After Thoughts on Forked-Tongues: a review of Sherman Alexie

Blogs, Internet interviewing, NPR, the Colbert Report, Facebook, Oprah and a hundred other venues have taken over the Study of Native American Literatures (NAL) in the last decade. These days the major doctrine of the discipline of new Native American Literatures is being eagerly played out by the spellbinder author from the Spokane Indian Reservation (via Seattle, Wa.), Sherman Alexie.

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2015 Retreat: Keeping with Tradition, Welcoming Change

As a new member, first-time attendee, and young Native scholar of the Oak Lake Writers’ Society annual retreat, I came to this group influenced by these writers’ works and vision. These are my insights and takeaways from the retreat, being in the presence of colleagues and accomplished senior writers.

Tucked away in quiet, relative isolation along the southern shore of Oak Lake in northeastern South Dakota, the Oak Lake Writers' Society (OLWS) met early this August for its 22nd annual retreat. Each year, Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota writers of all ages attend for four days of writing workshops and meetings.

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Open Letter: Protect He Sapa, Stop Cultural Exploitation

The planned Rainbow Family of Living Light gathering (herein Rainbow) in He Sapa, the Black Hills, has caused serious tensions within the Oceti Sakowin. Many of us see the Rainbow gathering as engaging in cultural exploitation, and some of their activities as desecrating our holiest site by appropriating and practicing faux Native ceremonies and beliefs. These actions, although Rainbows may not realize, dehumanize us as an indigenous Nation because they imply our culture and humanity, like our land, is anyone’s for the taking. As outsiders to our Nation and struggles, the Rainbow gathering has caused and will cause more harm than good.

Some argue that Lakota and Dakota nations need to choose sides on whether or not we should support the gathering. These same people have also attempted to form an “alliance” with Rainbow attendees by publicly welcoming their presence and supporting their encampment in the hopes of facilitating an occupation that would in turn demand the return of stolen treaty lands in He Sapa.

Other Lakota activists have set up a protest camp and have called for the eviction of the Rainbow camp over fears of desecrating a sacred site, the cultural appropriation of sacred Native ceremonies, and the violation of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which reserves exclusive use to He Sapa for the Lakota, Dakota, and Arapaho nations.

Many Lakota and Dakota peoples have weighed in. Some express sympathy for allying with the Rainbows. And some, like us, express serious reservations about the Rainbow gathering including critiques of the tactics of certain celebrity Lakota activists who ally with the Rainbows. A majority of Rainbow members have also decided to respect the wishes of Native opponents to the gathering by not attending. Those who have consciously ignored the divisive chaos that has ensued after Rainbow plans to gather in He Sapa and calls to boycott the gathering have begun setting up camp regardless and are aligning themselves with sympathetic Lakota “allies.”

While sympathetic Lakota “allies” and supporters are concerned about making the Rainbow attendees feel comfortable, a simple fact remains: the tens of thousands of Lakota and Dakota people currently living in He Sapa and those who make annual pilgrimages for ceremonial and cultural obligations are not made to feel comfortable, at all.

Those Lakota and Dakota people who live in Mni Luzahan, Rapid City, a notoriously racist border town, for example, experience the highest rates of poverty—nearly fifty percent—more than any other urban demographic in the nation, and higher than many American Indian reservations. Natives also make up twelve percent of Rapid City’s population but account for three-quarters of the homeless population and half the county jail population.

Paradoxically, Rapid City economically depends on Lakota and Dakota business from surrounding communities and reservations. The annual Lakota Nation Invitational basketball tournament, for instance, is the second largest money-maker for the city, next to the Sturgis Bike Rally and the He Sapa Powwow. Yet, the history and pervasive anti-Indianism directed at Native people who visit, shop, and live in Rapid City is nothing short of an outrage.

As a Nation of intellectuals, writers, artists, professionals, and educators, the Oceti Sakowin has much to celebrate in our achievements and contributions to our national culture and to politics. Aligning with the Rainbow Family, a group that cites a fictitious “Native American prophecy” as informing their self-identification as “warriors of the rainbow” and willfully appropriates Native cultural practices, is not only adventurist and dangerous, but offensive to many of us who advance and continue to defend the spiritual, the cultural, the sacred, and, most importantly, the political vitality and vision of the Oceti Sakowin.

