|Men on the Moon: Collected Short Stories
|University of Arizona, Paperback
Simon J. Ortiz, from Acoma Pueblo, is one of the well-kept secrets of American Indian lit (along with Peter Blue Cloud and Ray Young Bear). He is a fine poet (look for Going for the Rain in used book stores) and short story writer (another out-of-print one is The Howbah Indians). His stuff has an authenticity about it that is at once its strength (truthbearer) and a weakness (white folks don't get it).
Ortiz' stories have been available in journals, anthologies, and rare paperbacks (Howbah Indians, Fightin'. Arizona, which is doing a fine job of making his work available, published this collection in 1999. No one writes better about the contemporary Indian experience. Also hardcover.
and Before the Lightning
|Univ of Arizona,
book in the Sun Tracks series at the University of Arizona. A
memoir of a winter Simon spent in South Dakota, while teaching at
Rosebud. Very evocative of the place. Also in
|From Sand Creek
|University of Arizona, Paperback
Aside from Harper and Row's Going for the Rain, decades out of print, Simon J. OIrtiz has had no attention from mainstream publishers. The University of Arizona has made a great effort to put his work in print, and this, a reprint of an early poetry book, is an excellent example of their work.
for the Generations
|Univ of Arizona
collection of essays on writing by Native American writers, edited
by Ortiz for the Sun Tracks series. Also
House Made of Dawn, and The Man Who Killed the Deer
offer three superb tellings, set in the pueblos of New Mexico, of
what is for many people the essential story of contemporary
American Indian life: The American Indian caught between two
cultures, unable to find an identity. The landscape of House
Made of Dawn is literary; that of The Man Who
Killed the Deer is folk; and both are essentially the observations of outsiders. Only Ceremony takes
us inside the culture and leaves us to look out, suddenly
disoriented by our new eyes, groping to make our own way through
the canyon-turns of myth and 'reality.' What is imaginary, what
real? The answer we come to is that it is all real: witches,
katchinas, the Bataan Death March, the poisoning of the Laguna
uranium miners who made Trinity possible....
some ways, Storyteller is my favorite of Leslie's books.
It fits in no category. It's a novel, sort of, made up of short
stories (one of them by Simon Ortiz, however, and some by Silko's
granny and her aunts) and poetry, and photographs and letters, and
talk about the how and why of telling stories. As formally
experimental as The Way to Rainy Mountain, although it is
superficially more similar to The Names, Momaday's less
successful attempt at a memoir.
of the Dead
of the Dead is a slouching beast of a book. Not so much a
'best novel of the last n years' as simply an essential
and irreplaceable addition to American fiction. It's noisy,
vulgar, horrifying; reading it is like surviving a train wreck:
You're better for the experience. And of course, it's not as
|Gardens in the Dunes
I delayed reading Gardens in the Dunes until the paperback came out, and it was an odd experience, reading it a few weeks after Jim Welch's new novel, The Heartsong of Charging Elk (which Silko praised on the jacket). Reviewers complained about Silko's "agendas" (NYTimes BR) and her "hatred" of white people. The twit claque at Kirkus Reveiw allowed as how it wasn't too bad, given that Silko is "not a novelist...." (Who are these guys at Kirkus? Somebody's sister-in-law's nephews?)
So I was expecting fireworks like the grand frenzies of Almanac of the Dead. This talk of Silko's "hatred of white people" has always struck me as a stupid analysis of her broader understanding of civilization's failures and discontents. The novel is, in fact, a quiet thing, like the canyon gardens it celebrates. Silko deserves her own page. Now that I've read this book it's time.
Gardens in the Dunesis still available in hardcover.
Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit :
Essays on Native American Life Today
Two books of poetry and a collection of Silko's essays on various subjects. Laguna Woman is a reprint of her first book.
Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit is also in
In the Blood
Death of Jim Loney
|The Heartsong of Charging Elk
Welch's first two novels, Winter in the Blood and The
Death of Jim Loney, were the first serious fiction to capture
the bleakness of contemporary (1970-1980) reservation life. A
trivial irony: it was Jim Welch who pointed out with some
exasperation that being referred to as the best American Indian
novelist is patronizing. He's a good writer who happens to be (no,
is also) Indian. Like his Indian lawyer.
