Monthly Archives: July 2012

Welcome to the Jungle: The Sharpest Sight and Indians in Vietnam

For the past week, Mixedblood Messages has been honoring the life and work of Louis Owens who was born July 18, 1948 and died July 25, 2002. (This post is a couple days late, but it only means we get to talk/think about Owens longer!) Owens is the author of the work from which this blog name is taken, and an accomplished novelist in the mixedblood mystery genre as well as an all around mixedblood literary hero. If I’m still around next year, I will try to get to all the books I missed (including Owens’s excellent scholarly works in Native Studies). Thanks for reading…now go out and get yourself a Louis Owens Novel!

Painting on the jacket cover, Silent Whispers by Bert D. Seabourn

Louis Owens is an author of tropes. You read just two of his books and you get a taste of his obsessions: violent murder, resurrection, darkness, men of Cherokee/Choctaw/Irish ancestry (like himself), mischievous elders usurping the story, and mysterious women with mystical sex powers.

Then there’s Vietnam: the war in the jungle full of walking dead and evil spirits. It hangs like a dark cloud around the lives and minds of Owens’s characters. His most focused meditation on the war is found, I think, in his last novel, Dark River, which is all about the destructive nature of American masculinity and attitudes toward land. But the centrality of Vietnam in Owens’s personal mythology didn’t strike me until I went back and read his second novel, The Sharpest Sight.

The novel centers on Attis McCurtian who comes back from the war, as many did, a scatter shot shadow of his former self. His father, Hoey, says, “”My boy never came back from that war. They killed him and gutted him over there.'” One night in a hallucinatory flashback to his time in the jungle, this zombie Attis puts a knife through the heart of his long-time sweetheart Jenna Demi. And that should have been the final note in the shattered life of another unhinged veteran.

Until one night, Attis escapes from the facility for the criminally insane and disappears into the night. His best friend Mundo Morales, who went with him to Vietnam but came back to become Deputy of their small Central California town, is summoned to the river to find Attis,dead and swirling with the logs. The rest of The Sharpest Sight details the quest to recover Attis body, while a bevy of dark forces (the FBI, a hungry soul-eater, and an insane tavern owner) work against efforts to make Attis and the world he disrupted whole again.

Through flashbacks, told by Mundo, Owens manages to address the racism faced by Indian soldiers. They were, of course, all given the nickname chief but more insidiously they were the first ones chosen for night guard. In the rhetoric surrounding Native American enrollment in the armed forces (the greatest percent of any group in the US), words about warrior ethic and tradition are often bandied around instead of the more ominous motivations such as complete lack of any other choice but to fight for the people who took everything from you. This desire for the mantle of warrior is what, in part, drives Attis into the war.

But once in Vietnam,  Attis’s quickly becomes disillusioned. He sees “the lonely ghosts of long-range recon men wandering the jungle” and becomes convinced he and the other soldiers are destined to kill each other over and over again. After describing the “black river full of snakes and dead things” reserved for murderers, Attis tells his best friend, “‘Warriors always used to go to the good place. But what I can’t figure out, Mundo, is the difference between a warrior and a murderer.'”

This is the question that is passed along with Attis’s fatigue jacket to his younger brother Cole who is given the task of reclaiming Attis’s bones. Cole too must enter a jungle where “there were always hidden things, looming in the darkness.” His pilgrimage, however, is not to a foreign land, but rather the homeland he never knew. It is in the Choctaw jungle of the deep South where Cole will seek to return his brother’s bones to his wandering shadow and his own sense of identity to himself. Cole comes to realize that in the old ways, being a warrior is based not just on the amount of enemy scalps you claim, but also, and perhaps more importantly, on counting coup. It is through the old ways that he can calm down a world in chaos.

The McCurtains are mixedblood Indians living in the Salinas Valley in Central California. They have been tossed about on the waters of American life, and like so many have ended up far from home and with little sense of their past. The Vietnam War hits their lives as the final blow, destroying the first born son and damaging everyone he touched. At one point, Hoey talks about the “‘ceremonies for warriors coming back home, ceremonies that could take all the evil out,” and wonders if this is what Attis required upon his return from the evil of senseless war. Cole’s journey is this ceremony. It is the journey of all Indians to find themselves not in someone else’s war, not in the dead places, but in the jungle of our pasts, mysterious and full of hidden things but thriving with life.


