I’d like to use the library I curated for this site as a jumping-off point for me to go into detail on various subjects that apply to activism in the modern age. The books are primers on very labyrinthine, complex issues, and I will use them to give the most condensed overview of a topic that I can using the literature and resources that I have. I am not an expert, and can only share what I have learned, which means I can’t and won’t always be able to know everything or be as completely representative as I’d like.
No. 5 // July 2018 // Indigenous and Native American Studies
An often overlooked subject, Native Americans have always gotten short changed in our history. When they are discussed, it’s usually in connection with a DC sports team. We think of the “Indian” as a problem of the past, when current native populations are under extreme duress. We need to re-think our idea of the Native American, and focus on their current needs instead of hashing over the details of their past losses. There is victory in their stories, and they demand to be heard. They are a part of our modern life, even when so many wish we could keep them (or, a small part of them) firmly in the textbooks.
Shamelessly, unapologetically biased, Thomas King writes an inflammatory and desperately necessary version of European conquest in North America that lays out in grim detail the disaster of colonization. Behind this, however, is a more compelling thesis that has great urgency today: King posits that native erasure continues because mainstream culture and the government emphasize the idea of the “lost Indian” instead of considering the Native American a relevant and continual presence in the country. An Indian is “inconvenient” when they rise up, resist, or demand autonomy. It is easier for many to think of the native as a relic of the past, rather than who they are today and what their needs are. Nostalgic depictions of Native Americans in the arts and society relegate the modern native to the sidelines, while playing up stereotypes that do not factor into modern concerns. It’s a serious argument interwoven with pithy proclamations and a keen sense of irony, with razor sharp facts to back up King’s frustration.
Brutally honest and written by a member of the Ojibwe tribe, Rez Life focuses in on one particular facet of Native American history – the reservation – and speaks from the inside out. It tells the stories of the “kind of American who was supposed to have died out a long time ago.” The book gets you on the ground and close to the source like few books have, and the realism and seriousness with which Treuer writes makes the subject even more painful at the hardest parts. When in doubt, find a book written by an actual Native American, and you’re on the right path.
Superficially short but intensely dense, I suspect this is Sarah Deer’s thesis or dissertation gently expanded to a book-length argument. The Beginning and End of Rape looks at sexual violence through the lens of law and using the basic principles of human rights advocacy. It’s a positive book despite its title, anticipating and suggesting change without a charge of pessimism. There is a lot of judicial language and summations, but don’t let that scare you off. While it is more documentation than narrative, it gives shocking detail and narrows in on an endemic problem that gains attention before fading away again, over and over. Like most books in the Indigenous Studies canon, there is something utterly unique about this perspective, and it makes it so easy to keep reading when everything is this exceptional.
This YA-oriented semi-autobiographical romp is fierce and highly subjective, hyper-realistic and invaluably original. It’s surprising, refreshing, immediate, and deserves all of the adjectives and accolades it has rightfully gobbled up. Sherman Alexie is a heralded new voice for a reason. Speaking from both a disabled and a native perspective, Alexie tells Americans what they need to hear in a way that is digestible and enjoyable. It has an edge even when it’s trying not to, and the undercurrent of the past is always lurking in every sentence, no matter how lighthearted it seems. Nonetheless, with a modern and forward-looking eye to the future of Native Americans, the book resists what Thomas King called the “inconvenient Indian” and rather launches them into modern discourse.
If you follow my blog at all, you know that each Book Report has a “textbook.” This is that book. The one that covers it all; the ultimate summation of the topic. As the title alerts us, this tome is 20,000 years of history impossibly condensed into 430 pages. I’ll be the first to admit that the Bibliography has some gaps, but this is the best place to get the whole story in a detached way (this is no Thomas King). An academic piece, In the Hands of the Great Spirit will take some patience and mental elbow grease, but like most things that are hard, it is worth the effort.
The co-author of The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book, Ward Churchill is not an unbiased figure, but sometimes it’s hard not to be when it comes to this subject matter. The impeccably researched and exhaustive chronicle of mass atrocities and the subsequent cover ups that ensued, A Little Matter of Genocide is almost more Bibliography than book. It harms its readability, but the chapters in between long lists of citations are remarkable and revelatory. There is something about its tone that feels like a call to action, and it’s hard to resist after learning about the suffering of native peoples that continues to this day in endless cycles of violence.
While I wouldn’t necessarily call this book readable or engrossing, it is important and should be added to your historical lexicon. Largely a collection of testimonials and oral narratives from individual women, the cross-sectioned slice of Native life strictly from the woman’s perspective is indispensable when it comes to representation. There are interlinking passages that give context and analysis to the stories, but the main thrust is the women themselves. One review of the book sums it up nicely, noting that it makes “future work more possible.” Indeed, this is a foundational text that allows other researchers to have solid ground on which to put their new findings.
A bestseller for a reason. It’s probably the most tangential and indulgent of all of the books on this list; its ties to the native community are more tenuous than the rest, but it does recount a story about indigenous involvement in American politics that deserves to be told. As much a crime story as anything else, I chose the book because it places the “Indian” in a modern context. It reminds us that Native Americans have a part to play in our contemporary culture. It’s a quick read with surprisingly poignant photographic illustrations, and you likely won’t regret having read it. It’s a real-life thriller – but keep the melancholic reminder in your head that, yes, all of this really happened.
This is a great way to introduce yourself to this subject. While the approach to the topic isn’t as breezy as the illustrations make it seem, this super concise overview of Native American resistance to outside colonizers is blunt; it’s realistic and doesn’t use many literary tactics to get its points across. There are subtleties in some of the panels, with subtext lurking in the corners if you look hard enough. The book has a good balance of older history and contemporary events, and is a user-friendly guide that gets your feet wet if you aren’t the type of person to dive in head first.
This is a classic work of non-fiction with its own gravitas outside the realm of Indigenous Studies. Loosely adapted by HBO into a miniseries, this seminal history chronicles the American frontier era from the point of view of the inhabitants that lived there before Europeans entered the picture. Detailing the clashes and inevitable abuses that come with the confrontation of different worlds, Dee Brown takes a long look at white American carnage against native populations and the way Manifest Destiny played out from the native perspective. Culminating in the tragedy of Wounded Knee, the book uses that event as the locus for a wide condemnation of American oppression and indigenous revolt. Pictured is the gorgeous illustrated edition, which has relevant documents, photos, charts, graphs, artifacts, and other ephemera to ground the unbelievable story in reality.
Photo: Wheat fields in Purcellville, Virginia