A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff started teaching a composition class for Native Americans at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the fall of 1972, at a time when Indians were demanding greater self-determination along with better government services. Some of her students had grown up on reservations and were grounded in traditional tribal culture, while the students who’d grown up in Chicago knew little about their heritage. Some were older and uncomfortable with younger students. Many had trouble keeping up in class.
“If a student is very traditional it’s unlikely that that person will come and talk to the teacher about what their problem is,” says Ruoff. “They’ll just stop coming. If you get a traditional Indian student in a class that’s very verbal, it’s not likely that the student is going to participate. In traditional Indian society you don’t talk unless you are recognized as having the authority to speak by the group. It’s not considered good manners.”
Ruoff tried to get the students to be less inhibited by having them work in small groups. She also tried to inspire them by giving them books by Native Americans to read–something few of the students had ever done. Among the works were obscure books she’d discovered at the Newberry Library, including Charles Eastman’s 1916 autobiography, From the Deep Woods to Civilization, and Gertrude Bonnin’s 1921 collection of short stories, essays, and autobiographical pieces, American Indian Stories. Ruoff remembers that the students were particularly struck by Bonnin’s descriptions of being at a boarding school run by white missionaries: “That would bring memories of what their parents and grandparents told them.”
Ruoff’s tactics worked. The students eagerly debated the issues they encountered in the books–assimilation, Indian rights, the causes of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre. But Ruoff got hooked too, and for the past 31 years she’s been researching Native American literature. She’s helped make it an established academic discipline. Her 1990 American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography is now a standard reference text, and she’s edited or coedited several previously out-of-print 19th- and early-20th-century texts by Native Americans.
After retiring from UIC in 1995, Ruoff served a year as interim director of the Newberry’s D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian History. Last December the Modern Language Association gave her a lifetime achievement award, and two months ago, at the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers & Storytellers conference in Lawrence, Kansas, she was given an award for editing the American Indian Lives series–29 volumes of biographies and autobiographies, most written for the series. Two years ago she, along with U. of I. history professor Frederick Hoxie and Newberry vice president James Grossman, set up a Native American graduate program at the library to train students in Native American anthropology, history, literature, and education.
Now 73 and a professor emerita, Ruoff is preparing the second edition of American Indian Literatures. Because interest in books by Native Americans has increased dramatically over the past decade, she has a lot more material to include, and the new edition will probably be twice as big as the first. “Secretly,” she jokes, “I wish that everybody would quit publishing for a few years so I can get this finished.”
Ruoff’s father, Oscar Brown, left Charleston, Illinois, in 1909 to live on an 80-acre homestead in western North Dakota. There he became friends with many of the Indians who lived on the nearby Fort Berthold reservation; he also organized a semiprofessional team of Native American baseball players. He returned home in 1913 and five years later married Laura Witters, an elementary school teacher who was forced to resign because only single women were allowed to teach. In 1928 the couple moved to Harvey, where Ruoff was born in 1930.
Ruoff read constantly as a child. In high school she studied German and Latin, and hoped to teach English in Germany. After graduating in 1948, she took a job checking orders at a publishing house, where she worked with three World War II veterans. Two years later she married one of them, a Menominee named Milford Prasher. During their 14-year marriage she learned a lot about Native Americans. “You can’t be involved with an Indian family without being aware of what the issues are,” she says. “At the time that we were married one of the things affecting the Menominee was termination, when the government persuaded them to sign off so that they wouldn’t be a federally recognized tribe anymore. There was a whole push for that back in the 1950s–they were trying to persuade Indians to get out of the reservation system.”
She saw firsthand the consequences of that policy. “Before termination the Menominee had a very profitable sawmill,” she says. “I remember that they wanted to put more money into that sawmill before termination. In order to do that, they would have to get the approval of the government to spend their own money–you don’t have control over your own money.” For that and other reasons, she says, “they voted for termination, which means that the land can’t be owned by the tribe anymore but it could be owned by individual Indians. That also meant that they had to pay county taxes, and a lot of people lost their land because they couldn’t afford to pay the taxes on it. It was a disaster for the Menominee tribe. They fought for close to 20 years to get that decision reversed. Now they have their federal recognition back.”