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Looking at Louis Through The Covers

This week I am commemorating the life of Louis Owens, the mixedblood King of literature, through discussion of some of his key novels. For an overview of Owens’s life, go here, and for a review of his last novel Dark River, go here.

Instead of reviewing this book in the usual manner, I’d like to look at Nightland through its covers. First off, I would like to issue a demand that all of Owens’s works be re-issued not only to bring his name to a new generation of critical Indians, but also to remedy the series of ugly and deceptive book bodies that now serve as the world’s window into Owens’s writing.

First we have this acid-induced nightmare for a book that is about two half-Cherokee best friends who find themselves with a million dollars of blood money, money that literally fell out of the sky:

I know what you’re thinking (after you throw up in your mouth a little bit): who in Creator’s name would create something so ghastly. I’m not sure what’s worse, the color penciled monster or the Southwestern Comic Sans. No wonder Owens continues to stew in obscurity. This cover besides being terrifying gives no clue to the content or tone of the novel within. I suspect this otherworldy image, and it accompanying wacky font, were chosen to emphasis the Native American aspects of the book.

This is all part of what Owens’s calls the “invention of the Indian.”Just like white people have invented the category of “white,” they have also created the “Indian,” just another racialized set of qualities that fails to truly describe the people it circumscribes. Signifiers like those on this cover seek only to communicate the idea of an Indian novel, without lending any hint to what the book is actually about.

It is a common plague among Native American authors. They are always Indians before they are authors. What is important about their books is their authenticity as Native texts; only secondary is actually listening to what those texts have to say. It is only ironic that such a cover is used for an author who writes so consistently against the idea of a homogenous Indian identity.

I suspect there’s another reason for the freakish, rainbow-haired alien. In most of Owens’s books there are elements typically classified as “supernatural.” People coming back from the dead, shadows of souls lurking in the corners, men shifting into coyotes and back, etc. These aspects have garnered him the title of “magical realist” but this is not magic, it’s simply the Choctaw/Cherokee worlds emerging into English literature. Of course, instead of treating Indigenous culture and storytelling with the correct and respectful signifiers, the literary establishment calls them “magic” and puts a magic bird on it.

Okay, second cover. Don’t worry, this one isn’t nearly as bad:

Here we have the opposite approach. None of that weird Native American mystic stuff. Just straight-up Clive Cussler style action-thriller cover. I wonder how many macho guys, those who only read “Men’s literature” on the morning commute or in the gym, would be tempted to pick this book up, how many would read it, and if anyone of them might actually like it. Owens’s books certainly do not skimp on the plot. Nightland is filled with suspense, blood-shed, mystery, all the classic qualities of a thriller. I could imagine the first half of the cover copy only describing the drug trade, poor ranchers, and dark women that operate as the classic noir machinations. Of course, there are also long digressions on the nature of Indian identity, the destruction of the West through a history of settler colonialism, and all the aforementioned “Indian mystic” stuff. Considering, this cover might actually persuade some bonehead to actually listen to the latter, while enjoying the former, I heartily approve.

Finally, the cover I was lucky enough to stumble upon in a used book store. The best of all three:

You have your Indian accents, the dream catcher hoop thing, the mysterious landscape, but the emphasis is mostly on the author and title. This I think most succinctly captures, in broad strokes, the menacing feel of the novel. Though we continue through the plot, wondering what will happen to our half-Cherokee friends Will and Billy (who together make one whole Indian?), not to mention, the resurrected man who dropped with the money from the sky, there is always the weight of prophecy nudging us towards one unavoidable conclusion.

Though Nightland isn’t my favorite Owens’s novel, it still has dialogue as good as any other of his books (all of his characters eventually reveal themselves as philosophers). One of my favorite lines he ever wrote is in this book, spoken by the (somewhat) benevolent Pubelo drug lord Paco Ortega, “‘It’s the American dream, isn’t it, to commit every kind of filthy thing and then pretend it never happened?'”

As far as filthy things go, I may not believe in the American dream, but I’d be willing to pretend that first cover never happened as long as Penguin Classics gets started on their Louis Owens series.

