Courtesy Adrian Jawort
'Off the Path' compiles Native voices into a first-of-its-kind anthology, under a new imprint.

'Off the Path': Native Writers in Montana Share Work in Bold New Anthology

Heather Steinberger

Sherman Alexie perhaps said it best: “I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.” From claim checks to domestic violence, from growing pains to banishing the teepee stereotype, Native writers draw from a deep well of personal experience when they tell their stories. Yet much of their work never reaches the public eye.

Enter longtime journalist and Indian Country Today Media Network correspondent Adrian Jawort, a Northern Cheyenne writer who crafts both fiction and poetry. This year he delved into publishing as well, founding the Billings, Montana-based imprint Off the Pass Press and issuing its first work.

Off the Path: An Anthology of 21st Century Montana American Indian Writers, Vol. 1 presents nine short stories by five writers—Cinnamon Spear, Luella N. Brien, Eric Leland Bigman Brien, Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, and Jawort himself. He said these particular stories struck him as bold, uninhibited and “beautifully bleak.”

Jawort’s drive to found his own imprint began with Spear’s “God’s Plan,” which he said moved him to tears. In this short story, the 14-year-old narrator struggles with an abusive, alcoholic father and a traumatized mother who is, in the words of the protagonist, “undoubtedly the strongest and the weakest woman I know, rolled into one.”

The parents’ “Friday night tornadoes” wreak havoc on the children, particularly on the young teenage narrator, who ultimately must make an awful choice—one her father won’t remember, but with repercussions that will haunt her for a lifetime.

“The prayer continued to flow from my mouth, but the meaning of the words suddenly disappeared,” she relates. “Held in secret from the crew, my devotion melted into disbelief. There were no angels. There was no God. It was all bullshit.”

“I read [her] work and basically cried,” Jawort said. “She has that ability, as many readers will attest, and I wanted it to be read by the largest possible audience.”

Another motivation for Jawort was Sherman Alexie’s book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The 2007 novel especially caught his attention last fall, when some Billings parents tried to get it banned from a local high school’s curriculum. Jawort attended one of the rallies and reported on the controversy for ICTMN.

RELATED: Montana's Institutional Racism Behind Calls to Ban Alexie's Book

“I saw people of all races and backgrounds passionately defending the book because it was like nothing they’d read,” he recalled. “I knew there was a built-in audience for a similar work.”

Inspired by that realization, Jawort formed his LLC and became an independent publisher. He said he felt it was the only way to ensure that work like Spear’s would reach the general public.

“The status-quo publishing industry moves at a glacial rate, and rarely do they accept people beyond their ‘velvet rope,’ ” he said. “They’re getting more exclusive, taking fewer chances on unproven authors, and only supporting established top sellers. So we took out the middle men and are forging ahead.”

According to Jawort, Off the Path gives a voice to younger Native writers who weren’t part of the 1970s and ‘80s “Native American renaissance.” And it introduces Indian Country to non-Native readers who may not understand what lies right next door.

“Although we do have, respectfully, writers like Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie representing us on bestseller lists, every tribe is unique,” Jawort said. “Just like the Germans, British and French aren’t all the same, Blackfeet, Crow and Northern Cheyenne are different as well.”

Spear, a Northern Cheyenne from Lame Deer, Montana, also contributed “Bloody Hands” and “Sweetheart” to the anthology. She agreed that collecting contemporary Native authors’ stories is important.

“The greater society knows little to nothing about Natives,” she said. “Having a voice is everything, otherwise people aren’t going to know the realities of our communities. There is positive change coming, but we need to stand up and speak. It’s hard, because we’re raised to be humble and not take the spotlight. We have to find a balance.”

The only graduate of Lame Deer High School to obtain an Ivy League education, Spear earned her bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and master’s degree in Arts & Liberal Studies, with an emphasis in creative writing, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. She drafted “God’s Plan” in her fiction class.

“My professor said, ‘This is so raw, so powerful,’ ” she recalled. “My work is fictionalized nonfiction. My professor told us to write what we know, so that’s my approach. I’ve lived my stories.”

That approach forced Spear to examine her entire life, searching for the drama in her real-world experiences. And she uncovered her powerful, passionate stories.


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