Friday, July 25, 2014


A Tyee is a chief.

Native American Literature, in the pure sense of books written about Indians by Indians, was part of my awareness from the 4th grade on.  Portland, OR, Vernon Grade School, 1948-49.  Mildred Colbert.  She didn’t write any comments on my report card, nor is her name on it.  Heck.  I might have been able to sell her autograph.  (jokes) 

You can see the difference after I got the glasses I needed for the first time.

She wrote “Kutkos, Chinook Tyee” and was celebrated for it.  (I wrote about her 6-16-08 and 3-28-06 on this blog.)  In the Nineties when I tried to find a copy of "Kutkos" in the Portland library system, there was only one left -- the others had disappeared -- and the surviving copy was kept in a locked cupboard.  You had to sit alongside the librarian while you read it.  I finally located my own copy in a used bookstore in Ireland when the Internet made that possible.  Miss Colbert herself is gone now but her tribe remembers her, mostly on Long Island in the state of Washington and in the town of Ilwaco where her childhood home has been preserved and the local historical society has stories about her.

Probably because of Miss Colbert, I was pleased to be hired on the Blackfeet reservation to teach English in 1961.  In those days I taught the same way I had been taught and the students were not in a state of revolution.  By 1970, when I went back to teaching after Bob Scriver divorced me, they were ready to rumble.  Bill Haw, hired as high school counselor, responded with the Blackfeet Free School and Sandwich Shop, holding classes in the old commodities warehouse.  (You can see it in the background in the movie “Jimmy P.”)  Haw’s marriage crashed, the school crashed, and out of the ashes rose the Piegan Institute, a Blackfeet Immersion School guided by Darrell Kipp, a Harvard Indian, a “reading” Indian who wrote but was not published.  (He's gone now.)

Parallel, over at the Museum of the Plains Indian, John Ewers, a white anthropologist, persuaded the federal Crafts Board and the International Lions to fund the building and its collection of artifacts as references for making replicas of authentic old pieces.  Ewers wrote the “index” book on historical Blackfeet, copyright 1958.  This was a white man writing about an Indian way of life only remembered through formal research using informants.  Lots of other whites published books about Blackfeet (Grinnell, Schultz, Macfie, McClintock, Wissler, Kehoe and even Charlie Russell).  The fantasy is that they made a lot of money.  In fact, they created platforms for their speaking and jobs.

When the Native American Literature Renaissance made a splash with books by Jim Welch, Louise Erdrich, N. Scott Momaday -- close on the heels of some romantic texts by Indian sympathizers -- I was back in Portland, preoccupied with animal issues, but haunting Powells, which at that point had excellent departments curated by informed people.  They were remaindering the huge backlog of NA lit books that had not sold, because their publishers couldn’t figure out how to market them.  Not only did I begin building a library of $5 books by Indians about Indians, I also got onto a listserv for “Indians only” by saying I was from Browning.  I’ve printed out and kept some of that material and so have others, I’m sure.

Louis Owens

Michael Dorris

On this listserv were people on the prod about sub-enrollment-quantum NA authors, attacking them as not entitled.  The flame wars and other factors grew so intense that two of the most educated and better-selling authors committed suicide.  (Louis Owens and Michael Dorris)  That cooled things down somewhat.  But many educated Indians still think they will write a book some day, which might make them rich and famous.

Gerald Vizenor

Another of the non-Indian people on that listserv was James Mackey, living on Cyprus, not a US citizen so far as I know, trying to build a profitable platform for himself. He had been cozying up to Gerald Vizenor, one of the important academic figures.  His sole journal article was entitled "The Malevolent Imagination and Murderous Art" -- guess what it's about.  He confided that he also had an interest in human trafficking and in sci-fi.  Plainly he was looking for some kind of pop wave that could carry him along.  He got a Ph.D. by mail from a Portuguese feminist scholar who worked in the post-modern context, another sensational revelationist category that has about run its course now.

Greg Sarris

Wikipedia struck him as an excellent way to expand his credentials so he petitioned to become an “editor.”  The self-defined patricians who rule Wikipedia resisted him, but they knew nothing about Indians -- thought of them only as seen in movies -- and when he brandished the name of Vizenor, they caved.  (I got this off the discussion behind the entries on Wikipedia.)  In the mode of the times, one established one’s wisdom and dominance by tearing down other people, unless they were low-threat people -- like women -- who could be attached to oneself with praise.  Two victims he attacked immediately were Greg Sarris and Tim Barrus.  Aside from rhyming, both have a gay dimension which VizJim (his new nom d’editor) leaned on.

