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Celebrating the Firsts: First Published Novel by a Native American Woman

This year, we are celebrating Native American Heritage Month and Native American Heritage Day with a blog series called Celebrating the Firsts: Shining a Light on Trailblazing Artwork by Native Artists. In this four-part series, we are recognizing five indigenous creators who have participated in our copyright system and enriched our culture. Join us on a journey of exploring the following dynamic works and the Native American authors behind them: Wynema: A Child of the Forest by S. Alice Callahan (1891), I See Red: Target by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (1992), Tribal Force by Jon Proudstar (writer) and Ryan Huna Smith (artist) (1996), and House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday (1968).

Today’s blog features the novel Wynema: A Child of the Forest, which was authored by Muscogee Creek Native American writer and teacher S. Alice Callahan. Published in 1891, the romantic piece of literature is credited as the first novel written by a Native American woman.1

Callahan was a Muscogee Creek and Irish American author born on January 1, 1868, to parents Samuel Benton Callahan and Sarah Elizabeth Thornberg Callahan. Callahan followed her father’s footsteps and pursued a career in academia. Over the course of her career, Callahan taught at several different institutions including Wealaka Mission Boarding School, where her father served as superintendent, and Harrell International Institute. Callahan had aspirations of starting her own school; however, in 1893, she contracted pleurisy and passed away shortly after in 1894. Her legacy lives on through Wynema: A Child of the Forest. (Oxford Biographies)

The historic novel tells the story of a young Muscogee Creek girl who becomes a teacher and starts a school. Callahan wrote it when she was twenty-three years old, and according to Britannica, “it was a ‘reform novel’ intended for a white audience, illustrating the wrongs that had been done to American Indians.” After its creation, the novel’s text was lost and not discovered until 1992. (Oxford Biographies) Having entered the public domain due to the expiration of its original term, Wynema: A Child of the Forest was edited by A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff in 1996, and the revised work was registered with the Copyright Office as a “derivative work” in 1997. To learn more about derivative works, visit Copyright Registration for Derivative Works (Circular 14).

Copyright registration record for Wynema.

In addition to editing Wynema: A Child of the Forest, Ruoff, a scholar of Native American literature, also wrote a new introduction for the novel. Ruoff is known for her analysis of several well-known works, including literature written by N. Scott Momaday (one of the creators featured in this series). (Northwestern)

As we celebrate Native American Heritage Month this year, we hope this series celebrating “firsts” will help broaden our collective understanding of what the copyright system encompasses and how to participate in it. Earlier this year, the Copyright Office published its 2022–2026 Strategic Plan, which sets out the Office’s key strategic goals; first among them is copyright for all. This means working to make the copyright system as understandable and accessible to as many members of the public as possible, including individuals and small entities as well as historically underserved communities. We are committed to this goal and are excited to see how Native American artists continue to contribute to copyright in the years to come.

1Wynema: A Child of the Forest is widely believed to be the first novel written by a Native American woman.

9 Comments

  1. Shemaiah French
    November 21, 2022 at 11:21 am

    Wow! Everything that is hidden will be brought to light. I am so glad that Wynema: A Child of the Forest was able to found and revised. Looking forward to reading it.

  2. Carol Anne
    November 21, 2022 at 7:25 pm

    What a wonderful blog Ashley. Very informative. Looking forward to reading the entire series!!!! Keep them coming.

  3. Tulu Moore
    November 22, 2022 at 7:44 am

    Ashley, I really enjoyed reading your Blog. Lots of good information. Thank you for posting.

  4. Sean
    November 22, 2022 at 12:52 pm

    Very insightful. Thanks Ashley for your written and in-depth blogs. This blog was very informative and in tandem with the quality of your previous ones. Keep on keeping on!

  5. Caroline
    November 22, 2022 at 10:24 pm

    I love this Ashley. Celebrating “firsts” ……. Looking forward to reading rest of the series. Thank you for your post.

  6. Briana
    November 24, 2022 at 9:02 pm

    Very informative blog! Looking forward to reading and learning more as this series continues.

  7. Rachel
    November 26, 2022 at 12:52 pm

    Very well written. Thank you for shedding light on a topic that is not well known to a large majority of people. Now I want to read Wynema!

  8. Janice Maria
    November 27, 2022 at 7:03 am

    Dear Ashley! This blog really resonated with me as I studied about the American Indians a little while ago and the wrongs they endured. Your blog was very insightful and I enjoyed reading it. Good stuff
    Ashley! Keep them coming and I’m looking forward to your next posting!

  9. Gentry
    December 2, 2022 at 6:16 pm

    Very informative. Thank you for sharing.

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