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Reviewed by:
  • Sovereign Bones: New Native American Writing
  • Amy Ware (bio)
Eric Gansworth , ed. Sovereign Bones: New Native American Writing. New York: Nation Books, 2007. ISBN: 1-56858-357-5. 331 pp.

Guided by editor Eric Gansworth, whose work includes poetry, prose, and visual art, Sovereign Bones focuses on the variety of artistic weapons contributors wield to combat the threat of cultural assimilation. Through these self-reflective pieces, Sovereign Bones represents an important contribution to the central (and increasingly recognized) role of nonfiction in articulating American Indian intellectual traditions. The strength of this collection of nonfiction essays by more than thirty authors, multimedia artists, photographers, and actors lies in its ability to bridge many traditionally accepted divides. The collection would be an excellent companion for courses in American Indian nonfiction writing as well as broad-based American Indian studies classes focused on film, art, or literature.

The book is organized into four conceptually based sections, each offering essays by writers and visual artists at varying levels of renown. The first, "Repatriating Ourselves," contains essays relating not to the repatriation of material and skeletal remains but to the methods that Indigenous artists employ to balance older tribal traditions with newer interpretations of those traditions. As Salt River Pima photographer Annabel Wong puts it in her essay, "The reclamation of tribal culture and religion in contemporary society is not only remembering the past and maintaining traditions but also creating a new meaning of what it is to be Native in the world today" (24).

The book's second section, "Speaking through Our Nations' Teeth," focuses on the reclamation and retention of Native languages. While the reprint of Louise Erdrich's 2000 New York Times piece on Ojibwe is powerful, it is Simon Ortiz, unsurprisingly, whose contribution is most impressive. In "Indigenous Language Consciousness: Being, Place, and Sovereignty," Ortiz eloquently ties language to place and, ultimately, to tribal sovereignty: "without the Indigenous sovereignty held and contained in the core values [End Page 108] and lifeways expressed by Indigenous language, they (we) will not have Existence" (147).

Native artists' attempts to reclaim their representation in popular culture through various artistic media is the focus of Sovereign Bones's third section. It is here that the book's most diverse range of artists speak, including actors (Steve Elm and Gary Farmer), writers (Sherman Alexie, Diane Glancy, Susan Powers), photographers (Pena Bonita and Richard Hill Sr.), a painter (Jaune Quick to See Smith), and a film director (Diane Fraher). Given the range of experiences represented, this collection is the strongest in the monograph. Steve Elm (Oneida) succinctly sums up the subsection's theme in his essay on working as a Native actor: "I did not go to acting school to learn to be an 'Indian actor.' I trained to become an actor who would someday be known as an actor who happened to be an Indian" (189).

The concluding section of the book is entitled "Rolling Those Sovereign Bones." Gansworth defines the section broadly as reflective of artists' use of "tools of the oppressors," and its contents, a hodgepodge of essays that would have more aptly been placed in the preceding sections, are equally vague (8). Still, the section contains several innovative essays, including Akwesasne Mohawk James Thomas Stevens's contribution "E-Socials: Cultural Collaboration in the Age of the Electronic Inter-Tribal" and Joy Harjo's piece, which weaves selections from her blog with some journalistic columns for the Muscogee Nation News.

By defining art broadly, the book exemplifies the strengths of a holistic approach to Indigenous creativity, one that challenges Western-imposed segregation among artistic media. Further, both an intra- and intertribal community are built through the common sentiments expressed throughout. Thematic trends in the essays—the struggle for self-representation and the difficulties inherent in balancing the old and new—exemplify common ground found across tribal lines. At the same time, familial connections give the collection an intimate feel: father and daughter Simon and Sara Ortiz, sisters Louise and Heid Erdrich, and other familial relations offer independent yet intimately connected reflections on their [End Page 109] work. These fluctuations between distinct traditions and artistic form are also reflected in the mixture of both...


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pp. 108-111
Launched on MUSE
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