Bill Wetzel, Blackfeet, is trying to do something he doesn’t think has been done before. Using the original word for Tucson, Arizona, Wetzel started the Stjukshon Indigenous Reading Series at Casa Libre En La Solana in Tucson, giving Native writers from across the United States an opportunity to showcase their talent.
Wetzel, 39, said, “I sit very much within my generation of writers, and we are writing about a different world than 40 years ago, when the really famous (Native) writers were coming on the scene. We are not always in conflict with the world anymore. We are in conflict within ourselves.”
Wetzel said today’s writers are taking on subjects like blood quantum, fractionization of land and intertribal disputes—and he said that today, there is a great need for cultural pluralism. “There are people who aren’t from the reservation and I don’t judge people on blood. I keep it open to most views. This is about art, and I don’t want to limit that.”
While Natives and non-Natives attend the events, the writings celebrate a purely Native experience. Bojan Louis, Diné, is one such writer. Louis was excited to present his work to a Native audience. For an emerging writer, he said, “It’s sort of frustrating to be in Arizona, because there are so many writers around the area. There are people who put on reading series, and often when Indians are invited, they are usually asked to come as speakers, but rarely as writers. Having such a large Indian population, we rarely get that opportunity.”
Another author agreed. “When you read in graduate school, they (the audience) are other people in your program. This was the first time that the audience was 100 percent American Indian,” Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, Blackfeet, said after his experience reading for Wetzel’s series.
“All of my subject matter is about the reservation, and I am sure I was the only Indian they knew. When you read that stuff to non-Indians who have not been west of the Mississippi, the comments I got were, ‘I never heard anything about this stuff.’ People were afraid to engage me about the subject matter. There was one particular story where a relative of mine got into multiple fist fights in the course of the day. One person said they didn’t believe what I was saying, it was so unfamiliar. In Tucson, everyone in the room was familiar with the situations.”
Author Kristiana Kahakauwila, Native Hawaiin, just published her first book of short stories through Random House. “When the book came out, I connected with Bill through Sterling.” Speaking about the atmosphere of the readings, she said, “It’s very important to have these Pan-Native events and I like what Bill is fostering. The story I read is called “39 Rules to Making a Hawaiian Funeral into a Drinking Game.” Kahakauwila has read to other audiences, but, she said, “No one laughed harder than the groups at Tucson. There was a way people in the audience were responding.” Kahakauwila added, “The first draft of “39 Rules,” I emailed to Sterling. I just felt no one else would understand how I felt after my grandmother’s death. Who else would understand that but another Indians?”
Besides emerging authors, Wetzel also includes well-known writers in the series. Simon Ortiz, published poet, author, professor of indigenous literature and American Indian studies at Arizona State University read at Wetzel’s first event.
Ortiz, Acoma Pueblo, began his career in the 1960s when there were very few published Native writers. “Poetry was my oral tradition as a Native person. Since we had no role models in the publishing world, we looked for inspiration from our own community traditions—our elders, and even people who told tall tales. Now, 40 and 50 years later, I find myself in quite a number of publications.
“When I hear of endeavors like Bill’s reading series at Casa Libre, I welcome the opportunity to help emerging writers,” Ortiz said. “People call me an elder of sorts, I have been in the business a long time. I encourage all young writers and those in intellectual disciplines. It is important for the ongoing work of indigenous people throughout the Americas.”
Ortiz noted that discrimination is still a problem. “Today, publishing is determined by the dominant and mainstream culture and that is a big barrier. One of the ways is to become involved in the industry. We have become publishers and writers and numbers of professors,” he said. “I think the persistence of our people has always been positive and we have achieved quite a lot.”
HolyWhiteMountain agrees that the market for Native writers is still underrepresented. “It is unusual to read to people who are familiar with your background. In New York, everyone in the country is familiar with the place. But when you talk about the reservation, non-Natives feel like they have been blindsided, or surprised that Indians are still alive, which you hear all the time. This is particularly important for writers who may not have had a place to go.”
Additionally, HolyWhiteMountain sees value in bringing Natives from different nations together. “Here in Montana, we have no exposure to Indians from the Southwest. Even in Indian country, people think other Natives are like themselves. When you go away, you see how different the cultures and people are from your own.”
Originally from Montana, Wetzel came to Arizona for school and stayed. “I am recording the readings to have a permanent record that people could study for all time if needed,” he said.
Wetzel is hoping teachers will contact him for YouTube links, and is hoping to eventually live-stream the readings. The next event will be in February and may feature Canadian writer, Karen W. Olson (Cree/Anishnabe, Manitoba) and local Tucson writer and Pima Community College professor, Joshua Cochran (Blackfeet descent).
“We are trying to raise money to hold five different events a year and we need donations to bring people from all over the country,” Wetzel said. The donations are tax deductible through Casa Libre for the Stjukshon Reading Program. Wetzel can be reached through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.