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Can You Ever Go Home: A Trip Down the Dark River

Awesome painting, "Honest Indian" by Bill Rabbit

The cover features the awesome painting, “Honest Indian” by Bill Rabbit

For the next week, I will be exploring different novels by Louis Owens who was born on July 18th and died on July 25th. 

The book that started it all. Actually, the book that marks the end of Louis Owens’ career. But it is the first book of his I read, the one that let me know I had found my literary soul mate. Dark River, Owens’ fifth and final novel, is a product and exploration of the paradoxes of the American West: at once mystery and meditation on the wandering soul of the mixedblood Indian (and the mixedblood settler for that matter).

The story takes place in my home state of Arizona, and it captures so well the twisted soul of that bizarre and variable place, one that has contributed no doubt to the strange shape of my own being. When people talk about Arizona these days, they imagine a state full of angry white men who loves guns, borders, and the New World Order. That is indeed a very vocal part of the state’s make-up and their aggressive brand of nationalism represent a very destructive force at the center of Dark River.

These are men with enough money to spend on a week-long pilgrimage to the canyon lands of the Apache reservation to attend a sort of Rambo 101, crash course in survivalism. Armed to the teeth with military-scale weaponry, the disturbed suburbanites practice a host of strategies and tactics for surviving in the end times.

As much as the book centers around critiquing the absurdity of their philosophy, it also brings forth the others of Arizona, the New Age weirdos from Sedona, the lonely mixed bloods, the Vietnam veterans, the authenticity-obsessed anthropologists, the Apache elder in converse sneakers, the vision quest entrepreneur, the Spaghetti Western extra, and the corrupt tribal chief.

These characters are types for sure but Owens is too good an author, too honest of an author, to keep them chained to the expectations of their mold. At every turn they twist our assumptions of what “that kind of person” is like and leave us questioning our notions of purity and what constitutes identity in the first place.

According to Shorty Luke, the aforementioned “star” of Spaghetti Westerns who speaks Rez-accented Italian, your identity is just another survival tool. As he says after one of his impromptu mentoring sessions with the youngins, “‘I’m just trying to make sure the kids know their roles, develop their sense of irony, so they’ll know how to function, how to adapt like Russell Means*.'” For Shorty, the first in a line of tricksters populating these pages, that adaptation comes through stories and he proudly wears the title of “Shorty the Story Thief.”

But our hero is not so declarative on issues of identity. He is of the mixedblood and Vietnam vet categories, Jacob Nashoba a Choctaw man working as a Forest ranger on an (imagined) Apache Reservation. Like Byron before him, Owen shapes his melancholy, love-lorn heroes on himself and the loneliness of the mixedblood subject reaches its height in this, his last story.

As one might suspect, much of that loneliness comes from the restlessness of being between worlds. Nashoba tells himself he isn’t  “really an Indian…or really anything else. His mother had died during his first tour of duty, and so he was tied to nothing in the whole world except a childhood vision of an old man he never knew.” Envisioning himself as a man with no roots, Jacob connects himself to the white men who came West and had since made a mess of the land. He sees himself as a true American, stumbling around, destroying everything in his path and then simply moving along…because he never belonged there anyway.

The only people who truly feel settled in the text are the Apaches. That’s because they are; they live on land that is theirs and always has been. They have a home, a people and so they are never lost. Everyone else in the book is stuck searching, whether through vision quests, survivalist summer camps, authentically re-created tipis, etc, for the place that will make them whole.

Avram Goldberg is the most ridiculous, but in classic Owen’s style also the most poignant, of these pilgrims.  Avram is a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn who stumbled onto the Black Mountain Apache Reservation to do research and never left. Now he is more Native than the Natives. He’s so much more Indian, the Chief drags him out of his wickiup to speak to the magazine reporters and Diane Sawyer types who come through looking to talk to real, live Indians.

He is an easy character to laugh at…at first. Then a little past half-way through the book, Owens takes us into Goldberg’s memory. We learn about the long road he’d walked to get out West, how “he’s walked nearly every step of it by himself, learning something essential before each foot touched the earth, reading, watching, listening, questioning, deciding, becoming.” Though perhaps a little foolish, Goldberg is only trying to become, like all of us.

Through this wide array of characters, Dark River itself becomes a study of the American myth of the self-made man. Sometimes sociopathic, sometimes a saint, the wayfaring stranger defines the Western personality. In his ambiguous, piercing vision, Owens  casts this temperament like the “wild song of coyotes, the mixed-up mess of cry and lullaby and angry shriek all in a single garbled note.”

