A tra­di­tion of sto­ry­telling The new land­scape of Na­tive lit­er­a­ture

THE NEW LAND­SCAPE OF NA­TIVE LIT­ER­A­TURE

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS -

Lit­er­a­ture about Na­tive Americans, whether writ­ten for chil­dren or adults, by Na­tive peo­ple or non-Na­tive peo­ple, has tended to fea­ture char­ac­ters an­chored in ro­man­ti­cized ideas of the past. Stereo­typ­i­cal por­tray­als tend to show Na­tives as ei­ther no­ble sav­ages or ro­man­tic mys­tics; mod­ern, some­times more com­plex por­tray­als of­ten still rely on the im­age of the In­dian as an al­co­holic or ad­dict. “But what I’m see­ing now, with stu­dents and with young Na­tive writ­ers go­ing on to pub­lish, is that they aren’t al­low­ing other peo­ple to de­fine who they are any­more,” said au­thor Joseph Boy­den (Métis), when asked by

Pasatiempo about the state of Na­tive Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture. “We’re get­ting the ur­ban In­dian ex­pe­ri­ence, In­di­ans writ­ing sci­ence fic­tion, writ­ers break­ing down bar­ri­ers.” “But what I’m see­ing now, with stu­dents and with young Na­tive writ­ers go­ing on to pub­lish, is that they aren’t al­low­ing other peo­ple to de­fine who they are any­more. We’re get­ting the ur­ban In­dian ex­pe­ri­ence, In­di­ans writ­ing sci­ence fic­tion, writ­ers break­ing down bar­ri­ers.”

Boy­den was born in Toronto and now lives in Louisiana, where he teaches at the Univer­sity of New Or­leans. He is the au­thor of a short story collection as well as three linked nov­els: Three Day Road (2005), which won the Mc­Nally Robin­son Abo­rig­i­nal Book of the Year Award, Through Black Spruce (2009), and

The Orenda (Knopf, 2013). He teaches in the low res­i­dency master of fine arts in cre­ative writ­ing pro­gram at the In­sti­tute of Amer­i­can In­dian Arts, as does Joan Naviyuk Kane (Inu­piaq-Inuit), au­thor of the po­etry col­lec­tions Hyper­bo­real (Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh Press, 2013) and The Cor­morant Hunter’s Wife (2009). She lives in An­chor­age, Alaska, and is a 2017 judge for the Grif­fin Po­etry Prize, a lu­cra­tive Cana­dian honor for a sin­gle collection of po­etry pub­lished in English.

Pasatiempo spoke to Boy­den and Kane about how and why Na­tive lit­er­a­ture is chang­ing, and which Na­tive writ­ers they think peo­ple should be read­ing — or keep­ing track of — so they can buy their first books when they are pub­lished. Both im­me­di­ately named the po­ets Layli Long Sol­dier (Oglala Lakota) and Sher­win Bit­sui (Diné). Long Sol­dier’s first collection of po­etry, WHEREAS, will be pub­lished in spring 2017 by Gray­wolf Press, and she has al­ready been hon­ored with a 2016 Whit­ing Writ­ers Award, as well as the 2015 NACF Na­tional Artist Fel­low­ship and a 2015 Lan­nan Lit­er­ary Fel­low­ship. She earned her bach­e­lor of fine arts de­gree at IAIA, and her master of fine arts at Bard Col­lege. She re­cently re­turned to Santa Fe af­ter sev­eral years liv­ing in Ari­zona. Bit­sui, also the re­cip­i­ent of a Whit­ing Award and a Lan­nan Lit­er­ary Fel­low­ship, has pub­lished two books of po­etry, Shapeshift (2003) and Flood Song (Cop­per Canyon Press, 2009). He teaches in the MFA cre­ative writ­ing pro­grams at IAIA and San Diego State Univer­sity.

When rec­om­mend­ing more es­tab­lished writ­ers, Boy­den em­pha­sized a few Cana­dian First Na­tions au­thors who he said de­served to have a broader Amer­i­can au­di­ence. Richard Wagamese (Ojib­way/ Wabaseemoong First Na­tion), of Kam­loops, Bri­tish Columbia, has writ­ten sev­eral nov­els, in­clud­ing Medicine Walk (Milk­weed Edi­tions, 2015) and In­dian Horse (2012), and the mem­oirs For Joshua (2003), One Na­tive Life (2008), and One Story, One Song (2011), which won the Ge­orge Ryga Award for So­cial Aware­ness in Lit­er­a­ture. “He’s purely a good sto­ry­teller,” Boy­den said. “He was part of the Six­ties Scoop, which hap­pened in the 1960s and ’70s in Canada, when thou­sands of Na­tive chil­dren were taken from their fam­i­lies by so­cial

Be­cause most if not all the stu­dents in the writ­ing work­shops at IAIA are Na­tive, par­tic­i­pants are able to move quickly past el­e­ments of their work that can dis­tract non-Na­tive stu­dents, such as cul­tural is­sues that are men­tioned but aren’t in­te­gral to the plot.

work­ers. He’s led a tough life, but what he’s done with that tough life is he’s cre­ated re­ally beau­ti­ful sto­ries.”