In a recent letter to the editor in Indian Country Today, one Rainbow member justifies Native appropriation: “I see how cultural and spiritual appropriation is disrespectful and harmful but I also see how the actual practices heal and rebalance everyone,” as if “everyone” is in need of rebalance. The sense of entitlement to Lakota and Dakota spirituality and culture illustrates a common belief of white settler society: like it was entitled to our land, it is therefore also entitled to our culture and our humanity for its own benefit. The U.S., a settler nation, was built violently upon this myth: white people who feel they lack meaningful ancestral ties and relationships to this land turn to new forms of theft. Our remaining land, sacred sites and cultures are open for plunder and theft as whites seek spiritual meaning and personal self-actualization. They may need “rebalance” after the the colonial atrocities of white society. We need what we have always wanted, the dignity and right to exist as an indigenous Nation in our homelands. How does Rainbow further this other than to mock and appropriate our culture?

White settlers who appropriate Native cultures for their own benefit do not advance nor align with the values of Wolakota, the Lakota and Dakota way of living, values that have been passed down and protected by our ancestors. In fact, it furthers the belief that Native peoples and cultures exist for pure entertainment and ownership for white settlers, a belief that saturates the popular imaginary in the form of racist sports mascots and other dehumanizing caricatures, and fantasies of perceived or fabricated Native ancestry. The appropriation of our sacred spaces, practices, and our very identities violates us as a people, a nation, and it violates our sovereign right to determine for ourselves who we are in this world and this universe. It jeopardizes our legal, political, and spiritual claims as rightful caretakers of the land and He Sapa.

As Dakota and Lakota nations, we have been tolerant to other worldviews and have even come to accept some of them, as taught through Wolakota. This has been our greatest strength and our greatest weakness—because it is often exploited. In the past and currently, we strategically align with other Native and non-Native people and causes when it is in the best interest of our nations and the land. These alliances are necessary for our continued survival and for seeking justice for historical and ongoing wrongs. There are non-Natives who are sympathetic to and allied with our causes, but who do not find it necessary, nor should they, to appropriate and distort our cultural practices, and traditions for their own benefit.

When Ptehincala Ska Win, the White Buffalo Calf Woman, gave us the canupa, the pipe, and our sacred ceremonies, she gave them to us, the Oceti Sakowin, not to anyone else. She gave us specifically a burden to bear, that we as a people should guarantee our survival and continuance as a Nation in our own lands. Ptehincala Ska Win’s message was for us to stand as one nation, whether we disagree or not. When the U.S. and occupying forces ripped us from our homelands, forced us onto reservations, and attempted to destroy us as a people, those burdens of genocide became ours, and they also became everyone’s responsibility to help right these ongoing crimes against humanity. Appropriating our practices and sacred spaces does not right historical wrongs. It adds to them.

Uniting with the Rainbow people, whose gathering in our most sacred site promises only further cultural and spiritual exploitation, has fractured us. It has sown seeds of disunity at a time when we desperately need unity to combat the exploitation and violence against our land, water, youth and women, and the continued desecration of our sacred sites at places like Mato Paha, Bear Butte, where hundreds of thousands of mostly white bikers gather for weeks of debauchery at the Sturgis Biker Rally during our ceremonial season. Do they understand the power of these hills, of this place? Or is it simply a piece of earth they roar into once a year and which they objectify for their pleasure? Although the Rainbow gathering has a veneer of “spirituality” one could ask the same question of them. And we do, as individuals whose peoples arose as peoples in this place, and who have been powerfully connected to it for millennia.

Let’s use our hearts, minds, and bodies towards continuing these struggles instead of aligning ourselves with cultural exploiters and those who detract from the long, hard task of unity as a Nation.

Hecetu Welo!

Nick Estes (Kul Wicasa Oyate), PhD candidate, University of New Mexico

Kimberly TallBear (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate), Associate Professor, University of Texas, Austin

Tasiyagnunpa Livermont (Oglala Sioux Tribe), writer and blogger

Richard Meyers (Oglala Sioux Tribe), Assistant Professor/Director of Tribal Outreach, South Dakota State University

Joel Waters (Oglala Sioux Tribe), poet and writer

Taté Walker (Mniconjou Lakota), social service/justice professional and human rights activist

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“Survival Horror and Other Colonial Fantasies: American Indians, Video Games, and Popular Genres”: A Conversation with Jodi Byrd

by Kim Tallbear, Ph.D (Sisseton Wahpeton)

On the third day of the Oak Lake 2012 retreat, University of Illinois Associate Professor of American Indian Studies Jodi Byrd (Chickasaw) led a fascinating session by this name. We got down to analytical business pretty quickly and discussed how the zombie/demon/monster narrative, along with Christianity, is a founding myth of the United States. Our tribal writers, most of whom work with more traditional genres (and I don’t necessarily mean “traditional” in the tribal sense here), nonetheless were very lively participants in Jodi’s session.