His historical novel Fools Crow is one of a kind: a
detailed, check-your-dates historical novel about the Indian Wars
both written from and imagined from an Indian point of view. Most
novels produced by American Indian authors are on contemporary
subjects. There's a sound political reason for this. For most
non-Indians. "Indians" means 'history' (or it means
new-age cartoon flute players. Kokopelli lives, and Disney got him
licensed!). So movies like Powwow Highway and Journey
to Rosebud bomb and Dances With Wolves is a big hit.
That circumstance, plus the fact that most serious writers write
what they know, means there aren't many truly historical fictions
by Indian authors.
The Indian Lawyer is my own favorite (along with his
poetry, which has been reprinted in a new, revised editon of Riding
the Earthboy 40, though both editions are currently out of
print) because of the subject matter. The Indian lit 'canon' is
glutted with novels, mediocre or excellent, by Indians and white
folks, male and female, on the failure of an Indian protagonist to
make it in the contemporary world. Welch's Indian lawyer is
successful, and aside from the details of his personal life as a
tribal person, his story is not about being Indian at all. Sort
of. Read it.
His most recent novel, The Heartsong of Charging Elk, combines the cultural sensitivity of Fools Crow with the painfully secular themes of Welch's contemporary fiction. The blend is not as satisfying as the pure example of each mode (Fools Crow and The Indian Lawyer, respectively), but it is an excellent work nonetheless.
the Drum Circle
of the First Earth
Reviewers wrote about reading Young Bear "patiently"
when his 'Facepaint Narratives' hit the mass market bookshelves.
They called Black Eagle Child and Remnants of the
First Earth 'fictionalized memoirs', fumbling for a category
to put them in. One wonders if a category would have needed
inventing if Thomas Wolfe were an Indian. They are narratives,
stories, neither memoir nor novel, just like Leslie Silko's
'memoir,' Storyteller which is a long story about being a
writer with stories.
Young Bear is a Mesquakie Indian who made a brief stir in the
early seventies with some brilliant and almost unintelligible
poetry. He wrote so completely from inside of his cultural milieu
(the Sac and Fox people of Iowa) that a non-Mesquakie was as
out-of-place in front of his page as an anglo tourist at the Hopi
He disappeared for nearly a decade from the literary scene (a
poetry collection, The Invisible Musician, appeared in
1990). Rumors had him writing books for the Mesquakie schools,
keeping the language alive. It seemed appropriate that his talent
would be extended only to those who could read his native
language. Then the Facepaint Narratives appeared, as
uncompromising and inaccessible. And as brilliant, like the
apparent chaos of a fancy dance. There is nothing else like these
Black Eagle Child is
still available in
from the University of Iowa.
To understand how extraordinary Ray Young Bear's talent is, you
will need to track down his poetry. During the last round of
'Indian Mania', a collection called Winter of the Salamander
went in and out of print a couple of times: Try
for a used copy.
There is a very small group of authors who are not Indian themselves
but have written with such wisdom and empathy about American Indian
cultures that their books are accepted by many American Indian writers
and readers as worthy adjuncts to the body of American Indian
literature. I am choosing my words carefully, because I don't intend to
include here white writers who have painted up their prose, like Boy
Scout 'eagle dancers', whether they did it for good motives or bad, nor
do I intend to include white writers who have been popular with American
Indian readers for what I consider the wrong reasons.
Let me explain. When the first of the 'soulful' New-View Indian movies
came out, Winterhawk, the Michif and Lakota students in my
classes at the University of North Dakota insisted that I should see it
because it was so good. It sucked. Big time. But it romanticized the
Indians in a positive way and told a good story. Would the average guy
in a Dublin pub before World War II have picked James Joyce as the "conscience
of his race"? I doubt it. And Vine Deloria's endorsement of Claire
Huffaker's The Only Good Indian as one of the best books about
Indians does not oblige me to agree.
The irony of the drum circle gang is that everyone of them has been
anathemized as well as welcomed. That club is a big one, too. I once
heard a graduate student who later published her way into the front of
the American Indian scholar line explain to a panel that 'as an Indian,'
she felt that Scott Momaday didn't really qualify as an American Indian
writer. Scott Momaday?!! Too intellectual, too 'Western....'
Who is Indian? Scott once said (I paraphrase, however), that a person
is Indian if he thinks he is for a good reason. Big help, Scott. Who
knows if little Dougie 'Spotted Eagle' really thinks he's Indian as he
trundles his wheelbarrows of royalties to the bank (I have my
suspicions)? 'Jamake Highwater' had the good fortune to 'discover' that
he was Indian right around when it was a sure thing, publicity-wise (a little later, 'gay' became all the rage, and Indian rage got a little close to his butt, so he shifted minorities a bit). And Ward Churchill? If only he were a joke. Let's see, he's "Indian" because his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather mighta been and well, no, he didn't grow up Indian, just sorta discovered it when he came up for tenure....
