Language, Tents, and Flysheets: Building a Shelter of the Ephemeral
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Language, Tents, and Flysheets:
Building a Shelter of the Ephemeral

Often I lean against a tree in the back yard of the Jacobson House in Norman. Lorenzo Baca is at the mic telling us, “This night will never happen again.” Beside me is the Mi’kmaq writer Lorne Simon. We quench the heat with big wedges of juicy Oklahoma watermelon. Despite the gnats, we linger, enchanted by the company, by the smorgasbord of songs and poems.

Other times I find myself inside a tent on the festival grounds at Milwaukee lake front. Behind the poetry tree on a small makeshift stage, Denise Sweet is talking about protecting our water, Philip Red Eagle is reading his stories, Jim Stephens is playing the flute. I sit with Mike Wilson while Indian Summer is closing down around us and nobody wants to break the spell and leave.

1992 brought more than 350 Native writers together in July at the Returning the Gift Festival held in and around the University of Oklahoma in Norman. The 20th Anniversary Festival, held in September 2012 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and at several other sites in the city, gathered more than 100 Native writers for five days of music, films, performances, conference sessions, and even a poetry slam.

The gathering of writing in this special issue of cream city review includes works from many of those who organized or attended that original RTG gathering including Joe Bruchac, Maurice Kenny, and Gordon Henry. It also contains work by writers who may have participated in RTG events since 1992, some of whom are younger and began publishing after that historic first gathering or whose visit to Milwaukee was their first experience with the Native [End Page 32] Writers’ Circle of the Americas. Among these newer writers are Heid Erdrich, Bryan Bearheart, and Margaret Noodin. We are also happy to feature in the online content of this issue writing by a group of Native grade school children who shared their work in the opening event of the Milwaukee festival.

Geary Hobson tells us that the name of the gathering, “Returning the Gift,” originated with a statement by tribal chief Tom Porter who suggested to the steering committee of the first gathering that as writers they were giving back or “returning the gift of storytelling, culture, continuance—to the people, the source from whence it had come.” Chief Porter suggests something important about the role of tribal writing and something about its character. Perhaps I return in my memory to the gallery yard in Norman, to the stages and tents and conference tables of these events, and similar gatherings held in the intervening years in Penticton, British Columbia or Albuquerque, New Mexico, because they reinforce key values we all need to have shored up now and then to keep us on the journey. In each event, I re-member days of giddy fullness, nesting there among others who like me ransom days and hours in the strange pursuits of language, in fleeting attempts at unlocking some key to being.

If Native writing finds its source in the vital traditions of tribal communities, in Indigenous teachings and stories and ceremonies, in the seasonal rituals and harvesting activities, as well as in the ongoing political realities, daily experiences, and struggles that define Native Nations, then that inspiration is indeed received as gift or treasure – our apprehension of the world arises gratis from having lived within a particular Indigenous context of knowing. If what we [End Page 33] as writers and artists create in our work imaginatively renders that Indigenous reality, perhaps re-speaks old ideals, or seeks to align the chaos of contemporary culture with the patterns of older community structures, it makes a kind of return. Literary works may attempt to apply teachings to new conditions or may interrogate the inherited schema with a modern skepticism. Regardless, in the best instances, the literature engages others, pulls readers and listeners into the puzzle and pleasures of survivance.

Returning the Gift, 1992. Returning the Gift, 2012. This may never happen again. Natalie Diaz wiggling imaginary antlers with a group of grade school children; Joy Harjo stomp-dancing in the midst...


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