Friday, September 11, 2020


Darrell Robes Kipp never wrote a best-selling book.  He wrote letters and he wrote private poetry.  But he was an idea man and he could walk between words [sic], particularly the words in Blackfeet/Siksika drawn from the rez on the East Slope of the Rockies.  He used words from the two worlds to raise money from white people in cities where there is more money than on the rez.  There is wealth on the rez, but it is not part of the capitalist money system, so his task was like that fairy tale woman who had to spin straw into gold.  

Wealth is a language related to the environment and also related to class systems.  He realized this when he went off to Billings to college, because in those days (1962) if you graduated from high school in Montana, there was no tuition charged.  When he and Joe Fisher got to the campus in Billings, the administration found ways for them to support themselves and places for them to live.  It was possible in a way that is gone.

Darrell had a roommate who was the son of a lawyer in Great Falls and when it was time to go home, that guy gave DRK a ride as far as his house, both figuring he could thumb his way north to the rez.  First, it was impressive that a college kid had a car.  Second, the house was rather grand, and third, the kid’s mother sort of adopted this Blackfeet, fed him well, and bought him a bus ticket.  (In those days there was a bus system.)  

This clicked into conviction:  white people in other places had a lot of money, if they liked you they would share, and women were a point of access.  Much of the rest was built on this knowledge. It was a key to rising in class.

Academia, journalism, and speakers’ bureaus were the contexts in which he learned so he could take back what he found out to indigenous people.  He also got to know the big  indigenous names who used these venues.  I remember how shocked he was when he went to a conference where he saw Vine Deloria, Jr. drunk.  Alcoholism had destroyed his brothers.  As a white woman, I was asked to explain.  Also, he wanted to tell someone how hard it could be, traveling to raise funds.  The speaking was easy for him, but the hotels, the rubber chicken, the role, were stressful.

At home he realized that getting hooked on alcohol was related to poverty, which in the white world is “low class.”  Staying sober is middle-class — or was.  (Not now that we put such people on the Supreme Court.)  He chose to follow the idealism of the assassinated heroes of the Sixties and so did many of his rez cohort.  They put the pics of JFK, MLK Jr., and other activists up on their walls, and used their high inspirations to become respected without becoming corrupt, middle-class without being contemptible.

But they didn’t write books except for a few people, like Woody Kipp or James Welch navigating journalism and universities.  Buying books is a middle-class preoccupation like chess or playing the piano or ball-rooming dancing — things you do if you have money and time and access.  If you’re an “Indian” and you write books, you sell them to white people, often women, because that’s who has money and time for “soft” anthropology, a form of story-telling.  A middle class tourist thing.

How does that get broken up or at least evaded?  This linked story is one of the best advice pieces for indigenous writers that I’ve read.  

This is in the academic context and good for writing that will sell to white women, which is all very well but not complete.  What would sell to men?  

How do I know?  But I’ll take a stab at it since DRK and Jimmy Welch are dead now and I don’t know how to contact Woody Kipp in a pandemic.  First, even white men are often centered on the picaresque.  They love bullshit and laughter.

“The picaresque novel (Spanish: picaresca, from pícaro, for "rogue" or "rascal") is a genre of prose fiction that depicts the adventures of a roguish, but "appealing hero", of low social class, who lives by his wits in a corrupt society.”

Two bodies of skills are needed:  how to get from the oral over to the written, and how to get the internet to pay, because it’s being online and in video that can make oral lit powerful. Think “Stay Away, Joe” and “Billy Jack,” both written by whites.  Alexie is also good at it when he is at his best. 

Often this approach is "Gothic."  It means a high tolerance for tricksters, ghosts, shape-shifting, and other double meanings that take the reader to truths beyond facts.  The Gothic becomes the relevant: the horror of daily life in a place that's dangerous and harbors people depraved enough to kill you.

The person I know who can best do this and do it for “Indians” to read is Adrian Jawort, a Cheyenne in Billings, MT, who became impatient with publishers who always do the same safe thing and began to publish as well as write.
Start with his anthologies,Off the Path” I and II.  This may take you places beyond your expectations.  Probably the most unlikely are the most real.  I’ve witnessed things . . .  This website is an interview, a podcast also transcribed.  Let me reassure you that I’m conventional, straight, and all that, but I have much respect for Adrian’s thinking and courage.  He’s often funny.

Amy Elizabeth Gore, though female and white (I guess), took a look at the Gothic in 2011.  She has since widened her focus beyond “Indians” and is faculty in the SW.  This is her thesis, full of good ideas.

“Although reading Native literature for cultural epistemology and rhetorical sovereignty remains important, an examination of Indigenous literature as text remains under-utilized. A critical inquiry into form and genre not only validates Native novels as literary art, it creates a fresh approach to their treatment of contemporary issues. Specifically, the recent prevalence of First Nations Gothic novels opens new questions for critics of Indigenous literature.”

One has to struggle past academic jargon (“epistemology” and “rhetorical sovereignty”).  Her choice of examples to analyze is a little questionable:  both are Canadian and Boyden has been accused of insufficient indigenousness, a major political force in the genre.  I haven’t read either Eden Robinson or Joseph Boyden except for the first part of “The Orenda” which was certainly “Gothic.” 

As a genre, indigenous books are not all Gothic, but at least the concept is a force against “sissification,” which is common among earlier “Indian” books.  It gets the "Indian" out of the child's cupboard.

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