Thursday, March 22, 2018


It was the Nineties in Portland, Oregon.  Powells, the bookstore big enough to challenge Amazon, was remaindering (without saying so) the books by the Native American Renaissance writers.  In case you’ve forgotten who those writers are, here’s a list from “Smoke Rising: The Native North American Literary Companion.”  This compendium, bios and samples, was edited by Joseph Bruchac (one of the most well-respected NA writers and editors), Janet Witalec (environmental and multicultural subjects), and Sharon Malinowski (Culture including Gay and Lesbian).

At Amazon: Smoke Rising: The Native North American Literary Companion” Paperback – May 1, 1995
Presents forty contemporary Native American and Canadian authors with examples of their work.  In those days we called it “Nat Lit.”  There were no Canadians, I think.

Here are the forty in alphabetical order:  Sherman Alexie; Paula Gunn Allen; Jeannette Armstrong; Beth Brant; Mary Brave Bird; Barney Bush; Maria Campbell; Elizabeth Cook-Lynn; Vine Deloria, Jr.; Michael Dorris; Louise Erdrich; Hanay Geiogamah; Diane Glancy; Janet Campbell Hale; Joy Harjo; Lance Henson; Tomson Highway; Linda Hogan; Basil H. Johnston; Maurice Denny; Thomas King; Lee Maracle; John Joseph Mathews; D’Arcy McNickle; N. Scott Momaday; Daniel David Moses; Duane Niatum; Simon Ortiz; Louis Owens; Carter Revard; Wendy Rose; Leslie Marmon Silko; Luci Tapahonso; Gerald Vizenor; Anna Lee Walters; James Welch; Roberta Hill Whiteman

So this anthology is not out of print, but some of these authors are.

Sherman Alexie became popular for several reasons that intersected.  First of all, he sold well and therefore was heavily promoted by his publishers, going in person to many commitments.  In mid-’90s I attended a public lecture in a medium-sized venue where Alexie spoke, which is the second factor.  He is a stand-up comedian, a performer, who takes a rather distanced and mocking view of public ideas and interactions about “Indians.”  This is a popular stance among “cool” people.

So I played “Stagedoor Johnnie” and waited for Alexie to come out.  (These were the days of RezNet.  Mark Trahant was on it and Alexie hadn’t left yet.)   Finally the door opened and out came dozens of people clustered around Alexie, taller than the others and taking a humorous attitude.  The eager crowd was planning on the immediate party where they expected booze.  Some were female, some were “Indian.”  

I tried to talk to Alexie, but it was impossible.  He was using a little pot of lip balm and declined to shake hands because of it.  I kept asking questions until his manager, a sharp young woman, said I was keeping him from his party, but I could come, too, if I would stop talking.  I declined, they piled into waiting cars, and that was the end.

Because Powells was a center for these people, I saw in person many of them.  Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, very elegant, arrived a little early at the Hawthorne Powells which specialized in Nat Lit books.  We sat in the little cadre of chairs and chatted for a while.  This is a woman of great strength of character, who wanted very much to just go home to her Crow Creek Dakota rez and live a quiet life.  Here she is, a little older.  This talk is invaluable.

Cook-Lynn is both a novelist and an academic researcher and essayist.  She is eloquent in English but very much tribal.  There are several major chasms between “types” of NatLit writers.  One of them is between the fictionalists and the academics, which is the branch she claims.  The actual physical culture, the history, the “kind” of “Indians”. are best found academically, often in the history department or assigned as “Indian Studies.”  She mentions Momaday but not Alexie.

Erdrich spoke at  Powells very soon after the suicide of Michael Dorris, to whom she was married.  The audience was mostly Indians who sat silently but sympathetically.  Erdrich was “Lady Grief”, very dignified but distant.  Louis Owens, another handsome academic who also wrote dark murder mysteries, was found dead in his car with his discharged pistol near by.  No one knows what actually happened, but that was about the end of the Renaissance.

Vine Deloria Jr. spoke to the Portland Club, a group that meets over lunch, normally hearing elite political talk.  It was the time when many women worked at mid-level for city and state.  They wore little suits, black stockings with black patent leather pumps, and expensive hair.  Deloria had gone to Powells where he bought a big illustrated book about the Spanish Inquisition.  His premise was that all the persons who thought of Indians as primitive, violent and savage, should study their own history.  He showed us torture.  The women looked as though they might lose their lunch.  I was sitting with “street Indians” who were allowed to attend without eating, maybe at Deloria’s request, though the club had a history of allowing non-eaters to attend as observers.  We chuckled.

Greg Sarris has his own website: he’s very California, almost Hollywood.  He’s the head of his tribe.  He spoke specifically at a gay bookstore.  Handsome, well-dressed, a polished presenter, he was very much the Esquire man of the hour and his large crowd of men was attentive.  He is not included in this list.

Neither is Adrian C. Louis, a vigorous poet and journalist who wrote the book “Skins” which became a film popular among “Indians.”  He’s tough but authentic, often teaching as well as writing.

James Welch is included as a major and productive writer.  Because he married a college professor, his fame is often guided by that set of academic assumptions.  I play close attention to him because his father was a playmate of Bob Scriver’s in Browning.  Welch is particularly well-regarded in France.  His memorial was conducted in a famous old movie showhouse in Missoula.  

But it was his cousin, Sid Larson, who had more influence on me.  In the Nineties when he was a professor at the U of Oregon, he organized a bonanza NatLit event that pulled in dozens of NatLit writers for discussions, lectures, and a memorable party where Jo Harjo played her sax.  He is the author of “Catch Colt” which is the story of his own youth (and Jim's) on the Gros Ventre rez in Montana.  It was the home of Welch’s mother, not his father, and the time the boys spent together was rural.  Welch’s high school years were spent in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis where his father worked, alternating welding with hospital administration.  This made Jim essentially a city boy, while Larson stayed in Montana a long time until he earned several college degrees, including one in law.

The “Native American Literary Renaissance” was much more serious than the floods of white-written sensational accounts of the prairie clearances written by whites: James Willard Schulz, for instance.  The publishers of the early Nineties never understood what was going on with the newly college-educated tribal members writing about their own lives and concerns.  They tried to market to literary and historical white people — those who read “I Left My Heart at Wounded Knee”, that well-researched but romantic book — or maybe to AIM people, who turned out not to read.

In fact, that was the big mistake:  not understanding the audience and their potential for acquiring such middle class objects as “books.”  They were better at watching movies, but there weren’t many before the explosion of video narrative.  Publishers were worried about the possibility of lawsuits over authenticity and also about public quarrels between indigenous people over who was more blood quantum and therefore entitled to write.  They pulled away from new book contracts.  The internet gave publishers a lot to worry about.

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