Thursday, March 19, 2009

High School Topic: American Indian Poetry

10-second review: Why should American students study American Indian poetry?

Title: “Traditional Poetry of the American Indian.” Anna Lee Stensland. English Journal (September 1975), 41-47. A publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Summary/Quotes: “Teachers in every country in the world accept the necessity of teaching the culture and heritage of the people of that country. In the United States we have seen our heritage as British-American, with literary roots in such British giants as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, as well as in American masters like Emerson, Hawthorne, and Mark Twain. Very few literary critics have bothered to separate the two and to ask, ‘What makes our American heritage different from that of the British?’ One answer to that question has to be our contact with the American Indian.

“Examine, for example, the names of our states: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Dakota, Missouri, Iowa—all Indian names; the names of cities—Omaha, Bemidji, Shakopee, Peoria, Seattle—and the names of some of our lakes along the Canadian border—Saganaga, Kabetogema, Namakon, Winnibigoshish. Note the food, so common on our tables, all plants which were first cultivated by Indians: corn, beans, sweet potatoes, strawberries, tomatoes, peanuts and squash. Politically, Benjamin Franklin gave credit to the League of the Iroquois when preparing his proposals for the union of the colonies in 1754, ideas which later found their way into the United States Constitution. And in our American literature, authors from Philip Freneau to William Faulkner have used Indian themes: Bryant, Whittier, Cooper, Longfellow, Thoreau, Willa Cather, to mention only a few.”

“Traditional Indian poetry, often difficult because it is so unlike poetry we know, is worth the effort because it will give students a different perspective on life and correct fragmentary and erroneous ideas about the first Americans.”

Comment: I can’t think of a better reason to sample and teach American Indian poetry. Samples of American Indian poetry are contained in this article. Contact NCTE to see if you can get a copy of this article. It’s a keeper. RayS.

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