Native American Authors

Poster by TC Cannon, an
Poster by TC Cannon, an Oklahoma Native American artist, who died tragically in 1978.

American Indian Arts in the Twentieth Century

November is Native American Heritage month and so I thought that I might shine a spotlight on U.S. Native American authors, writing in the English language. I was completely unaware of the official designation until I chanced upon a table of books authored by American Indians. This small  display was located in downtown Santa Fe at the Santa Fe Public Library. By coincidence, the Institute for  American Indian Arts (IAIA) exhibition space is located just down the street. This institution is a national arts college for American Indian students, where many disciplines are taught, including creative writing.

An Overview of American Indian Writing

Though American Indian oratory has been an important part of American history for many years, creative Native American writing has been largely a contemporary phenomena. In recent years, American Indian writers have become more noticeable in the literary marketplace. Perhaps, all of this began, when M. Scott Momaday published House Made of Dawn, a short novel that achieved literary fame, when the tale of the Southwest won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1969. Following is a quick look at Native American writers, who are readily available in most bookstores, along with a short selection of eclectic writers, who may not be as readily available.

The Big Names

Sherman Alexie – Mr. Alexie has been writing novels for years, but when The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian received the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2007, the author from the Spokane reservation in Eastern Washington was suddenly thrust into the national spotlight. Most of his captivating titles are readily available in any bookstore.

N. Scott Momaday – Already mentioned for his Pulitzer Prize, Momaday is an Oklahoma native of the Kiowa nation, who has written may books of stories and fiction. Besides The House Made of Dawn, you might come across The Way To Rainy Mountain along with some of his more obscure titles in your search for Native American authors.

Louise Erdrich – Louise is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewas. She has written many novels and stories about Native life in the upper Midwest and Great Plains. She also owns and operates a Native American bookstore, Birchbark Books, in the Twin Cities of Minnesota.

Linda Hogan – Though more obscure than the above three authors, Ms. Hogan (Chickasaw) has over the years put out an impressive array of novels, short stories and non-fiction titles. Some of her more prominent titles include Mean Spirit, Solar Storms and People of the Whale.

Leslie Marmon Silko – Leslie grew up on the edge of Pueblo society in central New Mexico in the 50s and 60s. Nonetheless, she would receive national acclaim for some of her stories and books. Her short story, The Man to Send Rain Clouds, received a National Endowment for the Humanities Discovery Grant shortly after the story was first published in 1969.

Lesser Known

Not all Native American writers produce written works that go on to find national distribution and acceptance. Still, that does not mean that these “lesser works” are without inspiration, merit or good storytelling. Many of these writers have found an important niche as observers of the American scene on a local or regional level. Following are a very select few taken from a much larger group that always seems to be getting bigger. Please note that only a few of the following  poets and writers work solely in the literary mode.  Many have expanded their voice to the realm music. To paraphrase one Native American poet turned performer, Roxy Gordon, “you have to go where the audience is”

Louis “Little Coon” Oliver – Louis died in 1991 and during his lifetime he only published two books. Nonetheless, his ramblings about tribal life and modern society filled with his humorous and satirical observations were enjoyed by many. Louis was born in Oklahoma, when it was still a territory and was a part of th the Muscogee Creek nation. He was ostracized by many of his tribal members for attending high school and actually obtaining a diploma.

Joy Harjo and Poetic JusticeJoy Harjo is an Oklahoma (Mvskoke Creek) poet , who after publishing several books of poetry, decided to form  a band and go on stage. Still essentially a poet, Joy often performs around the country with her musical ensemble, Poetic Justice.

Joseph Bruchac – Though a long-time resident of the Iroquois country in upstate NY, Joe comes from Vermont, where he is connected with the Abanakis. Not only has Joe written numerous articles, stories and books about the Indian life in the Northeast and elsewhere, but also he is a major organizer of Native American literature and American Indian authors. Check out his Greenfield Review Press, for a major who’s who in tribal literature.

Without Rezervation – Without Rezervation was a Native American rap group from Oakland, California. During the 90s they cut 2 CDs and achieved some notoriety as on of the few (or possibly the only) Native American rap groups. The trio consisted of Chris LaMarr, Mike Marin, and Kevin Nez. The members of this group had Native roots in California (Pit River) and Arizona (Navajo)

 

 

 

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Fire & Ice

Scoresby Sund, East Greenland, July, 1970
Scoresby Sund, East Greenland, July, 1970 from Wikipedia, J. Finkelstein

Fire and Ice  – a poem by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Still Popular

This little jingle penned back in the twenties by one of America’s favorite poets, still remains popular, even today. Perhaps with the ongoing debate about global warming and climate change,  this nine-letter stanza is seeing a rebirth of its own. Even so, the short poem has turned out to be one of the most popular of all of Robert’s Frost work. I guess this goes to show that bigger is not better.

