Our Favorite Essays and Books by Native Writers

Considering the past, present, and future of Native and Indigenous writing

Photo by Stephen Walker
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As we celebrate the most damaging case of gentrification this country has ever seen, perhaps you’d like to spend a little of your time off thinking about the past, present, and future of Native and Indigenous writing. Here are some of EL’s favorite essays and interviews by and about Native writers.

Wednesday Addams Is Just Another Settler” by Elissa Washuta

In an essay born from the image of Wednesday Addams burning down Camp Chippewa, Elissa Washuta reflects on how the loneliness of Thanksgiving is an intersection between her disconnection from the holiday as a Native person and her fundamental sense of isolation.

I am neither Wednesday nor Fester. I am not the grim girl with her own guillotine, not the unsmiling camper who would let the blonde girl drown. Neither am I the old ghoul who wants a companion so badly he clings to the woman who tries to electrocute him in the bath. But I am a loner and a weirdo. Even in our kindergarten Thanksgiving celebration, for which I was assigned a construction paper feathered headband that signified my affiliation with the half of the class playing the Indians, I didn’t belong, because I was going to be Native the next day, too, and every one after, while they were going to forget we’d even played this game.

A Conversation with Native Voices at the Center” by Jennifer Baker

Washuta is also the co-editor of the collection Shapes of Native Nonfiction. Here, EL contributing editor Jenn Baker interviews her and collaborator Theresa Warburton on what it means to create, read, teach, and anthologize Native writing.

Writing by Native authors is foundational to the field of nonfiction period. So, this isn’t an anthology of Native writers per se but actually a collection of nonfiction that is centering the voices of Native writers. The distinction between those two things was really important to both of us.

Reclaiming a Lost Tribal Language: How, and at What Cost?” by Joseph V. Lee

As a child, Joseph V. Lee spent his summers learning his Wampanoag tribe’s language at a summer camp led by a woman named Jessie Baird. With the release of a documentary about Baird’s efforts to revive the Wampanoag language, Lee wonders: is she right to forbid non-tribal members from attending her classes?

I wonder how much these pushes for secrecy are motivated by a desire to be able to claim absolute ownership of something for once. I can identify with that desire. One year in Turtle Project we were taught the “true” story of the first Thanksgiving. The story we had been taught in school, we were told, was a lie. We were also told not to share this new version with non-Tribal members. I felt a rush of excitement upon learning this new version of the Thanksgiving story. … But if the story I was being told was indeed a more accurate version of an important American story, then why were we being told not to share it?

Tommy Orange Gives Voice to Urban Native Americans” by Marlena Gates

If you haven’t read There There, you’re missing out on one of the best books of 2018, a beautifully-wrought multi-viewpoint epic that spans Oakland’s Native community. In this interview, Orange discusses the fact that Native Americans can’t be treated as history or legend.

Reservation consciousness is an adaptation after removal, after being pushed there. Being Indian meant something totally different before reservations. So we can’t just refer back to reservations like we’ve been on reservations forever. We have to think of the new thing that we’re going to be.

This Hawaiian Storytelling Chant Is Great Literature Without the Written Word” by Wailana Kalama

The oli is a native Hawaiian ritual chant that helps to preserve history, memory, and culture. This essay is an introduction to oli for non-Hawaiians, but it’s also a meditation on Kalama’s relationship to her family and roots.

I remember my grandfather’s funeral as if it were only a few months ago. When he passed away, his four children came together to write a family chant of our own. It was a way to honor him, his memory. To assure him (and ourselves) that the wisdom of our clan would carry on through generations. At his funeral, his children and grandchildren lifted their voices in his honor. Here we are, and we will continue.

What Do the Allegations Against Sherman Alexie Mean for Native Literature?” by Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr.

When Sherman Alexie was accused of sexual harassment, it struck a huge blow to the presence of Native literature on academic syllabi—but only because white scholars, critics, and commentators had been treating Alexie as the sum total of Native writing. Now, says Theodore C. Van Alst Jr., they have to reckon with this colonial attitude—and think about what comes next.

As an extremely popular writer in the mainstream who has written a number of young adult works, Alexie is often the only Native voice heard in many social studies, language arts, and English curricula. White writers and scholars may find themselves wondering, “who should we get to replace him?” They may not even realize that this question highlights the gates that tend to surround Native lit, their complicity in maintaining them, and the consequences of their actions — actions which are akin to literary colonialism.

In ‘Where the Dead Sit Talking,’ a Native American Teen Searches for Home” by Melissa Michal

Brandon Hobson’s novel, a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award, grapples with difficult topics like trauma, anger, and abandonment as well as questions of racial and gender identity. Main character Sequoyah is rattling around in the foster care system, looking for ways to connect with people but also pushing them away.

A lot of people aren’t asking enough about Sequoyah’s identity, exploring his gender issues and trying to decide—you know, I think that’s a big question that teenagers ask, “Who am I? What is my identity?” So while he’s exploring his Native identity, he’s also a little bit androgynous. I just don’t know if that’s being written about very much, the question of androgyny especially in Native youth.

Native American and Indigenous Lit Forge New Trails” by Adrian L. Jawort

Jawort is the editor of Off the Path, a two-volume anthology of fiction by Native and Indigenous writers. In this essay, he describes the process of finding contributors for volume 2—which also means thinking about the present and future state of Native and Indigenous fiction.

Still, despite collective tribulations and stereotypes we still face even today, we recognize and embrace our tribal differences. Our identities are not of a one-size-fits-all pan-indigenous nature, but ones of diverse cultures, languages, and geographical differences. Through those intricate lines we’re able to write about our experiences today from distinct points of view.

Terese Mailhot on How to Talk to Men, Children, and White People” by Deirdre Sugiuchi

Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir Heart Berries is a model of turning trauma and pain into powerful, lyrical writing. In this interview, she talks about mental illness, children, the failures of “resilience” as a concept, and writing about and to the dominant culture from a Native perspective.

When I was writing the book, I had to place myself at the center of the story. I could not look at being Indian; I had to look through it.

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