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Assistant English professor shares passion for native literature

In 1928, a Cherokee man was murdered in southeastern Kentucky. He was just one of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans killed in America since Columbus arrived. But he was also the great-grandfather of Bill Stratton.

“He was a victim of racial violence. That was not something I knew about as a child; my family didn’t talk about their Indian heritage because of the violence that already occurred,” says Stratton, who recently was hired as an assistant professor of Native American and contemporary American literature in DU’s English department. “Later, when I found out about it, I had an interest in understanding why something like that could happen.”

After studying philosophy and English literature as an undergraduate, Stratton enrolled in an American Indian studies graduate program as a means of better understanding a part of U.S. history he felt was often neglected. He earned his master’s degree and PhD at the University of Arizona, where he worked closely with influential native writers such as Luci Tapahonso and Frances Washburn.

“It seemed like a field where I could have a positive social impact, teaching students about an aspect of American culture and history that they didn’t know,” he says. “We often address depressing themes — massacres, wars. What comes out of it, hopefully, is the realization that native people have continued to flourish. They’re still teaching us, if we’re willing to listen. That’s what I was hoping for when I went into this field — that students would say, ‘Wow, this book really changed me, and changed my

A common theme in native literature, Stratton says, emphasizes people’s relationship to the land. For example, the San Francisco Peaks in northern Arizona are sacred to numerous tribes and figure importantly in the origins of the Dinè and Hopi peoples.

“For the Navajo, those mountains demarcate the easternmost boundary of the land the holy people gave to them,” he says. “For the Hopi, that’s where the kachina spirits reside. … The world has much deeper meaning to native people as a living entity.”

Stratton emphasizes, however, the considerable diversity that exists among native cultures.

“There are approximately 565 different native nations within the United States,” he says. “Although some are interrelated, if you compare tribes from New England to those in Alaska, there are radical differences.”

For that reason, one of his primary goals as an instructor is to introduce students to novels that are culturally specific. “We treat Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony as a Laguna novel, not just as a Native American novel,” he says. “When students have a broader understanding of native literature experience, they can compare and contrast.”

Stratton says that until 1969, when N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa-Cherokee, won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel House Made of Dawn, the field of Native American literature was much narrower. “You could have read practically every single book written by a native person in one or two classes, if there were such classes at the time.”

When Momaday won the award — he was the first and still the only native author to do so — “it demonstrated that Native American writers could produce valuable and enduring literary works, and it opened up opportunities for many other Native American writers,” Stratton says. “A lot of times when non-native or Anglo people look at various literatures, they think it’s primarily for a certain audience. Winning the Pulitzer showed that it has a universal relevance.”

Early native literature focused on the challenges native people faced in negotiating changes brought by the U.S. government, Christian missionaries and English-speaking settlers.

“They were discussing how to adopt that identity and still live in the native world,” Stratton says. Now, native writers are turning out mysteries, horror novels and comics, transforming Western genres “in a subversive way,” he says. “Students want to see native culture as frozen in time, and if it’s not, they somehow see it as lesser, or devolved.

“But all cultures change,” he says, adding that he is eager to help students understand that’s a good thing.

In addition to teaching classes at DU, Stratton contributes to the field by writing about the ways literature has influenced perceptions of Native Americans. His published work includes a fresh look at an influential narrative written in 1682 by Mary Rowlandson, who was taken captive by Native Americans.

Stratton also has examined the work of popular novelist Cormac McCarthy. In an article about Blood Meridian — a 1985 novel that details the American and Mexican governments’ efforts to extinguish the Apache people — Stratton says McCarthy upends stereotypical notions.

“He tried to reverse those classic binaries, with Indian as savage, Indian as predator, Indian as wolf. I tried to show how McCarthy starts out drawing from that stereotype, but eventually the Anglos become the wolves. … There are no noble savages. There are no wise elders,” he says. “It’s a struggle over North America, and he gives us a small window into how that took place.”

Stratton commends DU for its commitment to native literature. “Many universities don’t even have courses in native studies,” he says. But its importance can’t be overemphasized.

“It goes beyond diversity. It goes back to American history — a part that few people know very much about.”

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