After high school Ruoff studied at the University of Illinois branch at Navy Pier, a two-year institution that eventually became UIC, then enrolled at Northwestern University. “When I applied to Northwestern in 1951,” she recalled in a 1994 speech, “my married friends discouraged me because they felt I should continue to work to save money for a house and to have a family. Even the doctor who gave me my physical examination tried to dissuade me from returning to school because he felt this would be too much for a married woman. Although Northwestern denied me a scholarship because I was married, I received one after my first quarter because of my grades.”
She graduated in 1953 with a bachelor’s in secondary English education, then went on to earn a master’s. In the late 1950s she taught at the Navy Pier branch. She and her husband also adopted two children, Stephen and Sharon, an Ojibwa. Several years later the couple divorced.
In 1966 Ruoff got her doctorate, specializing in 19th-century English romanticism, then signed on to teach at UIC. There she met Gene Ruoff, whose specialty was also English romanticism, and a year later they married. They now live in Oak Park.
Ruoff’s pursuit of American Indian literary texts led her, with the help of grants and fellowships, across the country–to Dartmouth College’s library, to the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore, Oklahoma, to the Oklahoma Historical Society, to the University of Oklahoma’s Western History Collection. She quickly saw how many texts had never been studied and how much they could reveal about Indian culture and history.
In 1977 the Modern Language Association and the National Endowment for the Humanities sponsored a two-week seminar on contemporary Native American literature in Flagstaff. That, says Ruoff, “was the real start in the development of Native American Indian literature as a field. Out of that came a book, Studies in American Indian Literature. I did a bibliographic overview. We did lesson plans. We did essays. It helped teachers teach the field. It just mushroomed from there.”
In 1991 the MLA, responding to a proposal by Ruoff, gave the field division status, acknowledging that it had become a major area of academic interest. Since then interest has only grown.
By the late 80s Ruoff had decided it was important to get some of the many long-forgotten works she’d found back into print. She started selecting books, researching their facts, writing introductions, and taking them to publishers.
One of these books was George Copway’s autobiography, The Life, History and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh, published in 1847 and revised three years later–the first autobiography written by a Native American raised in a traditional culture. She edited it with Donald Smith, a history professor at the University of Calgary who’d thought about writing a biography of Copway but changed his mind because he worried that Copway, who’d gone to prison for supposedly stealing tribal funds, had played fast and loose with the facts in his books. Ruoff spent five years checking names and places and dates, looking them up in, for example, city directories in the Newberry’s collection. Her fact checking made clear that in his book at least Copway had been careful. Moreover, she says, “it validated his narrative and showed the breadth of his contacts as he was moving from place to place giving lectures.”
Copway, an Ojibwa from Ontario, had converted to the Methodist faith when he was 12. He adopted white dress and became a missionary, preaching to other Ojibwa in Wisconsin and Minnesota. In his book, written when he was 29, he recalls a childhood of hunting bear and deer and of near starvation. The book, says Ruoff, “gives you a very good background of traditional practices and worldviews and experiences of growing up Ojibwa.” She adds, “You can link him not only to what was happening to Indians, but also to the development of Methodism and the use of native missionaries by the Methodists to convert other Ojibwa.” Copway describes his religious work and extols the virtues of Christianity, but he also condemns the British for stealing Indian land and criticizes whites for supplying alcohol to Indians and Indians for drinking it.
He also describes Ojibwa spiritual practices: “The Ojebwas, as well as many others, acknowledged that there was but one Great Spirit, who made the world; they gave him the name of good or benevolent….There was one unappeasable spirit, called Bad Spirit, Mah-je-mah-ne-doo….There were three things that were generally offered to the Bad Spirit, viz. a dog, whiskey and tobacco, a fit offering, with the exception of the poor dog.”
Two years ago Ruoff edited a new edition of Charles East-man’s autobiography, From the Deep Woods to Civilization. A Santee Sioux born in Minnesota, Eastman, like Copway, had adopted white customs after a traditional Indian childhood. His mother died only months after he was born, and when he was four his father, Jacob, went to prison for allegedly taking part in an Indian attack on white settlers. Charles was taken in by his uncle and traditional grandmother. They assumed Jacob had been executed, and for years the three roamed the plains together. President Lincoln pardoned Jacob, and after his release he converted to Christianity and set up a farm in what’s now South Dakota. He eventually found Charles when the boy was 15, and deciding that Charles needed to adopt white ways, he sent him to a nearby mission school. Charles later attended Dartmouth and Boston Medical College, becoming one of the first Native American doctors and working as a government doctor with the Sioux in South Dakota.
