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Crybaby Decolonize your bookshelf with these contemporary Indigenous reads

Sep. 19, 2018
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Photo of Natalia Toledo by Diana Manzo for La Jornado.

One way in which I always aim to uplift marginalized communities is by supporting the artwork of people from them—specifically literary works, since I am a literavore (book-eater)—and this is what I always suggest to people when I am asked how they can best uplift these communities. Literary works are transformative experiences. For those especially written by marginalized bodies, they are key to countering dehumanization, demanding visibility, fostering awareness and comprehension of what is at stake, and bridging different kinds of people together. It is the most personal and effective way to truly learn about a person, a people, a land, a culture, a movement.

Whenever a white person attempts to spout some ignorant nonsense about racial politics to me, I almost never engage in conflict with them (regardless of how furiously irritated I am); rather, I send them links to books by women-writers of color—i.e. Reni Eddo-Lodge’s “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race”—since I have gained much of my knowledge from them anyways. Similar feelings are evoked in me every year Fourth of JuLIES befalls us. “Independence Day”? Independence for whom? And now, with Indigenous People’s Day coming up—otherwise sadly still known as Columbus Day in New York City, Chicago, and other cities across the country—my response to that question, similar to my engagements with those ignorant folks, is to celebrate Indigenous literature. I’ve curated a list in no particular order of my ten favorite contemporary Indigenous voices, from Turtle Island throughout the Pacific, who write across the genres of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Supporting Indigenous literature is a beautifully radical act of combatting settler-colonialism and challenging the dehumanization and invisibility incessantly thrusted upon Aboriginal peoples, while also treating oneself to the exquisite variety and beauty Indigenous poetics have to offer. 

Each of these writers have profoundly impacted both my writing and me. Their works are so necessary and have become seminal parts of my life: informing my perspective, helping me to grow, and even saving me when I hadn’t realized I needed the saving, the understanding. You’re welcome in advance.

“Indian Horse” by Richard Wagamese

“Indian Horse” is a novel by the late Ojibwe writer Richard Wagamese, who hailed from Wabaseemoong Independent Nations in northwestern Ontario, Canada. This book won the Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature in 2013, and competed in Canada Reads that same year as well. I first read “Indian Horse” during my senior year of high school, wherein we examined the residential/boarding school systems of Indigenous peoples in Ontario and across Canada through this particular piece of literature. It hones in on the life of Saul Indian Horse, a First Nations boy who grows up in the residential school system and afterwards pursues hockey as a serious talent. The reader follows along Saul’s journey of abuse, denial, addiction, self-awareness, and eventual self-acceptance, while gaining a wider perspective on the residential school system, alcoholism, and suicide in Native communities. The gained perspective also spans the racial climate of Northern Ontario and rural Canada, really, in the 1960s and afterwards. I have never read anything quite like this book—it is sharp in Wagamese’s clear and sparse writing styling, and it is piercing to the heart through emotions evoked by Saul’s observations. Whenever someone asks me for a book recommendation that can be felt in their bones, I always recommend “Indian Horse”. Rest in power, Richard Wagamese. The impact you left on Indigenous and Canadian literature, as well as on your readers themselves, is stirringly indelible.

“From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawaiʻi” by Haunani-Kay Trask

For those of you familiar with Indigenous political writings—especially feminist ones—you already know that Haunani-Kay Trask is a force to be reckoned with. “From a Native Daughter” has become a classic in Pasifika publications and a go-to for contemporary Indigenous knowledge pertaining to Kanaka ʻŌiwi (Native Hawaiians). When I began my own personal investigation of Indigenous writings and poetics, this was simply the book to read and Trask was simply the woman to be. The book is a thought-provoking, well-reasoned sociological text that acts both defensively and offensively: it defends the civil rights of and desire for sovereignty by our people, culture, and lands, while also critiquing the very institutions that withhold those rights and sovereignty from Kanaka ʻŌiwi. My favorite part, perhaps, is the essay on women’s mana because wahine (women) are the future and the struggle for liberation would not exist, nor would it continue, without us. Personally, I cannot even begin to word what Trask has done for me in my own coming of age and coming to terms with the society in which we live. So many of us are forever in debt to the tireless work she has done so we may be visible and feel as though there is a chance for change. “From a Native Daughter” remains a timeless staple on the plights of Kanaka ʻŌiwi and a framework for future efforts of sovereignty by Pasifika people.

