Category Archives: Birthday Profile

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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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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Happy Birthday Louise Erdrich!

Louise Erdrich in her dorm room at Dartmouth. I know, I know. She’s a babe. And a phenomenal writer. Pretty much leaves no room for the rest of us aspiring writer mixedblood ladies.

Louise Erdrich is many things. The literary queen of the mixedbloods. The Faulkner of Indians. The Ojibwe beauty queen. She is also today’s birthday girl.

Erdrich was born on this day in 1954 into the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. She was born in Little Falls, Minnesota but was raised in North Dakota where many of her books also take place. Her first book Love Medicine established her style and content for the next several years: multi-generational narratives focused on several particular families on the same Ojibwe reservation.

Love Medicine sounds potentially like a horribly cheesy Native romance saga and the paperback edition I read had a horribly cheesy cover. While it is true that Erdrich writes about love, she is rarely sentimental. For me, she is  one of few who can successfully communicate the insanity of love with prose that is daring, unexpected, and seamlessly connected to larger narratives of human experience.

Many people credit her heartbreaking prose to her tragically failed romantic relationship with Michael Dorris. Honestly, I’m not very interested in tracing their tortured affair through the male characters and broken families of her books. But I will say The Antelope Wife was the first book she wrote after their divorce and it is one of the most genuinely sad books I have ever read.

After I merged my being with Love Medicine and The Antelope Wife, I attempted Plague of Doves but set it aside after suffering the equivalent of a reading faint. Erdrich could probably write about a tree losing its bark and I would start bawling, but the multi-layered, multi-generational narratives started to wear on me. I mean you can only read so many of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels before you need to take a literary nap.

Returning to her now though I realize there are some odd ball books thrown into her oeuvre that I should give a chance, chief among them is The Master Butcher’s Singing Club a mystery story which focuses more on German immigrant culture though still involves enough characters to warrant a family tree in the front matter. Erdrich has taken some flack for her alleged lack of allegiance to Native communities, i.e. she acknowledges and writes about her European ancestry and that bothers people.But as with her writing on love and heartbreak and loss, her books with German immigrant culture come from an intensely honest desire to write all aspects of her self.

To a large degree, I think haters might be coming from a place of anxiety about what constitutes Native American literature and also a need to protect Indian identity. Second only to Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich is the cross-over success story of Native authors. Perhaps other Natives, authors in particular (cough, Leslie Marmon Silko, cough), fear losing the powerful message of Native identity found in her novels once she is thrown into the Oprah-approved, literary mainstream.

In this instance, I often compare her to Toni Morrison whose book Beloved is still I think one of the greatest literary expositions of the trauma of slavery in the black community. It may be a bestseller, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the truth. The same goes for Ms. Erdrich.

If anyone still doubts Erdrich’s support of Native peoples, her independent bookstore  Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, MN, which is a big promoter of Native authors, artists, and community, should act as the proper slap in the face. If for some godforsaken reason I ever find myself in Minneapolis, it is on the top of my list of places to visit (along with everywhere The Replacements ever breathed on).

So, on this day of your birth, I offer my humble thanks to Louise Erdrich for refusing to be anything less than what she is. And what she is is a master creator, re-crafting the shipwreck of Indian and settler lives and encounters into structures as beautiful and complex as her life and person.

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Happy (Belated) Birthday Simon Ortiz!

This is another commemoration in a continuing series of posts celebrating the birthdays of important Native authors. I include authors of all forms whether literary, academic, or both (as so many of our finest Native novelists are). If you have any important folks you want to make sure I don’t miss, drop me a line!

This may be the first birthday post that is not an unbroken stream of praise. For Simon Ortiz is a writer who I like much more as a person than as a poet. I often feel bad about this when I read his poetry because I wish I could like his poems as much as I like what he says about his poems. Perhaps it is the simplicity of his poetry that off-puts me; I slip so easily into mazes that a straight line seems somehow like cheating.

Simon Ortiz wearing his signature wild patterned shirt but without his signature spectacles.

Ortiz often says that his role as a poet is to “demystify language.” His language works not only with the things people say (many of his poems are conversations) but with the things the land says. He describes the shape of the land, the creatures within it, as landmarks in a larger universe of stories. It is the universe of the Acoma Indians, the universe Ortiz was raised in and knew through the Acoma language.