*One of the original leaders of the American Indian Movement who went on to star in Hollywood films, including being the voice of Pocahontas’s father in the Disney film.

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Happy Birthday Louis Owens!

This is the first post in a week-long celebration of Louis Owens’ Life. Over the next few days, I will be devoting one post to each of his novels (the ones I’ve had the chance to read at least). Please stay tuned to learn more about the life and work of this great author and scholar, who has for too long been delegated to the arena of solely “academic interest.”

This blog has always been a tribute to Louis Owens. It is from his book that I got the name: Mixedblood Messages. That book and the first novel of his I read, Dark River, have influenced so much of my identity as a mixedblood Indian, I have begun to think of Louis Owens almost as progenitor. He is one of those rare writers who takes the unformed parts of your self and make them whole, who drags the thoughts you almost had and brings them to the surface.

He is also someone who made me believe that Native literature isn’t just something to read and feel good about. Native literature is important and worth fighting for. That’s why I set aside this week to fight for his memory. Because he didn’t just write books that made me feel less alone. But because he’s important. Because he actually changed the lives of people who knew him and not enough people know him now.

Louis was born on this day in 1948. On July 25th, 2002, he didn’t just die. He shot himself in the heart in his pickup truck in the parking lot of the Albuquerque airport. It was a sad yet fitting place of restlessness for a man always in flight. There was talk of a history of depression but  nobody expected suicide. The sorrow of his death was inextricably tied with anger– the people close to him and even those just familiar with his work couldn’t believe he would leave them behind. Especially as he was becoming more well-known, his books beginning to see the light outside the ghetto of Native American literature. It was the selfish desire of loyal followers, the constant need for your hero to keep being heroic.

Owens’ early life was marked by migration and poverty. Born in Lompoc, California, he spent his childhood moving between Mississippi and the Central Valley as his parents traveled in search of farm jobs. With a childhood like that, it’s hardly surprising that he was drawn to the work of John Steinbeck, a fellow hometown boy of Salinas Valley who wrote about the plight of poor working people without a home in the world. He established himself as a foremost Steinbeck scholar with two books, John Steinbeck’s Re-Vision of America and The Grapes of Wrath: Trouble in the Promised Land.

He then moved on to be one of the first critical scholars in the burgeoning field of Native studies. A constant champion for Native American literature, Owens stressed the importance of subversive Indian voices whose role he saw was not only to be storytellers but survivors and resistance fighters.

I first came to Owens through his novels. Most if not all of his novels are characterized as mysteries, not just murder mysteries and whodunnits but explorations into the mysteries of mixedblood life. He himself was Choctaw, Cherokee and Irish, born far from any one of those homelands. And his characters are often life him, mixedbloods far from home working to piece together a tribal identity in a strange land. The thing about Owens’ writing that I always respected was that he left those pieces of identity jagged. His books don’t have happy endings. Nor, obviously, did his life. Owens is perhaps one of those few artists whose dramatic suicide did not lend him more fame after death.

But he continues on. And we take him with us wherever we may go. Happy Birthday, Louis Owens. You had a strong heart and are missed always.

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Indians in Space (Author’s Cut)

This is a long-form book review I have been working on for some time. I find anthologies especially hard to cover and this one  in particular was a challenge because the topic, Indigenous Science-Fiction, is one I want to spend the rest of my life talking about. A shorter, more refined version of this piece is currently looking for a home in an online magazine. Until that day (if it comes), I have decided to indulge (that’s what personal blogs are for, right?) and present you with my author’s cut, which addresses more of the collection than possible in my edited version. Enjoy!

It’s 2100 and the Ghost Dancers have returned. The born-again Sioux are dancing to free their people’s souls from the extraterrestrial Barrier, a deadly “trans-organism” that has divided the world into refugee camps. The camps fill every day with people struck by the fire virus, a ghastly disease only the Sioux are immune to and only the people of West Africa have the cure for.

This is the premise of Andrea Harriston’s novel Mindscape, a world where western science has failed in the face of the unknowable and the world relies on Indigenous knowledge to survive.

