Portrait of a young Diné (Navajo) woman
Erin Bell (EB): November 1 marks the beginning of National Native American Heritage Month in the United States (also referred to as the American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month). While there are many methods to learn about American Indians and Indigenous peoples, one excellent way to learn more is to engage with books written by authors from those populations.
As scholars of American literature, Dr. Jessica Hoover and I would like to share some of our thoughts on indigenous and American Indian authors. Dr. Hoover is going to begin by providing us with some important historical information and context regarding American Indians, before she highlights the poetry of Dr. Laura Tohe. Jessica, what should people know about American Indians, what led you to pursue this area of specialization in your dissertation work, and what are some of your favorite texts written by indigenous authors?
Jessica Hoover (JH): Many do not realize that, currently in the United States, at minimum, there are 5.2 million American Indians and indigenous peoples with a strong tribal affiliation, and they represent 2% of the North American population, according to the 2020 U.S Census Bureau. (Note: I am using “American Indian” instead of “Native” or “Native American” to privilege the term American Indian authors are using in their works, so as to privilege and respect their naming choices). In total, as of 2020, there are currently 574 federally recognized tribes that are present within 35 different states across the U.S. (“National Congress,” 2020). According to the National Congress of American Indians in An Introduction to Indian Nations in the United States, “the United States Constitution recognizes that Indian Nations are sovereign governments” and that “Indian Nations retain their inherent powers of self-government” (Hogg, 2015, p. 2). The purpose of this self-government is to ensure that the various American Indian nations, with their own cultures, societies, histories, politics, and languages remain to be recognized as distinct groups.
Despite this emphasis on recognition and sovereign nations, American Indians, unfortunately, continue to be “clumped together” as “Indian” or are disregarded as non-existent by the United States government. I learned about this misrepresentation and disregard by working as a research assistant for a notable Diné (the Americanized name of the Diné is “Navajo”), Dr. Laura Tohe who is a professor emeritus at Arizona State University, as well as the former poet laureate of the Navajo Nation from 2015–2019. Tohe asked me to assist her conduct research on the Navajo Long Walk from 1863-1868. I had never heard about the Navajo Long Walk in any of my history classes in elementary, middle, high school or college, nor did I realize the type of mistreatment indigenous nations suffered through erasure and silencing.
During the mid-to-late 1900s, there was “rabid backlash” against Indians in many parts of the United States; even as recent as the last decades of the twentieth century, bumper stickers reading, “‘Save the deer, shoot an Indian,’ were prominently featured in Wisconsin and Michigan as treaty hunting and fishing rights were successfully upheld in the courts” (Deloria, 1988). More recently, in the 2000s, these images can be seen from the same names and logos from the last decades of the twentieth century, for various sports teams in the United States, such as the Washington Red Skins, Atlanta Braves, and the Chicago Blackhawks.
Despite indigenous peoples’ attempts to rally against and abolish the offensive, ethnicity-based names and logos for various sports teams, the team names persist; however, some changes have been made: the Washington Red Skins are now the Washington Football Team. Thus, sadly, many of these stereotypical images of “the Indian” are still identifiers of American Indian peoples; however, it is not just the stereotype of the savage that is harmful, but also misinformed, stereotypical view of the American Indian as “mythical” or “in the past.”
While working with Tohe, I began to analyze her poetry and narratives, and discovered her attempts to demonstrate her “realness” and assert her indigenous voice. Her work on the Diné philosophy and history, the boarding school experience, and uses of the language of the Diné throughout her works gave me a glimpse into a piece of our American heritage that was foreign to me. As I was analyzing her work, I noticed that she not only uses the Navajo language throughout her English-dominant text, but she translates the language for the non-Navajo language speaking reader, most notably in her book of poetry, Tséyi’/Deep in the Rock: Reflections on Canyon de Chelly.
With curiosity about her decision to use both the English and Navajo languages in her work, I asked her two questions. My questions and her answers are listed below:
Question One: What is it that you wish to convey in your poetry in your book Tséyi’/Deep in the Rock?
Answer One: In Tseyi, I’m trying to convey the essences of my experience with the canyon on many different levels: love and connection to place, story, history, and the mythic. I’m looking at it simultaneously in time and space. In some of the poems, I wanted to transcend present time and move into the past. Although many of my poems are longer, I do like to write short, impromptu poems or haikus using as few words as possible. I do this so I can purge my mind and soul and say exactly what I am thinking at that very moment. Doing this places me in the mind frame that my people’s world changed in a moment. If they can carry with them snapshots of their home as they were being driven from their homeland, I can write an impromptu poem and capture that same love of place out of respect. It is easy to do while visiting the canyon, harder to do sitting at my desk.
Question Two: What role does code-switching play in the meaning of the poem?
Answer Two: I never really thought of this, but I think it says that some expressions can’t be conveyed in English, so I use the Navajo language. I am able to see through Navajo eyes to convey what I want to say about the canyon. Seeing with Navajo eyes, you see poetry all around (Tohe, interview, 2009).
