It’s that time of year again. As the season turns, so does our attention to Native Americans. It’s Native American Heritage Month and, ironically, of course, the month we celebrate Thanksgiving. Or maybe it’s not irony but something else. This is because we celebrate the holiday by trying to recognize the history of a people who are often poorly remembered. So the celebratory spirit seems wrong, because we are still unwilling to acknowledge what really happened. Children in schools dress up as Indians and pilgrims as if it was a good meal and a peaceful time in general, even after the fact.
Many Aboriginal people still celebrate the holiday as well. Everyone has free time and no one is against gratitude. It is complicated. And I would never condemn an Indigenous person or family for eating together. The problem is deep and systemic. I don’t have good answers on what to do instead or if people should continue to celebrate the holidays. Thinking about what really happened is a good start. Talking about it, even if the meal is still taking place, is a good start. But what really happened, and according to whom, further complicates matters.
It’s hard to know exactly how it feels about the months of the year chosen to celebrate a people, culture, or history anyway. It’s kind of like being a Native American author or writer. White men become writers. Whites and history according to them get the rest of the attention when it’s not a month. And here I am again worried about sounding crazy, angry or bitter – what exactly? A celebration of my people?
It’s just that we recently saw Native Americans being shot with rubber bullets as they prayed to keep the water clean and that no pipelines were buried. And, of course, we have a sitting president whose favorite president in history was the worst for Native Americans, Andrew Jackson.
Not that I want to complain. It has been a good year for aboriginal people in the arts, myself included. In addition to my novel “There There”, we also had Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir “Heart Berries”, Tommy Pico’s collection of poems “Junk”, Billy-Ray Belcourt’s memoir-in-poems “This Wound is a World ”and Brandon from Hobson’s novel“ Where the Dead Sit Talking. ”
Those of us who try to express ourselves in the arts in the hopes of helping others understand us – and possibly bring some kind of change to the world – should rejoice when we pay attention.
With that in mind, I would like to draw your attention to some works over the years that I think are important, very accessible – and just plain very good. I enjoyed the following books very much and were instructive for me.
“Winter in the blood”, by James Welch
Winter in James Welch’s Blood was the first Aboriginal novel I read. I had avoided reading books by native writers for so long because the reservation stories made me feel less native because I didn’t have that specific experience. I didn’t read “Winter in the Blood” until about 2008. I hadn’t read anything in Native canon and entered literature through a strange sort of backdoor that I had made myself – same. I mostly read translation works. “Winter in the Blood” is told from the perspective of a native living in Montana. The subject of the book is less important to me than the quality of the sentences it contains. The book explores the experience of an aboriginal man, how he moves towards his identity in a small town in Montana and at the same time is repelled by his challenges. The book is brilliant, brutal, and in my opinion Welch’s best work. (See also a film based on the book released in 2013).
“Medicine of love”, by Louise Erdrich
I have always liked books told from the perspective of a wide range of characters. It’s not something that a lot of readers like, I learned. Louise Erdrich made her debut with “Love Medicine” in 1984. The writing of this book, which follows many different people, families and experiences, is so strong and distinct. It guides the reader through so many kinds of voices in a world that, at the time of its release, so few people knew or understood. It highlights something totally new about a people trying to grapple with a kind of life that more Americans absolutely should try to understand.
“Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong,” by Paul Chaat Smith; “The Inconvenient Indian”, by Thomas King
Sometimes natives are expected to know all about the natives of America. Sometimes it feels like this is one of the many requirements to be genuine or legitimate. If you feel like you don’t know anything, or what you know may be wrong – whether you are Indigenous or not – these two books are either a great place to start or a great place to start re-evaluating this. that you think you might know about.
Orange, the author of the novel “Over There,” teaches creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.