Groebel Native Poetry - EJ-JAN1.QXD 8:41 AM Page 38...

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arly Native American poets, or songwriters, have much to teach us about writing well. And yet, perhaps no body of American literature receives less attention in our class- rooms. Amid such nineteenth century stalwarts as Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, Wordsworth, Keats, and Tennyson, teachers often find it difficult to place early Na- tive American songs in the context of our literary traditions. While such songs may appear in our anthologies—seeming digressions from our elaboration of romanticism, naturalism, and modernism—we aren’t quite sure what to do with them. This state of affairs is unfortunate Teaching Early Native American Poetry because a careful study of the cultural values and poetics of early Native American songs can help our students better understand these speakers and writ- ers as people and as artists. Such a study would also invite students into the conversation about bias in the construction of a literary canon and would con- tribute to the development of their writing skills. Early Native American songs and poetry are easily among the most difficult literature to teach across cultures. So much of a song in the original language is symbolic, relying upon local knowledge and local landscapes. For example, Natalie Curtis points out that a line from a Winnebago song, “Mother, let me go to my uncle,” makes little sense out of context. However, tribal members would un- derstand that on warm summer evenings young men sit outside the tepees of young women, enticing them by playing their flutes. These young women, wanting to visit with the men, would often create ex- cuses to go outside, such as going to see a relative. A tribal member hearing, “Mother, let me go to my uncle,” would immediately recognize the courting ritual that the song addressed (261). Thus the translator of the song is faced with a dilemma: translate literally and nearly guarantee that most contemporary readers will fail to understand, or translate the spirit of the song, thus altering its origi- nal form and syntax. This is made all the more com- plicated by the fact that many songwriters clearly en- joyed creating songs that were ambiguous, full of puns and double meanings. When exploring early Na- tive American songs, teachers and students might want to cultivate a kind of double hearing, listening for the original singer, while continually being aware of the presence of the translator. In practical terms, this means looking for cultural bias and looking past dated or colloquial language that may be traced to choices made by the translator rather than the singer. In The Sky Clears: Poetry of the American Indians, A. Grove Day suggests that readers be particularly sus- pect of any “Christian-sounding lines which were probably inserted later by the person who wrote them down, ‘to remove the flavor of heathenism’” (15).
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