Jake has taught English in middle and high school, has a degree in Literature, and has a master's degree in teaching.
Native American Poetry
Native American poetry encompasses a wide variety of authors stretching throughout the Americas. The territory of the many nations of First Nation authors who fall into this category is vast, and their experiences are just as diverse as the nations that make up this category of literature. First Nation literature thus helps to define America by exploring concerns that impact both tribal people and all people.
Native American poetry focuses on several themes. Some common themes for First Nation authors are the oral tradition, reverence of spirituality, and seeking balance in life. In one sense, these are uniquely Native American experiences, and in another sense, these are universal themes that connect many people.
In the following section, we will explore some traditional Native American prayer poems.
Native American Traditional Poems
Oral tradition is important to Native American literature, art, and culture. Oral tradition is the legacy of passing down cultural stories from the older generation to the younger generation through speech. This tradition continues in some of their poetry, which can sometimes be understood as prayer.
The ''Sacred Warrior'' is one of these traditional poems. It begins with the following lines:
Life offers us the opportunity to become a sacred Warrior.
A warrior is one who bravely goes into those dark areas within
themselves to ferret out the Truth of their being.
It takes great courage, stamina and endurance to
become a sacred Warrior.
These lines offer insight into what may happen to someone seeking to become a ''sacred warrior.'' The poem tells of the journey of this warrior, who struggles through the untamed terrain. There are physical hardships on the way, which challenge the warrior. Through grit and determination, the sacred warrior overcomes these challenges to finally meet their battle. This too is overcome, granting the warrior serenity.
The unknown author uses images of the landscape and nature to connect to the struggles of life. This poem becomes a guidebook for how to successfully progress through life to attain one's goals.
The other traditional poem we'll discuss here is known as ''To Walk the Red Road''. This poem tells of a fantastic red road that all beings in the Americas walk in community with each other. The beings mentioned in the poem include: ''people in this world, people between people in the Spirit world, star people, animal people, stone people, river people, tree people...'' These beings come before God:
in all things for your wrong doings,
for your lack of strength,
for your uncompassionate way,
for your arrogance - because to walk
the Red Road, you always know
you can do better.
Similar to the ''Sacred Warrior,'' this poem speaks of a path, a journey that will reveal the truth. There are hardships on this path, but there are also rights that help the walker. At the end, each person will enter the ''Spirit World,'' but after walking down this Red Road that will be a happy event.
This poem provides a mystical guide for obtaining tranquility in life. It offers positive and negative sides of life, which all prepare the person who metaphorically walks this path to come to their end, their death, without fear.
Native American Poets
Now let's look at several Native American poets. The first poet, N. Scott Momaday, is from the Kiowa nation. He earned a Pulitzer Prize for his first novel, House Made of Dawn, in 1968. It was this novel that led to the Native American literary renaissance. There were already important and talented Native American authors, but with this book, with its union of the oral and classical European traditions, Momaday brought mainstream attention to the field. His collections of poetry include In the Bear's House, In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991, and The Gourd Dancer.'
Sherman Alexie is a prolific writer who is a member of the Spokane/Coeur d'Alene tribe. He is a novelist, poet, and filmmaker. He grew up on a reservation, and many of his writings draw on the experiences of his youth there. He often performs his own writing, earning him the title of World Heavyweight Poetry for four years. His collections of poetry include Face, One Stick Song, The Man Who Loves Salmon, The Summer of Black Widows, Water Flowing Home, Old Shirts & New Skins, First Indian on the Moon, I Would Steal Horses, and The Business of Fancydancing.
James Welch is a Blackfoot and part Gros Ventre Native American who also grew up on a reservation. He is a poet and novelist whose work captures the everyday life of the Blackfoot people, including the spiritual aspects of the tribe. His collections of poetry include Riding the Earthboy 40 (1971, rpt. 1975), Last Stand at Little Bighorn, Christmas Comes to Moccasin Flat, Surviving, Snow Country Weavers, Thanksgiving a Snake Butte, Dreaming Winter, and Harlem, Montana: Just off the Reservation.
Kimberly Blaeser is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist who is a member of the White Earth Chippewa and Anishinaabe tribes. Prior to earning her PhD, Blaeser was a journalist. Blaeser looks intimately at her subjects' lives while providing a broader impression of what it means to be Native American. Her collections of poetry include Apprenticed to Justice, Absentee Indians and Other Poems, and Trailing You.
Native American poems draw on the oral tradition to explore themes of spirituality and seeking balance in life. Many of the themes and topics of Native American poetry use unique images while connecting to universal ideas. Traditional Native American poetry resembles prayers and focuses on mystical journeys that serve as guides for members of their nations. The Native American poets discussed in this lesson were:
- N. Scott Momaday
- Sherman Alexie
- James Welch
- Kimberly Blaeser
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