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  • An Occasion for Giving
  • Cynthia Franklin (bio)
Returning the Gift: Poetry and Prose from the First North American Native Writers’ Festival. Edited by Joseph Bruchac. Tuscon and London: University of Arizona Press, 1994. xxix+369 pages. $45.00 (cloth). $19.95 (paper).

I grew up as one of the few whites in a largely Chicano neighborhood where all of the children—myself included—called anyone who took back a gift an “Indian giver.” Not until much later did I become aware of the hypocritical inversions of the term, or of the ironies that attended our name-calling, given our respective histories. In Returning the Gift, Native writers make clear (for anyone who hasn’t got it yet) exactly who took what from whom. As the speaker in Sherman Alexie’s “Red Blues” asks, “What treaties can I sign now? I’d hold you to all your promises if I could find just one I know you’d keep” (3). At the same time as contributors point to the bad faith and false promises that accompanied the taking of Native lands and lives, they (re)claim the term “Indian giver.” Witness, for example, these lines from Harold Littlebird’s untitled poem about a family reunion: “Oh Grandfather! / In Love, for Giving / I give lovingly / For I am an Indian-Giver, returning . . .” (184).

Returning the Gift is indeed “for Giving”; its writings are gifts that Native contributors give to non-Native readers as well to one another and to their respective and overlapping communities. The occasion for the anthology was the July 1992 Returning the Gift Festival, a 4-day conference in Oklahoma which, as anthology editor and conference co-organizer Joseph Bruchac notes, “brought more Native writers together in one place than at any other time in history” (xix). [End Page 438]

Oklahoma serves as a particularly apt festival site. Not only does it have the second largest population of Native peoples in the United States, but during the 1800s, Oklahoma territory served as the final destination for the forced relocation of some 60 nations. With the discovery of oil at the turn of the century, Indian reservation trust lands were “redistributed,” and most reservations were disbanded a few years preceding the statehood of Oklahoma in 1907. Thus, Oklahoma is not only a place where many Native peoples can gather to find connections to their ancestors, but also embedded in this land is the violent history of the forced dislocation and relocation of Native peoples that accompanied the forging of an Indian identity and an American nation.

Bruchac’s and other conference organizers’ criteria for writers to be considered “Native” were “Provable Native heritage, self-identification as a Native person, and affiliation with the tribal community” (xx). The Festival sponsored 220 invited Native writers and 47 student writers from dozens of different tribal nations; another 101 Native writers came on their own, as did non-Native writers, scholars, publishers, and translators. Returning the Gift includes 171 pieces (mostly poetry) by 91 of the writers invited to the Festival. Alongside entries by well-known writers such as Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan, and Simon Ortiz, the anthology includes contributions by lesser-known or new writers that demonstrate an impressive range of styles, subject matter, and voices.

The anthology that emerges from this festival not only evidences the heterogeneity and vitality of North American Native writings today, it also gives voice to a community of writers, and works to strengthen connections among these writers and their communities. Festival historian Geary Hobson makes this focus explicit in his explanation of the title “Returning the Gift.” As part of his narrative about the conference and the anthology, Hobson tells of an address Chief Tom Porter of the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation gave to conference organizers:

He remarked that in our avocation as Native writers, involved as we are in taking our peoples’ literature back to them in the form of stories and songs, we were actually returning the gift—the gift of storytelling, culture, continuance—to the people, the source from whence it had come.


In editing Returning the Gift, Bruchac does not attempt to divide and order its diverse offerings (a diversity I can only...

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pp. 438-444
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