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Decolonizing the Choctaws
Teaching LeAnne Howe's Shell Shaker
Shell Shaker (2001) by LeAnne Howe (Choctaw) is a novel that gives students an opportunity to learn that the history and culture of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma are alive today. Winner of the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award in 2002, the novel deals with two parallel stories that converge in the present, one about the eighteenth-century murder of Choctaw warrior Red Shoes, and the other about the 1991 murder of corrupt Chief Redford McAlester. The novel illustrates how history continues to impact the present-day Choctaw characters and how those characters exemplify the process of decolonization. This article deals with how I teach Shell Shaker in the context of a course on American Indian literatures, but the strategies are useful for the novel in any course.
Although other Native novels responsibly and effectively represent the history and culture of Native nations, particularly those of the "Fab Five"—N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), James Welch (Blackfeet), Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo), Louise Erdrich (Ojibwe), and Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene)—Shell Shaker not only excels in its rendering of the historical and contemporary Choctaws, but the writing also depicts the characters with great warmth, intelligence, and humor. Scholar and critic P. Jane Hafen (Taos Pueblo) praises the novel as a fine literary read: "Howe seamlessly integrates a history of desperate and gruesome fights for survival with modern Faustian pacts with materialism and wealth. At the heart of the story are generations of Choctaw peoples who persevere with ritual gestures of 'life everlasting'" (Hafen 2002). Howe's novel is among the wave of contemporary Native authors [End Page 73] whose work focuses on issues of sovereignty and the decolonization process as a means of survival.
The opening chapter, "Blood Sacrifice," is just one example of the strong impression the novel leaves with readers, as Shakbatina, a Shell Shaker, narrates her own death as she is bludgeoned by a war club as a sacrifice to maintain peace among the Choctaws and Chickasaws. Detailing every physical sensation, image, and sound as she dies but lives on in spirit is an example of the Choctaw philosophy of "life everlasting," a motif that appears throughout the novel: "the people are ever living, ever dying, ever alive!" (Howe 2001, 5). As the second blow strikes her head, she sees the spirit of an animal: "Mother Porcupine walks into view and takes me by the hand. I open my mouth to speak but my thoughts escape into the wind" (16). Shakbatina's thoughts will find their way over space and time to the contemporary Billy women and help them to solve the mystery of Chief Red McAlester's death. In addition to restoring peace and harmony among the Oklahoma Choctaws, the resolution also renews ties between them and the Mississippi Choctaws, as the Billy family decides that the body of Chief Red McAlester must be returned to traditional lands, the Mother Mound at Nanih Waiya in Mississippi, so his troubled spirit will rest in peace.
A return to traditional Indigenous cultural values as a means to reconstruct social and governmental institutions is a theme in Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred's Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto (1999, xvii). Alfred writes about Indigenous identity: "[W]hat makes an individual 'indigenous' is his or her situation within a community.... our people's reality is communal" (xvi). The narrative of Shell Shaker perfectly captures a sense of community in the way that the characters come together to support one another and solve the challenges facing their families and tribe. Alfred goes on to say, "To know indigenous people, those seeking knowledge must interact with indigenous communities, in all their past and present complexity" (1999, xvi-xvii; emphasis added). Within the scope of Shell Shaker students see how an Indigenous community negotiates life's challenges in both historical and contemporary settings, thus coming to a better understanding of the complexity of Choctaw culture and...