from sea to shining sea
capture of the wild one by edle bersch-standing elk audioLouise Erdrich

The author discusses her book: The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse

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Power of Prose Index

Power of Prose

Native Americans

American literature is unique in the number of voices and cultures it conveys, giving it the power to transform opinions and challenge stereotypes in both obvious and subtle ways. Christa Smith Anderson explains that Native American ancestry has been infused into modern literature with ancient sounds.

N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Louise Erdrich are among the many writers of Native-American ancestry to use the languages of America’s earliest inhabitants in contemporary literature. Erdrich, who grew up in North Dakota of Chippewa and German-American descent, includes in her work characters who “speak Indian,” as said in her novel, Love Medicine. Before Lulu Nanapush, who is tired of “flat voices” and “rough English,” returns home to the reservation, she thinks of her late mother in terms of language: “I missed the old language in my mother’s mouth. Sometimes, I heard her. N'dawnis, n'dawnis. My daughter, she consoled me.[1] When Lulu announces plans to visit Moses Pillager, a mysterious relative who has isolated himself on an island near the reservation, Rushes Bear and Lulu’s uncle Nanapush advise against it. Her uncle warns: “He doesn't speak.” “I’ll talk Indian,” Lulu replies. When she goes to Matchimanito to meet him, Moses starts to turn away from Lulu but can’t leave, leading to the following exchange:

He reached toward my hair, closed his fist around a heavy curl, then drew away his hand. Kaween onjidah. Don't be sorry, I said. [2]  

In House Made of Dawn, Abel learns about his Kiowa ancestry…

N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel House Made of Dawn traverses the Southwest and urban Los Angeles as the character Abel learns about his Kiowa ancestry. Abel returns to Oklahoma’s Rainy Mountain after the death of his grandmother, through the memory of her stories learning the tribal history of the area. The summer of 1887 was the last in which the Kiowa came together as a “living sun dance culture” because they could find no buffalo in order to carry out the sacrifice that involved impaling a bull head on a Tai-me tree. “That summer was known to my grandmother as Ä'potò Ètodà-de K`àdò, Sun Dance When the Forked Poles Were Left Standing.[3]

Despite different ethnic backgrounds, a woman who visits Abel’s dying grandfather, Francisco, in the hospital, puts Abel in mind of his grandfather when she tells a story and Abel thinks: “Ei yei! A bear! A bear and a maiden. And she was a white woman and she... you know, made it up out of her own mind, and it was like that old grandfather talking to me, telling me about Esdzà shash nadle, or Dzil quigi, yes, just like that.[4]

In a prayer ceremony, Momaday writes the dialects to be found in an L.A. Pan-Indian rescue mission, as heard in the words of the characters Cristóbal Cruz and Napoleon Kills-in-the-Timber. Part of Cristóbal’s prayer is: “I know we all been seein’ them good visions an’ all, an’ there's a whole lot of frenhood an’ good will aroun’ here, huh? I jes’ want to pray out loud for prosper’ty an’ worl’ peace an’ brotherly love.” Napolean begins his prayer with, “Great Spirit be with us. We gone crazy for you to be with us poor Indi’ns.” Napolean starts to wail after he says, “The ol’ people they gone now... They tol’ us to do it this way, sing an’ smoke an’ pray.[5]

The opening and closing words of House Made of Dawn reflect Native American storytelling tradition. The novel begins, “Dypaloh” and ends, “Qtsedaba.” In Jemez tribal tradition of the Southwest, the words indicate, respectively, the beginning of a story and the ending of a story.[6]

Ayohu Kanogisdi Death Song By Carroll Arnett


aya ahaniquo

I am here only

usdi nahiyu

a little while


I have loved

ulihelisdi elohi

the joy of the earth

osiyo ayohu

hello death

Source:  Night Perimeter: new and selected poems 1958-1990. New York: Greenfield Review Press, 1991.

The Frozen North

Alaskan Indian Mary TallMountain confronted stereotypes in her poem Indian Blood which appears in several anthologies. The opening stanza sets up a performance in which the performer wears:

Beendaaga’ made of velvet / crusted with crystal beads as Children's faces stared. / I felt their flowing force. / Did I crouch like goh / in the curious quiet?” ( Beendaaga’ is mittens, goh is rabbit.) [7]

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Louise Erdrich, Interviews and related resources.
  • Scott Momaday, Interviews and related resources .
  • Leslie Marmon Silko, Interviews and related resources.
  • Circle of Stories, A PBS presentation using documentary film, photography, artwork and music to honor and explore Native American storytelling.
  • Alaska Native Languages, An insight into languages helps us better understand native stories.
  • Mary TallMountain, The author's works incorporated her Christian beliefs, Native spirituality and Athabascan heritage.
  • Bruchac, Joseph, ed. Songs from This Earth on Turtle’s Back: Contemporary American Indian Poetry. Greenfield Center, N.Y.: The Greenfield Review Press, 1983.
  • Gillan, Maria Mazziotti, and Jennifer Gillan, eds. Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.
  • Green, Rayna, ed. That’s What She Said: Contemporary Poetry and Fiction by Native American Women. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984.
  • Kantner, Seth. Ordinary Wolves.  Minnesota: Milkweed Editions, 2004.
  • Momaday, N. Scott. The Names: A Memoir. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1976.
  • Silko, Leslie Marmon. Almanac of the Dead. New York: Penguin, 1992.

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Christa Smith Anderson holds an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University and received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia. After several years producing and writing television news, she is now a federal government employee by day and a fiction writer the rest of the time. She received the 2002 Cynthia Wynn Herman Scholarship from George Mason University and has published non-fiction in So to Speak, a Feminist Journal of Language and Arts.

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  1. Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. New and Expanded Version. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1993. 68-69.
  2. Erdrich, p.80
  3. Momaday, N. Scott. House Made of Dawn. New York: Harper & Row,1966. 132.
  4. Momaday, p.187
  5. Momaday, p.113
  6. Momaday, N. Scott. "Glossary." The Names: A Memoir. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1976.168-169.
  7. Tallmountain, Mary. “Indian Blood.” Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multi-Cultural Poetry. Eds. Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Jennifer Gillan. New York: Penguin Books. 64.

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