“Lee Mar­a­cle is some­one indige­nous writ­ers and Cana­di­ans re­ally look up to,” Boy­den said of Mar­a­cle (Stó:Lo Na­tion), a fac­ulty mem­ber at the Univer­sity of Toronto and one of the founders of En’owkin In­ter­na­tional School of Writ­ing. Her nov­els in­clude Celia’s Song (Cor­morant Books, 2014) and Daugh­ters are For­ever (2002). She has also writ­ten a short-story collection, So­journer’s Truth and Other Sto­ries (1990), a po­etry collection,

Bent­box (2000), and non-fic­tion works that in­clude I Am Woman (1988). Thomas King, who Boy­den de­scribed as a trick­ster who makes you laugh while get­ting at im­por­tant matters, wrote the nov­els Medicine

River (1990), Green Grass, Run­ning Wa­ter (1993), Truth and Bright Wa­ter (2000), and The Back of the Tur­tle (Dou­ble­day Canada, 2014), as well as two short-story col­lec­tions, sev­eral chil­dren’s books, and the non­fic­tion work The In­con­ve­nient In­dian: A Cu­ri­ous Ac­count of Na­tive Peo­ple in North Amer­ica (Univer­sity of Min­nesota Press, 2013). “He’s ac­tu­ally Chero­kee and Greek from the United States, but he’s lived in Canada for many years and has be­come sort of an elder states­man,” Boy­den said.

One of the main sources of the change Boy­den and Kane see hap­pen­ing is right here in Santa Fe, in the MFA cre­ative writ­ing pro­gram at IAIA. Be­cause most if not all the stu­dents in the writ­ing work­shops there are Na­tive, par­tic­i­pants are able to move quickly past el­e­ments of their work that can dis­tract non-Na­tive stu­dents, such as cul­tural is­sues that are men­tioned but aren’t in­te­gral to the plot.

“Some non-Na­tive writ­ers think a work­shop is their op­por­tu­nity to talk to a Na­tive per­son and want to know all about, like, their cer­e­monies in­stead of their work. The kinds of things we are able to fo­cus on at IAIA are more craft-ori­ented and not about ed­u­cat­ing a non-Na­tive read­er­ship,” Kane said. “If they are in­ter­ested, they should go read an an­thro­pol­ogy text­book, or a so­ci­o­log­i­cal study, be­cause when they can’t move past this, ev­ery con­ver­sa­tion de­volves into very au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal, per­sonal ques­tions that most white writ­ers don’t have to deal with. I don’t nec­es­sar­ily want to talk about my con­tent — I want to talk about how this stanza or this line works. With all the schol­arly and an­thro­po­log­i­cal work that has come out of our own com­mu­ni­ties, the nov­els and po­ems no longer need to be the au­thor­i­ta­tive texts to an­swer all the ques­tions.” Terese Mail­hot (Se­abird Is­land First Na­tion, Canada), who writes for

In­dian Coun­try To­day, is among the May 2016 grad­u­ates of the IAIA MFA pro­gram. Mail­hot, Kane said, “asks the hard ques­tions about what Na­tive Amer­i­can women face — the stag­ger­ingly dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of crime that Na­tive women are sub­jected to. Her writ­ing in­ter­sects with data on th­ese is­sues.” Tommy Or­ange, an en­rolled mem­ber of the Cheyenne and Ara­paho tribes of Ok­la­homa, is work­ing on a novel about ur­ban In­di­ans whose lives in­ter­sect im­prob­a­bly at an Oak­land pow­wow. Kane and Boy­den both spoke en­thu­si­as­ti­cally about Chee Brossy, who is work­ing on a collection of short sto­ries.

“He’s a young writer with a bright fu­ture,” Boy­den said. “He writes of his ex­pe­ri­ences as a Navajo man in his fic­tion with­out mak­ing it archly In­dian. He writes about the ex­pe­ri­ence in a very con­tem­po­rary and univer­sal way. He’s tremen­dously tal­ented, and metic­u­lous as a writer. I’m re­ally very ex­cited about his writ­ing.”

Brossy is the alumni and con­stituent re­la­tions man­ager at IAIA. Though his po­etry has ap­peared in sev­eral jour­nals, in­clud­ing Prairie Schooner and Den­ver Quar­terly, he does not yet have any pub­lished fic­tion. He ex­pects to be fin­ished with his book in about a year, at which time he can start send­ing it to lit­er­ary agents. “Nine sto­ries are done, but there are about five that I need to re­vise some more,” he said. The sto­ries are set in Red Mesa and Lukachukai, Ari­zona. Some of them are just a few pages and oth­ers are longer, and they all con­cern peo­ple in mo­ments of cri­sis, such as the af­ter­math of a car ac­ci­dent, or a mishap with a gun. In one story, a boy’s grand­mother talks to him af­ter he wit­nesses his par­ents fight­ing. “The world is laid bare for that boy,” Brossy said.

Among Brossy’s fa­vorite writ­ers are the lu­mi­nary Na­tive nov­el­ists he grew up read­ing: Les­lie Mar­mon Silko, Sher­man Alexie, and Louise Er­drich. “I re­cently ran across some short sto­ries by Silko that I’d never seen be­fore,” he said. “I found out she has mas­tery of that form, too.”

JOAN NAVIYUK KANE

JOSEPH BOY­DEN

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