A Festival of Books that is open to questions

by Professor Elizabeth Cook-Lynn

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn is the co-mentor and a co-founder of the Oak Lake Writers Society. Reprinted from Native Sun News with permission.

These days few people want to take on the right-wing histories and the white superiority thoughts that seem to be reasserting themselves in the publishing, newspaper, and book world that many writers like myself contend with every day. Yet, we continue to foster the well-known authors and mentor the younger crop, in trying to make sense of our world.

I say this because I just attended the SD Festival of Books as I do with enthusiasm every year, this year at Brookings, the seat of my alma mater, which initiates thinking about history. Some of us remember the 1960’s and the next decades when Noam Chomsky said America was guilty of grand theft, when Naomi Klein wrote about the disaster of capitalism, and Joan Didion took on professional football, and even Russell Means wrote about a place where “white men fear to tread.” It seems like all of that came about because ordinary people were given the chance to speak for themselves. And people wanted to read about what they had to say.

At the Festival, I was invited to read from my latest book, which I am calling a memoir and I was seated at the book signing between two white male classically trained historians born and raised in South Dakota. Neither of them was restrained about their own estimable credentials and, of course, neither of them had ever read anything I had written.

Gary Clayton Anderson, with an M. A. from the University of South Dakota, who is now the George Lynn Cross Research Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma specializing in ethno history and the history of Native Americans of the Great Plains and American Southwest, was there to talk about his latest book Gabriel Renville: From the Dakota War to the Creation of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Reservation, 1825-1892, released just during the festival. It is a subject matter much written about by historians of all stripe.

Since I grew up living with a grandmother from that reserve who was one of the relatives of Gabriel, I had heard the stories of that history all of my life, and I went to Anderson’s presentation with great anticipation. It was a disappointing discussion not only because he regaled us with the idea that Patriot Chiefs like Renville were those who were interested in making the best of a bad time. They were not like those who led resistance wars. Thus, not a word about Little Crow and certainly nothing about Inkpaduta was in his work. I thought it was a bit one-sided and maybe even a wrongful interpretation of history.

Generally speaking, classically trained historians try to curtail and restrain the stories about the dangerous impulses of Indian opposition war leaders, so the less said about Inkpaduta, I guess, the better. Who is a Patriot Chief, I wondered? The one who tries to be accountable to Congress and the general public? Or is a Patriot Chief the one who leads the tribal-nation resistance?

That is, of course, the polarization that clouds all of our Indian stories, and our histories, and it seems to me to me that historians should not be too ready to edit themselves before telling the whole story.

It is possible that the reading habits of contemporary America, like everything else, are changing. Maybe we’d rather not face up to the past and so we say to ourselves, there’s too much reality here…. let’s read and tell a different story! History as we see it these days is returning to the idea that “classically trained” historians will and can and should revive the tradition of focusing more on diminishing any kind of opposition to their and our origins.

When I asked Professor Anderson what he thought of the work of a native Isianti scholar, Dr. Angela Cavender Wilson who wrote about that period and that war, and called it In the Footsteps of Our Ancestors, he said with great emphasis, “Not Much!” Her work was not important. He added that in his long career as a teacher and a writer, he has trained many Indian historians and he does not allow them to write about their own people. They cannot be “objective.”

That idea seemed to run counter to the work and the writers of many of the major voices of today such as Joseph Marshall III whose latest work In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse has been on the list of 52 Library best reads for 2018, to say nothing about the 30 or 40 books of Vine Deloria Jr.

Another history, A World without Reservations by Ben Reifel, the only Sioux Indian ever to be elected to Congress from South Dakota, was also on the agenda and was presented by Professor Sean Flynn of the Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell. Flynn is probably better known to local audiences for writing a book called Marine Corps Warrior about his father. This presentation and book at the festival was accompanied by a Briggs Library display and exhibit of Reifel’s life and career and many of the history buffs at the festival made a trip to the showing.

Reifel was a controversial figure at the time he was writing and serving in Congress because he was an advocate of enforced assimilation and a supporter of the state inspired movement of the 1950’s and 60’s called “State Jurisdiction” a nationwide “Termination” idea directed toward crushing the burgeoning native nation nationalism.

The Termination Policy was bitterly fought by the tribes all across the country and was defeated. A more rounded picture of that period is rendered in a book now ten years old titled Not Without Our Consent by Dr. Edward Charles Valandra (University of Illinois Press) that documents the resistance to Reifel’s political position.

As expected, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (by Caroline Fraser) was much-anticipated by festival goers because it has been touted as “an excellent biography which “refreshes our understanding of American history from Native Americans to the Homesteaders that replaced them,” according to several reviews recently available.

In the view of that book’s many readers, it seems quite remarkable that Ingalls Wilder, an unknown farm wife, discovered her poetic voice and was inspired to write this experimental meditation on the imagined country life of the American experience. But to suggest that it “refreshes our understanding” about the reality of Indian Life in 1867, when she was born and in the subsequent years as she was traveling across the west, is absurd. It is not a useful discussion of frontier policy. Its characters hate Indians but seem to know little about the distinct societies of people who had lived on this continent for thousands of years.

This is a family story that has become memorable entertainment television, like Lost In Space and Ann of Green Gables. It is a writer’s performance in historical writing about Indians and Whites that is so bad historically speaking, it may be seen as intentional mockery. In the story there is a steady refrain of casual racism and misogyny and even white superiority and reactionary politics. We know that the writer and her forebears thought FDR should be assassinated because of federal government interference in the lives of those who were encroaching in treaty-protected areas, were against his plan for social security protection for all citizens, and she simply told stories of her relatives who hated Indians.

To share our lives is what writers do. The struggle goes on to write history and to know our selves as Americans. The SD Festival of books is a marvelous way for educators, writers, parents, and students to gather each year to view not only our histories but to take stock of our futures.

New writers appear at the festival and are welcomed into the world of book lovers. The newest children’s book writer, Jesse Taken Alive Rencountre, from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who counsels in the Rapid City School District, introduced her new beautifully illustrated new children’s book Pet’a Shows Misun the Light and has been named the Great Plains Emerging Tribal Writer of the year. As comentor and co-founders of the Oak Lake Writers Society, I continue to believe that writing is one of the important activities for us to use to come together.

(Contact Elizabeth Cook- Lynn at ecooklynn@gmail.com)