Yesterday I spent some time on the phone with Adrian Jawort who struggles with the challenges of being a indigenous North American man as a publisher, a writer, a gender, a rez dweller, a fiction spinner, a non-fiction thinker, and so on. Not easy. Too many oxymorons (words and concepts that are internally contradictory) instead of connections. https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/author/adrian-jawort/
Here are some of the dilemmas:
People don’t recognize “Indians” even though they probably know more individuals than they think, generally urban (half of enrolled Montana Blackfeet are in the diaspora rather than on the rez), often low-quantum, maybe assimilated, and then there are those with Cherokee grandmothers. But many people of these latter kinds think they ARE Indians because they are using these different categories.
The “splitting” of the image between the raving, scalping savage and the patient healing saint. White people who come in from outside will write on the side of the ideal, for the sake of self-preservation.
The idea that anthropologists have taught us that different cultures have different rules, so that people who don’t fit standard culture, esp. urban, expect on the rez for it to okay to be openly gay or to expect easy sex, without realizing that most reservations are rural and so the people mostly are as well. That often means conservative. The anthros were talking about the past, isolation, uniformity within a specific group, which may have been far more strict than modern city-dwellers.
German nature mythology involving Childhood Forever gets into the thinking about modern tribally-affiliated people. On most rezzes we know people who have been murdered (or who did the deed!), people who have been raped, people who are too far into drugs or booze to make sense. But those are individuals — not everyone, not even a majority.
The impossibility of getting one image out of the many tribal adaptations to place, so that some “Indians” are stocky and round-faced, some have noses like hawks and ride horses barelegged, some are canoe-men who eat whales, and so on. Some are even Mexican but don’t speak Spanish because they are still in tribes in the mountains.
The co-optation of “misery lit” accounts of poverty, madness, trauma, misogeny that make these seem the fate of every tribal person.
The domination of the strategy of “one big thing” and “best” over the woven plurality of rich experience scattered through time, history, and memory. So everyone is pressed to write ONE kind of story and be like ONE best-selling author.
The impossibility of assimilation or de-assimilation of violence, particularly when it is wound through one’s families, one’s neighborhood, one’s campus, and through one’s love. Many triggers are related to not having enough, not getting what what one expects, never being seen as real or human.
Is it better to write shocking fiction, like Adrian’s story of the young man who was so bad, so destructive and dangerous, that the small group of people who were in tune with each other simply killed him. (There’s an echo in Matthiessen’s “Mr. Watson” stories — what a community must do to protect itself when there is no authority that even knows what is happening, much less intervenes.)
How “Indian” does a person have to be? Have the face? Hang dream-catchers in the window? Make bannock/frybread over an open fire? Speak the tribal language? Wear clues like long hair?
Adrian is the only indigenous publisher he and I could think of now that Joseph Bruchac is out of the business. Adrian works close to the ground: a website and word of mouth for sales; books small enough to sell for ten bucks; anthologies rather than masterworks; fiction; mostly about people with rez background or now living there. He says he’s going to make some changes and try a new version. He hasn’t been afflicted with controversy, but maybe if he begins to make money, he will be. That might be good for sales.
Come to think of it, there was a blossoming, a natal time in the Seventies when there were suddenly books by NA’s everywhere. Was it the quarrels and scandals that popped the balloon? Or was it that the Internet suddenly swept the feet out from under all publishing? You can still buy those climax books, but you have to know where — like used book websites.for instance, abebooks.com or powells.com
We were trying to think of strategies for getting people of oral culture to read print. Should books be sold in gas stations? (They are already, but not written by NA’s for NA’s.) What about the contribution of the community college? Can they be printers, binders, salesmen? I ordered a book from School District #9 last fall but it never came. The check had cleared. I had nagged by phone for weeks. Reliability and promptness are values only within the known community. This is not being mean — it’s a learned self-protection strategy that’s hard to give up. To them I do NOT matter.
What about going with sound: radio and vids? “Windspeaker” in Canada uses native Blackfeet all the time. Already happening. It’s getting the material into PRINT that is the problem. But is it worth working on? In whose terms? White person’s money? Or indigenous life values?
More practically, if you wrote a book in the Blackfeet language, who could read it? Should it be in Blackfeet life terms since there are so many concepts in modern life that are dominated by Euro-ideas? How many Blackfeet readers are there and what drives their understanding? Fiction, in the sense of the “roman” or tale about adventure and love, is that possible in Blackfeet? (Probably!)
But let’s think about something more possible: Euro-writing in English that is valuable and attractive to the tribal people. It would still be necessary to get the people enough reading skills to enjoy this without struggling. Not just vocabulary and sentences, but the feeling for what people in realistic stories are like in a world where everyone is addicted to television terms.
Maybe a library of Blackfeet books. Maybe reading out loud to people who are driving or beading. Maybe book giveaways. We gotta keep thinkin’.