciful (1985); Adrian Louis's Wild Indians and Other Creatures (1992); Sherman Alexie's Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), The Toughest Indian in the World (2000), and Ten Little Indians (2003); N. Scott Momaday's In the Bear's House (1999); and Susan Power's Roofwalker (2003).


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Blaeser, Kimberly M. "Pagans Rewriting the Bible: Heterodoxy and the Representation of Spirituality in Native American Literature." Ariel 25, no. 1 (1994): 12–32.

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Jaskoski, Helen. "From the Time Immemorial: Native American Traditions in Contemporary Short Fiction." In Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine: A Casebook, edited by Hertha D. Sweet Wong, pp. 27–34. New York, 2000.

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Velie, Alan R. Four American Indian Literary Masters: N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald Vizenor. Norman, Okla., 1982.

Walsh, Dennis. "Catholicism in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine and Tracks." American Indian Culture and Research Journal 25, no. 2 (2001): 107–127.

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Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition) 
Szanto, Laura Furlan. "Fiction: Native American Fiction and Religion." Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Lindsay Jones, 2nd ed., vol. 5, Macmillan Reference USA, 2005, pp. 3089-3094. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 22 Feb. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3424501036

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