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Seven Texts to Teach Instead of 'Ceremony'

What’s your go-to text by an indigenous author? This educator calls attention to the limitations of using only Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, and offers a detailed list of suggested additional readings.

If high school students are introduced to Native writers at all, it is usually through Leslie Marmon Silko’s (Laguna Pueblo) Ceremony (1986), a now-classic story about a troubled Native American man who returns from serving in a war to rediscover his identity and to heal his body and spirit. Of course, Silko’s lyrical prose and spiritual narrative deserve to be taught; Ceremony became canonical over time for good reason. But it was written in 1986, and other authors have written equally powerful stories in the last 29 years.

Teaching indigenous texts is one tiny step toward correcting the historical inaccuracies about Native peoples that are built into the standard American K-12 curriculum. It also shows students that Native peoples still exist, and it infuses much-needed cultural diversity into often Euro-American-centric book lists. Indigenous peoples were here before the founding of the United States, and we have a responsibility to include their voices and stories in our classrooms.

For teachers who have the willingness and ability to either change the primary indigenous text or add a second one, might I suggest including one of the following seven books for readers in the upper grades.  

Louise Erdrich (Ojibwe), The Round House (2012). Winner of the National Book Award for fiction, this novel tackles the difficult subjects of rape and white-on-Native crime with lyrical language that is simultaneously enchanting and direct. It is a heartbreaking story that features a young male narrator who works hard to achieve justice for his mom and learns difficult and poignant lessons along the way. It’s one of the best novels I’ve read in years and worthy of attention in the classroom where a skilled teacher can lead and guide discussion. Students will enjoy this coming-of-age mystery and connect with the story’s focus on family and culture. 

Sherman Alexie (Coeur d’Alene), Reservation Blues (1995). Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) is an oft-taught—and oft-banned—text because of its young protagonist, humor and dramatic story. However, high school students might enjoy digging into Reservation Blues because music is central to the story, as well as risk-taking, leaving home and negotiating the complexities of family relationships. Alexie takes the main characters from his 1993 short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and builds a novel around them with humor, magical realism and the blues. A good companion film would be Smoke Signals (1998), which is based on one of the stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto collection.

Linda Hogan (Chickasaw), Solar Storms (1997). This is a coming-of-age story about a troubled 17-year-old girl who reconnects with her older female relatives upon returning to her family’s traditional home on the islands between Minnesota and Canada. From ecofeminism, loss and abuse, healing, to myth, Solar Storms will capture students’ imaginations and entice them to think differently about Native peoples. 

Linda Hogan (Chickasaw), People of the Whale (2010). For a more recent novel by Hogan, try People of the Whale, set in a fictional Pacific Northwest tribe. The story features strong women and a young man who fights in Vietnam and then returns to find his place between his Native and American worlds. A good companion film would be Whale Rider (2002), the fictional story of a young Maori girl in New Zealand who wants to become chief but is prohibited by tribal tradition. The integral role of whales to tribal culture and the roles of men and women provide several discussion bridges between Hogan’s story and the film.

LeAnne Howe (Choctaw), Shell Shaker (2001). Winner of a 2002 American Book Award, this story shifts between two different fights across time (1700s and 1990s) for one Choctaw family. The courage and resourcefulness of women, the connection of past to present, politics, humor and flawed characters will engage even the most resistant student reader.

Thomas King (Cherokee), The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative (2008). Filled with personal anecdotes and experiences, wit and serious attention to the nature of storytelling, this nonfiction narrative introduces students to positive and negative aspects of contemporary Native experience. It also provides terrific discussion points for writing nonfiction stories.

Joy Harjo (Mvskoke), Crazy Brave (2012). A moving memoir written with poetic power and fearless honesty, Crazy Brave is an incredible story that models memoir writing in effective ways. Grounded in Mvskoke myth, ancestry and stories, this memoir introduces students to a woman’s journey to become a poet.

By breaking away from familiar texts, high school teachers have an opportunity to introduce students to a wider range of Native experiences and cultures through stories that maintain the high quality and standards set by Silko’s Ceremony. A terrific starting point on your journey to select appropriate indigenous texts for younger students is scholar Debbie Reese’s blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature.

Morris teaches writing and Native American/Indigenous Rhetorics at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.