She explained the links between such narratives, both in film and in (video) gaming and how Indians get designated as monsters. Alternately Indians get erased and the landscape gets represented as empty in many such works. These are ways in which they resonate with more traditional forms, including captivity narratives and westerns, for example. She noted that a surprising number of video games have Indian motifs of both violence and erasure. She cited a game called Prey that features the “agnosia” she spoke of yesterday—a term she borrows from neurological science, a form of blindness in which one’s eyes can see but one cannot comprehend what one sees. In this game a Cherokee named Domasi "Tommy" Tawodi traverses a treacherous landscape to defend the land from invaders from space, aliens. As Jodi points out, "the use of 'prey' is a double entendre of savage Indians on the one hand, and the fact that the invading aliens have upended the food chain and surpassed humans at the top." Jodi argues that it is incomprehensible that the character Tommy could be defending the land from invaders from Europe, from colonialists. I asked what demographic creates games. Jodi responded that the majority of game developers are white and Asian males. Again, agnosia: Colonial violence and history—even what one sees before one’s eyes—cannot be comprehended. Overall, I think our writers found this a useful analytical intervention. Gabrielle Tateyuskanskan noted a slightly different—perhaps related problem. In mainstream classrooms Indian students “analyze in silence” the dominant narratives we’re fed, for example, of Indians as consorting with faeries (i.e. in Peter Pan) and therefore as not real, or Indians as absent from a landscape in which historically there was tremendous encounter and violence (e.g. Little House on the Prairie).

A lively discussion ensued around Jodi’s intellectual challenge in this area: If popular  genre—science fiction, fantasy, and horror—are part of how settler colonialism processes its history and its role in this place, what then are the implications for us as Native writers taking up this genre? And what are the implications for how we take this up? Jodi asks, “Are we stuck with realism [and I presume she meant, the decolonial work we do here in the material realm], or can we also decolonize imagination?” We’re really skilled in American Indian Studies (AIS), she notes, at talking about the western and its role in the colonial narrative, but now we have all of these newer forms that now have more popular influence than that form. And Native writers are taking them up. She argues that all vampire and zombie stories are essentially captivity stories—that essentially the captive gets infected or contaminated and transformed. She also notes that the zombie narrative when it emerged with George Romero in the late 1960s was—lit critics have argued—a critique of whiteness. The zombies, pale and (un)dead, represented the advancing infection of whiteness. But she argues that the zombie narrative has flipped to where whiteness takes control of it in the 21st century. The zombie becomes invader, terrorist, the infectious agent that must be controlled, contained, and wiped out. The zombie’s subjectivity has flipped since its first emergence in the popular U.S. American imagination from a critique of whiteness to now being subjected to the nationalist authority of whiteness.  I am no longer slightly embarrassed that I love zombie films. There is apparently so much in them for an intellectual to love.

Our regular co-mentor Elizabeth Cook-Lynn seemed less convinced, or perhaps she was just playing devil’s advocate when she asked “Why is it that Native writers are taking all of this up? And what are the implications?” Jodi added, that we should think about whether taking up these new forms is “a mark of assimilation, or does it help decolonize the imagination?” My fellow Oak Lakers are much more erudite fiction readers than I am. I read mostly academic writing and hardly ever fiction. Yet it seems to me that taking up science fiction, fantasy, and horror, given their pervasive influence in popular culture, is not fundamentally different from how our forebears first took up the novel, the short story, and the poem, or from how my fellow indigenous academics and I take up academic forms of writing. Jodi cited a Canadian Anishinaabeg writer, Drew Hayden Taylor, who entangles in a young adult gothic novel form the vampire story with a story of European/indigenous contact and the Anishinaabeg Windigo story.  She argues that to take up this genre is to take control of it in a way that centers indigenous experience and knowledges.

2012 Retreat Sessions on Indigenous Methodologies & Writers’ Block

by Kim Tallbear, Ph.D (Sisseton Wahpeton)

The Oak Lake Writers’ Society (OLWS) is holding our annual retreat again this late July and early August out at South Dakota State University’s Oak Lake Field Station near White, South Dakota. We come together for five days of conversation, writing time, and a Thursday evening reading that draws folks from Brookings, home of South Dakota State University, who are interested in Native American literature and the humanities. Our writers’ group is a mix of academics from state universities and tribal colleges, high school teachers, teachers working with youth in the criminal “justice” system, retirees, students, and activists—all members of Oceti Sakowin peoples, in English, the “Sioux Nation.” Our conversations range far and wide. We encourage and challenge one another. Some of us have more expertise dealing with the hierarchies and challenges of higher education, some of us more expertise dealing with the rigors of tribal politics, some of us more expertise in areas of traditional cultural production. But we are all “tribal voices” (to emphasize Cook-Lynn’s notion that it is necessary for such voices to engage key narratives and issues) within our broader cultural group. This is perhaps the chief thing I appreciate about this group in which I think it is safe to say we each feel challenged and nurtured: our diversity, our different life and professional choices, and our general tolerance for one another alongside our commitment to promoting Oceti Sakowin standpoints on history; contemporary tribal life; social justice and environmental issues; local, regional, and world events.