“nipê wânîn: my way back” by Mika Lafond

The first book of poetry by Lafond published in 2017, it is an invitation to hold space with her on the journey she carves throughout the pages. It is a poetic journey and investigation of how being Indigenous has shaped her, moving between Cree and English in the poems. They act as a cultural dialogue that invests heavily into Cree teachings and the close relationship she had with her grandmother. Embodying the transformative rituals of her culture through her words, Lafond seeks out the universal love of “all people, all animals, all things/my heartbeat slows, my spirit breathes/in a circle of women I find myself/with my ancestors.” The tone of her writing is reflected in the elements of nature that inform her understanding of her grandmother’s words and how to be one with her Cree past. Indigenous Canadian literary works are some of my favorite to read, and Lafond has without a doubt become another favorite Indigenous writer of mine. Her soft way of transporting us to Cree lands to be with her, her grandmother, and her history, cultivates a feeling of deep understanding that only women of ancestries with violent pasts can understand.

“I am my grandmother’s thought. I was in her tears. I have shared dreams with her. I am a sprig of present produced by the past, cultivating the future.” (From poem “I am”.)

“I come back to find solace in my history, to see the depth of the sky once more, to fall away to peacefulness with the stars.” (From poem “homebound”.)

“from unincorporated territory [saina]” by Craig Santos Perez

This book, a finalist in the 2010 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry and winner of the 2011 Pen Center USA/Poetry Society of America Literary Award, is the second installment in a larger investigative poetic series on what it means to be Chamoru by Craig Santos Perez. Saina is a modern ship replicated after Chamoru riggers, designed and sailed by the Micronesian people until banned by colonizers. Santos-Perez sails through a personal, historical, and cultural exploration of Guåhan (Guam) by way of a figurative Saina. The primary precious cargo on his Saina are language and identity, from collaging primary texts with traditionally oral histories of colonial abuse and dominance, to stories of his childhood on Guåhan and his family’s eventual immigration to the U.S. He probes language by working in Chamoru and English, writing of both the sorrows and possibilities in attempting to converse in the “spoken and unspoken languages of one’s Native people,” while never forgetting the trauma innate in every word of the language of one’s oppressors. This book is a warrior cry and reminder that Chamoru people have always been here and will continue to be here for thousands of more years, navigating their futures with their own Saina. This book will have you wanting to read the rest of the series before you can even finish reading it.

“Lakota Woman” by Mary Crow Dog

This memoir by Mary Brave Bird, formerly Mary Crow Dog, won the American Book Award in 1991. I bought this book around Thanksgiving of last year because a Lakota friend of the same Rez as Brave Bird had recommended it to me. Opening on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Brave Bird, a mixed-race Sicangu Lakota, walks us through her life from infancy to young adulthood, which were linked to the American Indian Movement’s many historical events throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. She recounts her participation in the Trail of Broken Treaties in 1972 and the Indian Occupation at Wounded Knee in 1973, as well as her involvement with the American Indian Church (AIC) and marriage to its spiritual leader, Leonard Crow Dog. Both revealing and moving, “Lakota Woman” largely informed my perspective on Indigenous issues in the latter part of the 20th century and elicited in me a deeper respect for the community’s elders and all they had to endure—and the fact that they still persevere today, teaching us to become the ancestors we are meant to be. Brave Bird’s writing is timeless, allowing readers to draw connections from the issues of her time to our own issues today, from Standing Rock to Mauna Kea. “Lakota Woman” is a book you will not stop thinking about, even after turning its final page.

“The Salt-Wind, Ka Makani Paʻakai” by Brandy Nālani McDougallThis postcolonial collection of poetry by Kanaka ʻŌiwi poet Brandy Nālani McDougall was published by Kuleana ʻŌiwi Press, an independent press dedicated to the manaʻo (thoughts) and hana noʻeau (artistic works) of Na ʻŌiwi (Natives). I was first introduced to this book by Layli Longsoldier, a Lakota winyan (woman) who was the writer-in-residence at Pratt Institute during my first year there. It was very pono (righteous)—we shared space and words over Standing Rock and Mauna Kea, since so many people from both movements united together to defend both sacred places, and she recommended me this book by her friend, Brandy Nālani McDougall, when we discussed the lack of Indigenous women sitting at the literary table (or any table for that matter). From the very beginning, McDougall thrusts readers into the islands’ vivid, untamed, and lush imagery, simultaneously plunging us into the rich stories and heritage of the Indigenous people of the Hawaiian archipelago in both English and ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language). We are always aware of an indisputable, invasive presence, but through her emphasis on Pasifika issues, from the retelling of the islands’ creation story to the fetishization of Pasifika women and reclamation of language, she maintains Natives’ rightful belonging to na ʻāina (the lands). “The Salt-Wind, Ka Makani Paʻakai” is the contemporary collection of Indigenous poetry we all need on our bookshelves and in our minds. It is truly a testament to the achingly gorgeous genuineness of Indigenous poetics.

