Shining Off the Page: From Literary Lights to Academic Experts, the Authors of 2012 Nourished Our Minds

ICTMN Staff
12/16/12

Native America’s literary stars shone brightly this year, with the biggest names releasing books, winning awards and garnering headlines in the national media. Topping that lineup was National Book Award winner Louise Erdrich for The Round House.

Erdrich’s 14th novel, published by HarperCollins, told the coming-of-age story of a boy trying to solve the mystery of an attack on his mother that she is too traumatized to talk about. Along the way he learns more than he cares to about the murky realm of jurisdiction among state, federal and tribal justice systems. 

Sherman Alexie also scored with his collection Blasphemy (Grove). Familiar themes—alcoholism, violence against Native women and the impunity associated with it, and escaping the cycle of poverty run through both authors' work. 

Mark Anthony Rolo’s My Mother Is Now Earth (Borealis Books, 2012) harked back to the theme of mothers in a different way. Reading it “is to have your heart suddenly rise into your throat, spreading its warmth unexpectedly toward your eyes, releasing an exquisite pain,” ICTMN’s reviewer wrote. “Like all really beautiful things, this book exacts a toll, but one that is worth paying.” 

Other major Native fiction authors included Gerald Vizenor, whose Chair of Tears was released by Bison Books. His work was also found in Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction (University of Arizona Press), edited by Grace Dillon. This collection demonstrated how the mind-bending possibilities of science fiction make it a perfect genre for Native storytelling.

There were several memorable takes on history and nonfiction. We praised Jim Northrup’s Rez Salute: The Real Healer Dealer (Fulcrum Publishing) as a reminder of “what gets lost in this era of e-mails, tweets and texts: letters, the witty musings in the voices of your family and friends that record life stories and funny moments.” Rez Salute is Northrup’s latest collection of “Fond du Lac Follies” columns.

A compelling look at the juxtaposition of American Indians and white mainstream culture was Hippies, Indians and the Fight for Red Power (Oxford University Press). Author Sherry L. Smith covered the period from the mid-1960s Northwest fish-ins through the 1973 Wounded Knee standoff to explore the alliance of leftists, hippies and other counterculture mavens who supported Native American–led Red Power movements.

How did American Indians come to North America? The prevailing view among anthropologists is that Native hunters traversed the Bering Strait Land Bridge (Beringia) from Asia some 12,000 years ago. But in Across Atlantic Ice: The Origin of America’s Clovis Culture (University of California Press), Dennis J. Stanford and Bruce A. Bradley argue that First Peoples came from the Ice Age Solutrean Culture of France and Spain. This thesis has intrigued some and provoked others, including ICTMN’s reviewer, who liked the book because of its investigation of an alternate hypothesis but noted that both it and the Beringia hypothesis “smack of arrogance and ethnocentrism” because they “presume that the Americas were once vacant until they were populated by outsiders.” 

With In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of the Dawnland, and the Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery (Duke University Press), Annette Kolodny did an exceptional job of untangling the myths, politics and conventional history surrounding the “discovery” of Turtle Island to reveal the narratives of first European contact. 

In the category of biography, several prominent figures received attention this year. The stirring prose of the legendary Assiniboine-Sioux activist Hank Adams was collected in The Hank Adams Reader: An Exemplary Native Activist and the Unleashing of Indigenous Sovereignty (Fulcrum). Edited by ICTMN contributor David Wilkins, these essays, letters, memoranda, congressional testimony and other documents illuminate the passions that fuel his activism and in turn inspire us.

Another activist icon, Billy Frank Jr., also received his due. Where the Salmon Run: The Life and Legacy of Billy Frank Jr. (University of Washington Press) took readers through the years of oppression that led to the fishing wars, to the civil disobedience and fish-ins in defense of treaty fishing rights, to U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt’s decision to uphold those rights. The struggle culminated in the formation of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and ongoing efforts to restore salmon habitats. 

Finally, there was Crazy Brave (Norton) by Joy Harjo, Mvskoke (Creek). Fourteen years in the making, the story of this musician, poet and playwright is harsh and scary, mystic and loving, and ultimately triumphant and healing.

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