Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Native Americans in literature

November marks Native American Heritage month – a time to celebrate the rich tapestry of Native American culture and influence.

A few years back, my family visited the National Museum of the American Indian in DC. The museum is wonderful (being of Native American descent, my father pored over all things Cherokee), and the museum restaurant, which serves authentic Native American fare, delights the senses.

For the adventuresome cook, you may want to try Spirit of the Harvest by Martin Jacobs and Beverly Cox with over 150 authentic Native American dishes.

If you are short on time, as many of us are, short stories are an excellent way to enjoy literature in manageable “snippets.” The Singing Spirit edited by Bernd Peyer is a collection of early short stories by Native Americans. The Portable North American Indian Reader edited by Frederick Turner offers a sampling of Native American myths, tales and poetry.

Though Dee Brown is not of Native American descent, he wrote prolifically about the Native Americans. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, his most famous work, is an essential history of the Native Americans of the American West. Note that Brown was a librarian to boot!

Another worthwhile nonfiction selection is On the Rez by Ian Frazier. It is a hard-hitting read centered around the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It’s funny in some places, inspirational in others, and heartbreaking in still other places, especially the section about the high school girls’ basketball tournament.

For those who prefer fiction, Louise Erdrich’s classic Love Medicine is a multi-generational saga that takes place on a Chippewa Reservation in North Dakota. If you are looking for something a little different but reminiscent of old favorites, she also has a children’s trilogy that includes The Birchbark House, The Game of Silence, and The Porcupine Year. It takes place around the same time as the Little House books, and the series has been likened to a Native American version of Little House on the Prairie.

Nightwing by Martin Cruz Smith is a good thriller. The story features a young Native American as the investigator, who, returning to his reservation, must determine if there is a connection between the death of a telephone lineman, a Hopi Medicine man, and apparent attacks by vampire bats. Smith is also the author of the Arkady Renko series, the first novel of which is Gorky Park.

Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, won the Young Reader’s Division of the National Book Award with The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a coming of age story about Junior, a reservation teen in contemporary America. In the face of anger and resentment from his friends and family, underdog Junior pursues a better education off “the rez” at an all-white high school in a neighboring town where he falls in love, finds friendship, and becomes a basketball legend. Full of contrasts, (and not for the squeamish) this book is unabashedly realistic; by turns violent and hopeful, raunchy and poetic, heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud funny.

Storytelling is central to the Native American way of life as it is used to entertain, teach lessons and preserve history. Our Stories Remember by Joseph Bruchac explores American Indian history, culture, and values through storytelling.

While the library offers folktales from numerous tribes, I am particularly drawn to the Cherokee tales. My great-grandmother was full Cherokee and my great-grandfather was half Cherokee. The First Strawberries, also by Bruchac, discusses the Cherokee folk legend of why strawberries were created. Told in a picture book format, the lush illustrations are just lovely, as is the touching story. We always had a strawberry patch growing up at my grandparents’ house.

Natalie@ Bealeton

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