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Autumn Fourkiller

Voices of Rebirth: A Reading List on Being Indigenous in America

Covers of books by Native American authors displayed within a minimal map of the United States
Book covers: House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday, The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich, Storyteller by Leslie Marmon Silko, Love at Gunpoint by nila northSun, Poet Warrior by Joy Harjo, On Second Thought by Maurice Kenny.

By Autumn Fourkiller

When my father died in October 2020 — when the world was already in a collective COVID-19 haze and period of constant grief — I turned inward. I found myself unable to read anything but texts from the so-called Native American Renaissance, a period of increased visibility for works by Indigenous authors. I read Joy Harjo and Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko and N. Scott Momaday, Maurice Kenny and nila northSun. I abandoned my own writing in order to wrap myself in the words of those I considered like me, even if we weren’t from the same tribe. Each writer was a beating heart, one that I could feel throughout their prose, from a book’s dedication to its final sentence. 

However, I didn’t find trouble with the term “renaissance” until later, when I considered why a renaissance was needed in the first place. As James Ruppert writes in a chapter of The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature, “Some scholars hesitate to use the phrase because it might imply that Native writers were not producing significant work before that time or that these writers sprang up without long-standing community and tribal roots. Indeed, if this was a rebirth, what was the original birth?” This is a question that has continued to haunt me through the years, a specter that refuses to be banished. I, too, hesitate to use the phrase but cannot find another way to encapsulate the moment, however brief, when a spotlight was turned upon our people.

I’ve been a wide, voracious reader my entire life, so it surprises me that Sherman Alexie, one of the most well-known Native writers, was my entry point into Native American literature. But I suppose it shouldn’t. When I was growing up, Native voices were never centered, and rarely even considered. I grew up in a poor town in rural Oklahoma that was once named the “Early Death Capital of the World.” Our town’s composition is roughly half Natives, mostly Cherokee, and the other majority half is white, but I don’t remember thinking about that at all. Instead, I remember the foothills of the Ozarks, the running creeks, and my grandparents’ blue trailer. Funny how memory works. 

Where are you from? classmates in graduate school would ask. Oh, around the middle of nowhere, I’d say, laughing. Now, though, I’m not so sure. I struggled, and still do, for a way to communicate how my culture has influenced and shaped me without sounding self-serving or neglecting the ways that modernity has built us all, but I’m learning. I’m changing. Earlier this year, in February, I finally felt ready to write about my life. I wrote an essay called “Life and Death in Strawberry Land,” and in many ways, felt rewritten. Here was my pain, my grief, yet it was not mine alone. I was making a mark, if even a small one, and entering my story into the collective. I felt held by all I had read and still do. What a gift. 

This reading list, then, does not seek to establish Native writers as writers, nor is it a comprehensive list of all those who are Indigenous who are doing wonderful work. I like to think of it as a primer, perhaps, on writers to seek out at the beginning of your journey. It is my hope that one day the average reader will be able to name their three favorite Native authors without a furtive Google search, or the aid of this list. Native American(a), here, is a catch-all term. It is not meant to build a monolith, but instead to celebrate the shared experience of being Indigenous in America, highlight important issues, and raise awareness of voices often forgotten. Let this be a reminder that we are not lost to time — there is no lack. For in the Cherokee worldview, there’s a constant theme of transformation and rebirth. When we die, we don’t really die. We are wind, or birdsong, or cedar trees. We can walk on rainbows and stop storms. We are accountable to each other, to the Earth, and to ourselves. Despite it all, you cannot kill us in any way that matters. We live on. So, dear reader, watch these ashes birth new life and be thankful you are alive to see it. 

Native American Lives Are Tragic, But Probably Not in the Way You Think (Terese Mailhot, Mother Jones, November 2018)

Terese Marie Mailhot is one of my favorite writers ever, full stop. I love this essay because it articulates all of the things I can’t — things that I’ve been working to realize within myself. It urges its readers to take in the panoramic picture, the inseparable whole. Native people are often reduced to their tragedies and their rampant stereotypes, but that is not all, or what, we should be recognized for. (To only write of joy without the pain, of course, would also be a misstep. Life is complicated, to put it mildly.) Why are Indigenous people reduced and withheld nuance?

Mailhot writes with clear, lovely prose that makes me ache, but not wholly in a sad way. She says it best in the last line of the essay: “I don’t want a joyous future nearly as much as I want the freedom to present the tragedy in our lives—and not be bound to it.” 

It wasn’t until graduate school that I heard the term “poverty porn” and realized non-Natives were titillated by our misfortunes, and that indigenous people were consuming it too, albeit for different reasons. Maybe, like me, they were just happy to be seen, finally—not as mascots or advertising icons or mystic ghosts, but as people, alive and still struggling in the aftermath of colonization.

