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)




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.

Can Memoir Be Written As YA Fiction

old book cover
old book cover of Catcher In The Rye, photo by j/k lolz

Just last month Alan Rinzler, in his excellent blog called “The Book Deal”, wrote a short piece about Young Adult fiction. A lot of good information is available here, including tips from 3 top agents, a discussion of what defines YA, a look at the trends and a cheery assessment of the future. Also, included is a brief eulogy for J.D. Salinger, a very apropos  topic for a post on Youth Adult. Mr. Rinzler has many good observations such as the use of first person, taboos, the boom, the use of illustrations and the subject of advances. All of this makes for a good read, especially since YA is red hot right now.

Which leads up to a YA book that kind of transcends the Youth Adult label much like The Catcher in the Rye did, when it was first released. The book in question is called The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian and it is written by Sherman Alexie. Alexie is a well-known writer from the Northwest, who writes a lot about Indian (as in Native American) and White relationships. This book is his first attempt at YA, but since the novel received the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, it has received more national attention than Alexie’s other writing.

What I find so fascinating is the autobiographical style of the writing. In this case using the first person is a great way to enhance the storytelling. It also leaves the reader wondering how much of the novel parallels Alexie’s experience growing up on a reservation in the same part of the country. No matter how old you are this book makes for a very engaging read and it can be particularly savored by anyone interested in the craft of YA, autobiography or a combination of the two.

Another interesting fact is that the story is illustrated by Ellen Forney – and I’m not just talking about an occassional drawing here and there, but rather a whole running visual narrative that complements the writing very nicely, but by no means tries to push the book into the realm of a Graphic Novel. The book is worth a quick look, just to see how the drawing works in relation to the writing.