Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Masterpieces of American Indian Expression: From the Ghost Dance to Contemporary Novels to Digitized Traditions

ENGL 282.401

The Ghost Dance is one of the most powerful stories ever performed in the Americas.  In 1890, as the “Indian Wars” were coming to an end, Native Americans across the country began dancing a spiritual revolution.  Seen from the perspective of the dominant white culture, the Ghost Dance movement was crushed by the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.  As prophesized, however, the Ghost Dance returned in 1972 and began an extremely powerful Indian revitalization movement that continues to this day.  Some of the questions that will be discussed include: What did “history” look like from within the circle of the Ghost Dance, where ancestral spirits came to life?  How does new media allow us to study Indian dance, prophecies, clothing, and the oral tradition in ways that could not be represented on the white page?  Why are so many masterpieces of Native American expression being produced at this moment in history?


In the first section of the course, students will watch films, read poetry and novels, and study artifacts in the Penn Museum to establish an interpretive framework grounded in indigenous culture.  The second section will focus specifically on the story of the Ghost Dance, with an emphasis on interdisciplinary scholarship that balances the study of literature, anthropology, film, photography, and material culture to bring the Ghost Dance to life.  The third section will look at contemporary masterpieces of American Indian culture from the remarkable period following the second Ghost Dance (1972-present).  “Readings” will include the film Smoke Signals, the poetry of Joy Harjo (Creek), short stories by Sherman Alexie (Spokane, Coeur d’Alene), a novel by Susan Power (Dakota Sioux), and a visit from a Cherokee storyteller whose family survived the Trail of Tears.


Each of the three sections will conclude with a 5-7 page analytical essay.  The goals of the class are: 1) To teach students how to interpret stories from a Native American perspective; 2) To encourage students to write dynamic, multimedia papers that allow for vivid interpretations of artifacts, photographs, film clips, never before published footage of Indian storytellers, first hand accounts of Ghost Dancers, etc.  3) To expose students to cutting edge technology and to consider how the digital age provides us with an opportunity to represent American Indian cultures much more accurately than can be accomplished within the margins of the white page.  No previous experience with digital media is necessary; the teaching of these skills will be integrated into the class.

fulfills requirements
Elective Seminar of the Standard Major
Sector 2: Difference and Diaspora of the Standard Major
Sector 6: 20th Century Literature of the Standard Major