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by Chip Livingston
You can’t trust Hollywood. You can’t trust history books. And you sure can’t depend on what you see on football helmets and Halloween. But if you want a true depiction of the diverse worlds of 21st-century Native Americans, turn to contemporary Native writers and storytellers working in literature, art and film.
Growing up I knew the horse-riding, headdress-wearing Indians on TV and in the movies were nothing like my family or the other Creek Indians we gathered with at the annual Thanksgiving powwow in Poarch, Alabama. Yet when I presented my second-grade social studies project on local Indians, complete with a self-portrait of myself with a yellow felt triangle representing my hair and blue ink dots for my eyes, I was met with disbelief and denial.
Clearly I wasn’t the Indian in the history books, The Lone Ranger, or any John Wayne movie. For one thing, I wasn’t dead. My tribe wasn’t dead. We didn’t live in a tipi; we lived in a brick house on a cul-de-sac. But Creeks never lived in tipis. We lived in thatch-roofed cypress structures called chickees. I had made one out of construction paper and palmetto leaves for my school project. My classmates shook their heads. They didn’t want to see chickees; they wanted tipis.
It didn’t stop me from being Indian, but it did, for a time, prevent me from putting it on the page. Even when I began writing short stories in a college English class, I kept my subject matter to other aspects of my life: college parties and dating drama, witty dialogue between too-smart, gay narcissists. But in a feature journalism class where I wrote about the first time I ever danced—a round dance at the Poarch Creek Powwow when I was four or five years old—my professor asked me if she could publish it in the school newspaper. Then she asked me if I’d taken the Native American Literature course.
Those two comments from my journalism professor changed my course of study and the course of my writing. The next semester I signed up for a creative writing class and the Native American Literature course. I read texts by living, modern, non-cowboy-fighting Indians. They were writing about themselves, coming home from war and looking for comfort in lonely bars; losing it all to love, lawyers, and government bandits; oil and casino profits. They were writing about despair and hope, ugliness and beauty, real modern life. They were writing about worlds far removed from my own experience, and they were also writing about me.
Through the examples by the Muscogee Creek writers I discovered that semester—Louis Little Coon Oliver and Joy Harjo—and all the other native authors writing about their lives in and away from their diverse sovereign nations, I learned I could put my own native experience on the page. And it didn’t have to be a Western.
I remember a poem by Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan that most stood out for me that semester: “The Truth Is,” from her collection Seeing Through the Sun. In this poem, Hogan examines the life of the mixed blood. She writes, “In my left pocket a Chickasaw hand / rests on the bone of the pelvis. / In my right pocket / a white hand. Don’t worry. It’s mine / and not some thief’s.”
I saw myself in that poem, an alloy of competing elements, and I knew right away that, in Hogan’s verse, I had found an ally.
My next short story for my creative writing class was based on a Creek naming ceremony I’d recently attended in northwest Florida. My hard-to-please professor gave me the semester’s first “thumbs up.” He said I was finally writing about something real. It became my first published fiction.
I’m sure I would have found my way to Native American literature eventually, but the discovery of Oliver, Harjo, and Hogan that semester first showed me southeastern Indians can, do, and should write about Southeastern Indians. Leslie Marmon Silko, Scott Momaday, and Simon Ortiz showed me their Southwest. Gerald Vizenor, Gordon Henry Jr., and Louise Erdrich took me through their Anishinaabe territories, from the northern boundary waters to the streets of Minneapolis.
Wider reading and twenty more years of publishing has taken me to the Alaska of Joan Naviyuk Kane, dg okpik, and Ernestine Hayes; to the California of Deborah Miranda and Greg Sarris; to the Mohawk territory of James Thomas Stevens and Beth Brant. I’ve seen James Welch’s and Debra Earling’s rocky Montana, heard the winds and silences of Sherwin Bitsui’s and Orlando White’s Diné deserts, and felt the heat of Natalie Diaz’s Mohave. Blackfeet Stephen Graham Jones has shown me the heart of a werewolf and taught me how to kill a zombie.
I have the tremendous fortune to now teach creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, where I’ve been privy to preview some of the exciting new works from the next generation of Native American literature. Keep your eyes open for a host of brilliant, young talents reflecting the true lives of modern Native Americans. And they’re not writing characters dressed in feathers, war paint or loincloths. Because we’re not that kind of Indian.
This post is part of our annual Lit Matters series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop— is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 8 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!
New Lighthouse faculty member Chip Livingston is the author of the story/essay collection Naming Ceremony and two poetry collections, Crow-Blue, Crow-Black and Museum of False Starts. He teaches in the low-res MFA programs at Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe and at Regis University in Denver.