The notion of “seeing with Navajo eyes” is significant, as much of what we know about the Diné (as well as other indigenous nations) comes from the colonizer’s perspective in history books. Edward Said notes that “stories are at the heart of what explorers and novelists say about strange regions of the world; they also become the method colonized people use to assert their own identity and the existence of their history” (xii). So, it is with Tohe’s (re)telling of the stories of the Diné and the experiences of the Navajo Nation that Tohe resists the Americanized representations of the Diné and shows the history “through” Navajo eyes. Tohe combats the invisibility and silencing through her writing, as she gives both visibility and voice to past and present Diné peoples by sharing their stories and their experiences. The realization of Tohe’s attempts to (re) tell history informed not only my research, but my desire to learn more about the Diné’s (and other indigenous authors’) contributions to American literature.
Tohe is not the only influential, indigenous author. Others such as Luci Tapahonso, Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, and Joseph Bruchac are brilliant authors and scholars who work to create allies. An ally is an individual who stands up for a person who is targeted and discriminated against on the basis of their identity, and one who works to support and advocate for people who are not “like them.”
Tapahonso is a wonderful poet who portrays elements of being a Native woman, as well as one with a history that is entangled in the Navajo Long Walk through her ancestral affiliations. Her poem, “In 1864,” complements Tohe’s writings, as she demonstrates what the Diné experienced (most notably women) during the Navajo Long Walk.
Louise Erdrich identifies as a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, a federally recognized tribe of the Anishinaabe. Her novels and short stories are powerful in learning about Native history; however, one of her most impactful short stories is “American Horse,” which focuses on not only Native history, but the attempts to silence indigenous peoples through force and coercion through the child welfare system.
Joy Harjo, who is an internationally renowned performer and writer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, not only writes poetry, but also children’s literature that aims to teach children about injustice.
Lastly, Joseph Bruchac, who identifies as Nulhegan Abenaki, also gears much of his works toward children’s literature. His text, Keepers of the Earth: Native American Stories and Environmental Activities for Children series, with its notable integration of science and folklore, is used in classrooms throughout the country.
As can be seen, these authors represent varying Nations and indigenous tribes/groups, and all work toward bringing awareness to the often-silenced indigenous voice. Reading these texts will not only encourage all of us to hear these voices, but to possibly acknowledge, grow, and change our own voices. This encouragement of growth, respect, and awareness not only promotes awareness, but also creates allies.
EB: Thanks, Jessica, for that informative and rich discussion. In my previous scholarly work, I’ve typically studied female writers and feminist and queer theory, but lately, I’ve tried to expand my reading list to be more diverse and to include more writers of color and more Indigenous authors (among others). Here are just some of the many noteworthy texts written by indigenous authors that are worth consideration:
Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead (2018)
As a member of the Peguis First Nation in Canada who identifies as Indigiqueer, Whitehead is a new and important voice in literature. Jonny Appleseed is Whitehead’s first novel. Part of what makes Jonny Appleseed both intriguing and noteworthy is its attention to intersectionality, by focusing on how Jonny— a queer, poor NDN (Indian) is impacted by a number of conditions and circumstances from racism to homophobia to poverty. Narratives like Jonny’s have been overlooked and ignored by generic representations of Native American culture, which is why I think this is an important text to read.
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich (2020)
Dr. Hoover already mentioned Louise Erdrich; I find Erdrich’s work very engaging as well. The Night Watchmen (2020) pulls together several plot lines but coalesces around a central theme detailing how Native Americans worked to challenge an emancipation bill being introduced to the United States Congress in 1953. The bill threatened the rights of Native Americans, their access to their land, and their identity by proposing to cut off their benefits from the government (or “emancipate” the Native Americans from the United States Government). Thomas Wazhashk, the titular “night watchman,” is based on Erdrich’s own grandfather. Thomas balances his work as a night watchman at a jewel bearing plant near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota with his role as Chippewa Council member, fighting against the bill by bringing his community together.
There, There by Tommy Orange (2018)
Orange is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. There, There is Orange’s first novel and it brings together a number of multi-generational threads and narratives, recounting the experiences of urban American Indians. Unlike the characters in Erdrich’s text, the characters in Orange’s novel inhabit spaces in Oakland, California, rather than on a reservation. In the novel, past and present experiences merge as Orange explores the plight of the Native Americans in the city and artistic expression as a mode of catharsis, including the place of the urban pow-wow in the community.
Deloria, V. (1988). Custer Died For Your Sins. University of Oklahoma Press.
Hogg, G. T. (2015). An Introduction to Indian Nations in the United States. National Congress of American Indians.
National Congress of American Indians. (2020). Native American Heritage Month. http://www.ncai.org/initiatives/native-american-heritage-month.
Said, E. (1964). Culture and Imperialism. Vintage