Voice to Books: Indigenous Experiences are Individual and Numerous
In this month’s Voice to Books, we’re highlighting Native American authors and their stories. The colonized view of native people often mashes together diverse communities and nations into a misrepresented and false narrative of who they are. By giving space to their individual experiences, better representation and understanding can take place. The works listed below are as varied as the cultures they represent. A crime novel, a collection of nonfiction short stories, a memoir, and a YA novel show a small selection of the wide range of stories by Indigenous authors.
Fire Song by Adam Garnet Jones
Reviewed by Michael North
Shane, the central character in Fire Song, by “Indigiqueer” Canadian writer Adam Garnet Jones, may or may not be Two-Spirited. A term so broadly designated that it’s no wonder controversy follows its use, its meaning, and its cultural appropriateness. While this novel helps to highlight the term, “Two-Spirit” has mostly been a success in helping (especially) non-Indigenous peoples wrap their heads around the wide array of First Nation concepts of gender identity that, more often than not, expand or converge from the Western ideas of binary genders and its relation to the LGBTQ+ community.
Fire Song follows the tribulations of young queer First Nations boy Shane, who struggles with his identity. Shane has to negotiate the suicide of his sister and care for his emotionally impaired mother while their home literally falls apart around them. Fire Song is exactly what its title declares—a slow and melodic song filled with passion and destruction that influences life.
Without explicitly stating it, or commenting on blame, Jones exposes his readers to the destruction Western culture has unleashed on Indigenous people internationally (including massive queer panic). But Fire Song doesn’t start or end with Shane’s sexuality. Through relentless pain and grim realities, Shane’s loved ones must learn how to hold onto hope in the direst of circumstances.
Fire Song is unique as it intersects the specific challenges of being Indigenous and queer in our time and dares to leave troubles unresolved and ends in heart-wrenching truths that leave many readers wanting, serving as a reminder that life doesn’t always come up roses. Fire Song reminds us life is hard, isn’t always fair, and doesn’t always make sense, but that some ideas are worth fighting for.
Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden
Reviewed by Lucio Rodriguez
In Winter Counts, David Heska Wanbli Weiden examines contemporary Lakota life and society. In this novel, Lakota history and culture are represented as both burden and blessing; the beliefs, the values, and the community of the Lakota people are weighed down by more than a century of broken promises and increasing restrictions from the US government. In light of this, crime seems inevitable, and shows up as a conflict between the Lakota people, drug dealers, and a disinterested US government.
The protagonist, Virgil Wounded Horse, is a man separated from his peoples’ traditions. Disillusioned after the loss of several family members, he ekes out a living as an “enforcer,” doling out ass-kickings in place of the justice Native Americans are prohibited from delivering, for cases that the US government too often refuses to prosecute. “Family” for the Lakota is broad, but when the last of his blood, his nephew, Nathan, nearly dies of heroin, Virgil decides to root out the responsible tribe member. And while the “crime” part of this crime novel is well executed, it’s the personal drama that takes center stage.
Virgil is perhaps too aware of the dichotomy of the Lakota people—any opportunity to do good for the people or one’s self requires stepping away from tradition. Attending a good school requires leaving the reservation; taking restitutions requires giving up tribal land; even among the Lakota themselves there is criticism for not being “native enough,” either through blood, or occupation, or the company you keep. The cast of characters is broad, and each contains a dichotomy of the Lakota people: Ben Short Bear, who has ambitions for his people, and his family. Rick Crow, a proud Lakota willing to sacrifice his people to drugs. Tommy, an ex-con who found his heritage in prison, trying to get back on his feet.
Winter Counts is a two-layered tale, a slow-burn crime tale with seemingly disparate pieces coming together in the end, and a character-driven story about a man finding his way back to himself and his people.
Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land, by Toni Jensen
Reviewed by Ruth Nolan
The thematic emphasis of Toni Jensen’s powerful memoir—Indigenous survival in the Americas in face of centuries-long colonialist oppression—is clearly stated in the title of her book. In a bold approach of resistance and resilience, Jensen, a Cree woman, deconstructs and reclaims English language words to confront the many ways in which colonial violence has been inflicted on Indigenous people in North America for hundreds of years.
From the start, Jensen assertively challenges several aggression-loaded words, including “riot,” which she refuses to accept at face value in its common connotation. Instead, she lists out the etymological roots of this word in the taxonomic structure of English-speaking Western colonizers, and then fleshes it out into something altogether different, as a descriptor for something more aesthetically pleasing. “Riot” is also defined as a gathering of magpies—beautiful birds that are quite intelligent.
By continuing to challenge and reassign the uses of other English language words through the rest of her memoir, Jensen orients the reader in places and times of her life’s journey as she leads us through a precipitous North American landscape rife with shared historical trauma and ongoing acts of violence endemic to Westernized culture, such as fracking, domestic violence, missing Indigenous women, and school shootings. She refuses to accept the violence of language, as it has been weaponized against her as an Indigenous woman. Instead, she rewrites her life’s story—representative of a historical Indigenous continuum—from how it has been experienced to establish a more self-empowered narrative. By redefining and reclaiming English words that have been used against her and other Indigenous people, Jensen maps an entirely new language, representing a world of resistance and resilience and reconnections to a fluidly imagined pre-colonial America.
Gichigami Hearts by Linda LeGarde Grover
Reviewed by Daniela Z. Montes
Gichigami Hearts starts by placing the reader in Duluth, Michigan and author Linda LeGarde Grover showing them The Point of Rocks. She tells the reader that the Point of Rocks had been blasted three times to no avail, a metaphor for indigeounus culture, of stories that last longer than anyone does on Earth. She doesn’t just describe the area, she takes the reader through the history as she knows it, as she was told it. Her intimacy with the land creates a sense of adoration and appreciation for what these landmarks mean to her, whether they are sacred places or a church/soup kitchen, each piece brings the reader closer to the Earth, to the people, to LeGarde Grover herself.
The tone throughout the book is intimate. LeGarde Grover is not only sharing her memories, her family’s stories, but also the stories of the Earth. She passes down wisdom in these stories—both her own and wisdom she’s learned from her elders. LeGarde Grover’s words are sometimes tinged with sadness when she tells stories of intertwining histories. The poetry and myths throughout this nonfiction add to the intimacy of the words, feeling like someone’s journal rather than a series of essays. The pictures LeGarde Grover included also add to this effect. Rather than be placed all together, like they would in a biography or autobiography, the photos are placed with the stories they belong with.
The book is a reminder that the past, the present, and the future, all come together not through one person but through many people. The stories also tell readers that the parts of the Earth we find sacred will be here long after we are gone.
Voice to Books is a monthly short list of reviews from a variety of voices, curated by Daniela Z. Montes and A.E. Santana. Like the authors and their characters, each of our reviewers comes from a marginalized or underrepresented group. Interested in contributing a review to Voice to Books? Please send inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.