Connecting to Indigenous Literatures

Books by indigenous writersOne of the most important components of my tribal college education so far is the exposure I’ve had to Indigenous literature. Contemporary Indigenous storytellers and writers help bridge the gap between our internal experiences and the world around us. Poets like U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo (Creek) give voice to feelings and reflections which cannot be captured in mere prose. Writers like Sasha LaPoint (Tacoma) utilize multimedia platforms to layer music, spoken word, and film to show us their spirits. Tommy Orange (Cheyenne and Arapaho) broadens the way readers can imagine what it means to be Indian in America today. A single blog post is not sufficient for all of the praise for contemporary Native writers I would like to give. Throughout this blog, I will occasionally share book reviews and other resources to help connect us to these writers and uplift the creative work that calls us to feel and experience the world through the many diverse perspectives of Indigeneity.

In his book Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, Daniel Heath Justice offers four guiding questions for us as readers to ask while exploring the work of Native writers. These questions are:

  • How do we learn to be human?
  • How do we behave as good relatives?
  • How do we become good ancestors?
  • How do we learn to live together?

Reading Indigenous literature is not merely an exercise in media consumption. Utilizing these guiding questions, we become more than readers—we become critical thinkers who examine our own lives and experiences. As Justice explains, “Indigenous writers offer insight, challenge and possibility to our understandings of how we live in the world—and how we might do it better.”

One way to connect with Native literature and share in reflection on the meaning of these texts is through an online book club launched last November called Well-Read Native. The readers group meets monthly to discuss Indigenous texts, often with the author of the work in attendance. Last month, we read Tommy Orange’s There There, and this week we discussed Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. The goal is “to build a community of readers throughout Indian Country and the globe who believe in the impact of books—and friendship.” Well-Read Native book club hosts Allie, Kayla, and Abigail are excellent discussion facilitators and have done an incredible job bringing together Native writers (and readers) and introducing these texts.

Next month’s book, The Language Warrior’s Manifesto by Anton Treuer, could not be coming at a better time. I recently enrolled in the beginner Ojibwe language class at the University of Minnesota, with classes beginning this fall. While Bodewadmimwen (Potawatomi language) and Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe language) are different, the two languages are sisters within the Algonquian language family. And while my own tribe has been developing our language revitalization program (see this recent article in CNN about that program), I am looking forward to a more structured environment to support my own language learning. Future blog posts will share more about that experience as I delve into the next phase of language revitalization while living far away from other Bodewadmi / Nishnabek people.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your recommendations for other Indigenous writers, or ways you’ve connected to Native literature. Perhaps you’ll join me at the next Well-Read Native book club meeting? Please comment and share!

Mickki Garrity is a student at Northwest Indian College.

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