Ortiz was born on May 27th 1941. Like many Indian children of his generation, Ortiz was sent to a boarding school for his early education. The struggle to maintain a connection to his tribal stories and language against the strict enforcement of a English is something that resonates in much of his life’s work. Ortiz speaks often of the difficulty of translating Acoma stories and perspectives into the dominant language. Yet the age old cliche of the Indian torn between two worlds doesn’t work here. Like many Indians, Ortiz has found a way to make it work, to continue in English what has always existed for him in Acoma. So as he devoured every book he could get his hands on, he placed the English world/language in a continuum (not a binary) of his Acoma upbringing:

“…when I learned to read and write, I believe I felt those [Acoma] stories continued somehow in the new language and they would never be lost, forgotten, and finally gone. They would always continue.”

Ortiz was certainly a precocious one, nose always in a book and ear always tuned to a story. And as a man after my own heart, he would listen to and absorb the country greats like Hank Williams He could sometimes be found digesting the dictionary word by word. His father often called him “the reporter” because of his incessant need to know and understand the things people said.

This desire, near-obsession, to remember everything, to always connect this present and the ever-coming future to a past, is what gives many of Ortiz’s poems the feel of a journal entry. He is a recorder; his pen presses like a needle into unmarked vinyl preserving every small vibration between him and the world. He not only wants to tell us everything he felt and saw within the poem, he wants to tell us how he wrote the poem. So before we read “The Wisconsin Horse” we learn it is “late at night, lying drunk on the floor, hearing a church bell across the street, remembering that Wisconsin Horse this Spring.”

As much as Ortiz’s poems center on the small experiences of the everyday, there is an unmistakable political intent in his poetry. This is in large part because of Ortiz’s insistence that Indian language and identity are the strongest ways to hold onto Indian land. He studies the microcosms, the conversation at the bar, a trick of light in a canyon, and tells the bigger story of dispossession, loss.

I leave you with the 11th section of a 13-part poem called Many Farms Notes. It was, Ortiz tells us, written on a trip to Many Farms, AZ in the spring of 1973:

“What would you say that the main theme

of your poetry is?”

“To put it as simply as possible,

I say it this way: to recognize

the relationships I share with everything.”

I would like to know well the path

from just east of Black Mountain

to the gray outcropping of Roof Butte

without having to worry

about the shortest way possible.

This poem and everything I quoted from in this post is from the collection Woven Stone, an anthology of three books written by Ortiz and the best place to start acquainting yourself with the poet.

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Happy Birthday, Vine Deloria Jr.!

A striking man with venomous charisma to whom we raise our pens on this day of his birth. Source: News From Indian Country

This is the third in a continuing series of posts celebrating the birthdays of important Native authors. As today’s author indicates, I include authors of all forms whether literary, academic, or both (as so many of our finest Native novelists are). If you have any important folks you want to make sure I don’t miss, drop me a line!

How to begin to talk about Vine Deloria Jr.? The entire Deloria family, dynasty if you will, is such a force in Indian Country with their work in the church, the academy, the national pan-tribal organizations etc., that to speak of one you feel have to speak of them all and the work they have done with and for Native peoples. However, since it’s not all of their birthdays, though a national Deloria day may not be a bad idea, I will restrict myself to talking about Vine.

Vine was born in 1933 near the Pine Ridge reservation into a family of Episcopalian and tribal leaders of the Yankton Band of the Dakota Nation. Like the many professions represented in his family, Vine played around with a few career possibilities throughout his early life, going to school to become an minister, then completing a degree in science and later receiving a law degree. He published his first book in 1969 and has produced a fairly steady stream of writings ever since his death in 2005, while also having served on the boards of numerous Native organizations such as the National Congress of American Indians and the National Museum of the American Indian. Like I said the Delorias are not mere people, they are a force.

You can tell a lot about Vine Deloria Jr. from the titles of his works. The most famous of which is Custer Died For Your Sins:  An Indian Manifesto. This is the first book we cracked open in my Critical Indigenous Studies class and for me, as well as many others, it cracked up what exactly critical indigeneity meant. And that was just the first in a long line of thoughtful polemics and biting titles. There’s also We Talk, You Listen; Red Earth, White Lies; God is Red; and Genocide of the Mind. As you might tell, he is quite a master zing artist interjecting his works with precise phrases that strike at the heart of White-Indian relations.

