We’ve been told for many years “don’t judge a book by its cover.” I would add to that, “don’t judge a book by its title either.”
In the early 1970s a large format paperback was published titled, Everything You Ever Wanted to Ask About Indians But Were Afraid to Find Out. It was a book of cartoons depicting life on the reservations and in the urban Indian communities during the heady days of the war on poverty. Authored by Ojibway scholars Don Bibeau and Naomi Lyons, and illustrated with cartoons by Ojibway artist Carl Gawboy it was a hilarious record of those historic days, with emerging hot-shot new Indian leaders coming out of the woodwork, and new radical Indian activist’s mau-mauing white flack-catcher liberals as “whiteracistbastards.” The book’s title was a take-off from a best seller of the time titled Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), by physician Dr. David Reuben.
When a new book came out recently titled Don’t Know Much about Indians (but I wrote a book about us anyways), I expected another book of hilarity around Indian things and themes. The title is obviously taken from the opening line of the memorable 1960 hit song by Sam Cook, “Wonderful World.” I knew that the author Gyasi Ross was coming out with a book, and I knew of his sharp sense of humor, so I fully expected that this would be a book of his humor. And there is humor and uplifting spirits; but together the several short stories and poems that comprise the book convey a message of dead seriousness.
It’s not a preachy book by any means, but the stories are, in effect, parables. A parable, according to one dictionary is “a succinct story, in prose or verse, which illustrates one or more instructive principles, or lessons, or (sometimes) a normative principle.”
Gyasi Ross is a member of the Blackfoot Tribe, with family from the Suquamish as well. He’s a graduate of the Columbia Law School and is with the firm of Crowell Law Offices-Tribal Advocacy Group.
The stories and poems by Gyasi should be used by teachers of Native youth, especially in college Indian studies. They are applicable to social studies, education, literature. The book would offset the self-fulfilling prophetic lessons of the historic trauma promoters that teach Native students in college courses on Indian affairs. One story, “Michael,” tells of heated debate between student Michael First Rider and his Native professor Richard Hed (Dick Hed) over the issue of youth suicides among Indians. The story has a surprise tragic ending.
But DKMAI is not a polemic on any single issue. It covers all issues faced by Native people, especially the youth: alcoholism, domestic violence, teen pregnancy, single parenthood, and suicide.
However, the subtle humor is always there. One story tells of a young Native teacher accused of fondling the wienies of little boys in her kindergarten class, and having to face angry mothers—most of them single moms; and how her explanation of having to teach little boys what their dads should be teaching them, if those dads were around, rallies the moms to action. They establish an organization with the acronym PISS (Peeing is Super Significant) and force the tribal council to pass laws that will elicit the absentee dads to teach their offspring male hygiene, with appropriate punishment for failure to do so.
An excellent review of the book in the Tacoma Weekly newspaper describes it as “a powerful love letter to Indians,” and that description is right on. But there is no fluff, it’s tough love indeed. Indian Country Today Media Network also reviewed Ross’s tome.
The subjects are fictitious people but you know them, you’ll recognize them: they’re in your community—urban or rez; they’re members of your family; in the minds of other readers any one of them may be you. They are Indians, no questions. The dialog is straightforward Indian, but with no clichés to make it sound more stereotypically skin; few clichés beyond “ennit.”
Interspersed throughout the book is the poetry, as deep and powerful as the prose, but often exquisite, complementing the entirety of the book’s message. Two especially I will return to many times—“Ghosts,” about a bedraggled Indian street person who the author tried at first to ignore but was instead taken in by his wisdom for a warm friendship until the ghost disappears. And “AKII (A Love Story),” a poem that I can’t quite fathom for the depth of its message but will read again and again for its beauty.
This is the stuff that gives me inspiration, this is the stuff that gives me purpose; like the tirade of a young woman, Ms. Kills Enemy. She is young and shy, but her spirit finally had enough of being objectified by statistics that feed never-ending trauma:
“We make our own statistics now—you show me a statistic that says we have the highest percentage of suicides and I’ll show you one that says that we aren’t even supposed to be in existence any longer to commit suicide. Give me a statistic that shows that we’re struggling with alcohol, and I’ll likewise provide you with a statistic that shows that we were supposed to go the way of the Dodo bird a LONG time ago. But we didn’t. We’re still here, and getting healthier every day. I’ll be the first to admit that we are not perfect, but we’re getting stronger. We’re not victims. We are victors. Punk.”
Buy this book; it’s uplifting in its message of strength, native strength. It’s enjoyable to read and reread. It will have you laughing, crying, but most of all, thinking.
The book is available on the website, DKMAI.com. Many independent bookstores around the west have it. Although it’s carried by Amazon, it’s currently sold out. It costs $10.95 on the website, but signed copies at the bookstores cost a bit more.
Charles “Chuck” Trimble was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1969, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972 to 1978. He is retired and lives in Omaha, Nebraska. His website is IktomisWeb.com.