Ice Age Now

Not to long ago, while researching an article on underwater volcanoes for the content mill, I came across a website called Ice Age Now. This is definitely one place, on the web that sing the accolades of “Global Warming”. Instead, they put forth the proposition that the planet is about to enter a Mini-Ice Age similar to what was experienced a 1,000 years ago. Furthermore, climate on earth is controlled much more by the sunspot activity and the resultant radiation (or lack thereof), rather than man’s activity on the planet. Evidence is cited from around the world to back up their claim. For example just this week they mentioned a three foot blizzard in southern Chile (its winter down there), a blizzard in the mountains of China (that’s definitely odd and unusual) and earthquakes at the Katla volcano in Iceland (they were very small, 3.8 was the biggest. Absent from this weeks news flashes was the heat wave in the Central U.S.

“It’s a cycle, it’s a cycle, it’s a cycle”

No, this is not a quote from somebody watching the Tour de France, but rather the slogan from some observers of  our global weather at Ice Age Now. Nonetheless, predictions about world weather patterns and not something to be put forth lightly. Case in point is the famous Krakatoa volcano, which put so much ash into the atmosphere that the weather patterns around the world were affected.  Could man be capable of the same thing today. I think so, but pinpointing cause and effect in such matters is not easily accomplished. Some days like today when temperatures are sky high, I ponder whether the earth is getting too warm. Maybe a chain of monster volcanoes going off will cool the planet down. But then who knows what next January will bring.

Poor Poe

Statue of the Raven at the Poe House in Philadelphia, PA
Statue of the Raven at the Poe House in Philadelphia, PA

Twas A Hot and Humid Sunny Afternoon

Last Wednesday was a torridly hot day in Philly. The heat was oppressive and the humidity was just as bad. Somehow I negotiated the sizzling mid-afternoon walk from the Philadelphia Free Library to the historic literary site. Once I walked in the front door of the early 19th century brick rowhouse I was glad I did.  The main reason being the fully-functional air conditioning system and the ice-cold drinking water that came shooting out of the basement fountain. Oh, the joys of visiting a federally funded building. After attending the University of Virginia and West Point Military Academy (he had to withdraw from each due to lack of money), Poe set out on his own literary career as a writer, poet, editor and critic.

Modest Housing

Not only did Poe experience many tragedies during his lifetime( both his mother and wife died of tuberculosis), but  he also moved frequently. During his life time he dwelt in four cities, Boston, Baltimore, Richmond and Philadelphia, but during his six year stay in the City of Brotherly Love, he moved four times. One of these residences, located at the corners of 7th Street and Spring Garden Ave., is now a National Historic Site administered by the National Park Service. Poe moved to Philadelphia to take on a job of editor of a prominent literary magazine. The attractive brick house sits on a quiet tree-lined in a working-class neighborhood, just a few blocks from the downtown high rises. A walk through the house is a step back in time and according to the historians, a trudge down the stairs into the basement, is like a glimpse into the creative mind that penned “The Black Cat”. Much can be learned about how people lived before the Civil War by walking through the various rooms of the Poe house. Most noticeable is the small-size of the rooms and especially the stairways.

Literary Map of the United States

Relief Map of the United States
Relief Map of the United States

Big Country

Here is a relief map of the United States that includes part of Mexico and Canada as well. As anyone can easily see the country stretches between two coasts which approximately 3,000 miles apart. The western half of the country is quite rugged and mountainous, while the east sits at lower elevations and is blessed with abundant rainfall. Across the varied topography, there exists a wide range of culture, history, geography and lifestyles, which collectively form the United States of America. If you mapped the land mass according to the notable writers that each place has produced, you would see a landscape covered with names.

Literary Map of the USA

Scribner Books, the UK publisher, has done just that. Now all interested parties can purchase such a map from the major book publisher.  The map is printed on 84 X 59.4 cm (33 X 24 inches) recycled card stock and features 226 authors, who lived and worked in the USA. Price is right about 10 pounds ($16 US) and shipping is free in the UK if you make enough additional purchases.

Western Writers Come Out Big

The big winners on this display item are the western writers of the mountain states. Since the printer had to fill the land area with names, writers from sparsely populated areas, like Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Utah get their name spelled out in big letters, while for more prominent names from the populated east, get crunched together with numerous peers. A quick glance over reveals the names of E. Annie Proulx, Black Elk, Willa Cather, Cormac McCarthy, Zane Grey, Sojourner Truth and Vladimir Nobokov, which are all displayed quite prominently. Mark Twain does OK, but others such as Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jack Kerouac, John Irvine and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow may require a magnifying glass to read.

