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The Best Native American Literature

recommended by Megan Tusler

"There's a lot more diversity within Native American literature than many imagine," according to Megan Tusler. The University of Chicago academic and cohost of the Better Read than Dead podcast recommends five fantastic novels which avoid "the authenticity shuffle" and demonstrate the range of literary production by American Indians.

Interview by Eve Gerber

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Native American literature, the topic for which you picked five books, is a bit of a misnomer. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, there are currently 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States, and each has its own intellectual context. So, should we say Native American literatures? How should one think about this topic and these books?

Literatures, plural, is a really valuable way to think about it. I don’t mind saying Native American or American Indian literature because the intellectual genealogy uses those terms. People who publish studies in American Indian literature and who work in the field use both of those umbrella phrases.

What makes Native American literature distinct?

There’s a lot more diversity within Native American literature than many imagine. The literature is so diverse in genre, topic and theme that it’s hard to say one thing that makes it Native American literature, other than the identity of the author. Forging a field called Native American literature is a strategy. There is also debate about what characterizes American literature as a category and how American literature needs to engage with ethnic literary studies.

Better Read than Dead, your podcast, takes on literature from the left. Native American literature is embraced by the American left. Is it written from a broad spectrum of perspectives?

There are people in the field who are much more left than some other scholars. And American Indian literature does engage in rethinking property, which is in common with a lot of left ideas. But I don’t think Native literature is received by the wider public as leftist. I think it’s received more generally as part of Native American history. I definitely don’t think every book in the field is left and I don’t think every critic takes that point of view.

Let’s start with an astonishingly engrossing and observant novel by Dakota ethnologist Ella Cara Deloria. Please tell me about Waterlily.

Waterlily can be called a historical novel. The book is written from a 19th century Native woman’s perspective. Deloria thinks of herself as being a woman writer in a much more explicit way than some other writers. This book follows a character called Waterlily from the moment of her birth through adulthood. It explores the patterns of parenthood, Waterlily’s marital arrangements and the importance of kinship ties. It’s a pretty straightforward bildungsroman, but beautifully done.

Deloria was part of a group of women who were trained by Anthropologist Franz Boaz to do something like auto-ethnography or to be native informants. Zora Neale Hurston was the most famous alumna of that group. But Deloria is really important too. She brings the eye of an ethnologist to this novel.

Deloria contributed to understanding with many monographs, studies for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and books about Sioux culture. Was her fiction weighed down by a sense of responsibility to represent marginalized subjects as worthy of better treatment for American society at large? How much do the responsibilities that come with representation shape Native American lit?

That is one of the most complicated questions in the field. Deloria goes to great pains to authentically represent tribal practices. Deloria is drawn to writing fiction, in part, so she can expose a wider audience to a picture of Native life. She’s invested in ‘tradition’ (I always put traditions in quotation marks because tradition is an ongoing project). Deloria’s depiction of Waterlily’s story aligns with a historical reconstruction of Dakota tribal life. It’s a story that is much closer to the closure of the frontier than any of the other books that we’ll be talking about.

Next you selected House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday, which won the Pulitzer in 1969. Please tell me about the book and its author.

Momaday is cited as the writer who inaugurated the Native American Renaissance. House Made of Dawn is just wonderful. It made a huge splash, drawing more attention to Native writing in its wake. It’s about a character called Abel who at the beginning of the book is returning to his tribe’s reservation after serving as a soldier in World War II. It’s very much about his upbringing, his service, his reintegration after war, and his later life in Los Angeles. That description makes it sound like another classic bildungsroman but it’s not.

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House Made of Dawn makes a break from the normal bildungsroman and a breakthrough for Native American novels because the story does not privilege the human. Abel is the main character, but especially in the first half of this novel, it’s just as much about the natural world, the landscape, the animals, the water, the sky. The second part of the novel takes place in the built world of Los Angeles but Momaday maintains a focus on the environment. It’s a horizontal version of thinking about the world that’s really exciting. That kind of writing is part of what engaged the readers.

He’s less committed to something like representation, although House Made of Dawn was definitely taken up as representation. And the story does concern itself with how tribal practices translate to the urban context in the latter half of the book. That is really important because indigenous stories are not bound to rural spaces. Momaday takes us to a reservation and then into urban life, showing us indigenous life in different contexts.

What was the Native American Renaissance? What were its roots, and did it contribute to a resurgence of identification with, and pride in Indigeneity?

It starts with Momaday in 1968. But a lot of fiction writers were part of the Native American Renaissance: James Welch and Leslie Marmon Silko are two other famous examples. They were writing about native life. Anything that is bound by a category like Native American Renaissance is going to have books and authors that fall beyond its scope, to some degree. There are people who get canonized and others who get left out.

What that has to do with the emergence of new left American Indian politics is a great question. At that time, there was a lot of organization against integrationist policies. In 1969, 89 American Indians began the occupation of Alcatraz Island, in San Francisco Bay, to call attention to injustices against indigenous people. I think there was a back and forth relationship between the politics and the literature. It’s a moment when people are thinking about what makes identity and what “counts” as Native.

Ojibwe novelist Louise Erdrich won a National Book award for her 2012 novel, The Round House. You’ve recommended her debut novel, Love Medicine. Tell me about the author and this book.

