Native Americans - lost and found
Books by and about native Americans measure what has been lost - and detail the signs of a revival.
In recent years, there has been a growing body of exceptional literature and other works written by native Americans. In his novel "Fools Crow," novelist James Welch (of Blackfoot and Gros Ventre descent) depicted the history and heart of Indian life in the 1870s as "Dances With Wolves" never could.Skip to next paragraph
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Leslie Marmon Silko (who grew up on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation and won a MacArthur "genius" grant for "Ceremony," her first work) told a haunting, mythic tale of North American history - past and future - in "Almanac of the Dead."
In "Medicine River" and "Green Grass, Running Water," Thomas King portrayed contemporary Indian characters - especially their wry humor - with exceptional skill.
Not yet 40, Sherman Alexie Jr., a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, has published 16 books of award-winning poetry and short stories, one of which ("Smoke Signals") became a film featured at the Sundance Film Festival.
Like most of those who identify themselves as native American, Mr. King, a professor of English at the University of Guelph in Ontario, is of mixed heritage. His father was Cherokee, his mother Greek and German. But his stories - and especially his way of telling stories - are distinctly native American.
Does the Adam and Eve story in Genesis make any more sense than "The Woman Who Fell From the Sky?" Is it any more legitimate as a creation story? Listening to King tell it - and here one feels that one is listening, not reading - one can only answer, "Who cares?"
For, as he writes, "contained within creation stories are relationships that help to define the nature of the universe and how cultures understand the world in which they exist." Those stories aren't all traditional, involving the trickster "Coyote" and other animal characters.
They include, as King notes, "stories about broken treaties, residential schools, culturally offensive movies, the appropriation of Native names, symbols, and motifs."
But in the end, the main story in his latest work, "The Truth About Stories," is King's own story: what it's like and what it means to be an Indian (or more accurately, choosing to identify most closely with one's Indian lineage) in a place where that still is not a very easy thing.
Fortunately, King tells his story with the same soulful wit he employs in his fiction - moving within sight of cynicism sometimes but not dwelling there.
Likewise with Winona LaDuke, whose father was Ojibwe. With a degree from Harvard in economic development, she moved some 20 years ago to the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota where she's been a writer, activist, and mother of three children.
(She was also Ralph Nader's running mate in the 1996 and 2000 presidential election.)
Her most recent book, "Recovering the Sacred," explores the connection between the loss of what had been considered "holy land" by Indian groups and the environmental degradation that ensued. Along with the plundering of Indian human remains and funerary items by museums and private collectors, there's been the slaughter of buffalo, the decimation of salmon runs, the strip mining of coal and drilling for oil.
To be sure, there's been economic poverty as a result. But the loss of cultural and spiritual identity may have brought a deeper sort of poverty.