Read Different: Go Native

Native storytellers

As the saying goes, “variety is the spice of life.” This applies to our reading choices, too. As a writer, I love to read – that goes without saying for most writers. But the hardest part can be finding something new and unusual; finding stories written from a different perspective, as long as it’s not considered “mainstream”. If you’re looking to support writers who share stories different from yours, I recommend you try Native American authors.

I’ve been reading fiction and nonfiction from several prolific Native authors for over twenty years. I discovered them on treasure hunts through the fiction aisles of libraries (and from there I found their nonfiction works as well). You don’t have to be an Indian to enjoy a culturally specific story; the details are rich and paint a story not unlike your own, just with a different brush. We’re far more alike than we sometimes care to admit and it’s good to learn from others’ experiences and unfamiliar settings.

The following is a short list of some of my personal favorites. Some of them, like Kent Nerburn, Joseph Marshall, and Priscilla Cogan, I go back and read at least once a year because they teach me life lessons that remind me of what’s important.

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann (nonfiction)

This is a true story of how Osage Indians, after discovering oil on their lands and becoming rich, were systematically murdered. It was the first major homicide case for the FBI; together with the Osage, the FBI managed to expose one of the most chilling conspiracies of murder in America.  “It is a searing indictment of the callousness and prejudice toward American Indians that allowed the murderers to operate with impunity for so long.” A can’t-put-it-down kind of book.

Kent Nerburn

These books tell a story of a white man’s physical and spiritual adventures with a Lakota elder. A humorous, touching, and eye/spirit-opening adventure that spans three books. Once you start, you won’t be able to stop.

  1. Neither Wolf Nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder
  2. The Wolf at Twilight: An Indian Elder’s Journey through a Land of Ghosts and Shadows
  3. The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo: A Child, an Elder, and the Light from an Ancient Sky

Priscilla Cogan

These are a fictional trilogy of spiritual adventure. Maggie, a white woman, meets Winona Pathfinder and her spiritual journey begins; a mix of Lakota and Christian beliefs. I loved all three books; I read them again and again.

  1. Winona’s Web
  2. Compass of the Heart
  3. Crack at Dusk Crook of Dawn

Lakota Westerns by Joseph M. Marshall III (Lakota) – I love westerns and these are my favorite fiction works by Joseph Marshall. He is a prolific writer and the scenes he paints with his pen have you right there with Cloud and his people, in their struggles to survive as whites encroach on their lands.

  1. Hundred in the Hand – a fictional account of the Battle of the Hundred in the Hand (the Fetterman Massacre) as seen through the eyes of Cloud, a warrior fighting alongside Crazy Horse (whose younger brother, Little Wolf, was actually killed in this battle at the ripe old age of 19, ten years prior to the death of Crazy Horse).
  2. The Long Knives are Crying – the second in the series, picks up around 1875 as the Lakota face the inevitable arrival of whites, still through the eyes of Cloud, now much older and the last generation of “free” Indians.

Here is one of his fabulous nonfictions:

The Journey of Crazy Horse – drawn on oral stories from elders, Joseph paints a picture of Crazy Horse the man, not the legend. A beautiful read.

James Welch (Blackfeet)

  1. Fools Crow – first published in 1986, it’s a fictional account of Blackfeet life in 1870, through the eyes of Fools Crow, a young warrior and medicine man. A gorgeous story.
  2. The Heartsong of Charging Elk – this is a true story. Charging Elk, Oglala Sioux, joins Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show but is left behind in a hospital in Marseille, France after a serious injury. He is forced to remake his life alone in a strange land. Sadly, the book ends when Charging Elk is only thirty-three; James died in 2000 while working on the second half of Charging Elk’s story (marriage and descendants).

The Last Algonquian by Ted Kazimiroff – This is the true story of (Joe) Two Trees, the last of his people, living alone in Pelham Bay, New York (up to 1924). He befriends a young boy scout (the author’s father) and recounts his sad story in great detail. (Graves of his parents and dog are located in Long Island City, NY.)

The Heart of Everything That Is by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin – an unusual and factual account of Red Cloud, Lakota chief; rich in historically accurate information, thanks to the discovery of Red Cloud’s lost autobiography. Good if you like historical works.

And last, but certainly not least:

Black Elk Speaks as told through John G. Neihardt – the meeting of a white man in 1932 with the great medicine man Black Elk (Lakota), who told John his life story (through a translator). A beautiful, sad telling of the tragedies that befell the Lakota in the latter part of the 19th century. Black Elk takes you back in time to his life, his people, including his first cousin, Crazy Horse.

