Gyasi Ross’s work hits you between the eyes.
You’re cruising along, reading Don’t Know Much About Indians (but I wrote a book about us anyways), published this year by Cut Bank Creek Press. You’re thinking that the story or poem is going in one direction, when suddenly it takes a hairpin turn and you find yourself teetering on the edge of your initial set of conclusions, regaining your balance and reorienting your vision along with his.
As advertised, Ross decidedly does not know much about Indians—at least not the ones depicted in the books written about them by white academics who have studied them. He has opinions about them though. And he knows them, rather than knowing about them.
“I do not pretend to be an expert on Indian people. I do not want to be an expert on Indian people,” writes Ross, a contributor to Indian Country Today Media Network (and a Columbia Law School–educated attorney, to boot), in his prologue. “Heck, sometimes I do not even like Indian people. Sometimes I cannot stand Indian people.”
But Ross, of course, has a leg up on those “experts” who would presume to write about Indians that belies his disclaimers: “I love Indian people,” he states. “I adore Indian people. My family and friends are Indian people, so how could I not love Indian people?”
Thus begins this compilation of what amounts to a series of riveting free-association sessions in the form of poetry, stories and a couple of essays disguised as stories. Ross loves Indians, and by the end of this slim volume, so do we, if we didn’t already. We meet Junior, inspired to change his life by an episode of Family Guy; Jen, the kindergarten teacher who gets flack from the school board for her insistence on instructing boys from single-mother households on the fine art of peeing standing up, and Thelma, victim of a fertility-inhibiting STD that scotches her chances at motherhood—or does it?
The fictional characters tell factual truths about what has happened to the Indian in the centuries since Europeans first stepped onto Turtle Island’s shores. Ross paints a picture of modern Indians, shining a light on their conflicts and contradictions, the cruel twists of fate that snatch their heart’s desires just as they seem to be in reach—which in the end makes them simply human.
Eight-year-old Jason’s mom may have taken too literally her mother-in-law’s admonition to keep him near the willows. Michael, a hard-working and insightful college student, illustrates the voicelessness of the Native American male by taking drastic measures when he loses a grading argument with his erudite professor, who knows (or so he thinks) quite a lot about Indians (but not enough to write the voluminous collection of books he has to his credit that he uses as debate ammo against Mike’s term paper).
Ross’s goal was to “create some modern mythology and/or archetypes for Native people,” the author writes in the last section, “About DKMAI” (the acronym for his book’s title). Patterned on “Napi” traditional stories told by his maternal grandpa Percy Bullchild, Greek mythology and the Brothers Grimm, the depictions show that far from being mere products of their colonized fate, Indians are in control of their destiny—even when they’re not—and demonstrate not only that they’re here to stay, but also why.