And then, there are
the real Indian writers. Leslie Silko is part white. Louise Erdrich is
much white. Depending on how you count it, Scott is no more Indian (or
less) than Frank Waters, who never claimed to be, in spite of his
father's Cheyenne heritage. The scholar in question above? She is less than
half Indian genetically, and that a mixture of two tribes a thousand
There is no French Academy for picking American Indian writers.
Gratefully, I add to see if you wince. The American Indian, even more
than the Irish patriot, is an invention, after all. What could the
decadent literature of the Toltec princes have in common with the
demotic, haiku-like text of a '49 or a Mediwiwin song, or the contemporary fictions of a
woman who grew up with her Chippewa gran'ma on the rez? Is there really
a difference of kind between The Man Who Killed the Deer and
Ceremony? And if so, is that difference 'Indian-ness'? I don't
know. I don't think so. Patchouli is an essence. "Indian" isn't.
Man Who Killed the Deer
in the days when I had scholarly ambitions, I meant to write a
biography of Frank. It was to be called Koshare. What an
amazing book The Man Who Killed the Deer was in 1942! So
yes, Momaday and Silko were better at their craft, and perhaps
D'arcy McNickle's The Surrounded or John Joseph Mathews'
Sundown were written more unambiguously from within
American Indian culture (I don't think so). But here is a book
that, more than fifty years later, still holds up while so much
that was written about Indians even twenty years ago is now
relegated to the dustbin of the anachronistic and obsolete. Read
this book, and Ceremony, and House Made of Dawn,
and decide for yourself who did what best. I wouldn't give up any
|Univ of Nebraska,
Manly Hearted Woman
|Univ of Nebraska,
miss Fred. To me he never seemed the Bunyanesque, roarin',
Earth-eating giant of his folklore. What I saw, the twenty years I
knew him, was the lizard, the eternal, dry, ageless observer, more
condor than bear, the reporter, the rheumy unflinching eye, the
bony, scrawling claw, the bold nose and sly grin. His two "pre-White
Indian novels" are simply the best of their kind, in some
ways a more extraordinary act of imagination that Jim Welch's Fools
Crow. If you care about the West, you should have read the
entire Buckskin Man Tales, starting with Manly-Heart (the
unofficial prologue that was actually an afterthought).
His pre-white Indians are imagined with extraordinary sympathy
and detail in Conquering Horse, which is a naturalist view
of the subject, and again, with a completely different effect, in
the finely crafted mythic fable of The Manly Hearted Woman.
And while we are on the subject, what more brilliant tour-de-force
than his hairpin about-face in Scarlet Plume, which begins
with an "Indian massacre" as horrifying as Larry
McMurtry at his worse or the McCarthy gent writing a note to his
milkman and ends, 250 pages later, with a symmetrical horror in
which the Indians are the innocent victims and the whites the
bloodthirsty savages. Whew. I miss him, my grand old grandfather.
The soil is richer for his bones.
|Lucia St. Clair Robson
|Ride the Wind
Do not be fooled by this book's cover, so evocative of the "Indian lover" bin of Historical Romance. Robson is a serious writer who has pulled off a couple of great pieces of work. Her account of Cynthia Ann Parker, Quanah Parker's mother, is a classic. Robson produced a sympathetic and accurate portrait of the nineteenth-century Comanche. She neither softens the brutality of their lives nor sensationalizes it. The book begins with the Comanche massacre of the Parkers and concludes with the Texas Ranger's committing similar atrocities on Cynthia Ann's Comanche family many years later. Ride the Wind is a keeper.
Her latest novel, Ghost Warrior (Here's my review), pulls off the same virtuoso trick, helping us identify with and understand what may be the most stereotyped people in all of American history, the Apache. It is at once a relentless narrative of a shameful period of American history and a charming, mature love story.
And if you like these, try Fearless, the story of Texas frontierswoman Sarah Bowman, who figures in Ghost Warrior.
On a related topic, see my essay, "'American Indian Mysteries': A Crossover Genre Not Quite There." It discusses the genre of mystery novels with American Indian themes, identifying the best of the writers and books.