Erika T Wurth
How we rode on your motorcycle that summer and every summer,
on those back roads behind my house,
the smell of the raspberry bushes after the rain everywhere.
I buried my mixed blood hands in your mixed blood hair, cut it, you said
and make it look like yours, but darker.
And I couldn’t though I loved you more than anyone else.
How we laughed all night, tormenting
my brilliant younger sister who would grow up so angry and sad
just like dad, just like your dad too, both of them.
Oh, Ab, we grew up and got off that bike too quick,
you with babies and fists, and me, with words and nothing else.
Oh, Ab, let’s get back on the bike, and stop, and pick those raspberries and make
something beautiful out of them and let’s take my sister along this time, I miss her so much
In a culture with a language that is largely—if not exclusively—spoken aloud, the simple act of writing out a story can be controversial and revolutionary. When N Scott Momaday penned House Made of Dawn in 1968, it broke open the world of Native American literature to a greater audience, but with it brought questions of how Native literature fits not only into the predominantly white literary paradigm, but into Native American arts as a whole.
The book’s non-linear narrative transcends years, if not generations, between pages, telling the story in bits and pieces that finally fit together on the last page—but not a moment before. The book reads like a story told by a culture that places its narrative importance not on time, but on experience, on tangible events. House Made of Dawn won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969.
In just the few decades since, Native American literature has changed drastically. A new generation of Native American writers has come of age, and its work is as provocative as it is surprising. Sometimes these writers choose to tell stories of their Native heritage, but other times they simply want to write. Now that Native America has been welcomed into the literary world thanks to the leadership of writers like Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko and James Welch, new writers in the Native community are free to explore words on their own terms, without having to define or defend their heritage.
Similarly, Santa Fe Indian Market, in less than 90 years, has expanded its parameters to include genre-bending artwork such as the glass of Robert “Spooner” Marcus or the colorful, graffiti-inspired acrylic paintings of Hoka Skenandore, as well as other types of art, such as the short films of the Native Cinema Showcase.
In that same spirit, the Southwestern Association of Indian Arts, along with the Shadow Catchers Institute of Indigenous Arts, this year adds another component to Indian Market weekend: (Re)presentation: An Indian Market Literary Arts Event. The event brings together five Native American writers, all profiled in this week’s issue: Simon J Oritz, Orlando White, Erika T Wurth, dg nanouk okpik and Sherwin Bitsui. Additionally, the Santa Fe Indian School spoken word poetry team, led by Institute of American Indian Arts teacher Tim McLaughlin, is to perform. Writer Evelina Zuni Lucero moderates the event, which includes readings, signings and a discussion dedicated to Native literature.
Karen RedHawk Dallett, executive director of the Shadow Catchers Institute and a member of the Catawba nation (the easternmost Sioux nation, where North and South Carolina meet), has envisioned this event for years.
“The English language is shared now across the globe,” she says. “We have the ability to have a strategic impact as indigenous storytellers, not only to our own people but to non-Native and to other indigenous tribes…The opportunity to [tell stories] around the fire or in a tepee or in a hogan rarely exists any longer because everyone’s spread out across the country or across the world…but you can take a book with you.”
And the transition from the oral tradition to a written one makes Native culture more accessible.
“It used to be that dances weren’t done in public either,” Dallett says. “Now dances are becoming available to people in the public eye. As indigenous people, we were afraid to tell our story, we were afraid to show who we were because so much had been taken…We don’t forget the past. We hold the past as a part of our history and, as indigenous people, we’re now truly looking beyond bridge building…There’s a curiosity about Native life now, there’s a respect because so much damage has happened in the past…What we want to do is share. That’s all we’ve ever wanted to do.”
As such, Dallett has high hopes for the future of literary events at Indian Market. “Putting [our stories] in written word is a risk; it takes extreme courage,” she says. “[The writers are] exposing something about their life and their past that’s not easy, but there’s light. Even through all of that, at the end of that, there’s light.”