MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

November 21, 2012

Native author takes on Pilgrim narrative

Area woman’s book a critical look at ‘Of Plimoth Plantation’

By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer

— Thanksgiving traditions consist of a cornucopia of early American influences, the origins of which vary from one culture to another.

Some trace those traditions to the Pilgrims’ celebration of a bountiful harvest after enduring a deadly voyage across the Atlantic Ocean and an even deadlier first year after settling in Plymouth, Mass.

Others trace the famed fall feast of 1621 to the charity of Wampanoag tribal members who taught the European colonists how to survive in the land the tribe had inhabited hundreds of years.  

These differing accounts of the same event reveal how perceptions change from one culture to another. An award-winning book written by Wagoner author Betty Booth Donohue further demonstrates this phenomenon. A noted literary critic, Donohue, who is of Cherokee descent, provides a critical examination of William Bradford’s “Of Plimoth Plantation.”

Bradford’s book consists of his journal entries that document the Pilgrims’ flight from religious persecution in England to the separatists’ eventual settlement in North America. “Of Plimoth Plantation,” which also chronicles the cultural exchange between the Pilgrims and their indigenous neighbors, is considered one of the first examples of early American literature.

Donohue, in “Bradford’s Indian Book: Being the True Roote & Rise of American Letters as Revealed by the Native Text Embedded in Of Plimoth Plantation,” points out instances where Native American traditions influenced the entries found in Bradford’s journal. Donohue argues those influences arise from the oral traditions of America’s indigenous population and is prevalent in American literature and modern culture.

“The premise (of the book) is Bradford was influenced by the Indians, but he was unaware of it — you can live with a group of people and pick up their customs and not realize it,” Donohue said. “He (Bradford) did it, but he did it unconsciously.”

In support of her thesis, Donohue describes the common elements found throughout the oral traditions of Native Americans. She then cites entries in Bradford’s book where those traditions are evident in his writing.

“In Indian literature, you have layers of meaning — you have a story within a story inside a story — in the works arising from the oral tradition,” said Donohue, whose book was recognized recently by the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers as the best work in history for 2012. “There is always one story in the narrative level that has to do with the ancient gods, another level that will have to do with the earth, another level about animals, and then there will be a level about tricksters.”

Donohue said the literary style she described cannot be found in British literature, but it has become prevalent throughout American literature. That tradition, Donohue said, began with Bradford’s account of the Pilgrims’ existence after they left England.

“The basic point I make is if an Indian reads it, he picks up on this narrative that reflects the oral traditions of Native Americans,” Donohue said. “When a white person does, they don’t see it, but once it is pointed out it becomes apparent.”

Donohue said her book, which was published about a year ago by the University of Florida Press, began 20 years ago when she was completing the doctoral program at the University of California at Los Angeles. Hilary E. Wyss, a professor at Auburn University, said Donohue’s book “makes a sophisticated and compelling claim for the way Indian influences permeate this Puritan text.”

“It was hard to get it published because it was outside the established paradigm,” Donohue said of her thesis and book, the first work of American literary criticism written partly in a Native American language. “Another scholar called the publisher and suggested they read it. I sent the entire manuscript ... wrapped it in buckskin, adorned it with feathers, and placed a piece of wampum and cedar inside the box — I shocked them into reading it.”

Once published, Donohue’s work was recognized by Wordcraft Circle, an organization established 20 years ago to “ensure the voices of Native American and indigenous writers and storytellers ... are heard throughout the world.”

Donohue recently completed the opening chapter on the oral tradition for the next volume of the Cambridge History of American Poetry, which will be published in 2014. She is working on a book about Indian readings of captivity narratives, a genre popular in the 18th and 19th centuries that included stories of those who were held by captors they viewed as hostile or uncivilized.

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.