Native American Poetry: Traditional Poems & Poets

Instructor: Jacob Belknap

Jake has taught English in middle and high school, has a degree in Literature, and has a master's degree in teaching.

Native American traditional poems and poets make up a distinct category of authors who have a unique style that still relates to universal themes. This lesson will explore some traditional Native American poems and several Native American poets.

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 at a book signing.
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