The period began in the 1960s and progressed throughout the following decades. It is often described as beginning with N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, published in 1968. This novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1969. When it was first conceived, the book was a collection of poems. These evolved into stories and then into a complete novel. It is based on the author’s knowledge of life in Jemez Pueblo, an area of New Mexico. This was the first work of fiction, written by a Native American, that was truly described as having a wide readership.
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Characteristics of the Native American Renaissance
Scholars generally connect the Native American Renaissance with a few important characteristics (as noted in Native American Literatures: An Introduction by Suzanne Lundquist). These include:
- New works inspired by early Native American texts and stories.
- Renewed interest in Native American mythology, ritual, the oral tradition, and more.
- Seeking to reclaim Native American heritage through literature.
The Native American Renaissance occurred alongside a renewed interest in examining the history of the “Wild West.” Scholars, for the first time, took the time to consider the Native American perspective. During this period, a great deal of activism within Native American communities was also taking place as individuals sought to achieve equal rights and sovereignty over their own territory.
Native American Renaissance Definition
The Native American Renaissance was a period in contemporary literature, beginning in the 1960s, in which the literary output of Native American authors increased along with the public’s interest in reading these authors’ poems, novels, and short stories.
Following the initial increase in the output of literary works by Native American authors and the public’s new interest in reading these works, an increase in the development of Native American studies departments around the United States occurred. New programs at universities such as Dartmouth College and the University of California, Los Angeles, were founded.
Authors of the Native American Renaissance
Below are a few of the best-known authors of the Native American Renaissance:
- Joy Harjo
- N. Scott Momaday
- Duane Niatum
- Louis Erdrich
- Maurice Kenny
- James Welch
Examples of Literature from the Native American Renaissance
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
Love Medicine was Erdrich’s first novel, published in 1984. It follows the lives of five Ojibwe families who live on reservations in Minnesota and North Dakota. The book is a chronicle of these families that spans six decades. Here is a quote:
How come we’ve got these bodies? They are frail supports for what we feel. There are times I get so hemmed in by my arms and legs I look forward to getting past them. As though death will set me free like a traveling cloud… I’ll be out there as a piece of the endless body of the world feeling pleasures so much larger than skin and bones and blood.
It won the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award and was revised and republished by the author in 1993 and 2009.
Read Louise Erdrich’s poetry.
Winter in the Blood by James Welch
Winter in the Blood by James Welch is a well-known novel of the Native American Renaissance. The book is set on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana in the ‘60s and follows an unnamed man’s journey. Here is a quote:
He had followed the calendar, the years, time-
And it came to me, as though it were riding one moment of the gusting wind, as though bird had had it in him all the time and had passed it to me in that one moment of instant corruption.
The book was Welch’s first novel, published in 1974 by Harper & Row. The novel received praise from a wide variety of critics and was even adapted into a film by Sherman Alexie that was released in 2012.
Explore James Welch’s poetry.
Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
Ceremony is a 1977 novel based around the ceremonial practices of the Navajo and Pueblo people. Parts of this incredibly original novel are written in prose, while others are more poetic. Throughout the novel, readers encounter different timelines, characters, and stories. Throughout, readers are reminded of the power of words and the importance, and responsibility, of telling stories. Here is a quote:
For a long time he had been white smoke. He did not realize that until he left the hospital, because white smoke had no consciousness of itself. It faded into the white world of their bed sheets and walls; it was sucked away by the words of doctors who tried to talk to the invisible scattered smoke… They saw his outline but they did not realize it was hollow inside.
The novel speaks on themes like matriarchal culture, duality, trauma, identity, and healing.
The Native American Renaissance, sometimes known as the Native American literary movement, began in the 1960s and is characterized by an increase in the literary output by Native American authors around the United States. The movement also saw a new interest in developing Native American studies programs and universities, seeing America’s past through the lens of Native American communities, and more.
N. Scott Momaday is the author of what is considered to be the first literary work of the Native American renaissance. He wrote the novel House Made of Dawn, published in 1968. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the next year.
Four of the common themes found throughout works of Native American literature include a connection between people and the land, the chronicle of a hero’s journey, an analysis of identity, and plot elements inspired by traditional storytelling and mythology.
Related Literary Terms
- American Renaissance: a period of literature lasted from 1830 to the beginning of the Civil War, around 1861.
- Harlem Renaissance: a cultural and intellectual movement in African American art, literature, dance, must, and more.
- Irish Literary Revival: also sometimes known as the Irish Literary Renaissance or the Celtic Twilight, was a literary period in the late 19th and early 20th century in Ireland.
- Scottish Renaissance: a literary movement that took place in the mid-20th century in Scotland. It is often referred to as the Scottish version of modernism.