University of Minnesota
Voices From the Gaps

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Rayna D. Green

she died, dressed to kill
leaving a ragtime, gospel tune
and stories no books
but hearts could hold

dancing across that summer porch
dancing the stories
that made us dream over her
shattered breath

          — "Palace Dancer, Dancing at Last"

Biography / Criticism

Rayna Green was born in 1942 in Dallas, Texas. She spent much of her childhood living in Oklahoma. Her mother is a descendant of the German settlers from Fredericksburg and Kerrville, Texas, and her father is of Cherokee descent. Her mother's family raised her; however, she developed an Indian sense of respect for life due to her paternal grandmother (a member of the Bushyhead family of Lost City). Her grandmother taught her the music, oral, and cultural traditions of the Cherokee nation.

Green received her B.A. in American Literature from Southern Methodist University in 1963. She began her teaching career in the mid 1960's, volunteering for the Peace Corps as a history instructor and library director for the Teacher Training School in Harar, Ethiopia. Green also received her M.A in American Literature from Southern Methodist University in 1966. In 1973, Green earned her Ph.D. in American Studies from Indiana University, becoming the first American Indian in the nation to receive a Ph.D. in Folklore.

In 1975, she authored two articles. The article titled "Traits of Indian Character: The 'Indian Anecdote' in American Vernacular Tradition" examines "the Indian -- misnamed, misunderstood, and mistreated from the time of initial contact with whites," by discussing anecdotes concerning thematic Indian characteristics throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The second article, titled "The Pocahontas Perplex," traces the historical trajectory of English culture and the symbolic Indian Princess, "an iconographic representative of the Americas. "

According to Green, from the time of early European colonization, the Indian woman was seen by Europeans as "exotic, powerful, dangerous, and beautiful -- and as a representative of American liberty and European classical virtue translated into New World terms. " Her value is determined by her relationships with men, and she often finds herself negotiating in terms of her dichotomous definitions.

"Because her image is so tied up with abstract virtue -- indeed, with America -- she must remain the Mother Goddess-Queen. But acting as a real female, she must be a partner and lover of Indian men, a mother to Indian children, and an object of lust for white men. " Green argues that "if we explore the meaning of Native American lives outside the boundaries of the stories, songs, and pictures given to us in tradition, we will find a more humane truth. " She calls for Indian women to re-define themselves "apart from. . . males, red or white. "

During her teaching career, Green has taught English, Social Sciences, American Studies, Folklore, and Native American Studies courses at institutions including the University of Arkansas, the University of Maryland, Yale University, George Washington University, and Dartmouth College. As a professional writer, Green has held numerous editorial positions. She has worked for a folklore newsletter, a literary publication, and in the Book Review department of the Journal of American Folklore. During this time, Green wrote the article titled, "The Tribe Called Wannabee: Playing Indian in America and Europe," in which she coins and examines the term "Playing Indian" as "one of the oldest and most pervasive form(s) of American cultural expression. "

Green states that for those who are not Indian, this performance depends upon the "physical and psychological removal, even the death, of real Indians. " Non-Indians will play Indian roles in the guise of good humor in order to control the meaning of what it is to be Indian (an example of this are Thanksgiving plays in schools). She concludes that although she may not have the answers to deconstruct this complex phenomenon, it proves detrimental to all Indians' identity within American culture and, therefore, must be rewritten by Indians themselves.

In That's What She Said, a collection of Native women's creative writing she edited, Green embraces the identity and experience of the Native woman. She writes, "For people out on the edge, out on the road, identity is a matter of will, a matter of choice, a face to be shaped in a ceremonial act. " Green also contributes to the poetry and fiction sections of the book. Her poems resonate with the joys and pains, the strength and courage, the dislocation and unification of the Native women's experience. Green's writings encompass the ceremonial as well as the everyday, and celebrate the stories/histories of Native women "even when it is not pretty. . . you know it's worth telling. "

Her first poem in the collection, "Mexico City Hand Game", is a direct commentary on the impact of imperialism and the poverty that results from it. Subsequent poems: "When I Cut My Hair" and "Old Indian Trick," deal directly with the internal struggle of Native women in preserving culture. In these poems, Green writes about the poverty that grips the community of street vendors in Mexico. Her poems position readers as outsiders, as if she did not want the readers to identify with the vendors' plight, but rather act as voyeurs, or tourists.

The story, "Nanye (Nancy Ward), the Last Beloved of the Cherokees, 1738-1822," serves to preserve the history of an often forgotten Native woman who was a prominent leader among Cherokee women. It insinuates the transformation of the Cherokee nation into a patriarchal society, caused the resulting dispossession of women. It is a tale of empowerment for Cherokee women through the retelling of Nanye's story, in which she takes revenge, further allowing the articulation of her real story.

"Another Dying Chieftain" is a contemporary piece that speaks about assimilation and the dislocation of Native women from Native men, the separation of the People from themselves, and the longing to return to relationships of mutual respect. "Old Indian Trick" is an interesting articulation of the power of the Native woman's silence.

Her poetry and other writings express the internal and external struggles of Native women resisting patriarchy rooted in white imperialism and adopted by Native men. Furthermore, her writings are not a lamentation or a passive commentary, but rather an example of how writing can be a powerful form of social critique. She steers the discourse away from a victim mentality by celebrating the powerful ways in which women resist. Green does this by reclaiming and redefining women's roles in traditional matrifocal Native cultures.

In addition to her creative work, Rayna Green has worked in the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, and for the improvement of tribal health, education and economic development for the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. She has received many civic awards, including the prestigious Jessie Bernard Wise Women Award, as a result of her dedication to the community. In addition, Green has held fellowships from the Ford Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution.

She is currently the curator of the American Indian Program for the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution. This is only a short list of Green's many accomplishments. Even though Green has garnered myriad achievements throughout her life, she still makes time for her 18-pound West Highland Terrier. Green's life dream is to raise Westies on "Wayna's Westie Wanch," to be the head chef at Bubba Sue's Bar and Grill, and to be the head writer for "Indian Saturday Night Live. "

Selected Bibliography

Works by the Author

Academic Articles


Audio Recordings

Documentary Films

Works about the Author

Related Links

American Indian Program - Smithsonian Institute
Rayna Green is the director of the American Indian Program at the Smithsonian Institute. This site is her staff home page there.

Native American Authors Project: Rayna Green
This page gives a brief biography and links to information about some of Rayna Green's works.

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This page was researched and submitted by Ethnic Studies 147 (Women of Color in the U.S. ), taught by Professor Tiya Miles at the University of California, Berkeley, on 6/20/01.