- Sacred Smokes by Theodore C. Van Alst
A fourteen-year-old Hunkpapa Sioux gangsta on the streets of Chicago, called "the professor" and "Midget" by his peers, claims his voice, shifting between f-bombs and lyrical, fantastical horror stories that mesmerize the other boys. His claim does not feel surprising or out of place because his voice, at the heart of Theodore C. Van Alst Jr.'s Sacred Smokes, seems to have always been there—in his breath and in the Windy City. It never left, and that's the point. The f-bombs and the stories, woven casually, sometimes three layers deep in voice and point of view, pulse with narrative vitality, reappropriating urban America into a compelling Indigenous presence.
This remarkably original collection of semiautobiographical short fiction, twelve interwoven tales, leaps through tragedy to poignancy to hilarity and deep irony. The jungle of streets becomes Indigenous. The language itself evolves and cycles through the text, a kind of portrait of the artist as a young Indian, shifting not from baby talk to philosophy [End Page 228] but from teenage street rap, punctuated with early childhood flashbacks, to flashforwards of literary discourse, then circling back to street talk touched with fine observations. We meet in alleys with scared young gangstas with guns or within grim apartment walls sweating with a beloved and brutal drunken father's presence, a relocated link to Lakota ways. Textual parallels with James Joyce and contextually with the Irish Renaissance are telling. Here is a grittier rhetorical evolution that both masters and remasters the master's discourse: we lament for a colonized people; we feel the tensions of family as politics and politics as family; we feel exile, diaspora, resistance; and we feel this voice that would speak for the conscience of his race.
Both Susan Power and Stephen Graham Jones, endorsing this remarkable collection, describe Sacred Smokes as "necessary." "A necessary read," Power writes, and Jones responds to it as "real and raw and necessary." His further insistence that "[w]e've been needing this book for a lot of years now" speaks both to the literary accomplishment of "its hyperreal voice of an Indian gang member trying to survive the streets of Chicago," as Power describes it, and to the historic placement of this text in the contemporary flowering of Indigenous literatures. That Jones refers here to "a lot of years" marks, I reckon, precisely the five decades since publication of N. Scott Momaday's Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, House Made of Dawn, in 1968. Although there have been many other factors contributing to decades of artistic momentum, that literary award served as the starting gun for a remarkable Indian relay of Native American writers in full gallop, a race that continues nonstop. As many readers know, there have been waves of writers from Indian Country in the last two generations, both reservation-based and urban, who offer fiction and poetry, drama, essay, and film. Some now are canonized. They convey modern and historical Native narratives on the land, on reservations, and in the cities, but none has dug more deeply into young urban Native life on the streets than Sacred Smokes.
The book stands among recent titles of city life by emerging Indigenous writers, especially the new urban Native novel There, There, by Cheyenne and Arapaho writer Tommy Orange, along with numerous texts by Stephen Graham Jones (Blackfeet). The intense young narrative voice in Van Alst's fiction embodies the more formally discursive voices in Orange's novel, where the prologue proclaims: "Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere [End Page 229] or nowhere" (11). Such a radical announcement may be seen across generations either as ultimate assimilation, giving up on "returning to the land," or as ultimate reappropriation, remapping kinship on the "land" as "everywhere," including downtown. This urban affirmation grants no quarter to settler colonials who refuse to acknowledge they live on stolen land.
The voice in Sacred Smokes is unique, holding technically to its youthful...