Wednesday Addams is Just Another Settler (Elissa Washuta, Electric Literature, November 2017) 

Addams Family Values is a sequel that improves upon the original, though not when it comes to sensitivity about race and culture. In the film, Wednesday and Pugsley Addams are sent to summer camp at Camp Chippewa, where children who aren’t blonde and preppy are viewed as misfits. Wednesday ends up performing as Pocahontas in the camp’s Thanksgiving play, but goes off-script and takes over the show. She, in this right, becomes a pilgrim hero by masquerading as an Indian. 

I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, say that being Native has a recurring theme, but there is a throughline that runs through many essays about Indigeneity. This theme, simply put, is: Everything is complicated. Nothing is simple. Why don’t we get simple? Here, Elissa Washuta tells us — while the majority of America celebrates Thanksgiving with turkey and dry stuffing — we fight for our lives and sovereignty. What do we do with all of that? How do we move forward? There is no clear answer, but there is a path here. Washuta, in strokes both personal and cultural, reminds us to find togetherness however we can, in and out of colonized spaces. We resist the ideal of American independence; we find each other in the dark. 

I am neither Wednesday nor Fester. I am not the grim girl with her own guillotine, not the unsmiling camper who would let the blonde girl drown. Neither am I the old ghoul who wants a companion so badly he clings to the woman who tries to electrocute him in the bath. But I am a loner and a weirdo. Even in our kindergarten Thanksgiving celebration, for which I was assigned a construction paper feathered headband that signified my affiliation with the half of the class playing the Indians, I didn’t belong, because I was going to be Native the next day, too, and every one after, while they were going to forget we’d even played this game.

Adrift Between My Parents’ Two Americas (David Treuer, The New York Times, July 2022) 

This essay by David Treuer is a compelling take on existing between cultures in a country that has tried to eradicate one of them completely. Though Treuer and I don’t share a complete set of politics, this piece hits a personal note, as I, too, am a child of one white parent and one Native parent. 

Treur leads us through his parent’s marriage and their disparate lives, as well as where he himself has ended up. This is the kind of writing I crave, brutally and emotionally honest, without sacrificing nuance. It’s a read that demands empathy and leaves one with much to chew over, long after reading. 

I came of age in the 1990s with the different and warring natures of my parents’ attitudes fighting for room in my head. While I was in college, the multicultural wave crested, and I couldn’t help angrily noting the superficiality of it. It seemed that all anyone wanted from Native culture was the “three F’s”: food, folklore and fashion. As part of that multicultural process I, my mother’s son, was skeptical of even the adoration that was beginning to creep into how people thought of me, my tribe, my reservation and, by extension, Native Americans generally: exoticized others who were interesting in direct proportion to our suffering.

An Old New World: When One People’s Sci-Fi is Another People’s Past (Abaki Beck, Bitch Magazine, November 2019) 

I’ve come back to this critical essay by Abaki Beck several times over the past couple of years. Beck confronts how much of Indigenous culture is co-opted by Hollywood, and explores topics like normalizing Native knowledge and reclaiming history. As the world melts and shifts around us, it’s a potent reminder that our people’s apocalypse has already come, and we survived it. What is more comforting than that? 

This article also touches on the ways our cultures — our lives — are taken and twisted for profit at a massive scale. This theft of knowledge is not the work of a white man selling authentic dream catchers at a roadside stand, but instead of multi-million dollar enterprises. Beck gives us food for thought, as well as some delicious book recommendations in the process. 

In many mainstream science-fiction narratives, Native Americans—as people, not lifted cultural elements that make a scene more exotic—are virtually nonexistent. Yet many of our most iconic science-fiction tales offer perspectives about colonialism. Aliens or apes invade or attack planet Earth, aiming to replace us (the “us” usually being white people), and cataclysmic wars bring about the end of the world. This connection isn’t coincidental: In his 2008 book Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa English professor John Rieder notes that Western science fiction rose to prominence in the late 19th century during a period of massive European colonial expansion. 

Picturesque California Conceals a Crisis of Missing Indigenous Women (Brandi Morin, National Geographic, March 2022) 

To call this piece heartbreaking would be too simple, not devastating enough. Still, it is. It’s also a necessary reminder that even the bluest of states are mired in racism and riddled with blind spots. Who can protect us? How can we protect ourselves? These are not questions easily answered. Brandi Morin leads us through just a few cases from among more than 5,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, but it is enough to leave you reeling. Through Morin’s essential reporting and Amber Bracken’s beautiful photography, this story highlights Indigenous women doing the hard work of spreading awareness — and searching when they can — and the ways in which the government and its affiliates continue to falter.

Native American families continue to contend with this “bloody legacy,” as the report calls it. Their daughters, sisters, and mothers are vulnerable, says Lucchesi, and predators know it. Police are less likely to investigate missing Indigenous women, known perpetrators are less likely to be prosecuted or convicted, and the media is less likely to cover MMIWG cases with the same alarm as those of missing white women.

Further Reading: 

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Autumn Fourkiller is from rural Oklahoma. She is currently at work on a novel about ghosts, grief, and Indigeneity. A 2022 Ann Friedman Weekly Fellow, her work can be found in Scalawag, Atlas Obscura, and Man Repeller. You can follow her newsletter, Dream Interpretation for Dummies, on Substack.