Paint a Picture: Our Words As Our Brushes

As writers, we are artists whose canvass is the mind of the reader; our brushes are the words we use to create the story. Some paint a broad picture while others paint a smaller, more narrow picture. I prefer to read stories with some (but not too much) well-placed descriptives (adjectives and other modifiers), as they lead me through a maze of landscapes, cityscapes, and textures I knew not of, with characters carved as from real life.

Has writing fiction nowadays changed the way we paint our broad brushes? The evolution of language has certainly modified our written expression to a great extent, especially in the last two centuries. What if someone wrote in the frenetic way Van Gogh painted?  What if someone wrote as Pablo Picasso painted during his Cubist period, or his Blue period, or during his early years when his work was more realistic? An interesting thought to ponder, comparing their art to ours.

One shining example of just-the-right-amount of descriptive words (in my opinion, anyway) is the book The Long Knives are Crying, by Joseph Marshall III. As a result of his writing savvy and storytelling prowess, he paints a broad but exceptionally detailed picture of life on the Plains in the late 18th century, during a time of war and strife between Lakota and the U.S. government. Throughout the whole book, I was carried along by his choice of descriptive words. I swear I can find my way across that part of the country based solely on his knack for painting a picture of the landscape down to the tiniest detail:

“High above the frozen river, the Lakota sentry hidden inside a tangle of deadfall gazed intently at the horse and rider below him on a wide plateau. His expression changed little as he noted that the buckskin horse was following the game trail along the north bank of the meandering ribbon of snow-covered ice, moving in a westerly direction.”

The following is a portion of a bad example of descriptive writing I found online; it’s too long and wordy for this blog, so I’ll share only a portion:

“Chocolate. Three different types and three different distinct flavors, each of which  has its own unique benefits. Because, you know, chocolate is sooooo healthy. It has no sugar in it whatsoever, and has tons of vitamins and minerals (she wrote sarcastically) Chocolate may not have health benefits, but its unique and rich flavor has been influencing human actions since the time of the Aztecs,  who used cocoa beans. Historians estimate that chocolate has been consumed for OVER 2000 years!!! That means that chocolate has been around since the fall of the Egyptian empire. When most people think chocolate, they think of a yummy delicious substance that can be eaten, but what about a substance that people can drink? Not hot chocolate, but actual normal chocolate that you can drink?” (source: https://sites.google.com/a/g.coppellisd.com/expository-writing–carrie-erin-katie-aparna-stephanie/descriptive/bad-examples)

I love to learn how to better include descriptive words in my own writing by reading other shining examples. With the explosion of self-publishing sites, many more writers are taking a turn at telling their stories. But are they of good quality? Do they dare to take us for that imaginative ride so many crave from good fiction? I dare say, with the Digital Age upon us, I am concerned that our ability to express ourselves with language will continue to devolve, as our dependence on computers that think for us grows. Bad grammar abounds and I find myself craving the classics, for the likes of Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, and Robert Luis Stevenson. They were writers that painted with their words as beautifully as any Picasso or Van Gogh painting.

 

Writing with Purpose

Yesterday I posted a link to a well-written article on the Dakota Pipeline project and its effect on Native peoples of that region. While it is not my intention to politicize my blog, I deemed this article, written by an intelligent and compassionate woman, an important read.

As writers, we cannot shy away from the dirty or difficult issues in our nonfiction work or occasionally in our blogs. Important issues, however difficult or delicate, must be discussed. It is, in my opinion as a writer, our duty to use our words and to string them together in a way that educates, enlivens, and fills those who read our blogs/books/articles with a sense of purpose and to motivate. And as a Native person, I simply CANNOT ignore this subject and therefore I must write this post with a sense of purpose.

This pipeline is a major issue that will affect far more people (and animals and nature in general) than Native peoples. A friend of mine from here in NorCal left for the Dakotas with his wife several days ago. They’re bringing clothing donations directly to the people on the front lines. With everything that’s happened thus far – hosing innocent protesters with icy water in already freezing temperatures, for example – I am concerned about their safety (and the safety of all those brave warriors on the front lines there). Is this going to be a repeat of what happened in Pine Ridge in the early 70s, leaving an innocent man (Leonard Peltier) to rot in jail for the rest of his life because of a clash of cultures? I fear we may, as a nation, walk that ugly path again but I hope not. I hope many of us have learned from that debacle and history, in this case, will not repeat itself.

We as writers are obligated to write our stories with purpose, even if they offend some folks (hey, we can’t please everyone, right?). We are obligated to be truthful and use integrity as a tool, not a weapon.

For those of you who might be interested in helping the warriors on the front lines in some way, here are a few web links:

  1. http://sacredstonecamp.org/
  2. https://nodaplsolidarity.org/
  3. https://www.gofundme.com/sacredstonecamp
  4. http://standingrock.org/
  5. http://www.nodapl.life/

Mitakuye Oyasin

(We Are All Related)