Louise Erdrich and Joy Harjo were among nearly half a dozen Native American winners of the 34th annual American Book Awards, awarded at the Miami International Book Festival on November 23. Presented by the Before Columbus Foundation, the awards honor diversity in American literature and highlight excellence and risk-taking in the publishing industry.
Erdrich's book, The Round House (HarperCollinsPublishers, 2012), a fictional account of rape and vengeance on a North Dakota Indian reservation, won the 2012 National Book Award for best fiction. Timely and urgent, it gave voice to the often under-reported incidents of violence against Native American women on Indian lands and the jurisdictional chaos and judicial apathy that follow.
In 2012, Erdrich, who is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in North Dakota, was a vocal advocate for passage of the Violence Against Women Act and its inclusion of the tribe's ability to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes on Indian land.
"I wanted to write this story with suspense," Erdrich told the St. Paul Pioneer Press last year. "How else am I going to approach this subject [rape and its consequences] unless people want to keep reading? Historical mistakes have made jurisdictional problems on reservations difficult to prosecute rape cases. That's the underpinning of the book. But I wanted to tell it as a very human, character-driven story."
Crazy Brave (W.W. Norton & Co., 2012) is Harjo's memoir detailing her upbringing in an abusive environment followed by teenage pregnancy, her struggles as a single mother and her journey to becoming a writer. Described by the San Francisco Chronicle as “lyrical… unflinching… raw,” this is Harjo's first memoir. A member of the Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma, she is primarily known for her poetry and storytelling. She joined the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in January of this year.
Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars' Club (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), by Christopher Teuton (Cherokee Nation), is a seminal collection of 40 stories that interweave storytelling, conversation and teachings about Cherokee life in collaboration with Hastings Shade, Sammy Still, Sequoyah Guess and Woody Hansen.
Teuton says his intention with the work was to preserve and share the language, history and cultural teachings for future generations.
“The 'Liars' Club' came together in the early 1990s while working for the Cherokee Nation and we would give presentations on Cherokee language, culture, and history,” says Teuton, who is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “So, over time, the idea of writing a book together became something we all wanted to do. We hoped to create a book of stories and teachings that had been passed down from our elders and that we could share with Cherokee readers and those interested in Cherokee language, culture and history.”
Corpse Whale (University of Arizona Press, 2012), by dg nanouk okpik (Alaska Native Inupiat-Inuit), is a collection of poetry from the perspective of contemporary Inuit. Native poet and author Sherman Alexie has praised okpik's work, saying, “She writes of seal skins and walrus and weeks of endless sun and moon that are versed in tradition but also create her own personal mythology. I am constantly mystified and thrilled by her poetry.”
When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), by Natalie Diaz (Mojave), is another collection of poetry that focuses on modern life on an Indian reservation, including her brother's crystal meth drug addiction after his return from the Iraq War, family dysfunction, identity and bigotry against Native Americans.
Other winners include:
Lifetime Achievement: Ivan Arguelles, Greil Marcus, Floyd Salas
Blood Songs, Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore, The Ecstatic Exchange
The Block Captain's Daughter, Demetria Martinez, University of Oklahoma Press
Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence, Alan Gilbert, University of Chicago
Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals and Reagan's Rise to Power, Seth Rosenfeld, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
A Simple Revolution: The Making of an Activist Poet, Judy Grahn, Aunt Lute Books
Singing in Magnetic Hoofbeat: Essays, Prose, Texts, Interviews and a Lecture, Will Alexander, Essay Press
San Francisco Chinatown: A Guide to Its History & Architecture, Philip P. Choy, City Lights
Ring of Bone: Collected Poems, Lew Welch, City Lights