Native American Heritage Month: Beauty and Sadness

The book cover depicts two feathers facing in opposite directions, sketched in brown ink against a bright orange background, with the title in yellow lettering.

By Eric L.

Native American Heritage Month is almost finished for this year, but you are free to let it go a little longer into December and check out some great related works of art from the library, including the distinguished debut novel by Cheyenne and Arapaho writer Tommy Orange and a modern classic from director Terrence Malick.

There There by Tommy Orange (available in a variety of formats) is not a traditional novel, in that many of the characters don’t interact with one another, nor is it a traditional collection of short stories. Each chapter is a deep character profile explicated from the character’s perspective and written in a small amount of space. There There is beautifully crafted, in my humble opinion, with these very short, somewhat disconnected chapters from a variety of characters’ points of view not being an easy way to tell a story. However, it works really well and I recommend reading it. 

The characters are Native American, or part, in ancestry. Although the larger narrative is about the experience of individual characters, the connecting plot device is an upcoming powwow at the Oakland Coliseum. Some plan to attend, some plan to dance in the ceremony, some are organizing it, others are working on grant-funded projects related to Native Americans, and some plan to rob it. 

I could broadly say that the book talks about identity, or the loss of identity and the confusion experienced by some urban Native Americans. I recall a friend telling me that There There is sad, and to be sure, it is; however, the stories are powerful, engaging, and beautifully written. In other words, it’s not a feel-good read, and it’s tough sometimes. 

Most of the younger characters feel confused and/or apathetic about being Native American in modern America. They’ve not lived, or their parents did not live, on the “rez,” as they call it. I think what makes this a great book is that it doesn’t so much concern the facts of the past, but rather their impact on the present. This is a very interesting and apropos topic in America right now, as some say we need to forget the past and move forward. I’d contend this may be easier for some than others. And perhaps a better understanding of how the past effects the present could benefit all of us. Prior to one part of the book Orange uses the profound James Baldwin quote, “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” 

I did learn some things about modern Native American history – for example, the red power movement and the occupation of Alcatraz Island. The occupation is an interesting moment in the recent past, and illustrative of Orange’s larger commentary about people’s place within America. 

One character has an interaction with a woman on public transportation in Oakland while he is in full dancing regalia on his way to the powwow. She asks him some innocuous polite questions, and he responds in part that he is going to a powwow at the Oakland Coliseum and that she should come check it out. He thinks to himself that she can now tell the story later over dinner about how she saw and spoke with a real Indian on the train today, and that that is as close as most Americans would like to get. 

Margaret Atwood called it “an astonishing debut.” And until I read this praise, I was not aware it was a debut, because it’s that good. I concur with Atwood’s opinion, and it makes me excited for his future books. 

This work brought to mind the film The New World on Kanopy, which if There There concerns the now, then the movie depicts colonial America and indigenous people. I’m a fan of the director Terrence Malick’s films. He makes impressionistic films, and although this may sound pretentious, simply put, it contains beautiful cinematography (mostly nature shots) and sparse dialogue. The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life, Malick’s popular and award-winning films starring Sean Penn and a bevy of other great actors, are also great (you can borrow these in DVD format). 

The New World concerns the arrival of the English and the settlement of the colony in Jamestown, Virginia. The cast features terrific actors (Colin Farrell, Christian Bale, Q’orianka Kilcher, and Christopher Plummer). It was filmed in Virginia, and Malick employed academics to recreate the villages and the extinct Powhatan language and used native actors. The film is partially based on John Smith’s account of Pocahantas, the verity of which is a bit suspect. Nevertheless, it succeeds in depicting very different groups with clashing motivations, and it’s visually stunning. 

In sum, both these works are beautiful AND sad.

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at the Elkridge branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.

 

What is Home? asks Brandon Hobson

The book cover depicts a woodsy scene in grays and blues, with a lone figure inverted on a path in the center, framed by three interlocking triangles in pink, green, and gold.

by Rohini G.

Brandon Hobson, author of The Removed, believes that good fiction starts with a question. 

“The big question here was how do we grieve, and how do we heal. But I’m also interested in the question of what is home?” Examining these questions is the starting place for his writing, Hobson says in an interview with Zibby Owens.  

In The Removed, Hobson hauntingly weaves together two strands. First is the story of personal loss experienced by the Echota family; second, the devastating loss experienced by the Cherokee Nation – the traumatic heritage of the Trail of Tears, the forced removal by the U.S. government from 1830 to 1850 of an estimated 100,000 indigenous people (including Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole, among other nations) from their homes. 

