This promises to be a great year for Native literature, with a long list of promising titles covering the full range of reading tastes, from fiction to nonfiction, from poetry to anthologies, from laughs to grim historical research. Never discount the power of words: To read is to know; to know is to have the power to change.
Return of the Master
One of the most heralded novelists not just in Indian country, but in all of Western literature, Louise Erdrich has again stunned and delighted her faithful readers with her new book, LaRose: A Novel, a gut-wrenching story of an Ojibwe couple who give up their son, LaRose, to another family to atone for a horrible accident. Like two of her previous books, the story is set around a reservation. Philip Roth told the New York Times “[she] is, like Faulkner, one of the great American regionalists, bearing the dark knowledge of her place.” If you haven’t read her yet, you should. If you’re already a fan, you’ve probably already devoured this book, which was published in early May.
Brilliant Way to Get ‘Em Off Their Tablets
In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse (Joseph Marshall III, writer; Jim Yellowhawk, illustrator) is a coming of age story disguised as a biography of a great Lakota warrior… or is it the other way ‘round? Either way, it’s a moving and gripping ride as a bullied kid is taken by his grandfather on a road trip to learn about Crazy Horse, and about his Lakota heritage. The target audience is middle-schoolers, but the story and stunning illustrations will entrance readers of all ages. Marshall was raised on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation, and is an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota (Rosebud Sioux) tribe. He divides his time between Albuquerque and the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Yellowhawk is a Lakota multimedia artist based in Rapid City, South Dakota.
Most Important, Depressing Read of the Summer
The praise has been almost universal for Benjamin Madley’s meticulously researched and argued book, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe. Yale Press says of it, “Between 1846 and 1873, California’s Indian population plunged from perhaps 150,000 to 30,000. Benjamin Madley is the first historian to uncover the full extent of the slaughter, the involvement of state and federal officials, the taxpayer dollars that supported the violence, indigenous resistance, who did the killing, and why the killings ended…. He narrates the rise of a state-sanctioned killing machine and the broad societal, judicial, and political support for genocide. Many participated: vigilantes, volunteer state militiamen, U.S. Army soldiers, U.S. congressmen, California governors, and others.” In a recent L.A. Times op-ed, Madley wrote: “It is not an exaggeration to say that California legislators also established a state-sponsored killing machine.”
The only off-note in the raves Madley is getting from academics and civilians: many say that someone has finally proved there was a genocide against Natives. To which we say, “Uh, aren’t you a little late to the party?”
Great Beach Read… Even If You Don’t Have a Beach
Abenaki writer Joseph Bruchac has spun a hilarious, thrilling and chilling mystery in Chenoo: A Novel. It involves Jacob Neptune, a smart-ass private investigator who agrees to help protect Pennacooks attempting to take back a state campground that’s on tribal land. Imagine the great mystery writer Carl Hiaasen transplanted from the swamps of Florida to upstate New York. This book, like much of what Bruchac writes, draws on his Abenaki ancestry, and he and his family are heavily involved in the preservation of Abenaki culture, language and traditional Native skills, including performing traditional and contemporary Abenaki music. Bruchac has written a lot, and in many forms, including poetry, novels, short stories and anthologies. He is, in the best tradition of the “old ways,” a storyteller.
Unbeatable “Tear Down This Wall” Argument
Donald Trump’s promise, if elected President, to erect a wall between the United States and Mexico to stop allegedly dangerous Mexican citizens from illegally entering the U.S. perfectly illustrates a major theme in Maria Josefina Saldana-Portillo’s new book, Indian Given: Racial geographies across Mexico and the United States – that the way Mexico and the United States are culturally represented impacts their conduct and mutual perception. She also explains that Indigenous Peoples play the central role in the construction of these national geographies and racialized notions of citizenship. Indian Given addresses racialized violence in both countries, with a genealogy that reaches back to the 16th century across languages and geographies, and includes Las Casas, La Malinche, Geronimo, Javier Bardem, Oscar Zeta Acosta and Osama bin Laden.
The History Lesson America Needs
Acclaimed historian and activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has written a powerful history of the United States told from the perspective of Indigenous Peoples. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States blows away many of the myths perpetrated in the dominant culture’s narratives, reveals how for centuries Indigenous Peoples actively resisted expansion of the U.S. empire and shows why the nation is the way it is today. U.S. history is about settler colonialism, Dunbar Ortiz says, showing that the invaders who swarmed to the shores of Turtle Island beginning in the 17th century founded a state based on the racist ideology of white Christian supremacy found in the Doctrine of Discovery, which allowed for the widespread practice of slavery, land theft and genocide. This book should be required reading for every high school and college student in the U.S. But you don’t have to wait for it to be placed on your class syllabus — you can order it now from Amazon.
Awesome Hook for a Book
The Last Fish War: Survival on the Rivers is Lawney Reyes’ personal account of one of the 20th century’s most important indigenous issues: the Northwest coastal tribes’ struggle to protect their sovereignty and assert their treaty fishing rights. During the 1960s and 1970s indigenous fishermen of the sacred salmon were repeatedly arrested for their protests and “fish-ins” – fishing by traditional methods in their historical places. The fish-ins aimed to encourage state governments to respect indigenous fishing rights guaranteed in treaties. More broadly, the acts of civil disobedience expressed resistance to being culturally assimilated into American society. Victory came in 1974, when U.S. District Judge George Boldt affirmed the tribes’ treaty-protected fishing rights and established the tribes as natural resources co-managers with the State of Washington. Reyes recounts some of the incidents that took place during the decade-long protest and discusses some of the celebrities — including Marlon Brando, Dick Gregory, Buffy Sainte Marie and Russell Means — who stood in solidarity with the fishermen.
Reyes is a member of the Sin-Aikst community, a First Nations people who are part of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
This article appeared in the Indian Country Today Media Network 2016 Hot List Magazine.