Native American Literature: Where the Museum and the English Department Intersect
Within English departments, Native American literary history is usually thought of in relatively narrow terms, with the definition of "literature" being confined to the margins of the white page. Within this context, Native American literary history begins in 1772, with a sermon written by Samson Occom. In the American Section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, it is generally agreed that the Native American storytelling tradition can be traced back to at least 500 BCE, when the Maya first began using hieroglyphic writing. Searching for places where the Museum and the English dept. intersect, this course will explore the fascinating connections between contemporary Native American literary works and much older forms of storytelling including the Ghost Dance, wampum belts that encode the epic of Hiawatha, and stories from the oral tradition
Because I am a Senior Research Scientist in Penn's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, many of the classes will be held in the museum where students will have an opportunity to view masterpieces of the collection not on display to the public. I will share with the students my own research from the Cherokee and Ojibwe reservations, where we have been producing video tapes of elders telling very old stories and talking about the meaning of historic artifacts. Students will be provided the opportunity to participate in these on-going projects and to think creatively about how the latest digital technology can be used to preserve both artifacts and the stories associated with them. The idea is that will be presented with the rare opportunity for their work to help directly Native students on the reservations in northern Minnesota and western North Carolina. Creativity will be strongly encouraged and students will be given the choice of writing a research paper or creating a multimedia exhibit for their final project.