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.