Some of his favorite targets are anthropologists, new agers, naive Americans (to be honest, the majority, believers of the Bering Strait Theory, and of course the BIA. He has also written extensive tracts on religion, philosophy and the philosophy of religion. The dude has a lot to say and he says it well. I was trying to avoid turning this post into a “Best Quotes of Vine Deloria” but I just can’t resist. Rather than blabber about what a good writer is, I will break the golden rule of good writing by just telling you what Deloria is all about instead of trying to somehow show you through my own inept words. I will say that the common thread throughout these quotes is Deloria’s mission to destroy the preconceived people have not only about Indians but also about the natural supremacy of Western civilization and American exceptionalism. He was not afraid to say that tribal methods of being

Deloria On Anthropologists:

Indians are equally certain that Columbus brought anthropologists on his ships when he came to the New World. How else could he have made so many wrong deductions about where he was? 

Deloria on the theory that the Sioux are natural warriors unable to survive in the modern day:

Some Indians, in a tongue-in-cheek manner for which Indians are justly famous, suggested that a subsidized wagon train be run through the reservation each morning at 9 a.m. and the reservation people paid a minimum wage for attacking it.

Deloria on the “plight” of Indians:

One of the finest things about being an Indian is that people are always interested in your “plight.” Other groups have difficulties, predicaments, quandaries, problems, or troubles. Traditionally we Indians have had a “plight.”

Deloria on the white man:

The white man must no longer project his fears and insecurities onto other groups, races and countries. Before the white man can relate to others he must forgo the pleasure of defining them. The white man must learn to stop viewing history as a plot against himself.

Deloria on Western Civilization:

Western civilization, unfortunately, does not link knowledge and morality but rather, it connects knowledge and power and makes them equivalent.

Deloria on the idea that “we are all immigrants”:

Yes, indeed but it makes one helluva difference whether you came 100,000 years ago, or just out of a boat steerage a generation back.

There are many, many more on the nature of sovereignty, harmful government policies, the civil rights movement, etc but we have to stop somewhere.

Happy Birthday, Vine Deloria. You are very missed here on the Red Earth.

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Happy Birthday Leslie Marmon Silko!

Who's that looking so happy on their birthday? Leslie Marmon Silko, that's who!

Leslie Marmon Silko, a mixedblood Laguna Pueblo, was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on this day in 1948. She, along with the author from our first birthday profile post, is another old faithful when it comes to Native American Lit. 101. She also wrote a book that changed my life… but let’s back up a bit.

When Silko was still a child, there was a legal battle between the Laguna people and the State of New Mexico over six million acres of land wrongfully stolen from the tribe. This legal battle was formative in Silko’s budding political consciousness and later inspired her to go to law school in order to fight for the land rights of her people. However, after becoming disillusioned with the American judicial system and its ability to uphold Native sovereignty, she “decided the only way to seek justice was through the power of stories.”

And thank goodness she did because the world needed her literature a lot more than it needed another lawyer. In 1977, Silko published Ceremony. On the surface, the plot seems a lot like House Made of Dawn, except that Ceremony is the book that changed my life, and House Made of Dawn is just a book I like. Ceremony tells the story of Tayo, a fellow mixedblood who returns to the reservation after World War II suffering from serious PTSD and a heavy conscience due to the battlefield death of his cousin whom everyone held high expectations for. The black sheep of his community, Tayo drifts through his days in a hallucinatory haze becoming more and more alienated from a toxic world full of substance-soaked illusion and forces of destruction.

A turning point in the novel comes when Tayo visits Betonie, a strange kind of Navajo medicine man living amongst the drunk and the homeless on the outskirts of the Indian Capital of the World, Gallup, New Mexico. During their brief encounter, Betonie urges Tayo to re-evaluate what it means to live a sacred life. “At one time, the ceremonies as they had been performed were enough for the way the world was then. But after the white people came, elements in this world began to shift; and it became necessary to create new ceremonies…things which don’t shift and grow are dead things…Witchery works to scare people, to make them fear growth. But it has always been necessary, and more than ever now, it is. Otherwise we won’t make it.” I think of Betonie’s words often, especially when thinking of how we indigenous people are not only going to “make it,” but how we will also overcome.

