The Truth About Memoirs


I have a preferred version of the Seven Generations’ maxim. It’s different from the commonly quoted one, which states that each decision should be made by considering its consequences for seven future generations. Although the version I favor does consider seven generations total, it has us look three generations back, three generations forward, and puts our generation in the center. I’ve found that my students have trouble thinking of seven generations to come, but they do have a cathartic connection to both their great grandparents and their own future great grandchildren. I believe that giving faces to the generations helps us understand the immediacy of our perspectives, and that’s a motivating factor for writers who seek to capture a moment before it passes. In no genre is this more important than when we’re writing a memoir. We’re living in a time where taking photos of people, places, and events has become akin to breathing, but images without context only tell part of a story. For the meaning behind the pictures we writers need to take-up our keyboards and preserve the stories we’ve witnessed.

I understand why people repeat the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. But I don’t believe it’s true. A photo from the March on Washington doesn’t resonate like the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Nor does a picture of Sitting Bull explain that he was a leader both at the Battle of Little Bighorn and in prioritizing the lives of his people. A snapshot of Elouise P. Cobell’s meeting with President Obama in the Oval Office doesn’t attest to either her determined spirit or the importance of the settlement she won for Indian people. In all of these cases we needed words to contextualize the images. The same is true of the stories I’m asking each of you the write.

We must write in tribute to the people who’ve made our lives better. In every tribal community across the United States there are elders who fought for America, for Indian self-determination, language and culture preservation, and the way of life they were taught by their ancestors. Their lives are a testament to everything that makes Native nations endure and thrive in the face of a country that’s in a constant state of evolution. These heroes might not find their names in any current textbook, but we can capture their stories and help those who’ll come after us remember who took a stand for the generations to come.

We must write to remember culture that is both familial and traditional. We all know someone who prepares rice, syrup, and fry bread that’s second to none, but do any of us know the secrets of these culinary arts? The same is true of how beadwork, regalia, pottery, and baskets are made. We writers should join those learning these traditions through hands-on experience, but we can play an even greater role by writing down the wisdom others have shared with us.

We must write to explain why we lived as we did, and why it mattered. I can’t tell you how many students have shared images, videos, and posts about the necessity of standing against the Dakota Access Pipeline. It’s powerful raw footage created by individuals whose efforts should be lauded. Yet without someone describing why each protest, song, and donation matters, only part of the story is being told. We writers cannot count on others to explain why each action is important; rather we need to use our skills to speak about the challenges of our generation.

We must never forget to write about our hopes for a better tomorrow. Our country is politically and socially divided and the rights of Native nations are being questioned. Still, we have to continue to write about the world we seek to create in hopes of inspiring others to join us in the process. We have a future to chart, and the words we use to capture that plan reach far beyond the grasp of any images. Now is the time to imagine the world we desire, and with a written blueprint others can unite behind our aspirations that confirm tribal sovereignty, celebrate culture, and reject the barriers that fragment modern society.

I believe there’s an urgent need for memoir writing, and I hope we writers take our charge to draft it seriously. I don’t think it’s overly dramatic to state that the richness of future knowledge depends on our work. Like the generations before us, let us look at least three generations into the future and write about the things we want our great grandchildren to discover.

Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communication at College of Menominee Nation, where he has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund’s Faculty Member of the Year.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Writer’s Corner or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

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