Colonial Period to 1700
Native American Oral Literatures
The texts in this section can be viewed from the perspective of first contacts--not just the historical contact between the indigenous peoples of the Americas and European explorers and colonists in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but for many students, their own first contact with Native American cultures.
In the classroom, the idea of "first contact" can become a point of departure for analysis and discussion, as students examine their own reading experiences as examples of cultures in contact. Those aspects of the texts that students may find difficult or strange can lead to discussions of how culture shapes our understanding of the terms "strange" and "familiar," the "same" and the "other," along with attitudes toward oral cultures. As a result, the examination of the students' reading experiences of Native American literatures always involves as much analysis of the cultural perspective of the readers as of the texts involved.
Cultures in Contact: Voices from the Imperial Frontier
The texts in this section give students the opportunity to look at how various European writers made sense of, explained, and justified the results of their encounters with Native American cultures; and to re-examine the various cultural myths of "discovery," "exploration," and "colonization" that students bring to class. To what extent, for example, does the Columbus of his journals match the Columbus of history books, movies, and even cartoons? Students can use their experiences reading Native American texts to discuss questions of what the Europeans could and could not see in indigenous cultures (for example, the belief expressed in Columbus's journals that the natives he met had no religion), of what they found "strange," of how they fit native peoples into their own stories about a "new world" of "noble savages" and "blood-thirsty heathens."
The diversity of texts in this section also allows for the consideration of the diversity of European responses, from Columbus's cultural blindness and assumption of superiority to Samuel Purchas's legalistic justification of colonization, to Cabeza de Vaca's growing awareness (as a captive) of the complexity of Indian life and the tragic consequences of European conquest.
Cultures in Contact: Voices from the Anglo-American's "New" World
This section again allows the class to examine some powerful cultural myths: the arrival of the Pilgrims and the English colonial experience. The selections included here underline the complexity and diversity of that experience: from the views of colonial leaders like William Bradford and John Winthrop to those of the indentured servant Richard Frethorne; from colonists concerned with building a "new Jerusalem" to those intent on creating a "new" England; from men and women; from the perspectives of poets, diarists, government officials, ministers, and housewives. The wide variety of styles, forms, and rhetorical situations allows for discussions about the social construction of our literary expectations--what we expect a poem or a journal to be. An examination of what seems "timeless" or "dated" in terms of style and theme can lead to an understanding of the contingency of our own cultural tastes.
In addition "captivity narratives," as exemplified by Mary Rowlandson's famous seventeenth-century best-seller, provide a useful analytical model for considering the question of cultural contact. The physical captivity that is experienced and then shaped into narrative by Rowlandson (or John Williams or Cabeza de Vaca) marks the beginning of an important genre in the literature of the Americas, a genre dealing with what Gloria Anzaldúa calls the "borderlands"--the marginal area where culture meets culture, a place of transformation, of impermanence, of both possibility and danger. As a teaching strategy, this idea of "captivity" can be extended to a variety of cultural borderlands, whether between native and European cultures (Rowlandson, Cabeza de Vaca), between English Protestants and French Catholics (Williams), or later between Africans and Europeans (Olaudah Equiano), slaves and masters (Frederick Douglass).
Tales of Incorporation, Resistance, and Reconquest in New Spain
Finally, not only do the texts from the Spanish colonies offer a contrast to the traditional Anglocentric model of colonial history, but the Hopi story of the Pueblo revolt also gives an example of history from the "other"--or perhaps another--side. The Virgin of Guadalupe serves as a fitting conclusion to these first sections of "cultures in contact" by returning us to the tricky question of "assimilation," of how the forcible entrance of Catholicism into native cultures resulted not in the erasure of native religious traditions but in the creation of a hybrid used by both conquered and conquerors in a continuing process of negotiation and resistance. Such a complicated cultural revolution prepares students for a consideration of the "age of revolution" in the eighteenth century.