From that point on, the reader comes to realize that the act of reading this book is in a sense a ceremony, that Silko has turned to literature to, in her own way, fight the witchery of Modern America. I have read few if any books that have the poetic force and transformative vision of Silko’s Ceremony. I have not done it justice in this short space. It must be read and then read again and again until it has been absorbed and can be recalled like the sacred stories it weaves.

In doing my background research for this post, I learned that Paula Gunn Allen, a fellow Pueblo poet, criticized Silko’s use of Laguna stories as an inappropriate divulging of tribal secrets. While I mostly agree that tribes have a legitimate reason to protect their knowledge from outsiders, I truly believe Ceremony was in a sense written for Indian eyes only, though it has became adored by the mainstream literary world.To conceive of Ceremony without drawing on the Pueblo stories would be to render null Silko’s entire project: a new kind of literature that is grown from the old in order to fight for the future.

Other criticisms I have heard leveled at Silko pertain to her 1991 opus Almanac of the Dead, which many say contains homophobic stereotypes. I have yet to crack open the behemoth, which my Native American Literature Professor once described as a literary attempt to undo colonialism, but I am very disheartened to hear that such a great writer would commit such an ugly act.

But, on this day, her birthday, I will think of Ceremony and how it convinced me, as Silko herself was convinced as a child, that one of the most powerful ways to seek justice and healing is through stories.

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Happy Birthday N. Scott Momaday!

I have decided to add a new feature here at Mixedblood Messages: birthday profiles for Native authors! This will be a small way to briefly introduce the work of important figures in Native American literature, and perhaps Native scholars and historical figures as well. Today, we kick it off with the man at the beginning of every Native American Literature syllabus, N. Scott Momaday.


Mr. Momaday, what a classy guy!

N. Scott Momaday was born into the Kiowa tribe of good ole’ Oklahoma in 1934. He did a lot of bouncing around Indian Country throughout his early years, especially in the Southwest, and became familiar with the Navajo, Apache and Pueblo tribes. It seems it was not long before he became convinced of the power of language and literature and started writing poetry and prose.

Momaday’s first novel, House Made of Dawn, was published in 1969 and basically blew America’s mind by being a modernist work written by a Indian. Suddenly aware that Native peoples are really good at writing, American critics were ready to declare an Native American Renaissance in literature and Momaday as the movement’s progenitor.

House Made of Dawn tells the story of Abel, an alienated WWII vet who returns to the Jemez Pueblo reservation where he was born and commits two of the ultimate sins: sleeping with a white woman and killing a “white” (actually albino) man. He then leaves the reservation for L.A. as part of the relocation program which began in the late 50’s and was designed to get Indians off their traditional homelands and into the American mainstream. While in L.A. Abel meets a variety of characters meant to represent the spectrum of the Urban Indian experience, such as the Priest of the Sun who performs peyote ceremonies and Ben Benally, recently relocated from the Navajo reservation, and Milly, a white social worker who becomes a mother figure for Abel. L.A. is full of drunkenness, alcohol-fueled bouts of violence and extreme loneliness for Abel. After being hospitalized by a brawl with a cop, Abel returns to the reservation to bury his grandfather and reclaim his tribal traditions.

This is one of the most common tropes in Native American literature: self-destruction in modern America followed by a homecoming. But while it may seem easy at first to categorize Momaday’s most famous book in the canon of predictable tales of the tragic Indian male, there is a lot more in there than that. When he isn’t playing the Kiowan Hemmingway or the overly-lyrical poet, he is taking on a much larger and more difficult project, trying to convey oral histories and sacred ceremonies in a written, English form. He not only works with Pueblo and Navajo stories but as Abel’s name implies, christian theology as well. The result is somewhat disoriented but all the better for conveying the penetrating mood of alienation.

Momaday’s book The Way to Rainy Mountain and his many collections of poetry also work across genres, histories and cultures both Indian and Anglo that all seek not only the individual’s power through language but the Indian peoples’ power as well.

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