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Broadening the Bookshelves: Tenets of Native American literature

Our newest column is dedicated to expanding our notion of craft outside the white Western canon, from the books we read to the prompts we practice. In this month’s column, we’re exploring Native American literature. Join us, won’t you?

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I make my first mistake with Professor Michaelsun Knapp, who teaches at Riverside City College and California State University, San Bernardino, about three-quarters of the way through our time together. We’re talking about where Native American literature is now and where it might be going next. He mentions the graphic novel and how Native writers are producing more of this kind of work. I get irrationally excited about this because the back of my brain is fizzing with an association I probably shouldn’t make, but I make it anyway. Out loud.

“I’m thinking about the idea that there is a strong graphic history within the Native American storytelling tradition, right?” I say. “Does that have anything to do with this increased interest?”

Knapp, who is of the Costanoan Rumsen Carmel Band of Ohlone Indians, is a teacher first and foremost, and it shows. His answer is patient, kind, illustrative, even as I am already kicking myself. “You’re talking about, like pictographs, petroglyphs, right?” he asks, and I say, “Yes!” enthusiastically, because I am already picturing the ones I’ve spotted on the underbellies of overhangs at Joshua Tree National Park, and they are definitely flagged as being by Native Americans.

“Well,” says Knapp, gently, “so my experience would be, that would be analogous to connecting that to Egypt. Like, we should be seeing a lot of Egyptian graphic novels because of Egyptian hieroglyphics.”

I flush, for good reason.

This is not the first time I have put my foot in my mouth. Nor will it be the last time I will make a bobble like this, and this is because my narrative of the American Indian is really, really strong and really, really unfounded.

Here is what I think I know of Native Americans. I believe they are a spiritual people. I believe their relationships with land are stronger than my own relationships with land. I know they had their homes stolen from beneath their feet. I have only just come around to thinking of the land I live on as land that belonged to the Tongva Indians before “Californians” were even a thing, and I’m thinking really hard about how I used to ask my colleagues if they wanted to “powwow” so we could hammer out one strategic capitalist plan or another.

I have a lot to learn about Native American literature – I have also just chosen to recognize the awful fact that the book on which I based a lot of my, err, experience around this population’s work was written by a white guy: Scott O’Dell penned Island of the Blue Dolphins in 1960, when I was negative 14 years old. It is based on the life of the Lone Woman of California’s San Nicolas Island, whom O’Dell named Karana in his narrative. This book was my most significant compass point around who Native Americans were and what they did until I was…well, until I met writers like Elissa Washuta and Knapp in person, when I was well into my 30s. (I’m not alone – a 2018 documentary estimates that the book has sold over 10 million copies worldwide, and it was awarded a Newbery Medal in 1961.) Island of the Blue Dolphins, by the way, takes up a massive chunk of the National Park Service’s website as an educational tool. Apparently, there are no Native American writers who have written anything that is as good at describing the experience of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island (she is called Juana Maria in some circles; it’s the name under which she was baptized after she was brought to Mission Santa Barbara).

I have also recently binge-watched the Longmire television series, and have read much of the mystery series on which it is based. Writer Craig Johnson says he is close to a lot of Native Americans. He says he is literally surrounded by them, where he lives in tiny Ucross, Wyoming. And his hero, Walt Longmire, has a best friend who is Native American, which sounds earnest, and a little “methinks the cowboy doth protest too much” by today’s standards. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that I’m obsessed with Henry Standing Bear, the best friend, in part because he owns a bar (how modern!) and displays old-world quirks (he doesn’t speak in contractions; how formal!)

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Yes! I am captivated. And yet, why should I be? Native Americans are not a population separate from American life; in many ways, they define American life, and are also not a population that has stopped growing and changing with images we know of them from the spaghetti Western. “We see quite often in Indigenous literature this pull between living and holding these traditions in traditional ways and also living a contemporary life,” says Knapp. I refer to it as a kind of code-meshing, but Knapp skates past that (see “foot in mouth,” above). “You can live a traditional life in a contemporary time,” he says, telling me about the powwows he attended where young dancers decorated their Vans sneakers with traditional beadwork.

Muskogee tribe member Michael Thompson, who has been an advocate and educator of Native American literature for the past four decades, pointed out another hole in my understanding of Native literature. “I’d talk to these people who would say they wanted to teach Louise Erdrich or the one writer they could find who could cover them on the teaching of Native literature. What we would say to them was, Well, where are you from? Are you from Florida or from Michigan? Are you from Northern California? You should find out who those Native people are that belong to that place where you belong. They have writers, and they have newspapers, and they have oral traditions. And that’s the people, the Native writers you should be studying and you should be including in your curriculum because there’s not, like, one Native writer.”

Both Thompson and Knapp point out innumerable sources for those of us who want to learn about Native American literature. “All non-Native people think all Native Americans wear headdresses and buckskin and ride horses,” says Thompson. “And so that leaves out the northwest tribes – salmon is their horse. Sheep is, you know, significant for Navajos. Most non-Natives…want to see teepees, and they want to see headdresses, and they want stories that kind of reaffirm that one pan-Indian story. We’re very many different tribes with many different kinds of stories. That’s been a hard thing for the mainstream public readership to deal with.”

What it takes to understand Native American work is stepping away from what we think we know about one population or another. And further, it involves letting Native populations define their own traditions.

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“I have a former [non-Native] colleague with whom I did some Native theater together,” Thompson says. “She came to me and said she wanted to do some cultural stories, some creation stories. And I said, ‘You know what, Molly, you don’t need to worry about the sacred stories, you don’t need to be telling cultural stories on the stage at the San Juan College Theater. The traditional people, we’ve got that covered.”

It is tempting to think we know what we need to know. In fact, there’s a name for it – the Dunning-Kruger effect: Those of us who have very little experience with a thing tend to overestimate our expertise. And those of us who have a lot of experience tend to undervalue our experience. But if we can fight this, if we can work toward wanting to know more, toward staying curious about what we don’t know, we can better know our land and our people – and our own history.

 

Resources to get to know Native American literature

Debbie Reese’s “American Indians in Children’s Literature”
This blog, established by a Nambé Pueblo Indian, is a robust, definitive resource on Native American children’s literature. Reese’s site also covers basic information that will help anyone to navigate the world of Native American literature better.

The Diné Reader, University of Arizona Press, 2021.

This anthology of Navajo work is extensive, comprising interviews, poetry, photographs, and prose from Diné writers. (“Diné” is Navajo for, er, “Navajo.”) The volume includes a significant “Reader Resources” section, authored by Michael Thompson, that will help readers to interpret and appreciate this literature through multiple lenses.

Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples, Gregory Younging. (Brush Education, 2018.)

Confused about how to write about Native populations? This guide, which Michaelsun Knapp refers to as the “Strunk and White of how to talk about Native Americans,” can help. It contains solid principles in easy-to-understand guides. I’ll be using this to better avoid putting my foot in my mouth, and referencing it whenever I write about Native Americans.

 

Yi Shun Lai is the author of Pin Ups, a memoir. She teaches in the MFA programs at Bay Path and Southern New Hampshire universities and is a founding editor of Undomesticated Magazine. Visit at undomesticatedmag.com.

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