Stories of Cultural Conflict

By

GROWING UP NATIVE AMERICAN: AN ANTHOLOGY Edited by Patricia Riley William Morrow & Co., 333 pp., $23

EARTH SONG, SKY SPIRIT: SHORT STORIES OF THE CONTEMPORARY NATIVE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Edited by Clifford E. Trafzer Doubleday, 495 pp., $25

`IN the books available to me as a child,'' writes editor Patricia Riley in the introduction to ``Growing Up Native American: An Anthology,'' ``Native Americans were usually exotic, cultural artifacts from the past, the stereotypical `Vanishing Americans,' sometimes portrayed as romantic or noble, but always backward savages on their way out, and soon to be no more.''

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Riley's book and another, ``Earth Song, Sky Spirit: Short Stories of the Contemporary Native American Experience,'' shatter this long-held belief. Both collections offer diverse selections of short stories by native-American writers who explore the issues, traditions, and culture that have shaped the native-American experience.

Although the stories touch on some of the same themes and several authors appear in both works, each book offers something different.

``Growing Up Native American'' is the shorter of the two, with 22 pieces by native Americans from 15 different Indian nations across the United States and Canada. The most interesting aspect of this book is its autobiographical accounts from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Several native-American writers tell haunting tales of how they were plucked from their families and forced by the US government to attend boarding schools where they were often treated brutally.

John Lame Deer, a Lakota holy man born in 1903, tells of his experience: ``In those days the Indian schools were like jails and run along military lines, with roll calls four times a day. We had to stand at attention, or march in step. The B.I.A. [Bureau of Indian Affairs] thought that the best way to teach us was to stop us from being Indians. We were forbidden to talk our language or to sing our songs....''

He observes that while schools in 1972 (the year he was interviewed for this piece) were more modern than in his time, their effect on young Indians was the same: ``These schools are just boxes filled with homesick children. The schools leave a scar. We enter them confused and bewildered and we leave them the same way. When we enter the school we at least know that we are Indians. We come out half red and half white, not knowing what we are.''

The book then focuses on the 20th century, and includes stories (mostly fiction) about native-American children in the foster-care system, contemporary native-American women and their fight against oppression, tales about tribal traditions, and the ongoing battle against racism and prejudice.

Many are selections taken from novels, and while they are interesting to read, it is difficult to fully appreciate them out of context.

``Earth Song, Sky Spirit'' is a collection of 30 pieces of contemporary fiction. As with ``Growing Up Native American,'' authors range from more well-known writers such as Michael Dorris and N. Scott Momaday, who won the Pulitzer Prize for ``House Made of Dawn'' in 1969, to lesser-known storytellers.

In this volume, the themes of identity and one's place in the community resonate throughout each tale. One particularly memorable piece called ``Adventures of an Indian Princess,'' by Patricia Riley, focuses on a foster Cherokee girl who lives with a white family named Rapier. The unenlightened family takes her to Cherokee country on a day trip to put her in touch with her roots. They stop at a tacky tourist trading post where Mr. Rapier forces the girl to hold a rubber tomahawk, don a turkey feather war bonnet, and then pose for a picture with a man dressed as an Indian. The scene's pathetic but true-to-life depiction is almost humorous:

`` `Smile real big for me, honey,' he [Mr. Rapier] said. `And say the magic word. Say Cherokee!'... Through her humiliation, Arletta glared defiantly at the man behind the camera and stubbornly refused to utter Mr. Rapier's magic word, no matter how much he coaxed and cajoled. Finally the camera whirred once like a demented bumblebee and it was done. Mrs. Rapier dabbed at the perspiration that puddled in her cleavage with a crumpled tissue and praised her husband's photographic genius. `That was perfect, Jackson,' she said. `You got her real good. Why, she looks just like an Indian princess.' ''

The writing styles in each book are diverse and differ from conventional Western stories. The reason for this, explains editor Clifford Trafzer in the introduction to ``Earth Song, Sky Spirit,'' is that storytelling has always been an oral, rather than a written tradition for native Americans. This aspect is reflected in their writing. For example, the stories often don't follow a clear path and lack definite conclusions. They often blend the past and present, the real and mythic, and the conscious and unconscious. Nonstandard spelling, grammar, and syntax are often used to reflect more aptly the languages of native-American people and in defiance of the dominant culture.

As to be expected with anthologies, some of the 52 selections in these books are more appealing than others. But on the whole, both books provide a good introduction to native-American writing.

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