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Introduction to Native American Literature


“Lakota philosophy is usually changed in the written record to conform to Western beliefs and understanding. . . This has happened to us repeatedly and is another reason I don’t uses books for my resources.”

– Albert White Hat, Life’s Journey Zuya, pg. 30

Anthropologists, historians, and other scholars have a long history of altering tribal stories and histories to fit western standards.  As a result, many print sources contain inaccurate and biased information about tribes.  Just because a book/article is “peer-reviewed” does not automatically mean that it is a credible or reliable source.  Because many Native American texts have been colonized, it is important for students to carefully consider and critically interrogate every source they use to support their argument.  A fact that is true of all sources!

As you examine and evaluate primary and secondary sources about (and even by) Native Americans, please remember:

  1. Each tribe has their own unique cultures, languages, and literary traditions. Acknowledge those differences through tribally-specific research.  In other words, if your essay focuses on the Dakota nation look for secondary sources produced by Dakota writers or scholars.  If your essay focuses on the Navajo nation look for secondary sources produced by Navajo writers and scholars, and so on and so forth.
  2. Tribes are the experts on their own people and communities.  Many tribes and/or tribal organizations now have their own websites and online resources.  Although you are welcome to use online sources to support your argument, please make sure to critically evaluate them for authority, accuracy, objectivity, currency, coverage, and appearance.  For more tips on how to evaluate web sources, please visit this Critically Evaluating Web Resources website.
  3. Although many print sources concerning tribes are flawed, they are still useful as they can provide insight into the thinking of that time period.  Additionally, some tribes choose to work collaboratively with non-Native researchers and scholars.  DO NOT simply dismiss a book/article or ignore these flaws because the scholar is non-Native.  Instead, analyze and critically engage with these scholarly texts by asking: Who wrote these sources?  What makes them an expert on tribes?  What do Native and non-Native people say about these sources?  Do these sources perpetuate Native American stereotypes (i.e., noble/ignoble savages)?  Overall, how have these sources shaped our knowledge of and interaction with tribes?   
  4. It is not only important to critically interrogate non-Native writers.  It is also important to analyze and evaluate Native writers as well using the above criteria. One representation of a tribe is not the only or even the “right” representation.  It is simply one person’s perspective so make sure to consider the strengths and limitations of that representation.
  5. Native writers understand and interpret their own cultures in their own unique ways, depending on where, when and how they were raised.  Therefore, let the author be your guide! Use author interviews, personal websites, blogs, videos, editorials, and other writings to better understand the author’s own interpretation of his/her culture.

Sarah Raquel Hernandez

Assistant Professor, English Department