Giving Voice to Native American Writers
LaVonne Brown Ruoff (SESP53, GSESP54, 66) helped American Indian literature gain acceptance in academia.

LaVonne Brown Ruoff

Photo by Esther Chou

When A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff (SESP53, GSESP54, 66) started teaching Native American literature 30 years ago, many people didn’t believe such literature existed. “There wasn’t much in circulation,” recalls Ruoff, professor emerita of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “When I was teaching, you didn’t just run down to the bookstore [and find it].”

Instead of the bookstore, Ruoff ventured to the Newberry Library in Chicago to look for primary sources. She began to create a foundation for the study of Native American literature, which led to the publication in 1990 of American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review and Selected Bibliography (Modern Language Association of America). Surveying oral and written literatures, Ruoff’s book analyzes works by such early authors as William Apes (Pequot), George Copway (Ojibwe) and Sarah Winnemucca (Paiute), as well those of such contemporary authors as N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), James Welch (Blackfeet/Gros Ventre), Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna), Gerald Vizenor (Ojibwe) and Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Chippewa).

From the 19th century through the 1960s, Ruoff says, native authors primarily published autobiographies, which usually consisted of a description of the origin of the author’s people, an overview of the tribe’s history and finally a section about the author’s personal experience. Ruoff says the authors saw themselves as members of families, clans and nations — tribes that often resisted their loss of sovereignty.

American Indian Literatures helped Native American literature gain acceptance and prestige, and Ruoff received the Lifetime Scholarly Achievement Award of the Modern Language Association (MLA) in December 2002.

At Northwestern, Ruoff had studied 19th-century British romantic literature. But her personal experience drew her toward Native American literature. Her former husband was Menominee. Their adopted daughter, Sharon, was Ojibwe. They also adopted a son, Stephen.

“To me [studying Native American literature] was a natural outgrowth of those relationships,” says Ruoff, who is a member of the executive council of the MLA. “And many people studied romantic literature, but very few studied Native American literature. There was a need. You can’t really say that you have a balanced curriculum in American studies and literature without courses in Native American literature. If you don’t, you are ignoring the people who were here first.”

In the mid-1970s Ruoff started developing curriculum for a Native American studies program at UIC. This effort paralleled developments in the study of African American, Asian American and Chicano literatures. Because of the growing acceptance of Native American literature, Ruoff was able to successfully petition the MLA for a Native American discussion group and division.

Ruoff retired from UIC in 1994 and is working on a second edition of American Indian Literatures. She is also the general editor for the 29-volume University of Nebraska Press American Indian Lives Series, which includes new and reprinted biographies.

She and her husband, Gene Ruoff, a semi-retired English professor and special assistant to the chancellor at UIC, live in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park in a meticulously restored Victorian house that won the 1997 Oak Park Historical Preservation Award for interior restoration.

— Susan Daker (J04)


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