In recent years, there has been a growing body of exceptional
literature and other works written by native Americans. In his novel
"Fools Crow," novelist James Welch (of Blackfoot and Gros Ventre
descent) depicted the history and heart of Indian life in the 1870s
as "Dances With Wolves" never could.
Leslie Marmon Silko (who grew up on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation
and won a MacArthur "genius" grant for "Ceremony," her first work)
told a haunting, mythic tale of North American history - past and
future - in "Almanac of the Dead."
In "Medicine River" and "Green Grass, Running Water," Thomas King
portrayed contemporary Indian characters - especially their wry
humor - with exceptional skill.
Not yet 40, Sherman Alexie Jr., a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian,
has published 16 books of award-winning poetry and short stories,
one of which ("Smoke Signals") became a film featured at the
Sundance Film Festival.
Like most of those who identify themselves as native American,
Mr. King, a professor of English at the University of Guelph in
Ontario, is of mixed heritage. His father was Cherokee, his mother
Greek and German. But his stories - and especially his way of
telling stories - are distinctly native American.
Does the Adam and Eve story in Genesis make any more sense than
"The Woman Who Fell From the Sky?" Is it any more legitimate as a
creation story? Listening to King tell it - and here one feels that
one is listening, not reading - one can only answer, "Who cares?"
For, as he writes, "contained within creation stories are
relationships that help to define the nature of the universe and how
cultures understand the world in which they exist." Those stories
aren't all traditional, involving the trickster "Coyote" and other
They include, as King notes, "stories about broken treaties,
residential schools, culturally offensive movies, the appropriation
of Native names, symbols, and motifs."
But in the end, the main story in his latest work, "The Truth
About Stories," is King's own story: what it's like and what it
means to be an Indian (or more accurately, choosing to identify most
closely with one's Indian lineage) in a place where that still is
not a very easy thing.
Fortunately, King tells his story with the same soulful wit he
employs in his fiction - moving within sight of cynicism sometimes
but not dwelling there.
Likewise with Winona LaDuke, whose father was Ojibwe. With a
degree from Harvard in economic development, she moved some 20 years
ago to the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota where she's been a
writer, activist, and mother of three children.
(She was also Ralph Nader's running mate in the 1996 and 2000
Her most recent book, "Recovering the Sacred," explores the
connection between the loss of what had been considered "holy land"
by Indian groups and the environmental degradation that ensued.
Along with the plundering of Indian human remains and funerary items
by museums and private collectors, there's been the slaughter of
buffalo, the decimation of salmon runs, the strip mining of coal and
drilling for oil.
To be sure, there's been economic poverty as a result. But the
loss of cultural and spiritual identity may have brought a deeper
sort of poverty.
"We have a problem of two separate spiritual paradigms and one
dominant culture," she writes. "Make that a dominant culture with an
immense appetite for natural resources. …