Imagine a couple of novels that contain a deep discernment that our existence as Original Nations and Peoples extends back to the beginning of time, through our oral histories and our oral traditions. Imagine the novels are written with heart, and with deep insight into and sensitivity about traditional cultural norms. They also do a great job expressing the gentleness of wise Elders who have an unwavering fighting spirit based on a love of family and commitment to community.
Suppose that the main character, a teenage girl from the Yakama Nation, is troubled, and flawed, and fierce. She eventually finds healing through the meaning and orientation that comes when one is able to find the good path of our ceremonial and spiritual ways, bequeathed to us by the Creator and our ancestors.
Visualize two novels so grounded that they will resonate with familiarity for anyone who lives with the beautiful and maddening daily realities of “Indian” life. Imagine that the two books deal with all the issues of tragedy, psychological healing, and cultural and language revitalization that are necessary in the wake of centuries of genocidal efforts to destroy our Nations and Peoples.
If all that appeals to you, then you’ll love Tessa’s Dance and Signal Peak by David Edward Walker, Ph.D., two books that he calls his “Medicine Valley Series.”
Dr. Walker is in his 15th year of working in collaboration with the Yakama Nation, where he spent his first four years as a psychologist with the Indian Health Service. He is a brilliant researcher and a fierce critic of mental health ideology and practice in Indian Country, an intergenerational theme he explores in both books. For example, he touches upon the Haiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians, where many native people from across the U.S. were tragically and falsely declared "insane" and committed until it was closed down in 1933. He wrote these novels as an effort to raise consciousness while continuing his research and commentary on oppressive features of mental health practice among Native peoples.
Dr. Walker knows how to connect the dots while using his fictional characters to ask deep questions about the continuing legacy of intergenerational colonialism. A self-described ‘mixed blood’ of Cherokee ancestry through his paternal Barlow grandmothers, David likely has his avatar in the narrator of these books, Dr. Ret Barlow. David has personally experienced the guidance that comes from dreaming of ancestors long passed, and Barlow’s dreams interspersed through both novels originate from David’s own journal which he’s kept over the years while working with the Yakama community. His life experiences provide his narrative with a sense of profundity and authenticity.
I was deeply moved by the way in which Dr. Walker has woven anecdotal accounts of history into his two books, and by means of that method he brings the history alive by reminding us how we got to the place we are today. For example, Dr. Ret Barlow at one point describes Fort Simcoe State Park in Washington State. “I strolled past three old mountain howitzers—1850 prairie-carriage 12-pounders, originals from the days of the Yakama Wars. They still bore down upon those families, I thought, even though it’s been a long time since they had to be kept loaded.” Dr. Ret Barlow’s narration continues:
In the fading light, I could see pretty far—twenty-five miles, all Yakama land. I turned around 360 degrees to take in the grounds. Fort Simcoe Boarding School once stood to the right and, behind me, the jailhouse and stockade. A stretch of stockade fence behind the governor’s house ended in a guard station. Uncooperative men and woman were pilloried in front of this spot and bullwhipped by the governor himself.
Later in Tessa’s Dance Dr. Ret Barlow says, “These fields [of Fort Simcoe] were converted by white people into a picnic park, a ‘heritage park’ as the state of Washington called it, on the sovereign land of the Yakama people.”
Dr. Walker uses the metaphor of a chain at the end of that chapter, which I take to symbolize the metaphorical “chaining” of our Nations with what the four dissenting Supreme Court justices in Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community have called “the Indian tribes’ subjection to the authority and protection of the United States.” I take it that they have used the term “subjection” to mean U.S. federal Indian law and policy. And since when were free and independent nations “subjected” to “protection”? Dr. Walker uses the metaphor of a chain to symbolize such thinking:
“There is a sizable chain ring anchored in the ground near the back wall of the old stockade ruins [of Fort Simcoe].”
“Someday, it will be gone,” I told Arnold. I found it the first time I came to the park. I knew instinctively what it was for.
So I bent down again and tugged hard. That was a little way I could know what happened here viscerally—not by some book or what someone said, but by pulling on that old chain.”
I see Dr. Walker’s books as part of that “pulling” and as excellent works to assist us with the decolonization of our existence in a language that is accessible for high school level readers and up. I predict that any non-Native person who reads the books will be educated and will be able to look at Indian issues with new found insight. My congratulations to Dr. David Walker on a job extremely well done, and from the heart and spirit!
Tessa’s Dance and its sequel, Signal Peak, which together constitute ‘The Medicine Valley Series’ (thus far) are available at the Yakama Nation Cultural Center Gift Shop in Toppenish, Washington, Yakama Nation, through David’s website at TessasDance.com, and also through Amazon.com in both print and kindle download formats.
Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is the co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. He has been researching and writing about U.S. federal Indian law and policy and international law since the early 1980s.