It is just one of almost twenty alternate universes found in Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. For the geeky Indian tired of reading and watching science fiction about white heroes conquering red planets, Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction is what the recent release of The New Yorker Science Fiction Issue was for other nerdy types—the validation of something that has for too long been ignored. In this case, not just the perennially-overlooked Indigenous voices but the weird Indigenous voices of speculative and science fiction.

Edited by the ever-insightful Grace L. Dillon, Walking the Clouds is the first anthology to bring together writers from around the world representing not only their own tribal literature but also the burgeoning movement of Indigenous Futurism. This inherently radical literature dares to project the Vanishing Indian, victim of genocide or modern despondency, far into the future and onto a genre that re-envisions the world through uniquely Indigenous perspectives.

Walking the Clouds is not just an introduction to what Indigenous Futurism is, but a continuous attempt to create the subject of its study. To that end, the stories and excerpts are rather short with Dillon’s introduction and analysis defining and guiding us through the conceptual framework of each brief piece. The book is more an encyclopedia of ideas than a true collection of stories, providing a useful road map thorough previously scattered works while pointing out valuable sources to revisit.

The driving tension of this exploration is between what Indigenous Futurism shares with SF and what it subverts. For Stephen Graham Jones, a self-proclaimed follower of “Blackfeet physics,” the time-bending, multidimensional quality of SF is simply an extension of tribal tradition. Neither Dillon nor I would go so far as to say all Indigenous literature is inherently SF, but what this anthology does reveal is that Indigenous SF is not new: it is simply a new way to group aspects that have shot through certain Indigenous literature and perceptions for a very long time.

Though, Dillon points to these shared aspects, she is also quick to highlight the stark differences between a world centered on Western science and one on Indigenous knowledge. By choosing to lay claim to Science Fiction, the collection commits an ultimate act of appropriation by transforming a genre that has defined Western-American attitudes towards race, colonialism, and technology into a vehicle for Indigenous resistance. Aliens are no longer the racialized other of exotic worlds and the colonization of distant, presumed-empty lands no longer the central drama. Most importantly, Western technology is no longer revered as God but rather critiqued as a flawed method of interacting with nature.

We witness this war of worlds in Simon Ortiz’s contribution to the anthology, Men on the Moon, the story of an old Acoma man, Faustin, who turns on the television for the first time and watches the Apollo 11 rocket launch through snowy static. As he watches astronauts collect samples, Faustin laughs that the “American scientists went to search for knowledge on the moon and they brought back rocks.” When he asks his grandson what they want to learn from rocks, he is told the scientists want to know how the universe began. Faustin responds incredulously, “Hasn’t anyone told them?”

In Faustin’s eyes, the wonder of science and its ability to make anything possible—a theme in many SF stories—becomes skepticism and even ridicule of science’s attempt to “discover” what for many has already been found, much like the “New World” itself. Ortiz does not rely on how a Western notion of science can enhance his fiction, but instead reveals the fiction behind science’s claims to epistemological mastery. Ortiz’s story, Men on the Moon, is not in an anthology of SF because of its references to space and strange machines, it is there because of the process of estrangement whereby it challenges the precepts with which we classify “science” and “fiction”.

The disruptive estrangement of Ortiz’s work is the unifying theme of Walking in the Clouds. So too is the sense of irony, sharpened to a point in Stephen Graham Jones’ description of a robotic Lone Ranger subservient to Tonto and Sherman Alexie’s telling of a future world where Indians rid the world of all white presence. But nowhere is the topsy-turvy nature of the Indigenous Futurist world clearer than in the apocalyptic frontier. Dillon argues that the SF apocalypse has long been an excuse for Western writers to re-open the frontier as a stage for the ongoing battle between savagery and civilization. But that imaginative space is quite different when experienced by people who, as Mark Bould says, “have already survived the apocalypse.”

From the perspective of Indigenous survivors the frontier, whether the Wild West, Mars or the ruins of a nuclear disaster, becomes less of what Vine Deloria Jr. describes as “a testing ground for abstract morality” and more a “comprehensive matrix of life forms.” In short, Flash Gordon will not survive the Indigenous space age without seriously re-situating his relationship with the universe. In Walking the Clouds, the brave white adventurer is sent groveling to the Indians who always continue to survive while the earth or some version of it responds to environmental crisis.

