by Public Service Associate Owen
November is National Indigenous Heritage Month, and as such it is an honor to use this space to feature some works of prolific indigenous authors. As Americans, it is of vital importance to recognize the peoples of this continent who were here prior to settlers and colonists. By highlighting some great works of indigenous authors, including the one book that brought indigenous literature into the mainstream, I hope to at least pay some respect to those whose voices were often silenced.
For centuries in American literary history, indigenous authors were shunned in favor of the works of Americans of European descent. This largely changed following the publication of the Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn in 1969, as a veritable renaissance followed for indigenous literature. House Made of Dawn proved to be a landmark title, as it thrusted indigenous authors and works into the mainstream of American literature. Its elegant prose and provocative plotting of an indigenous man who loses himself in a crisis of identity proved to be foundational devices of the indigenous literary renaissance that followed.
A novel that is split into five distinct sections, House Made of Dawn follows an indigenous man named Abel, who returns to his reservation after fighting in World War II. The war has taken a severe toll on him, and he often turns to alcohol and violence to compensate for this. Abel often feels hopeless, and, pitted between modern American society and his own indigenous culture, he struggles mightily under the burden of his own complicated identity. It is indeed a heavy read, but one that is sure to provoke empathy as well as a deeper understanding of some of the unique challenges that indigenous peoples face in our modern world.
House Made of Dawn contains themes that would come to define much of indigenous literature in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries. These themes include the juxtaposition of ancient customs and modern values, hard realities of life on reservations, questions of land and resources, and the inherent duality of being an indigenous person in contemporary American society. House Made of Dawn would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for Literature, and indigenous literature, largely shunned in the American mainstream for centuries, was finally getting some of the long-overdue recognition it deserved.
Following the publication of House Made of Dawn, indigenous literature flourished in the mainstream. Many indigenous authors that followed in Momaday’s footsteps have credited House Made of Dawn as a substantial influence on their work. Some notable works that followed Momaday’s influential work include Paula Gunn Allen’s The Sacred Hoop, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, James Welch’s Winter in the Blood, and Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine series. I strongly recommend any of these books if you are looking to appreciate some of this nation’s greatest indigenous authors.
Request any of these titles by indigenous authors in print or digitally with your BPL card!