- Choctawan Aesthetics, Spirituality, and Gender Relations: An Interview with LeAnne Howe
To begin sifting through the mélange of humor, resistance, and intellectualism that shoots through the work of Choctaw poet, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, and scholar LeAnne Howe, it is helpful to examine the author’s photograph on the back cover of her collection Evidence of Red (2005), winner of the 2006 Oklahoma Book Award for poetry. Playfully smiling, Howe salutes the camera, emulating a similar move by the giant wooden Indian behind her. The wooden Indian is adorned in what appears to be a loincloth of stars and stripes and a sign that reads “Cigars Cubains.” Howe’s choice to pose in front of the cigar store Indian, a symbol of the original trading relationship between Natives and Europeans that ultimately led to colonization, genocide, and the commodification of the American Indian image, is a joke on anyone who thinks that Native peoples are conquered, “vanished,” or frozen in time. Indeed, a number of Howe’s Choctaw characters literally time travel in her books, creating opportunities to overcome oppressive histories with returns to homelands or reversals of defeats.
Shell Shaker, Howe’s first novel, was published in 2001 to critical acclaim. It received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation (2002), was a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award (2003), and its French translation, Equinoxes Rouges, was a finalist for France’s Prix Médicis Étranger (2004). The novel moves between the eighteenth century and the present, linking eras through the actions of Shakbatina, a ceremonial shell shaker whose self-sacrifice on behalf of her daughter becomes an act that resonates across centuries to unite the Choctaw tribe, split by the 1830 removal from the Mississippi homelands to what is now Oklahoma. Poet and literary critic Ken McCullough claims, “Although there has been significant scholarship on this historical period in the southeast, between the arrival of DeSoto and Removal, no one has written a work of the imagination (of this magnitude) set in this period” (61). Howe’s work is meticulously researched, revealing the complexity of ancient trade relationships between southeastern Native peoples, the complications that ensued when European colonial powers arrived in the Americas, and the manifestation of these historical moments in the lives of contemporary Choctaw characters. [End Page 211]
Howe’s second novel, Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story (2007), also shifts between past and present, unraveling a family mystery set against the backdrop of all-Indian baseball leagues and detailing the love affair between Choctaw pitcher Hope Little Leader and Justina Maurepas, his Black Indian lover. This relationship suggests an intersection between Native American and African American histories of oppression and displacement: the characters meet at Hampton Normal School for Blacks and Indians (present-day Hampton University), and their affair ends after terrorization by the Ku Klux Klan. As Shell Shaker works to heal the wounds of Choctaw colonization and dispersal, Miko Kings recenters the ball game known as “America’s pastime,” illuminating its roots in Choctawan spiritual and political traditions.
In addition to her fiction, poetry, and scholarly work, Howe wrote the screenplay for and narrated the ninety-minute PBS documentary Indian Country Diaries: Spiral of Fire (2006); her play, The Mascot Opera: A Minuet, was commissioned for the 2008 production at the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, although it was not used. Howe has been the recipient of numerous artistic awards and residencies, including the Louis D. Rubins, Jr., Writer-in-Residence at Hollins University; an Artistin-Residence grant for theatre from the Iowa Arts Council; a Regents’ Distinguished Lecturer at the University of California, Riverside; and in 2006–07 she was the John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi at Oxford. Howe is currently a professor of American Indian Studies and English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her creative work has been informed by her academic pursuits, but there are also strands from her years as a journalist, government bond trader, and actress. Both of her novels brim with a variety of characters, including stock brokers, college professors, warriors, spirits, baseball players, political activists, physicists, and gamblers...