Vine Deloria, Jr. and his bump-stock typewriter
Vine Deloria, Jr., a rousing Sioux-enrolled scholar who led renewal and empowerment for indigenous people, was a data-seeker. When one of his books (Maybe it was “Custer Died for Your Sins”) was doing pretty well, Deloria asked his publisher how it was selling on reservations. Briskly, the publisher said there were no sales of books on reservations because they have no bookstores. And Indians don’t read.
Actually, the problem is not whether there are bookstores but that few people on reservations have the money for books, which are writing made into marketable objects by being printed on paper, bound, and shipped from warehouses. It is a merchandizing system developed by the Merchant Class which is key to the Middle Class.
Nowadays the problem is different. Writing and the spoken word is available everywhere via the Internet, but the kinds of access are scattered and the devices many people on reservations use (like smartphones, key to survival on a harsh and vast landscape) are not suited for reading chapter books. Audible books, great for long distance driving, don’t necessarily work if one is transporting other people, esp. kids who might prefer their music.
Some attribute the Native American Renaissance that provided so many memorable books to the political activism of people like Deloria. I would like to mention a different kind of activism: the influence among writers of people like Carter Revard and the Bruchac sibs. In addition to their own writing, they gave careful attention to American indigenous writers and calmed the quarrels among competing writers, while publishers tried to fan the flames in the belief that competition helps sales. Perhaps this has prevented some constructive thought about why people will buy the writing of indigenous people — besides a lascivious curiosity about how marginal people hang on, or a Hallmark sentimentality derived from German philosophical elevation of the “natural man.” (Gender intended.)
The commenters on Sherman Alexie’s current “pickle” (phallic symbol) note that 80% of his readers are women. This is true of most readers of indigenous writing. I suspect it is true of most novels. Even more true of readers of romances either as Audible for commuting or ebooks at bedtime. Single career women in particular have both the time and the discretionary income to enjoy narratives.
But the publishing industry at the top of “books” have always been dominated by men, tolerating women as editors and winnowers of the slush pile. As sales became more problematic, the women were shunted off from being employees as editors, networking at least through Manhattan circles, into a role as agents, but much more scattered and — over time — losing the knowledge of who would publish what.
One of the drivers of merchandise on the rez is the desire to become part of the Middle Class, which means books, among other signs of prosperity. Books do not have to be sold in bookstores, esp. in this era of Amazon. But books bought for prestige need to be “popular” and talked up in places like NPR. Which brings me to my issue with this new book about the Osage murders.
David Grann describes the Osage Indian murders as "one of the most sinister crimes in American history.” “His book, Killers of the Flower Moon: An American Crime and the Birth of the FBI chronicles "a tale of murder, betrayal, heroism and a nation's struggle to leave its frontier culture behind and enter the modern world.” Grann is an investigative reporter whose turf is this sort of scandal. No doubt the link to the FBI helps sell the book.
He has no reason to honor “Mean Spirit”, a novel that covers the same events, focused not on the FBI but rather on the many women who were courted, married, and murdered in order to acquire their property by inheritance. But those of we readers who have continued to cherish the Native American Renaissance movement and the writing of those authors miss the chance to bring new readers to the work of Linda Hogan. That’s my purpose here — not to stir up a quarrel, but to extend appreciation beyond of the sensational realm in which some people have always tried to trap NA’s. Maybe some of those 80% females would appreciate Hogan.
(from Wikipedia) “Linda K. Hogan (born 1947) is a poet, storyteller, academic, playwright, novelist, environmentalist and writer of short stories. She is currently the Chickasaw Nation's Writer in Residence. She now lives in Tishomingo, Oklahoma.
“Along with being an author, Hogan is also an environmentalist who spent eight years volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation center. Two out of those eight years were spent at veterinarian school and the other six were spent at Birds of Prey Rehabilitation Center in Colorado. . . . Now she does good for animals by talking and writing about them Hogan married Pat Hogan and has children, Sandra Dawn Protector and Tanya Thunder Horse.”
In short, there’s room for both genres because some readers will prefer academic environmentalist legacy novelists to sensational exposés. In fact, the return to the subject in much more provocative terms might be arguably justified by the failure of “Mean Spirit” to register. On the other hand, “Mean Spirit” was published in 1990. That’s almost three decades ago. It’s still in print but has the advantage of being low-cost through the used book sources.
I bought most of my NA books at Powells in Portland in the Seventies when the publishers were dumping the Nat Lit books as “overstocks.” They just didn’t sell as expected. Now they are classics, but at the time the publishers were alarmed by issues coming out of the “intellectual property” body of law and also by the contentions within the NA writing community which created worries about political correctness in the readers. The split between romantic novels and bloody atrocities didn’t help.
Adrian L. Jawort is an example of the trail back to the new terms of publishing: indigenous publishing companies. “Writer/journalist dude writing good reads. I'm owner of Off the Pass Press LLC, where we aim to find true beauty in literature off the beaten path.” You’ll also find plenty of tragedy and romance, if that’s your preference. The mechanisms of merchandizing need to be rebuilt, but far less venture capital is needed now. What’s missing is the “why not?” spirit of merchandizing.