“WHEREAS” by Layli Long Soldier

As I wrote above, Layli Long Soldier was the writer-in-residence at Pratt Institute during my freshman year. She is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe—a citizen of both the Oglala Lakota Nation and United States, about which she writes—and from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The title “WHEREAS” refers to the bill signed into law by President Barack Obama on December 19, 2009, its purpose being “to acknowledge a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the United States Government regarding Indian tribes and offer an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States.” Her own words confront those of the United States government: how it is artificial but imperious in its apologies and responses to, as well as treaties with, Indigenous peoples and tribes. Long Soldier uses the very words that seek to oppress her against her oppressors, from short lyrics and prose to longer narrative sequences and resolutions. At Pratt, Long Soldier told us that she would be happy if the United States returned the Black Hills to her people. Where her ancestral lands were stolen and small plots were cut up and designated for her people, she reclaims all space in “WHEREAS”, writing of the implications of what a reservation is and embodying them on the pages as well. This book, a National Book Award Finalist, has established Long Soldier as a voice for Indigenous peoples in literature—especially women. She and I had a wonderfully long conversation about the intersection of writing, womanhood, and indigeneity—and she has surely helped us better understand who and what “contemporary” includes and means in poetics.

“Iep Jāltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter” by Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner

Published only last year, “Iep Jāltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter” has already made history as the first published book of poetry written by a Marshallese writer. Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, Marshallese writer and activist, takes the fight to save the Marshall Islands from being consumed by rising sea levels to paper: Indigenous poetics as resistance. Her voice rises with the sea levels when calling attention to decades of traumas from colonialism, racism, environmental destruction, imminent threats of further destruction by way of climate change, and of course, the legacy of American nuclear testing. (The United States, along with France, treated the Pacific Ocean as their nuclear trashcan in the latter part of the 20th century, with grave affects still seen today across the Marshall Islands, Moruroa, and Fangataufa.) From the publisher: “The poet connects us to Marshallese daily life and tradition, likening her poetry to a basket and its essential materials. Her cultural roots and her family provides the thick fiber, the structure of the basket. Her diasporic upbringing is the material which around the fiber, an essential layer to the structure of her experiences. And her passion for justice and change, the passion which brings her to the front lines of activist movements—is the stitching that binds these two experiences together.” Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner has become a contemporary symbol of Pasifika resistance and poetics, and how they are inherently bound together. Her book is only the beginning of what’s to come and will surely help usher in new Indigenous voices of Oceania. We will rise with the sea too.

“Sanaaq: An Inuit Novel” by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk (translated by Bernard Saladin d’Anglure)

The late Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk was an Inuit educator and translator from the northern Quebec territory of Nunavik. Written in syllabics and published in 1984, “Sanaaq” is the first ever Inuktitut-language novel to be published, later followed by over twenty other novels Nappaaluk wrote afterwards. “Sanaaq” is a reinvention of the traditional novel form to which most readers are accustomed; composed of forty-eight episodes, we follow the life of the titular character, Sanaaq, who is a young and outspoken widow, and how she, her family, and her small, semi-nomadic community in northern Quebec navigate changes brought by the qallunaat, the white people, in the mid-nineteenth century. And so what we experience is an achingly beautiful story of “ordinary extraordinary lives.” They hunt seals, repair kayaks, gather mussels. The spirit world is alive, though, and relations with non-human entities are always taken seriously. Still, the perpetual themes of marriage, children, and violence—in the form of an irate husband or hungry polar bear—appear throughout the novel, while the qallunaat’s growing, invasive presence and the missionaries’ imposing goals threaten to forever change the way of life for Sanaaq, her family, and her people. When I first picked up the book, it struck me as mystifyingly fascinating, and though it took me some time to adjust to the episodic nature of the book—episodes being the key word, rather than chapters or breaks in one continuous narrative—and how it does not adhere to an ethnocentric literary structure, it made it all the better, I believe. The only thing that would make it better is if we were all able to savor “Sanaaq” in Inuktitut, the true way in which it was meant to be read. 

Natalia Toledo

Although I have not read a book by her—only translations of pieces in publications—I had to include Natalia Toledo Paz in this list because she is at the forefront of reviving interest in Indigenous Mexican languages by writing in both Zapotec and Spanish. Oaxaca-born, Toledo Paz lived in a community wherein Zapotec was the primary language spoken before moving to Mexico City at seven years-old. Her writing has been heavily concentrated on the subjects of indigeneity, womanhood, and the relationship Indigenous womanhood has with the environment. She is part of a writing movement using the Zapotec language that has helped propel demands for more Indigenous visibility in Mexico. Toledo Paz has said that she enjoys using Zapotec because “[it is] a great aesthetic sensibility for creating images and beauty.” Her website has poems in Zapotec and Spanish, and publications like “World Literature Today,” “Latin American Literature Today,” and “Asymptote Journal” have English translations. Her writing is of the most exquisite imagery and evokes in me feelings of oneness and tranquility with the world around me—and with the world in me too. Her poetry makes me feel beautiful. Toledo Paz is someone who we must uplift, as she uplifts us through her words. 

This article is from Crybaby Zine, online edition of the Resist/Revolt Issue, buy the print issue here