After fifteen years, the Echotas are still struggling to come to terms with the death of their son, Ray-Ray, who was killed in a police shooting at the mall. Maria tries to keep the flame of remembrance alive for her son, as she deals with her husband Ernest’s struggle with Alzheimers, son Edgar’s meth use, and daughter Sonja’s detachment. As the family’s annual bonfire approaches – an occasion marking both the Cherokee National Holiday and Ray-Ray’s death – Maria takes in a foster child, Wyatt. Buoyant and quirky, Wyatt is a born storyteller, spinning gripping tales about snakes and birds and an underworld, called the Darkening Land. 

While reading this book, I was enthralled with the way Hobson shifted perspective with each character and got into the skin of that person, especially Tsala, a Cherokee spirit who tells a story of his own murder for refusing to be removed. Written in a lyrical, minimalistic style, The Removed is a a powerful story, a profound yet quick read, available in book format and also as an eaudiobook and ebook from Libby/OverDrive. 

Hear author Brandon Hobson in person on Wednesday, March 10. For information, click here.

The book cover depicts a stylized eagle in black silhouette with outstretched wings against an orange background, with a single feather fallen to the ground beneath.

Hobson is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, with a PhD in English and seven years’ experience as a social worker for disadvantaged youth. His previous book, Where the Dead Sit Talking (also available as an eaudiobook from Libby/OverDrive) was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction and winner of the Reading the West Book Award. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at New Mexico State University and teaches in the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

A RECOMMENDED BOOK FROM

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Rohini is the Adult Curriculum Specialist with HCLS. She loves literature and rainy days.

October 12th is Indigenous Peoples’ Day!

The photograph shows an indigenous person in native dress at an outdoor gathering.

By Claudia J.

Mark your calendars on October 12th! Beginning this year, Howard County will celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day. On WJZ-13 CBS, County Executive Calvin Ball released a statement on the decision. “Celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day does not absolve us from our history, but we hope that it sets a tone and opens up discussions on the importance of restorative practices throughout our government and our community.”

Indigenous Peoples’ Day is an exciting opportunity to explore the incredible history and culture of Indigenous communities that have often been underrepresented in our celebrations.  Of course, what better way to observe this holiday than to curl up with a new book? I know I will! Here are ten books for you and your family to read and learn about Indigenous culture by authors of Indigenous descent: 

For the Little Ones: 

The book cover depicts a mother holding a child who is eating fry bread from the bowl the mother holds in her other hand.

Fry Bread: a Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard; Illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal

Do you know what fry bread is? This colorful and touching picture book by Maillard answers this question and provides a kinship to the Native tradition of communal food preparation. In addition, Maillard provides a personal background to the narrative as he is an enrolled citizen of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. Coupled with the illuminating illustrations by Martinez-Neal, children and adults will enjoy reading Fry Bread together. 

The book cover depicts a young woman holding a feather, with blue-green water swirling around her.  In the background are people on a hill, hands joined together, in front of a starry night sky with a moon.

We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom; Illustrated by Michaela Goade

“Water is the first medicine, It affects and connects us all…” Earth is made up of 71% of water and it provides its inhabitants with nourishment and hydration. What would you do to protect it? Inspired by the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, We Are Water Protectors is an incredibly accessible picture book for children to learn more about water and its importance to the health of the Earth. Lindstrom provides readers with a piece of her culture, as she is Anishinabe/Metis and is tribally enrolled with the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe. She also calls Maryland her home!

For the Big Kids:

The book cover depicts a young woman holding a letter along the shore of a lake at sunrise.  There are mountains in the distance and a dog with a stick is approaching her.

I Can Make this Promise by Christine Day

With her debut middle grade novel, Day tells the semi-autobiographical story of a 12-year-old girl’s search for her true identity. Adopted at a young age by a white couple, Edie has always been curious about her Native American heritage. When she and her friends find a box of letters and photos of a woman who shares her name, Edie begins to question her parents and the secrets they kept from her. Powerful and important, Day weaves a storyline together that draws from her own Native heritage as an enrolled citizen of the Upper Skagit tribe. I am very excited about this novel and will be adding it to my reading list. 

The book cover depicts a young woman in front of a landscape background that progresses from rural, with animals, trees, and a log cabin, to urban, with a car, palm trees, and a cityscape in silhouette.

Indian No More by Charlene Willing McManus with Traci Sorell

Straight from our 2020 Summer Reading list, Indian No More tells the heartbreaking story of 8-year-old Regina and the erasure of her Native American identity. It’s 1954 and her family is told all tribes in their state of Oregon no longer exist. Much like the other selections on the list so far, this novel is based on McManus’s own experiences when her tribe, the Umpqua, was terminated in 1954. Sadly, McManus passed away in 2018, unable to complete the revisions to her novel. Her friend and fellow author, Traci Sorell, completed the revisions as she wished. 

For the Teens: 

The book cover depicts a young woman wearing a white shirt and black pants, with a black and white checkered shirt tied around her waist.

#NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale

Told from the perspective of young Native American/Indigenous women, #NotYourPrincess weaves together a traditional narrative with artwork, poetry, photography, and interviews to present a well-rounded depiction of issues affect Indigenous communities. While parts of the stories can be tough to read, this anthology is a great conversation starter for teens, especially young women, who could relate to the issues depicted in these stories. 

The book cover depicts half the face of a young woman, with a stripe of white makeup on her cheek.  There are also several stickers indicating awards the book was won.

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline

Imagine a dystopian world where a majority of the world’s inhabitants have lost the ability to dream. Set in the future, The Marrow Thieves tells of a world such as this and how the lack of dreams has caused intense madness among society. The only people still able to dream are North America’s Indigenous communities. Their bone marrow is the cure for all mankind for the world to return to prosperity, but this means the certain death of the marrow holders. This sets the stage for Frenchie – a 15-year-old Indigenous teen, trying his best to survive, protect his companions, and flee from “recruiters” who hope to steal his marrow.  Written by Canadian writer Cherie Dimaline, who is a member of the Georgian Bay Metis Community, The Marrow Thieves is an action-packed novel for fans of dystopian societies. It also packs a moral punch as to how we, as a society, view Indigenous communities and resources. 

For the Graphic Novel Fans: 

The book cover depicts three young women and one senior woman against the background of an immense cityscape that rises behind them.

Surviving the City by Tasha Spillett, Illustrations by Natasha Donovan

As if to speak entirely from its title, Surviving the City is based in an urban environment in Canada, where readers are introduced to Miikwan and Dez. Miikwan is Anishinaabe; Dez is Inniew. They are best friends trying their best to navigate the normal struggles that come with being teens as well as being faced with the challenges of being a part of a small, Indigenous minority in an urban landscape. When Dez’s grandmother falls ill and is unable to take care of Dez anymore, Dez is faced with the possibility of going into a group home. Unable to deal with that solution, Dez leaves home and disappears. Will Dez’s community find her before it’s too late? Tasha Spillett’s debut graphic novel series at first seems simple in telling Dez’s mysterious disappearance, but it also sets the tone for providing information about murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in Canada. 

The book cover depicts a young woman i profile, wearing a jacket with patches on the shoulder, putting earbuds into her ears.

A Girl Called Echo by Katherena Vermette, Illustrations by Scott B. Henderson, colored by Donovan Yaciuk

Time travel fans will enjoy the story of Echo Desjardins, a 13-year-old Metis girl adjusting to a new home and school, separated from her mother. During one of her first lectures with a new teacher, Echo transports to the past in several different environments: a fur-trade route, the Pemmican Wars, and a bison hunt, to name a few. Selected for our 2020 Summer Reading list, teens and adults alike will enjoy this refreshing take on Indigenous history, written by Katherena Vermette, a Metis Canadian author. 

For the Adults: 

The book cover depicts two feathers facing in opposite directions, against a background of orange with the title in yellow lettering.

There There by Tommy Orange 

An instant hit upon its release, Cheyenne and Arapaho author Tommy Orange provides readers with an intense narrative of the urban Native American. This novel follows the journeys of 12 characters from Native communities, all en route to the Big Oakland Powwow. Each character has endured their own unique struggles, and the interwoven narratives provide a larger, deeper story of the contemporary Native American struggle while grappling with a painful history. A very popular book club choice, There There will definitely provide some complex conversation and will pique your interest in Indigenous history. 

The book cover depicts the title and author in white against colorful background stripes in blues, mauves, and greens.

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

I thought I would end with a recent release from this year. Highly acclaimed author Louise Erdrich writes a fictionalized version of her grandfather’s life as a night watchman in the 1950’s. Set on her family’s home reservation (in what is now North Dakota), night watchman Thomas Wazhashk is a Chippewa Council member who is grappling with the new “emancipation” bill proposed by U.S. Congress. Despite “emancipation” as a synonym for freedom in previous events, this bill presents the term more like a “termination” of Native American culture, land, and identity. His story is coupled with that of Patrice Paranteau, a young adult who makes jewel barrings at the plant and is saving to search for her sister, Vera. Poverty, violence, exploitation: Louise Erdrich combines these intense themes and crafts a novel based on her Ojibwe roots and current Anishinaabe membership. I am definitely adding The Night Watchman to my to-read list. 

No matter what age, we can all celebrate Indigenous voices this year and for many years to come on Indigenous Peoples Day. I hope there are some selections you will explore this fall, and all are available at HCLS! Add these books to your holds queue and enjoy these amazing stories. 

Claudia J. is an instructor and research specialist and has worked for Howard County Library System for a little over four years. She enjoys writing on rainy days and drinking iced coffee on sunny days.