- Introduction to Focus:Native Literature Matters
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Given recent events at Standing Rock with the ongoing demonstrations against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through native treaty lands and for the serious threat it poses to the Missouri River, along with previous acts of native/First Nation resistance to the proposed Keystone Pipeline, which inspired the Idle No More movement, as well as work by activists, scholars, writers and artists to confront what could only be described as an epidemic of gendered violence against native/First Nation women throughout North America, the voices of native/indigenous people are as critical as ever. This special focus of American Book Review on native American/ Indigenous writing is intended to bring attention to and celebrate the literary achievements of a diverse group of writers and poets, while providing a venue for the discussion of issues vital to native people and communities. It is also the hope of the ABR editors, myself, and the included reviewers, that the works discussed may find interested and enthusiastic new readers for the stories written and shared.
The attention to the writings included within this focus speak to the incredible capacity of native/First Nation/indigenous cultures and people to endure and resist over 500 years of colonial violence and oppression. That we are able to read the words of such writers in the twenty-first century is a testament to what N. Scott Momaday called in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel House Made of Dawn (1968), this “overcoming” and “long outwaiting.” The works addressed here further testify to the significance of the diverse experiences of female, male, two-spirit native people, living both on and off the reservation, and from urban and rural communities across the United States and Canada. The review of Tiffany Midge’s The Woman Who Married a Bear, by Scott Andrews, Laura Dá’s Tributaries by Jeanetta Calhoun Mish, and my review of Stephen Graham Jones’s novel, Mongrels, consider, albeit in different ways, just how these writers address what it means to be human—perhaps in the sense Joy Harjo intended by the title of her 2002 collection, How We Became Human—and how as humans we understand and relate to each other, as well as other beings. N. Scott Momaday, credited with initiating the so-called American Indian Literary Renaissance of the late 1960s and 1970s, was known to declare to students in the classes he taught, “I am the bear,” as a means of bridging what many Americans still consider an insurmountable existential and communicative divide between human/non-human beings through reference to traditional Kiowa story and cosmology. Midge and Dá have no such difficulty and complement the story of Mato Tipila that inspires Momaday by offering their own representations of bears, as well as a variety of other animals, informed by Lakota and Shawnee knowledge and story.
Taking a more critically engaged and comic approach, while remaining deeply informed by the Anishinaabe figure of the trickster and what he came to term, “trickster hermeneutics,” Gerald Vizenor, writing in Bearheart (1978), which begins provocatively, “The bear is in me now. Listen ha ha ha haaaa,” also explores the fraught relationship between human and animal beings, while addressing their impacts on identity in response to epistemologies imposed in North America by Euro-American colonial cultures where the divisions between human and animal were starkly drawn. That Midge and Dá employ poetry as their chosen means of exploration, and Jones the driving prose of genre fiction, combine to further extend the reflections on the inherent ambiguities of the natural world that Momaday and Vizenor drew inspiration from, so to create new stories as guides for greater understanding and growth. One theme that naturally emerges out of such considerations is the contemplation and practice of romantic and familial love, as well as reproduction, and these are certainly central elements of Midge’s, Dá’s and Jones’s texts, allowing readers to identify so intimately with their works. What all of the writers included in this feature do through their writings, their stories, is to encourage all...