In William Sanders’ haunting contribution to the anthology the crisis is global warming. As Non-Indians continue to encroach on Cherokee land, fleeing the rising ocean tides that have swallowed coastal America, a tribal police officer assigned to run off squatters becomes obsessed with the song of a starving white woman: “Oh, when this world is all on fire/ Where you gonna go?” It is an apt elegy for a society who acts as if sustainability is something they just invented, rather than a system of living they have largely destroyed.

In Gerlad Vizenor’s 1978 Darkness in St. Louis: Bearheart, one of the early classics of Indigenous science fiction, America is in the midst of a similar energy crisis, the depletion of natural gas. Spurred westward in search of more fuel, the government eventually makes its way to Indian land. In this passage, Proude, an Annishnabe man, scares away federal agents who have come to make a deal for the timber on his land:

The federal man was so unnerved by the sounds of bears and harsh crows that he picked up his machine and started running, not pedaling, in the wrong direction out of the woods. The federal woman stopped him and encouraged him to return to the cabin. She reminded him of their responsibilities as elite employees of the federal government.

The mocking condescension of the last line brings a knowing smile to the Indigenous reader. Elite, ha! In this world you are revealed as the fools you are. But this is more than a spoof on white people (a genre that has existed in tribal literature for some time). The mockery here decorates a profound criticism of Western supremacy, the thinking so central to American identity that the conquest of Indigenous peoples is justified by the tautological superiority of civilization over savagery.

The speculative fiction of Indigenous writers peels back the benevolent mask of the colonizer, with his promise of progress, rationality, and hierarchy, to reveal the reptilian face of a hungry monster. Vizenor especially points to this darker side, this “fundamental savagism, which was always a part of Western civilization.” In Vizenor’s view a world dependent on ravaging natural resources is not truly advanced. It is simply brutal, and ultimately self-destructive.

In many cases, those most suited to peeling back the skin of civilization to reveal the cold-blooded soul within are the mixed-blood or cross-blood characters. Not just part Indian, these characters are part animal, part human, part machine, part mutant and often reflective of two-spirit gender identities. In Metis author Misha’s Red Spider, White Web, the protagonist Kumo is a genetically spliced Wolverine-Woman, who wears “layer upon layer of shape-shifter masks.” Trickster characters such as Kumo are uniquely positioned to move between different worlds; indeed their alienation often does not allow them to stay still. In Misha’s words to be a mixed-blood is to be “a violet integration of two worlds, but belonging to neither.”

It may sound like a vulnerable position—it certainly comes with its confusions and insecurities—but it is also a position with powerful potentials. The ability of mixed-blood subjects to poke wormholes in the boundaries between identities, worlds, and classifications is parallel to the ability Dillon consistently points out as the most laudable aspect of SF. There is no coincidence I think. Just as many tribes have ideas about non-liner reality and stories of multi-world voyaging, many contemporary mixed-blood readers and writers feel the anxieties of postmodern SF characters of the sort that litter Philip K. Dick’s novels.

But whereas Philip K. Dick turns to psychedelic Christianity, the postmodern Indian has a wealth of tribal knowledge and support to lean back on. The enduring message from Walking the Clouds is not just one of Indian survival but the ability for the Indian to make their home anywhere….even in a genre that as Dillon says arose in a context “profoundly intertwined with colonial ideology.”

This is exactly the case in Star Waka, an epic poem by Robert Sullivan, which details the journey of the Maori as they search for a new home in a different solar system. Though they soar into uncharted space far from the islands of their ancestors, their expedition is based on the tenants of Kaupapa Maori, or the “effort to combat the dehumanizing effects of colonization by maintaining the Maori language, culture, teachings, and philosophy.” Sullivan conveys this flexible identity by weaving traditional Maori terms with the technology of inter-galactic travel: A space waka/ rocketing to another orb/singing waiata to the spheres.

These few lines capture all the excitement of my initial thoughts upon encountering this anthology: Yes, Indians in space! To be an Indian in space, singing traditional songs to new planets, is to blow rocket smoke in legacies of dispossession and death. An Indian in space is a proud symbol of how far our Indigenous traditions can take us if we only dare to take them with us. Walking the Clouds take us there, to space, to the future and illuminates a new universe of Indigenous imagination that is both exhilarating and beautiful.