By this time I was back in Montana, not on the listserv anymore because I had confessed I was white and left.  Now I wasn’t homesick for Indians because I was back home on the rez.  I was startled when Mackey invited me to join a discussion group he was organizing on one of the new social media sites.  I didn’t join.  

Away from bookstores, I was still buying remainders via the Daedalus catalog and picked up a copy of “The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping,” the second in the Nasdijj series written by Tim Barrus.  I loved it but realized "Nasdijj" was probably not Indian, though he certainly knew reservations.  Later I became friends with Tim and even wrote with him, though the book was withdrawn as too disclosive of a private world, not NA -- international.  I still consider him a valued friend, though we are as different as “chalk and cheese.”

I recognized Mackey’s false identity at once and was bothered that he had misrepresented Tim by using the Wikipedia strategy of printing only verifiable facts, but only NEGATIVE ones, leaving out every sign of virtue or achievement.  Damnation by omission.  I told him so.  His response was to ask me to give him information about Tim, which I refused.  

Plainly Mackey was trying to shirttail on the 2006 Fleischner article in the counter-culture weekly which was instigated by Fleischner’s journalism prof, Ted Conover, who was rebuffed when he tried to use a favorable review of Tim’s books in the New York Times Book Review to shoehorn himself into Tim’s private life.  Fleischner was now trying to shirttail Sherman Alexie, who looked like he was headed for stardom with the movie “Smoke Signals.”  Almost a decade later Fleischner is still stuck at the LA Weekly.  These people are a tribe of “wannabes” but they don’t give a damn about Indians.  They wannabe rich and famous.  They are not.  Alexie is the only actual Indian.  I hope Mackey has been thrown off Wikipedia.

The Nasdijj books, which no one ever read except me, were a blip in the life of Tim Barrus, but they became an obsession with Wikipedia which refuses to list Tim by his own name -- just his pseudonym.  Jimmy Wales‘ personal relationship with Tim is somehow involved.  Tim’s community, which has formed around his lifetime commitment to helping boys at risk, has tried over and over to get Wikipedia to reform the entry, as they claim to allow, and has succeeded to some extent in getting his previous books and some of his work with kids listed.  His anthology of short stories called “Genocide,” responding to ’80’s talk of putting people with AIDS into concentration camps, has new relevance in view of illegal child immigrants, ebola outbreaks, and the resurgence of drug-resistant tuberculosis.  In that book he does not claim to be Native American.  

Leslie Marmon Silko

But Native Americans, dependent on government subsidies, have been reluctant to name their own genocide.  “The Education of Little Tree” is a romanticized book and movie by a white man with racist credentials.  Asa Earl Carter, writing under the pseudonym Forrest Carter, was never attacked by NA’s because it’s useful to be portrayed as innocent and noble people.  (Wikipedia lists him under his own name.) Now that Leslie Marmon Silko’s beautiful novel called “Ceremony” is often seen as redeeming PTSD, the attacks on Silko have stopped.  Nasdijj’s vivid reality was not comfortable, but it is also becoming more timely.  The real boy in "The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping" actually had a Spanish name.

Wikipedia does not do what it says it does, which is to allow “crowd curating” of entries.  It is not capable of evaluating the credentials of their category editors because the controllers of the editors live in a limited world: mostly male, white, coastal, urban, print-centered, semi-academic, geeky.  On the rez no one worried about Nasdijj because you can’t buy ANY books there and few people read anyway.  Now -- as the level of education and ubiquity of small screens rises -- communication has moved to image and music.  The immersion language programs discover that there is nothing to read in Blackfeet -- it’s an oral language.  Not that it is any less worthy of preservation.

In short, chaos -- which is always an opportunity for creativity -- can also provide small temporary platforms, rather like floating ice on a warming sea, for those itching to attack rather than find something to support.  Wikipedia is an example.  Wales has been begging for money.  Questions about the continued viability of the project began in 2010.  The American Puritanism that has supported revelations and sensationalism is less persuasive in Europe, in spite of James Mackey on Cyprus.  Watch the news as Wikipedia and Google grapple.

Jimmy Wales

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