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Studies in American Indian Literatures 19.1 (2007) 66-90

"I Liked It So Much I E-mailed Him and Told Him"
Teaching The Lesser Blessed at the University of California
Jane Haladay

My Story is Not Mine Alone

Class ends like a scene from the novel itself. "Okay, when we meet next week we'll be into our second novel, Richard Van Camp's The Lesser Blessed," I announce.

From the back corner of the room Luana, a Tongan student, is scrutinizing Van Camp's moody book flap photo. "He's hot!" she proclaims. The class—seventeen women and three men—laughs.

"Yeah," I concede, "he's a good looking man." I pause. "But he looks even better in person." They perk up, watching me in anticipation. "He's a bit young for me, though," I finally say. More laughter.

"Do you know him?" Luana asks.

"Yes, I met him at a conference last fall. If you ever get a chance to hear him read his stuff, go! He's an incredible storyteller."

"Where's he at again?" Luana asks.

"Vancouver," I tell her.

"Vancouver . . . ," she echoes dreamily.

"Is that in Washington?" somebody else asks.

"It's in Canada," Luana answers.

"I guess you could transfer up there," I say to Luana, "but I hear it gets pretty cold." Not long after this, Luana dropped my class with no explanation. I still wonder if she transferred.

This essay is just one story in the ongoing conversation of how to approach teaching indigenous literatures in colonial educational [End Page 66] institutions. My pedagogy stresses sharing an interactive process of reading and reflection with my students, what black feminist scholar bell hooks terms "engaged pedagogy" in her book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Hooks's description of engaged pedagogy insists that discomfort, confusion, pleasure, risk-taking, and revelation are not only acceptable but are necessary in the process of acquiring knowledge. While all ethical educators encourage their students to view texts as the ultimate authorities about their own stories' meanings, the complex cultural content of Native texts pushes me and my students even further in recognizing that none of us, sometimes not even the authors themselves, may fully understand what and how the stories "mean"—and that their meanings are multiple. Through sharing my experiences teaching Richard Van Camp's The Lesser Blessed, I hope to reveal the power of this particular text and the way its effects on students who willingly engage it can create a collaborative learning atmosphere that is transformative. This environment requires me to relinquish primary authority (not always easy) to open a space for student vulnerability and voice, while simultaneously remaining an active moderator and guide shaping the direction of the class. In such a space, students, author, and educator share power in the discussion and comprehension of culture and story.

Students' and my own interactions with the novel's author, Richard Van Camp, a member of the Tlicho, or Dogrib, Nation, have become another strand braided into the collaborative process of teaching The Lesser Blessed.1 I am sharing these interwoven stories to outline the possible ways in which both educators and authors may interact with and be inspired by the "consumers" of their textual productions, those hungry readers of and listeners to their stories. The Lesser Blessed is now taught in only a smattering of U.S. and Canadian high schools, colleges, and universities, and to date there is a dearth of literary criticism on the novel.2 It is my hope that this essay may add to a growing body of discussion around this vital text and encourage other educators to include it in their aboriginal/Native and other literature curricula.

The Lesser Blessed is a complex, painful, hilarious story informed [End Page 67] by raw poetics and deep humanity. The novel describes "the north's social ills," as a book review in the newspaper Wind Speaker puts it...

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