Courtesy Arigon Starr/Wacky Productions Unlimited
A panel from Super Indian Vol. 2, which won the Trade Paper Book Award at the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers festival, Returning the Gift 2015.

Returning the Gift 2015: Native America’s Indigenous Storytelling and Literary Festival

Alex Jacobs

You can take The Road Back to Sweetgrass or The Mourning Road to Thanksgiving and probably meet up with Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend and a lot of other interesting characters along the way. All these titles are current books, released over the past year or two, and are excellent reads. They were also given awards by the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers, which held workshops, hosted readings and celebrated award winners at Returning the Gift 2015, with most events graciously hosted at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque.

The winner of the Young Adult Category is a book about the Native perspective on Thanksgiving, a national holiday that is finally undergoing some cultural and historical revisionism, as it becomes a national conflict of conscience. The Mourning Road to Thanksgiving (Word Branch Publishing, 2014), by Larry Spotted Crow Mann, tells of the life and trials of Neempau as he searches for and survives the meaning of Thanksgiving as a Nipmuc Indian today. Linda Legarde Grover read a chapter from her novel, The Road Back to Sweetgrass (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), about the secret recipe for frybread, and her delightful characters, a sisterhood outliving America’s Termination Policy but struggling over the meaning of “real Indian-ness.”

Erika T. Wurth’s (Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee) first novel, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend (Curbside Splendor Publishing, 2014), is unsparingly honest. Wurth was raised outside Denver, and it’s where she places her characters. Her protagonist is Margaritte, a sharp-tongued, drug-dealing, 16-year-old Native American floundering in a Colorado town crippled by poverty, unemployment and drug abuse. Margaritte hates the futureless kids surrounding her and dreams about getting out, but an unreliable new boyfriend and the daily suffocation of teen pregnancy eats at her like crows pecking at carrion. The book has been heavily reviewed, with Native and generational reviewers recommending it highly for young readers, albeit with a warning about prolific use of the F-bomb. Wurth was on hand to thank the Native women from all generations who supported her in the project. She received the Pathfinder Award, which goes to writers who are pushing the boundaries of indigenous literature.

Numerous titles featured at the festival are worth stacking on the nightstand. Deborah Miranda’s collection Raised by Humans: Poems (Tia Chucha, 2015) points us toward a way in which literature can heal multiple forms of trauma. The poems function as a whole narrative that pulls at the deeper themes of identity and family and its intersections with colonization. Lisa Charleyboy’s Dreaming in Indian: Contemporary Native American Voices (Annick Press, 2014) is an exceptional anthology of Native and indigenous writing that covers numerous fields. From cooking to fashion, fine art to fiction, Charleyboy gives us solid proof that Native people are alive and thriving in all walks of life. Why I Return to Makoce (Many Voices Press, 2015), by Lois Red Elk, is steeped in Lakota tradition and values, her poems a powerful testament to survivance and the next steps needed to ensure life and prosperity for our future generations. Sliver of a Full Moon, by MK Nagle, chronicles the story of the grassroots movement to re-author the Violence Against Women Act, including provisions for Native and Indigenous women.

RELATED: Native American Students ‘Tell Our Own Stories’ Through New Performance Program

Co-winners for the children’s picture book award, Hungry Johnny (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2014) by Cheryl Minnema, and Sweetest Kulu (Inhabit Media) by Celina Kalluk, are fine examples of how Native children’s books don’t need to rely on traditional stories as source material. Both books feature fine illustrations and representative portrayals of Native and Indigenous Peoples. The graphic novel award went to Richard Van Camp for Three Feathers (HighWater Press, January 2016), the story of three boys who are given a sense of indigenous justice that proves to be healing and profound for each of them. Three Feathers is printed bilingually—just turn the book over and you can read it in Tlicho.

RELATED: 'Hungry Johnny' Dishes Up Elder Knowledge, Native Culture in Children's Book

Wordcraft Circle awards are dedicated solely to the work and words of Native and indigenous writers and storytellers. Diane Glancy was the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award Winner. Past awardees of NWCA include Sherman Alexie and Joy Harjo. Wordcrafter of the Year went to Allison Hedge Coke, this year’s example of an individual who demonstrates excellence in education, mentorship, promotion, and activism. Robert J. Conley (1940–2014), an original Returning the Gift writer and Wordcraft organizer, was given the Legacy Award for the posthumously published Will Usdii: Thoughts From the Asylum (University of Oklahoma Press, 2015).

RELATED: Tribute: Robert J. Conley Told Towering Cherokee Tales

Janet Rogers won the Spoken Word Award for Peace in Duress (Talonbooks, 2014), a hard-hitting dispatch from the front lines of the culture wars.

RELATED: There's a War Going On! Janet Rogers Writes Dispatches From the Front Lines

M. Carmen Lane is an African-American/Mohawk-Tuscarora living in Cleveland, and her first book is a poetry collection, Calling Out After Slaughter (GTK Press, 2014). Georgia Douglas Johnson was a black poet and playwright of Native American heritage and an important member of the Harlem Renaissance who hosted salon-style literary gatherings at her Washington D.C. home for decades. Lane speaks from today’s perspectives of Red/Black, Rez/Urban, Black Rage/Red Rage, and Femme/Butch. A hundred years ago, Johnson’s era was rather genteel when it came to expectations of a woman’s place in society, and her husband was a black politician on the rise.

How times have changed, and it shows dramatically in Lane’s poems. Times have gotten crazier and meaner, even as we assume that society must be more civilized than in the past. Not true: Just look at the current political discourse with everyday charges of racism, fascism, police violence, corruption and religious fundamentalism and intolerance. Lane’s arsenal of language speaks about slavery, colonization, genocide and violence at a very personal level. But I like her poems, which are almost chant-like, when she calls up the various gods, spirits and entities of the land. Those ancient things never change, and they provide some balance as our supposedly civilized world spins out of control. Lane is a contributor to Sovereign Erotics: A Collection of Two-Spirit Literature (University of Arizona Press, 2011), Red Ink: Native Americans Picking Up the Pen in the Colonial Period (State University of New York Press, 2013), and the literary-arts journal the Yellow Medicine Review.

RELATED: Sovereign Erotics: A Collection of Two-Spirit Literature

Wordcraft Circle recently partnered with Native Realities Press to support the WC Reads Program, which helps Wordcraft get Native-centric comic books into the hands of children and students throughout Indian Country. Wordcraft will donate one comic book for each $5 donation received. Once they reach 25 donations, they send a box of comics to a Native classroom. Below, see an interview with Arigon Starr and Lee Francis done by Rocky Mountain PBS in December at the Denver Comicon. Starr's comic, Super Indian Vol. 2 (Wacky Productions Unlimited, 2015), won Wordcraft’s Trade Paper Book Award.

RELATED: Native American Super Heroes Take Over the Heard Museum

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talyn's picture
Submitted by talyn on
I want these books. Just to put them on the bookshelf and let my children discover them at leisure. To find themselves in print, to find a story that speaks not just to them but of them, something they do not have enough opportunities to do right now. Thank-you for making me aware of them!