Louise Erdrich is prolific. It was really hard to pick one novel by Erdrich. The Round House and The Antelope Wife and The Plague of Doves are all amazing. The reason I picked Love Medicine is because I think about it all the time. Its subject is love and the story, which follows the interwoven lives of three families, shows us so many genres of love and bonds and attachment. The intertwining of families is part of life on many reservations, where a lot of families know each other intimately generation after generation. Erdrich explores what this context and her characters reveal about love.

The way that she conceives of love is so sensitive. This is not a conventional romance. Erdrich is sensitive about gender and about how loving relationships change over time. Love Medicine concerns so many categories of love, including paternal love and maternal love and illicit love. Erdrich rethinks love for us. There’s a moment in the middle of the book where one of the characters talks through her love for someone she had an affair with long ago. They talk about the staying power of love and how grief becomes entangled with love. Erdrich novels have big ensemble casts of rich characters that sound out the subjects she’s exploring in her work. Her novels work differently than more plotty fiction. It’s very effective.

Sounds like Love Medicine, like much of Erdrich’s work, is concerned with universal experiences.

Native American novels don’t necessarily have to be about the past or about pastness. Native American novels are not just about experiences that are unique to indigenous people.

A lot of critics put too much pressure on the literature to be “about” Indigeneity, indigenous traditions or tribal identity. To me, it is more interesting to think about how native epistemologies animate Native American novels.

The Heirs of Columbus, by Chippewa novelist and literature professor Gerald Vizenor, definitely does wrestle with identity and the past. Please tell me about it.

The Heirs of Columbus is so irreverent; I love it. Vizenor retells the story of Columbus but in Vizenor’s version Columbus is part Mayan and part Sephardic Jew. The plot of the novel involves attempts by several of Columbus’s descendants to reinter his remains. It has elements of a heist story. His alternative history of colonization undermines the narrative of victimization.

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Vizenor is a very innovative writer. The way he tells his story puts pressure on the notion of a stable narrative. He’s also a scholar and a lot of his scholarship is in conversation with his fiction. So he is not just re-appropriating the story of Columbus, he is also reshaping the way stories are told. In an influential essay he wrote that we “need new pronouns that would misconstrue gender binaries, that would combine the want of a presence in the absence of the heard, a shadow pronoun to pronounce memories in silence, in the absence of cotribal names and nouns.” He’s really thinking about the trickster and the possibilities for play within the English language and ways to take on even the grammar of the literature of dominance.

Vizenor is known for his trickster characters. What role does the trickster play in Native American lit?

The trickster figure is all over, in the work of Leslie Marmon Silko and in Stephen Graham Jones. Anytime you see coyote in a native novel, that’s a trickster. In the literature, the trickster is deployed in different ways. So sometimes a trickster shows up to interrupt the narrative by breaking the fourth wall. Sometimes they show up in the work of somebody like Vizenor to ask us to rethink nativeness.

Speaking of Blackfeet author Stephen Graham Jones, he’s the author of the last book you’ve picked. Please tell me about The Fast Red Road.

Stephen Graham Jones is someone who crosses boundaries. He crosses genre boundaries. He writes horror fiction. He writes science fiction. His writing flies all over time periods. His work is vastly referential.

The Fast Red Road is almost the opposite of the first novel we discussed. Unlike Waterlily, this is not a linear narrative. Stephen Graham Jones says really early on that his character is being broken out of time. It’s really an episodic book. Unlike Deloria, he is not aiming to introduce readers to authentic nativeness. He is undermining narratives about nativeness.

The story is like a surreal Western. He has clearly read Vizenor.

What is the substance of the story?

It’s a road novel. The primary character, Pidgin, whose mother died, is trying to find his father. But the plot is almost like a hallucination. This quest takes him to a rodeo, where he trips out on an anti-spongiform drug that they feed to the cows. The plot goes into these weird funhouse tunnels filled with  strange twists and playful references.

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Stephen Graham Jones is one of those people for whom authenticity is a dangerous category. In something else he wrote, what he calls “A Letter to a Just-Starting-Out Indian Writer– And Maybe to Myself” he says “be wary of ever allowing yourself to think that your ‘Indian experience’ matters any less than any other Indian’s experience, or any other model of ‘Indian experience.’ That creates hierarchies, which leads to the authenticity shuffle, which is an ugly, ugly dance to do for all the people who really want us to do it. Us doing that dance, it keeps us looking at each other, not the world.”

Stephen Graham Jones clearly sees that the market wants American Indian writers to “do the authenticity shuffle.” He insists it’s not necessary. Not every American Indian novel needs to be a trauma drama. These five novels show that indigenous authors are telling all sorts of stories.

Interview by Eve Gerber

March 22, 2021

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Megan Tusler

Megan Tusler

Megan Tusler is a lecturer in the MA Program in the Humanities and the English department at the University of Chicago. Her academic work is in multiethnic American literature, particularly African-American and Native American studies, archival research, critical theory, and literature and photography. Her essays and reviews appear in American Indian Quarterly, Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts, and MELUS: Multiethnic Literature of the United States; she also co-hosts the podcast Better Read than Dead: Literature from a Left Perspective. She is a member of the Osage Nation of Oklahoma.

Megan Tusler

Megan Tusler

Megan Tusler is a lecturer in the MA Program in the Humanities and the English department at the University of Chicago. Her academic work is in multiethnic American literature, particularly African-American and Native American studies, archival research, critical theory, and literature and photography. Her essays and reviews appear in American Indian Quarterly, Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts, and MELUS: Multiethnic Literature of the United States; she also co-hosts the podcast Better Read than Dead: Literature from a Left Perspective. She is a member of the Osage Nation of Oklahoma.