Monday, August 18, 2008

Teaching Van Camp's THE LESSER BLESSED

If you teach literature in high school, or if you teach Native lit in a college or university, consider teaching Richard Van Camp's The Lesser Blessed. Readers of this site know I've written several times about Van Camp's work. Today, I direct you to an article called "I Liked It So Much I E-mailed Him and Told Him: Teaching the Lesser Blessed at the University of California." The author is Jane Haladay, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Pembroke. Here's the first paragraphs. To read the entire article, click on the title (it is hyperlinked) and scroll down to page 66. The article is from the journal, Studies in American Indian Literatures. At the end of her article, Haladay includes an appendix she called "Presentation Guidelines for Making a Strong Presentation."

"I Liked It So Much I E-mailed Him and Told Him"Teaching The Lesser Blessed at the University of California


Class ends like a scene from the novel itself. "Okay, when we meet next week we'll be into our second novel, Richard Van Camp's The Lesser Blessed," I announce.

From the back corner of the room Luana, a Tongan student, is scrutinizing Van Camp's moody book flap photo. "He's hot!" she proclaims. The class -- seventeen women and three men -- laughs. "

Yeah," I concede, "he's a good looking man." I pause. "But he looks even better in person." They perk up, watching me in anticipation. "He's a bit young for me, though," I finally say. More laughter.

"Do you know him?" Luana asks.

"Yes, I met him at a conference last fall. If you ever get a chance to hear him read his stuff, go! He's an incredible storyteller."

"Where's he at again?" Luana asks.

"Vancouver," I tell her.

"Vancouver . . . ," she echoes dreamily.

"Is that in Washington?" somebody else asks.

"It's in Canada," Luana answers.

"I guess you could transfer up there," I say to Luana, "but I hear it gets pretty cold." Not long after this, Luana dropped my class with no explanation. I still wonder if she transferred.

This essay is just one story in the ongoing conversation of how to approach teaching indigenous literatures in colonial educational {67} institutions. My pedagogy stresses sharing an interactive process of reading and reflection with my students, what black feminist scholar bell hooks terms "engaged pedagogy" in her book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Hooks's description of engaged pedagogy insists that discomfort, confusion, pleasure, risk-taking, and revelation are not only acceptable but are necessary in the process of acquiring knowledge. While all ethical educators encourage their students to view texts as the ultimate authorities about their own stories' meanings, the complex cultural content of Native texts pushes me and my students even further in recognizing that none of us, sometimes not even the authors themselves, may fully understand what and how the stories "mean" -- and that their meanings are multiple. Through sharing my experiences teaching Richard Van Camp's The Lesser Blessed, I hope to reveal the power of this particular text and the way its effects on students who willingly engage it can create a collaborative learning atmosphere that is transformative. This environment requires me to relinquish primary authority (not always easy) to open a space for student vulnerability and voice, while simultaneously remaining an active moderator and guide shaping the direction of the class. In such a space, students, author, and educator share power in the discussion and comprehension of culture and story.

Students' and my own interactions with the novel's author, Richard Van Camp, a member of the Tlicho, or Dogrib, Nation, have become another strand braided into the collaborative process of teaching The Lesser Blessed.1 I am sharing these interwoven stories to outline the possible ways in which both educators and authors may interact with and be inspired by the "consumers" of their textual productions, those hungry readers of and listeners to their stories. The Lesser Blessed is now taught in only a smattering of U.S. and Canadian high schools, colleges, and universities, and to date there is a dearth of literary criticism on the novel.2 It is my hope that this essay may add to a growing body of discussion around this vital text and encourage other educators to include it in their aboriginal/ Native and other literature curricula.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The first book we read in Native American Children’s Literature was, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie. The book grasped my attention from line one. I read the entire book within a day! Alexie had a great way of portraying life on the reservation, and showing how one particular boy, Junior, had to cope with leaving his Native school to go to a “white school.” The book wowed me with its funny cartoons, and a middle school boy’s tone of voice. By reading this book, I came to understand more of what life is like in a modern day sense on a reservation. Everyone on the reservation is very close; the book uses the phrase that everyone knows everyone! Everyone knows your mother’s name, father’s name, cat’s name, etc. I found it very interesting that Junior felt as if he had seen 100 deaths in his lifetime, and most all were due to alcoholism. I did not understand the real affects of alcohol on the Native American community until reading this book. I was intrigued by Alexie’s way of describing Junior’s family, and the friends of the family. Everyone in his family supported him for getting off the reservation. We have watched many videos in class, and one thing that popped out in “When Our Hands are Tied” was the fact that most young people do want to and in most cases have to get off the reservation to get a job, make money, and do better for themselves. Alexie shows Junior wanting to do just that. Overall the book was a success, and I was pleased with the book from the start until the end. I cannot wait to read more of Alexie’s works, and I am anxious to understand more about the Native American communities.