Oglethorpe’s Savannah

Telfair Museum In Savannah, Georgia
Telfair Museum In Savannah, Georgia

This past Saturday I had the privilege of visiting the charming Southern city of Savannah, Georgia. The occasion was the 4th Annual Savannah Book Festival, which was held at Telfair Square in the old historic district. Here in the historic district of the city, organizers had arranged literary speakers to give talks not only at the above pictured Telfair Museum, but also at the Trinity Methodist Church, Jepson Museum and a tent that was set up on the public square. Also on the square were a couple of book tents, where visitors could purchase both fiction and non-fiction titles.

Besides from the gathering of readers and writers, there was also the walk through the old city from my streetside  parking spot to the festival site. This stroll was most informative, for it took me right through one of the largest historical districts in the country. Savannah has a most interesting history for it was built in the early years of  the 18th century to give British debtors, a second chance in life.

To understand Savannah, it is necessary to take a look at the city’s founder, James Oglethorpe, a British citizen, who was born in 1696. James Oglethorpe served in Queen’s Anne War, returned home and was incarcerated in a British prison for killing a man in a brawl. After five months of confinement, Oglethorpe was released from jail and immediately elected to Parliament. His prison experience became paramount it the man’s successful attempt to recommend changes for the system. Of utmost concern was the British custom of imprisoning those who went bankrupt.

Savannah, which was begun as a British settlement in 1733, was created to give those imprisoned for debt a second chance in life. From this unusual beginning arose a prosperous city, which has survived the tests of time, and remains an important place of commerce today.

Savannah Today
Savannah Today

War Dances

War Dances by Sherman Alexie
War Dances by Sherman Alexie

Several weeks ago I walked over to my local library branch and checked out the new literary effort by Sherman Alexie. Considering this was just a few days after he had received the prestigious Faulkner/Pen award, I was surprised to find that the book was still on the shelf, but there it was. I guess I should draw some kind  of conclusion about the reading habits of people in my hometown, Portland (ME) or the popularity of Alexie or the importance of the award, but I don’t know what to say so I’ll let in go.

However, the book was a very interesting read and perhaps a bit of a disappointment after having recently read The Autobiography of a Part-time Indian. For those who enjoy good old-fashioned storytelling, then “Autobiography” might be just the book for you. It’s an engrossing story and it is easy to speculate how this recently published novel might have swayed the jury.

Stylistically, War Dances is just the opposite. It is a mixture of poems and short stories that jumps all over the place in location and meaning. Still the seemingly unrelated potpourri of written material comes across very well and still gives the reader a lot to ponder and enjoy.

After having read the book, I was a little puzzled that the book earned an award. Not because of its content, but for the reason that the text covered so many different events. I guess some modern juries are more willing to take a chance with unorthodox writing than I realized.

Sherman Alexie Wins Pen/Faulkner Award

Sherman Alexie, photo coutesy of Wikipedia Commons

“I think white folks should be ashamed that it’s taken an Indian to save part of their culture.” Sherman Alexie, while appearing on the Steve Colbert show.

Today it was announced that Sherman Alexie has won the prestigious Pen/Faulkner Award for fiction, which comes complete with a $15,000 financial attachment. His most recent literary effort called “War Dances”, a collection of short stories, essays and poems is the chief reason for the presentation. The Pen/Faulkner award is the largest peer chosen prize offered in the United States and Mr. Alexie is the first Native American recipient of the award.

Sherman is the author of many novels, short stories and poems. In fact, his last book, which was entitled The Absolute True Autobiography of a Part-time Indian received a national book award for Young Adult fiction. This novel is the straightforward, first-person account of a young teenager, who decides to leave the reservation to attend high school in a nearby farming community in eastern Washington. The book is unique in the large number of drawings and illustrations that accompany text, yet overall effort falls way short of being classified as a graphic novel.

Sherman Alexie is not a newcomer to the book world, for he has been trailblazing around the U.S. for at least the last decade promoting his books and talking to audiences of all sizes at bookstores in all parts of the country. In a recent appearance on the Steve Colbert show (see the video) Sherman talks in detail about his experiences on the road and the current struggle of the printed page to keep its audience. He describes his book tours, “I was a storyteller around a fire…. it was a metaphorical fire inside a bookstore.”

Then Alexie goes on to describe his last book tour, where he was promoting the same publication that earned him the Pen Award; “I went to a lot of afternoon matinees. The local media for books is gone.” Keep in mind that “War Dances” was published in 2009 and that this last book tour occurred within the last six months.

On a more positive  note, check out this Globe and Mail article, entitled “The Book Isn’t Dead Yet.”

Then again the Brits have always been bigger readers than the Anglos in the U.S. and Canada.