Today we had two great conversations. Our mentor this year, University of Illinois American Indian Studies (AIS) Associate Professor Jodi Byrd (Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma) (co-mentor with Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, our always mentor), sparked lively discussions about indigenous epistemologies in critical writing, and strategies for dealing with writers’ block.

On the indigenous epistemologies front, we discussed and debated the idea of the Great American Indian novel (or great tribal-specific novel), a conversation that was a bit over this social scientist-turned-creative-prose-writer’s head so I will not do it justice. Does such a genre exist? Is it an important literary form to be articulated? Should it be articulated and theorized at that pan-Native level or at people specific levels? (Comments are welcome from other writers who partook in that conversation who might clarify this summary.) Jodi noted that the (great) American novel was symbiotic (my word, not hers) with the rise of U.S. nationalism, a form of literary nationalism. This comment caused our group to think hard then on the merits of the great American Indian novel or tribal specific forms in the cause of tribal nationalisms. To quote our mission statement, our group exists for the very purpose of preserving and defending Oceti Sakowin cultures, oral traditions, and histories and to reaffirm our peoples’ political statuses. We seek to regulate and transform representations of our peoples and histories that are inaccurate and damaging. Thus we produce and promote works across genres in a manner that will bring about a greater understanding of our cultures, legacies, and lands.I’m not sure we came to any conclusions. As someone who does social studies of science and who thinks about the intersections of scientific knowledge production, colonialism, and Native American governance, I was reminded in this conversation of the symbiotic rise of scientific narratives and methods with federal policy and nationalist politics in the 19th century. These things are all connected. My fellow writers, almost all of whom have more knowledge about fiction than I do, reminded me in their animated conversation of my biological scientist friends with their will to categorize literary forms into genres, then in other moments they wrestled with the inevitable smearing of genres and fields that we encounter today.

The writers’ block conversation in the afternoon also revealed a key insight. As Native writers, we decided our blocks are less internal than external. We felt we have no end of topics to take up from our tribal standpoints (this conversation also came on the heels of a discussion about Said’s term “contrapuntal” thinking—that one must read against the larger imperial context that informs the emergence of text). Rather, for us, the challenge is often to narrow our work sufficiently for the piece at hand. And we struggle to find language and terms that are culturally/tribally grounded but yet also speak to non-native readers. A final key point of debate was how much do we care about speaking to non-tribal audiences and why or why not? What is the function of speaking to tribal audiences, and what is the function of speaking to non-tribal folks.

2012 Retreat Reflection: Bolstering public intellectualism as tribal writers

by Tasiyagnunpa Livermont

It is not news to most in academia that a wave of anti-intellectualism has pervaded the American public discourse for well over the last decade.

This is as troublesome to tribal scholars, academics and writers as it is to many others elsewhere in the American intellectual landscape, however, as we discussed during this year’s Oak Lake Writers’ Retreat, perhaps we take it a bit more seriously.

Since a good deal of the Oak Lake Writers’ Society’s mission is “to reaffirm our peoples’ political statuses,” we cannot allow ourselves as tribal citizens to be swept away in this tide of American anti-intellectualism that obscures and masks the facts, issues and problems of our time and that of a history that, as Elden Lawrence shared with us this year, we may not be responsible for, but are most assuredly, responsible to.

Several retreat participants had recently heard of an American scholar’s call for the reinstitution of the ‘public intellectual,’ as an antidote to this destructive force. [If any of our Oak Laker's remember the person's name and the media outlet that was referenced, please share in the comments.]

The public intellectual seems to have a shifting definition according to what has been written about it in the last couple of years, but overall it indicates a person of some higher (undergrad) or advanced (ph.d) education, a person of research, a person who applies themselves to the issues of their communities, and often writes materials that are accessible to the general public in which they see themselves a part of.
Since I can let you google this idea to your heart’s content, let me describe how this might shape up for a young member of the Oak Lake Writers’ Society, by sharing how I was deeply challenged and inspired by this idea.

As I write this early on Thursday morning of the retreat, I am actually soon heading my vehicle westward to home. Balancing the needs of my young family as I start a new position on Monday as editor of a weekly newspaper in the midst of Indian Country, I will be heading home with plenty of driving time to further consider this idea of the tribal public intellectual.

