DENTON (UNT), Texas — Centuries of Native American literature portraying their community’s awareness and understanding of gun violence could offer both a parallel to modern discussions and an alternative perspective, according to one University of North Texas faculty researcher.
Angie Calcaterra, associate professor in the Department of English, said that many of the discussions in literature from the 17th through 19th centuries speak to modern-day conversations about gun violence. She has been studying narratives of gun violence from early American literature to the present, especially focused on perspectives of Indigenous people and their stories about weapons, which predate white American settlement and the U.S. Constitution’s second amendment giving the right to bear arms.
“What surprised me is that Native American authors such as Charles Alexander Eastman, who was Dakota Sioux, and Eli Parker, who was Seneca, talked about mass shootings, and raised similar concerns to those we have now,” Calcaterra said. “The ways they thought about gun violence and the ways they talked about shootings and their experiences of this violence resonate powerfully with the ways we talk about gun violence today.”
In addition to literature, her research looks at Native American ledger art — artistic portrayals of battle painted or drawn on paper or cloth — that tell stories about guns in relation to both state power and individual acts of warriors. The ledger art includes complex depictions of weapons technologies, suggesting native people were thinking about not only the power of guns as a tool of resistance, but also the ways that gun violence can quickly become dangerous.
Calcaterra’s research was inspired by a class she taught about the 18th century novel Edgar Huntly in Fall 2017, when the Las Vegas concert shooting occurred. The book has heavy themes of gun violence, which enabled students to examine how guns shape human action in the book and what that said about how early Americans viewed gun violence.
The book centers on a sleepwalking frontiersman who commits acts of violence against Native Americans while asleep.
“Native authors and intellectuals have been talking about the impact of guns for a long time. It's a consistent commentary,” she said. “The current polarized conversation around guns is just so ineffectual. Gun violence occurs every single day in this country. We need to get a better grasp on the history of gun violence in this country and what's been erased from that history in order to have a more fruitful conversation about what we do about the problems now.”
She said her students often express surprise that while they learned in school about the Trail of Tears and a little about American Colonialism, they rarely were taught more about the Native American experience.
“I think everyone in America should have a much better understanding of the ways that Native American communities and nations have been central to conversations in this country about rights and responsibilities and violence and war for a long time,” she said. “People often think of native peoples as marginal ... because they've been pushed onto reservations and removed and relocated for centuries. But they're not marginal, they’re central to American identity and the ways we live in this land.”