Native Americans - lost and found

Books by and about native Americans measure what has been lost - and detail the signs of a revival.

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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.

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.

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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.

"We have a problem of two separate spiritual paradigms and one dominant culture," she writes. "Make that a dominant culture with an immense appetite for natural resources. The animals, the trees and other plants, even the minerals under the ground and the water from the lakes and streams, all have been expropriated from Native American territories."

She notes that "by the 1930s, Native territories had been reduced to about four percent of our original land base."

Others point out that what was thought to have been a population of more than 5 million native people in what are today the contiguous 48 states when European settlement began had been reduced (often with violence) to just 250,000 by 1900.

That loss, and the political struggle to regain it, have been the life work of Charles Wilkinson, law professor at the University of Colorado and a former attorney with the Native American Rights Fund.

Mr. Wilkinson is not native American, but he is highly regarded by Indian tribal leaders and writers.

His most recent book, "Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations," chronicles the US government polices and social practices that led to that loss of territory and population.

But as one who has been a participant in as well as an observer of a more recent trend, Professor Wilkinson also details an Indian revival that he sees as "a major episode in American history ... [that] can fairly be mentioned in the same breath with the abolitionists and suffragists of old and the contemporary civil rights, women's, and environmental movements."

It's come about mostly in spite of official Washington policy, largely the result of exceptional leaders (tribal and other) who have asserted their legal rights as sovereign nations under 19th-century treaties and 20th-century law.

Serious problems remain, as Wilkinson points out.

The average per capita income for Indians on reservations is less than half the national average, and the unemployment rate is double. Indian families still are more likely to live in overcrowded homes. Only half of Indian students finish high school. Life expectancy for American Indians is five years less than for other races in the US, reflecting health and alcohol problems.

But as Wilkinson writes, "Indian people have accomplished what would have been unthinkable in the dark days of the 1950s: They have created viable, permanent self-governed homelands."

There are two other recent books of note. One is "The Encyclopedia of Native Music," by Brian Wright-McLeod, a Dakota- Anishnabe Indian who's a radio broadcaster in Toronto.

It's a thorough and lengthy work, describing the vast number of native American artists ranging from traditional drummers and flutists to jazz singers in the 1930s, rock and folk musicians such as Rita Coolidge (Cherokee), Buffy Sainte-Marie (Plains Cree), and Robby Robertson of "The Band" (Mohawk) to contemporary Navajo rapper Natay.

In "Spirit of a Native Place," a series of essays by the directors, designers, and curators of the National Museum of the American Indian (most of them Native American), describe the ideas behind this unique structure and its magnificent collections, which opened in Washington last fall.

Photographs, drawings, and historic images whet the appetite for a visit to what is likely to be the last museum built on the National Mall.

Brad Knickerbocker is on the Monitor staff.

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