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Teaching Native American Literature at Osaka University

Updated on November 29, 2016
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Richard F. Fleck was an exchange professor at Osaka University in Japan where he lived for one year with his family and climbed Mount Fuji.

Lakota Woman

Lakota Woman
Lakota Woman
The Way to Rainy Mountain
The Way to Rainy Mountain
The Man to Send Rain Clouds
The Man to Send Rain Clouds
Smoke Signals
Smoke Signals

Teaching Native American Literature Abroad

In 1981 I took the challenge of being the University of Wyoming's first exchange professor to teach in Japan at Osaka University for one full year. My whole family went with me and my children were enrolled at the Canadian Academy in Kobe. Our home was in Nigawa Takarazuka-shi halfway between Osaka and Kobe on a high hill overlooking the Inland Sea of Japan and the Rokko Mountains.

I taught many different courses on American culture, but the one I remember most was Contemporary Native American Literature. Because English was a foreign language to all my students at Osaka Daigaku, I made the reading list a good bit shorter than I would have in Laramie, Wyoming. My students read with care N.Scott Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain (1968) and The Man to Send Rain Clouds (1974) edited by Kenneth Rosen and is a collection of contemporary short stories. Of course I gave many background lectures in the beginning on tribal cultures of America, their relationship to the land, the importance of oral traditions, and a synopsis of some key aspects of tribal religions.

As the students read and discussed The Way to Rainy Mountain they begin to appreciate the intricate relationship of the Kiowa people to the land from Montana down to Oklahoma. This relationship is not only mystical but is also deeply mythological. The students greatly enjoyed the importance of the sun and moon to the Kiowa people as it reminded them of their own connectedness to these heavenly bodies in Japanese history, legend and myth. One Japanese critic, Hideko Takigawa who translated this work in 1976 writes, "Their ethical sensibility toward all lives other than theirs is what lies behind their thinking and behavior." The students said as much in noting the closeness of Kiowas to their horses not to mention to ancient dogs, to spiders, to buffalo (bison), and to birds.

They saw similar themes in The Man to Send Rain Clouds. A story within the collection by the same title shows the deep respect the Pueblo people have for their elders (A traditional value in Japanese culture). The protagonist of this story, an old sheepherder, dies up in the mountains. It is up to the younger men to give him a proper burial and to do it with corn pollen and ancient prayers for his spirit to send rain clouds to parched New Mexico for corn crops to grow.

They appreciated some of the stories such as "Kaiser and the War" for their depection of cultural clashes between the Indian and the white man, whom the Indians called "American." Who are the Americans?, one student asked. The Pueblo people of this story know their land and no every secretive little canyon and mesa top in ways the city sherif's department did not. My students wondered why authorities would won't to track down Kaiser (a mentally handicapped boy) to draft him into the army to fight in World War II. Many students wanted to know of more books to read after the class was over.

An Italian Postscript

In 2005 I lectured at the University of Bologna as a "Senior Fellow" to that institution. My students knew English quite well and their reading list was a good bit longer than in Japan. In addition to reading my own work, Critical Perspectives on Native American Fiction (1993), they read for class Louise Erdrich's Antelope Wife, James Welch's Winter in the Blood as well as the titles used in Japan. Some read outside of class Lakota Woman about Wounded Knee 1973 when people of different tribes including the Lakota Nation seized four square miles of territory in South Dakota and flew their own flag of the colors of the six sacred directions in order to protest policies of the Nixon administration that were hurtful toward tribal peoples.

Some of my students were on exchange from the University of Heidleberg, Germany who had read all of Erdrich's novels auf Deutsch. They mentioned to me that one of the reasons German people are enticed with American Indian cultures is because their treatment by the U.S. Government gives them a sense of reprieve over guilt feelings about the Nazi regime. My German, Italian and Spanish students were also appreciate of American tribal relationships with their land and with their ancestors through living oral traditions. Perhaps the most telling thing about foreign reaction to Native American literature is the tremendous amount of it that has been translated into all major European languages and Japanese.

To finish my Bologna class I showed two modern movies Thunderheart and Smoke Signals. THe first film is about a part-Indian FBI agent who comes to investigate crime on the Pine Ridge Reservation but who ultimately finds that the crime is being committed against the Lakota people by uranium mining interests. The second film (completely native-directed, native acted and based on Native American novelist Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven, 1993) is a sad but humorous depiction of two Coeur d'Alene Indians traveling to Arizona to get ashes of the protagonist's father. A humorous line at the beginning of the movie that got great laughter from the Italian audience was a reservation radio broadcaster's greeting to listeners "It's a beautiful day here at the Coeur d'Alene Reservation and a great day to be aboriginal." All the students remarked on similar themes found in literature that were in the movies: cultural clash, reverence for land and for ancestors and for rich, mythic oral traditions.

There are numerous translations in Japanese of major Native American books including Black Elk Speaks, House Made of Dawn, Ceremony and others.

Readers of this hub may be interested in my new hub Contemporary Native American Fiction: Stream of consciousness

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© 2010 Richard Francis Fleck


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    • juneaukid profile image

      Richard Francis Fleck 2 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      Good luck!

    • profile image

      Harry 7 years ago

      I'm thinking of doing this in the summer, good hub!

    • juneaukid profile image

      Richard Francis Fleck 7 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      Dear May, Yes, teaching abroad can be fascinating. As you know, my Japanese exchange position was as a direct result of a U Wyoming/Osaka University Exchange and I was fortunate enough to be chosen as the first exchange professor. The University of Bologna was a bit of luck and happenstance. I met the late director of international exchange at a dinner party in Boulder and after talking a while she informed me that Bologna was in need of a Native Americanist for one semester. So I jumped on it with my application and bibliography of published research. Unfortunately, this international exchange is now limited to Denver University faculty and Bologna University faculty.

      Why not try a young Fulbright Scholars exchange through Washington, D.C.?

    • profile image

      May_ 7 years ago

      Hi-- I found this post extremely inspirational and encouraging! I'm currently working on my Ph.D in 19th century American Literature and I've been feeling a little bit landlocked and tied down by my career choice. I have friends studying international business and working abroad, and I would really like to be out seeing the world. I'd love to learn more about opportunities for professors working abroad.

      How did you go about getting the job in Italy? I realize the one in Japan was through University of Wyoming, but I'm curious about Italy because I've always dreamed of living and working in Europe.

      Also, was it necessary for you to be fluent in either Italian or Japanese when you were teaching abroad?

      I would love to work in Spain in particular, and can get by conversationally with Spanish, but it would never be enough to warrant doing real, serious academic work in Spanish, so my students would need to be English speakers. In spite of the language barrier, I would love to find a way to work abroad either in Europe, South America or Asia.

      Any advice would be greatly appreciated in this time where I am feeling a bit landlocked by my career choice.

      Thank you.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 8 years ago from London, UK

      Thank you for a great hub and the Native Amicans are so fascinating in their way of thinking and living.

    • dohn121 profile image

      dohn121 8 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

      This was amazing to read as I learned more about you, notably your teaching background which brought you over to Japan. I am familiar with N. Scott Momaday but have not read "The Way to Rainy Mountain" yet, but would like to soon. One of my first classes as a freshman in college was Native American Literature which I thoroughly enjoyed. I became fascinated with Native American cultures in general as a result of it. Thanks so much for sharing a bit of your life as always.

    • juneaukid profile image

      Richard Francis Fleck 8 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      Thanks Pamela99. I guess I've been lucky to have taught in Japan and Italy and to have spent 6 months in Ireland on a research sabbatical.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 8 years ago from United States

      It sounds like you have had a very interesting career. Good hub.