While the Oak Lake Writers’ Society is gifted with amazing academics from various disciplines, many of us are simply writers, journalists, poets and storytellers telling, caring and shaping narratives based in critical thinking and tribal knowledges.

I think for me, I always sought the way of learning and ‘well-roundedness’ in college. Add to that my desire for motherhood and other civic duty, and I think that we can begin to see a person aspiring to the most simple level of the public intellectual.

Even though citizenship by definition is an introduced colonial idea, it is still a form workeable and understandable to the average tribal member. Coming from the Oceti Sakowin Oyate, where relationships and defense of the people was well understood, we seek to continue that heritage.

For the Oceti Sakowin Oyate, commonly called the Sioux Nation, we must have those public intellectuals that can drive, stimulate and address the conversations needed for a robust, educated, thoughtful and active tribal citizenry.

While most of us express our citizenship as members of federally-recognized tribes scattered onto reservations across our original lands and lands that still should be ours according to treaty, those of us willing to begin these conversations in our communities, whether rez or off-rez, should begin aspiring to this idea of tribal public intellectual.

I am blessed with mentors who are academics, some who work elsewhere in the country, doing important research and work that better informs the lives of those of us back home. We need these people to continue to focus on their disciplines, and we need to show them a place to come home to, as well, when they weary of the American agnosia regarding tribal peoples–whether they return to us from California or the cities in our treaty lands filled with people who think they won the ‘Indian Wars.’

Then we can send them back out, the intellectual warriors that they are.

Some of our academics do return home, but in an effort to continue their work, must keep their nose to the grindstone of research and theory.

How then, given these very real realities of tribal academicians do we educate the average tribal citizen in those things most necessarily for self-governance, protection of our natural resources, etc., things certainly not taught in our high schools?
I truly believe that the answer can be found in the application of tribal writers and journalists to a life of the public intellectual. We need people who can digest the work of our academics in useful and applicable ways that encourage and inform our civilian lives and citizenship responsibilities.

So much understanding in tribal communities is an intuitiveness based in oral traditions and our relationship to place, while definining us as tribal people, must be built on if we are to engage those civic fields of battle that will protect the land, feed our children, preserve our cultures, re-engage our languages, care for our elders and our sick and defend our ceremonies and spiritual knowledge.

We are not unaccomplished peoples. If anything, many of us tribal members suffer as much from the lie of American exceptionalism as do many other Americans. Our best and brightest are encouraged to go away to college and then when they try to come home, they are not supported with jobs, vocations or even at times, simple acceptance. Those families pushing their children to ‘succeed,’ are often as caught up in the idea of education as the ‘ticket’ to ‘making it’ financially. We might encourage them to serve the people in some way, but rarely is that way validated and shaped for all those who do not go away to college–children growing up, having children of their own, struggling with substandard living and wages and other issues.

If we do not support our young, educated tribal members, I am convinced we also do not support our young tribal members who do not leave their communities.
So, as an average person who has a knack for ideas and explaining ideas, mostly through writing, I am compelled by this idea of the public intectual. As a tribal member, mother, writer, journalist, newspaper editor, homemaker, etc., and overall generalist, I am very much interested in seeing more and more of our tribal academics’ works getting to tribal people via newspapers and other media, as well as critiques and reviews and other items that further challenge, shape and condition the tribal public discourse.

While much of media is talking heads and sheer ignorant stupidities on the part of the American public, my sincerest hope is that within even the next 10 years the same will not be said about communities of the Oceti Sakowin Oyate. That we can immediately begin bringing a greater depth to tribal newspapers and all newspapers in our treaty lands.

Recent protests and actions against large corporate expansions on our reservations have been met with brave protests by people, but more must be done. Bravery can take us only so far, but armed with the research, knowledge and statistics of our own tribal academics, we can begin to truly make some headway.

I am not a public intellectual, but I aspire to be.

In some ways, it is a great relief. I no longer have to feel guilty for not getting further in my education, for ‘failing’ to leave our treaty lands for success elsewhere, applying myself to academia, foregoing journalism for tenure, or worrying myself on how to juggle success and motherhood and family life.

I know that I am not alone in this…our ambitiousness as tribal people can be as much of a downfall in accomplishing meaningful community and family building work as too little ambition.

I am heading home today, to my sons’ reservation, a couple hundred miles north of where I am enrolled. It’s all treaty lands, it is all part of the Oceti Sakowin Oyate, and while there’s a great deal of work to be done and questions to be asked, I am inspired and content to begin that work.

I truly hope more will join me. Mitakuye Oyasin.