Thursday, June 04, 2009


Only one time did I claim to be an Indian and even then I only took advantage of preconceptions and it was at the behest of one of my former students, who was supposed to be monitoring RezNet and wanted me to do it for him. This was in the Nineties, so long ago that I was working on a Lisa computer. My printouts from that time were dot matrix. I kept them. (Lawyers form a line to the left.)

It was supposed to be Indians-only, but I was coached not to say anything except, “I’m from Browning.” They assumed no white person would know about Browning and that I was Indian. This was the time of the violent NA on-line flame wars and I had my consciousness raised in a hurry. That’s when I invented the nom d’post of “prairie mary” and began to emphasize that I was old. I was convincing enough that one war-like woman intent on tracking down and killing every plastic shaman invited me to join her little side-operation, an even more secret group. That’s about the time I began to worry and got off the list, confessing that I was white. As it turned out, several people had recognized me and several others urged me to stay, which was very flattering, but I still left.

In fact, when my mother died in 1998 and Bob Scriver died in 1999, I had been much supported by the generosity and sympathy of others in the group, one of whom had just lost HER ex-husband. She lived on one of the islands off the Carolinas and sent me a braid of sweetgrass tied in red yarn. We shared dreams for a while -- they seemed to be visits from our lost ones.

Some of the group were beginning careers in the then-promising field of Native American literature, buoyed by the renaissance of their kind of writing and the attention of the media. Departments and publications were organizing. One of the correspondents was Sherman Alexie. Some were starstruck by him and others enjoyed plaguing him. He was soon offended and left. Others in the group did make names for themselves in the field.

But much of the media support eroded due to identity politics and the eight years of defying the Bush administration, combined with the slow realization that a tribal person who has enough education to catch the eye of a bigtime publisher is probably assimilated. The double bind is that if a tribal person gets a decent education, that person is no longer very “Indian,” or if the person is very Indian, no white people will read him. The assumption of publishers is that no Indians can read, so Native American books are not often distributed to reservation venues, and therefore even if any ordinary tribal people wanted to read them, they wouldn’t know they existed. So why would they write?

Identity politics has supported immersion Native language classes in the near past, but they are -- of necessity -- oral. Not many tribes had written languages so there is no body of literature for anyone to read alone as when Hebrew was brought back to life. Immersion language classes work, especially for little kids, and are worthwhile, but they haven’t had much impact except locally.

The politics of resentment have come to dominate reservations. Of course, it’s always powerful when people don’t feel as though they’re getting the possessions or the respect that they want and feel they deserve, which is to say that poor people are always vulnerable to the politics of resentment. In spite of major advances, the reservations have still not caught up to the rest of society (at least the society they see on television) nor even to the defined treaty obligations of the government, which hasn’t noticed that Indians vote until lately.

Yesterday I was looking for a good example of the politics of resentment that wouldn’t get me into trouble with any Blackfeet families, since I live close enough for retaliation, when Sherman Alexie fell into my email in-box. It seems that on a panel at Book Expo he attacked Bezos as “imperial”, accusing him of preventing ordinary folks from reading books by insisting that they read them on Kindle, which is enormously expensive and therefore “elitist.” [ The best thinking is all in the comments.] In order to defend himself from charges that he is a “Luddite” (against technology), he discloses that his Seattle apartment shelters his iPod, his cell phone, his computer and his HDTV. But “I have this strange, subterranean fear and loathing of the Kindle and its kind. I think it’s really about childhood. Books saved my life, Edward. I rose out of poverty and incredible social dysfunction because of books.” Also, epublishing would cut deep into his royalties.

He confides he has “to make my books available electronically. I have held out on the matter for as long as possible, but I have no author allies in this fight, so I have to submit. I have to sign contracts for eBook rights. I’m doing this in the blind because none of us know what’s going to happen. The last screenwriters’ strike in Hollywood was largely the result of this same issue. The legal issues regarding the Internet and copyrights and revenue are still unclear.”

Poor handsome, achieving, head-of-the-FallsApart-corporation, having to wrestle with some barbarian like Bezos. “I’m worried about the eBook’s influence on the whole culture.” What? We might all start creating Slam Poetry? Stand up comedy? Did I mention that his most recent poem in The New Yorker is about struggling across the desert with your brother on your back?

Which brother was that? One of those guys who sits in Old Town slipping a bottle in a paper bag back and forth among friends? It won’t be Tony Hillerman, whom he “razzed” -- as he puts it -- in “Indian Killer,” a tactical mistake since no one else much resents affable Tony Hillerman. And it sure as hell wasn’t Tim Barrus, whose LA Weekly attacker was encouraged and reinforced by Sherman, all indignant about any white person who pretended to be Indian.

Here on the Blackfeet reservation Sherman Alexie is a big hero, not because he’s Indian but because he’s like a white man. He even managed to make a movie, which means real success. (We don’t read the New Yorker here. Too expensive.) He’s right -- no one here reads from a Kindle. Not many even read books on paper. They don’t read ebooks either. They watch movies and videos. The library has assimilated all the Nat Lit into the other books.

1 comment:

Diggitt said...

Mary, for what it's worth, I like the central part of your post (about language and publishing and reaching a market) so much I'm going to share them with a group of literary friends from the book business and publishing.

Thoughtful Americans are creating book groups to focus on voices of Islam or Africa, or Haiti or wherever, but paying no attention to the missing voices from the rez. The Erdrichs and Dorris are not the only voices but the others are lost in the static.