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"That the People Might Live"

Loss and Renewal in Native American Elegy

The word "elegy" comes from the Ancient Greek elogos, meaning a mournful poem or song, in particular, a song of grief in response to loss. Because mourning and memorialization are so deeply embedded in the human condition, all human societies have developed means for lamenting the dead, and, in "That the People Might Live" Arnold Krupat surveys the traditions of Native American elegiac expression over several centuries.

Krupat covers a variety of oral performances of loss and renewal, including the Condolence Rites of the Iroquois and the memorial ceremony of the Tlingit people known as koo'eex, examining as well a number of Ghost Dance songs, which have been reinterpreted in culturally specific ways by many different tribal nations. Krupat treats elegiac "farewell" speeches of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in considerable detail, and comments on retrospective autobiographies by Black Hawk and Black Elk.

Among contemporary Native writers, he looks at elegiac work by Linda Hogan, N. Scott Momaday, Gerald Vizenor, Sherman Alexie, Maurice Kenny, and Ralph Salisbury, among others. Despite differences of language and culture, he finds that death and loss are consistently felt by Native peoples both personally and socially: someone who had contributed to the People's well-being was now gone. Native American elegiac expression offered mourners consolation so that they might overcome their grief and renew their will to sustain communal life.

Author Information


Arnold Krupat is Professor of Literature at Sarah Lawrence College. He is the author of many books, including All that Remains: Varieties of Indigenous Expression and Red Matters: Native American Studies.


"Assessing the nature of elegy in Native American oral and written expression, Krupat looks at the way such elegiac material develops a sense of healing not through a focus on the loss of an individual but by contributing to a continuance of the community, the people.... This is a careful, revealing, and engaging contribution to the historical examination of oral and written expression of Native American experience."

Sean Kicummah Teuton, University of Wisconsin–Madison, author of Red Land, Red Power: Grounding Knowledge in the American Indian Novel:

"'That the People Might Live' retools with precision a troubling genre in Indigenous literature so that the elegy may continue to heal and renew originary nations. Searching and compassionate, Arnold Krupat leads us through the absorbing historical and cultural moments that called and continue to call for the elegiac voice, tempering his fine literary analysis of Indigenous loss with an eye to a defiant Indigenous presence."

Chris Lalonde:

"To his credit, and to our good fortune, Krupat opted to resist the temptation to hold that there was no such thing as Native American elegy, and, critically, he opted to recognize crucialdifferences between elegies first spoken and later written by Native Americans and those penned by European and Euro-American writers..Readers in general will recognize that Krupat, a scholar who has devoted his academic life to the study of Native American literatures, has produced a book both careful and caring, a book that will reward thoughtful attention."

Ralph Salisbury, author of Light from a Bullet Hole, poems new and selected:

"Examining Native American ceremony and literature as elegy, Arnold Krupat's 'That the People Might Live' significantly extends his lifetime of study, a study which places the best of Native American literature where it belongs, with the best of so-called mainstream American literature. The media-propagandized U.S. may be doomed to self-inflicted destruction, but something noble, human and inspiring will survive for whatever life persists on Earth. Like the blaze marks that guided my father’s brother and my teenage self through Kentucky forests, past Cherokees’ and whites’ gravestones, Arnold Krupat’s work will be an important guide to what survives."

David Murray, University of Nottingham, author of Matter, Magic, and Spirit: Representing Indian and African American Belief:

"Arnold Krupat's central argument in 'That the People Might Live’ is that there is a fundamental difference between the individualistic orientation of Western elegy and the expressions of a collective sense of loss and exile, which is designed not just to mourn but to allow the community as a whole to continue."

Scott Comar:

"Arnold Krupat offers an intensive, detailed, and well-researched literary analysis of Native American elegy from the 16th to the late 20th century.... Krupat's book clarifies the differences between traditional Native American and Euro-American elegiac expression, making it a great addition to the shelves of Native American, western, and borderlands scholars."

""Arnold Krupat is a deeply respected scholar... He has done much to help the world contextualize relationships between Native American literary voices and the American canon... a book that so powerfully details aspects of the Native American response to loss and death. Krupat is strongest when tackling the specifics of intercultural differences." —Joy Porter"

Audience: General/trade;