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Happy Birthday (I guess), James Welch

The original conceit of this continuing series of birthday posts was to celebrate the life and work of notable Native authors, especially those that were particularly inspiring to me as a Native person and reader. But for the purposes of this post and the author it addresses, there will be little confetti tossing or frosting of cakes.

Oh, hi, I’m James Welch. I’ve just been knighted and given this medal by the French government, so I don’t really mind that this book blogger girl thinks I’m not as great as people say I am.

It is not that James Welch, born July 7, 1943, is a bad man or even a horrible writer, but I find little motivation to add my own praise to his towering stack of awards, medals, and honors. Welch passed away in 2004 so it may be a little too soon to speak harshly of his legacy but honestly I have nothing nasty to say about the man other than describing the underwhelming feelings of discomfort and disappointment I have when reading his work.

The secondary purpose of these birthday posts is to simply summarize the works of Native authors for the purposes of introduction to the broader public (i.e. a small fraction of the internet). Along those lines, I may not have a present for Welch, but this post is a present for you so you can’t say I didn’t warn you when you find yourself half way through a 500 plus page books cursing yourself for not reading Louis Owens instead (more on him in a couple of weeks).

James Welch was born in Browning, Montana into the  Blackfeet and Gross Ventre tribes (and more distantly, the Celtic). He spent most of his childhood on the Fort Belknap reservation and spent most of his years, apart from teaching gigs at University of Washington and Cornell, in the big sky country of Montana. His first novel, Winter in the Blood is set around the reservation of his youth and its release in the 70’s secured his place in the ranks of the “Native American Renaissance.”

Fool’s Crow (1986) is his most well-known work and it is where my problems begin. Set in post-Civil War era of westward expansion, the book attempts to capture the traditional ways of life among the Pikunis band of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana. It has a lot of tropes we associate with white author fantasies: Plains tribes on horses, vision quests, tragedy, revelation of sacred ceremonies, etc. But told from the perspective of a (supposedly) complex Indian character and shot through with frank descriptions of American military cruelty, it sets itself apart as a Indigenous view of the destructive force of settlement and the philosophy of Manifest Destiny that spurred it.

However, I could not get over the language used in the book. I applaud Native author’s attempts to translate Native languages and concepts into the colonizer’s tongue, but Welch simply fails. His translations of Blackfeet words and phrases too often drift into the quality of stereotypical Indian-speak. The subtle shades of language are dismembered by too many hyphens and heavy handed touches.

More troubling is the voice of Fool’s Crow, the main character and our narrative guide through the complexities of surviving in a rapidly-changing world. Though he is in the midst of this tumultuous time,  his inner thoughts and descriptions are plodding, simplistic and curt.  But when we are briefly brought inside the thoughts of a white cavalry soldier, the language becomes noticeably more complex and nuanced. The Indian is assigned the plain voice of stoicism and the white man the lyrical voice of reflection. Though James tries to reach back in the past and bring us an authentic vision of Blackfeet life, he fails to reconstruct the full humanity of the people in his story.

This all leads me to believe Welch has some internalized, quasi-racist, notions about how Natives are supposed to sound and act. This problem continues in Welch’s last novel of his life, The Heartsong of Charging Elk, another historical novel of great length. While, I was already giving Fool’s Crow the side-eye before I read it (skeptical of the “portrait of Plains Indians on the brink of destruction” genre), I approached Charging Elk with hopeful enthusiasm. It tells the story of an Oglala Sioux performer in the Buffalo Bill Wild West shows who is abandoned in Marseilles and must make his way with little money and no French-language skills.

Yet the book is not much better than Fool’s Crow both on the level of language and treatment of the Indian protagonist. Charging Elk is not really developed as a complex character beyond his feelings of confusion, homesickness, bodily desires and torn-between-cultures feelings of sadness. I stopped reading the book after a sex scene with a prostitute (in which the word “sexpocket” in invented) seemed to be leading to a contrived romance. It was all a staggering disappointment.

James, I wish I could more sincerely wish you a “Happy Birthday,” wherever you may be now, but I wish more emphatically that you had written better books and given your Native characters (as well as readers) a better chance at expression. If the goal of good writing is recognition and knighthood, you have succeeded. If, however, the goal is to open explorations into realms of life and thought or more politically, to give voice to the silenced, your works unfortunately fall short.

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