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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.

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Published Works Enter the Public Domain in the United States for First Time in Twenty Years

The following is a guest post by Anandashankar Mazumdar, outreach and education specialist in the Office of Public Information and Education. New Year’s Day 2019 was a landmark for American copyright law. For the first time in twenty years, published works of expression—including books, music, and films—started moving out of copyright protection and into the […]