Tag Archives: mixedblood

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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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 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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Riding Mixedblood on the Train

I am a person used to hiding. An ostrich out of sand. That’s why I like pockets, next best thing to a hole to hide inside. Inner coat pockets, secretly sewn in pockets, those are the best. That’s where I hide my flask. Gotta keep it somewhere the neighbors can’t see.  Don’t want everyone on the D train to know my secret, to know where I hide it– my flask of faces. It’s all about stealth, about fitting in, about slipping through the cracks of recognition. Who do I want to be now in the station? Who do I want to be at the next stop? The problem is I knock back so many hits, I forget sometimes myself what face I’m wearing. I’m riding mixedblood on the train and nobody, not even me, knows who I am.

Silently I will myself to shift, to become something people can understand, to feel I might actually belong here. If you look long enough the abyss at the bottom of a question mark might become the period of a definite statement. Or at least that is what I am hoping for. Except I am no master of illusions, more of a failing apprentice. No matter what face I might think I have put on, most are left guessing. What are you? Central Asian, Mexican, Ecuadorian, Peruvian, Pacific Islander, Vietnamese or just plain ole White.

No never, white. I can’t be white. Please, God, don’t let them think I’m white. How ironic for a mixed blood Navajo, an indigenous survivor, to be paranoid of playing the part of white invader. I see those other white folks on the platform staking their claim to young hipness further and further down the line. Am I like them? I glance over quick to the bearded man and his waif-like girlfriend. They seem nice and all but I look away fast lest anyone take my eye contact as some sort of secret agreement of understanding, part of the conspiracy of coolness. I am not like them. Please, God, don’t let anyone think I am like them.

Because I remember all too well that day, that horrible day, when the whole train, what seemed like the whole world turned to me and saw only whiteness. It was winter, my most pale season. I got on the 1 train at 116th St-Columbia University and stepped right into my own nightmare. A busker was sitting in the middle of the train, strumming a guitar and ad libbing little tunes at the expense of the strap-hangers around him. It was all jokes and merriment. Until, he turns to me and launches into a ditty entitled “White Lady.” I can’t recall most of the lyrics. Something about me wearing a scarf and going to college, which is all true. I couldn’t really hear anything except “white lady” over and over again as people nodded along, laughing to themselves and to each other with great elan. I laughed too. What else could I do? I didn’t want to be that white person, the stiff, upper crust Columbia student who couldn’t take a joke. So I blushed and I laughed and I looked around desperately searching for a hole to disappear into. Should I have told the musician I wasn’t white? Would he have believed me? If everyone thinks you’re a white lady, does that mean you are?

Don’t get me wrong. This is isn’t some, “Oh god, life is so hard when people think you’re white” story.  Being read as white once in a while may be an existential crisis, but it is not a day-to-day struggle to overcome prejudice, dismissal and violence. That is the reality reserved for Native people who are read as Native. This is a story of much smaller problems. This is the story of never being seen as who you are…to the point that you disappear. There is a violence there, the forceful removal of an identity, but it is a violence much less severe than being dragged from you car and beaten by baseball bats because you are a Native woman in a reservation border town.

No, to be a light-skinned mixedblood is not usually physically painful, but it is to feel everyday that you are disappearing into an gaping emptiness in the center of your being. And even though that emptiness may sometimes be replaced by the blankness of a white identity, it hardly ever sticks.  To be granted that white privilege, to pass through the world unquestioned and secure is passing only in the transitory sense. For it is a conditional privilege and conditional privilege is never the same as privilege unqualified. Yet, the thing is you could exhaust yourself, and many do, chasing that conditional privilege trying to make it real.

I call it The Last Temptation to be White. That temptation hung in front of me most of my life. I didn’t want to have to explain my eyes or my superb summer tan. I didn’t want to feel exotic or sexualized. I wanted to be left alone. I wanted that carefree look of arrogant ignorance. I wanted that to be snow blind from the sun reflecting off my glistening, unmarked skin. The thing is I might pull it off in the dead of winter if you’re looking to be fooled. But the rest of the time my whiteness fails. I may have the privilege of racial ambiguity and relatively light skin, but it’s not too long before the impurities come to the surface.

Why it happened just last month, when once again and as always riding on the D train, I had the poor fortune of sitting beside a group of four from New Jersey. They were a gregarious group, first chatting up a intrepid IKEA shopper and then in their masochistic need for small talk, they turned to me.

“Excuse me, excuse me,” the pretty one asked, “What NATIONALITY are you?”

I wasn’t in the moods for games. I didn’t feel like taking out my American passport and saying, “Does this answer your question?” because it  wouldn’t have. Like any mugging on the subway, I looked down and gave her what she asked for.

“Erm, um, Navajoirish,” I stung together my words trying to make the awkward clash of civilizations sound as quotidian as “German” or “Taiwanese-American”.

“What?!” the pretty one screeched nearly falling out of her seat with bulging eyes of amazement.

“NAVAJO-IRISH,” I enunciated every letter so as not have to repeat this trial a second longer.

“Oh ma god, that is soooooo cool!”

“Shut up, you don’t even know what that is,” the beefy one protested.

“Uh yeah I do. It’s Native American. You know I love Native Americans.”

I’m unsure what her opinions on the Irish were but it was good to know she loved part of me for who I was.

Then it was time for all four of them to inform me what they had previously been guessing my nationality was. This is my favorite part. It reveals the question of my daily torment, the burdensome mystery of what others think of you.

“Yeah, I thought you were Spanish or something.”

“Mmhm, you definitely have that Spanish look, like Puerto Rican maybe.”

“But you can see it, the Navajo. It’s in your eyes,” one of them spoke outlining in the air that ineffable quality of Indian, apparently lying somewhere around my pupils.

“Mmm, definitely,” the chorus rang nodding and staring at me, along with every other stranger on the train.

The beefy one chimed in again with a surprisingly specific guess, “I would say you look like Peruvian or maybe, like, from Northern Chile.”

I felt like  I was a Cash Cab-inspired show called What’s My Nationality?, in which people start with $1,000 and lose 100 every time they incorrectly guess my nationality. I would really like to make that show, but on the subway and somehow I get to keep all the money.

Odd thing is, there had been many times I wished someone would ask. Many times I wish I had an excuse to could come right out and lay out my whole genealogy on the lap of someone I am delusional enough to believe is as obsessed with my identity as I am. But, such behavior would have me promptly labeled as unstable and possibly in need of medication. All I can say is, thank God for the internet.


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