Eastman painted a harsher picture of whites than Copway. Shortly after the Wounded Knee massacre, he led about 100 civilians, including 10 to 15 whites, in a search for survivors. “Fully three miles from the scene of the massacre we found the body of a woman completely covered with a blanket of snow, and from this point on we found them scattered along as they had been relentlessly hunted down and slaughtered while fleeing for their lives,” he wrote. “Some of our people discovered relatives or friends among the dead, and there was much wailing and mourning. When we reached the spot where the Indian camp had stood, among the fragments of burned tents and other belongings we saw the frozen bodies lying close together or piled upon one another.”
Like early African-American writers such as Frederick Douglass, Eastman and Copway wanted to affirm the dignity of their own culture, but they also wanted to retain the sympathy of their mainly white audiences when they described such injustices. “You don’t want to be so antagonistic,” says Ruoff, “that you turn them against you.”
She says some women Indian writers were also interested in using their novels to influence readers. “They were concerned about the domestic issues that affected women,” she says. “How does the woman exert power without coming into conflict with her husband? In the romantic-domestic kind of plot there was more emphasis on how women needed to be respected, how they needed to stand up for themselves. If a woman was married, all property belonged to the husband. It wasn’t fifty-fifty. If she left, that was it.”
One such book is S. Alice Callahan’s Wynema: A Child of the Forest, the first known novel by a Native American woman, which Ruoff edited and saw reprinted five years ago. First published in 1891 in Chicago, the preachy Wynema is the story of Genevieve Weir, a Methodist teacher, and Wynema Harjo, a Muskogee, or Creek, woman who’s Weir’s best student and close friend. Callahan, herself a Muskogee, manages to mix into the plot women’s suffrage and land-allotment issues as well as the massacre at Wounded Knee. In a key passage Genevieve cuts off a childhood friend after he chastises her for teaching Indians: “You say I have disgraced myself by laboring among the ignorant, idle, treacherous Indians; but never in all the years I have dwelt among these savages have I been subjected to the insult your words imply….Your wife, indeed! I have never promised to be such, and please heaven! I never will.”
Ruoff says these books offer a surprising portrait of their time. The author of the first book she edited, the 1913 story collection The Moccasin Maker, was E. Pauline Johnson, the daughter of a Mohawk chief and an Englishwoman. Johnson became a celebrity by giving dramatic readings of poetry and drama in Canada, the United States, and Europe, and one of the pieces she performed was “A Red Girl’s Reasoning,” which concerns a newlywed couple–Christine, daughter of an Indian woman and a white trader, and Charlie, an up-and-coming white government official. After Christine reveals at a party that her parents weren’t married by a priest, Charlie tells her she’s disgraced him, herself, and her family. “I tell you we are not married,” she responds. “Why should I recognize the rites of your nation when you do not acknowledge the rites of mine? According to your own words, my parents should have gone through your church ceremony as well as through an Indian contract; according to my words, we should go through an Indian contract as well as through a church marriage. If their union is illegal, so is ours.” She leaves him and ends up working as a seamstress. When he finds her and pleads for forgiveness, she turns him away.
“This would have been a tremendous thing to do at that time, because women didn’t leave their husbands,” Ruoff says. “Even though she loves him, she sends him away because he did not respect her as an Indian woman. She felt that true love has to be an equal sharing and an equal respect. That’s a very unusual kind of story. There is Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, but you don’t find many plays written during this period in which, because of unequal treatment or racial prejudice, the wife leaves the husband.”
Ruoff says these books are particularly important because they show Native American culture from a woman’s point of view. Most Native American texts were written by men, she says. “Most of the work done on Indian culture was done by male anthropologists. They were primarily interested in ceremonies, most of which were done by men. They didn’t do much in terms of examining the role of women other than marriage customs, death customs, or birth customs. You didn’t have many extended studies of what women’s lives were like. The Indian women writers helped to adjust that and let you have a better view of what Indian women were doing and what they could do. There were a number of life histories taken down by anthropologists, but there were far more life histories of men.”
According to Ruoff, there are innumerable Native American publications containing revelations that haven’t been studied yet. As an example, she points to the many old tribal newspapers and regional newspapers no one’s looked at in years. “There are still a lot of Indian authors we don’t know know much about,” she says. “There is still a lot of material in people’s attics in newspapers and magazines of the time. There is still a lot of work in the field to be done.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzy Poling.