Indigenous Literatures and Languages of the Americas

Sleuthing Indigenous Literatures and Languages

This research guide will point you toward an array of sources and materials related to indigenous literatures and languages of the Americas. Most of my sources are contemporary although you'll find links to important digitized texts from earlier periods. It is easier to find information on U.S. indigenous writers at your library than it is to find primary resources for indigenous writers in Latin America, Canada, or Alaska. This issue has much to do with a lack of access to publishing houses; who is considered canonical and who is not; whose language and ethnic group can represent the nation in the larger international community and who cannot. Arguably, the same set of issues apply to indigenous writers in the U.S., but in 1969 M.Scott Momaday shattered them by winning the highest literary American award--the Pulitzer--for his novel, House Made of Dawn. Since then, more writers published, especially women. Leslie Marmon Silko,considered the first Native American woman novelist, won the MacArthur genius award for her work in the early 80s. New literary genealogies trace published literary work by Native American women to the 1900s, highlighting the work of Sitkala-sa, a Lakota woman, who published short stories in Harper's magazine and The Atlantic Monthly.

I will not touch on the subject of story telling and oral literature as that has been the proccupation of many scholars in literary criticism. While sleuthing this subject, you may want to narrow down your research by linguistic group or tribal affiliation. You'll notice in this guide that many indigenous writers have made strategic use of the Internet to disseminate and publish their work.

YouTube Videos

To familiarize you with a few prominent indigenous poets and their languages, I selected videos of poetry readings in Maya, Maya-K'iche', and Zapotec . These snippets come from the yearly poetry festival celebrated in Colombia with writers from all over the world. You can find more public readings by indigenous writers in radionomada under other electronic sources in this guide. I have translated one of the poems by Briceida Cuevas Cob, "Origines II," for readers to get a sense of the poetry. Cuevas Cob is one of a handful Maya women poets. The other poets you see in You-Tube are Humberto Ak'abal (Maya-K'iche') who won the Guggenheim in 2006, Jorge Cocom Pech (Maya), whose work has been translated into many languages, and Irma Pineda (Zapotec). The deliveries are bilingual (Spanish and indigenous language). The last video is also by an established zapotec poet, Natalia Toledo.

Zapotec Poet, Pineda, I.

Zapotec Poet, Natalia Toledo

Maya-Yukatek Poet, Cuevas Cob, B.

My mother guards a ball in the net of her womb
In this game goals do not keep the score
Rather it is the prolongation of time that trembles on her skin.

from her breasts trickles the moon --venerated body of xbalamque*
she already counts with nine warnings**
it is time that the precious rain explodes in her womb
and expels the ball towards the belly button of her brown field

*The poet is playing with the term, "amonestaciones," used in soccer games to warn the players as well as to continue with the ball court imagery. Cuevas Cob is playing with the sound as "amonestaciones" closely resembles "gestaciones" or gestations.

**In the sacred book, The Pop Wuj, xbalamque is one of the twins who eventually becomes the moon.

Maya-Yukatek poet, Cocom Pech, J.

Maya K'iche'poet: Ak'abal, H.

Research Assistance

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Jennifer Osorio
Charles E. Young Research Library
Box 951575
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1575
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Guide Author

This guide was originally created by Gloria Chacon, CLIR Post-doctoral Fellow at the UCLA Library. It is updated and maintained by Jennifer Osorio.