Beach Reading for Lake Eufaula: On the Need for Entertaining Indigenous Literature

(The title of this essay and many of its concepts come from the author’s presentation at the Institute of American Indian Arts “Indigenous Intervention into ‘Indigenous Narrative’” conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico)

Once upon a time, this essay was cute and funny — and that was unusual because Native literature is so seldom either of those things and certainly never both those things at once. That was my whole point: I wanted to tell you why some of it needs to be, and I wanted to show you that it could be. I wanted us to have fun. I wanted to make jokes, and I wanted you to be laughing at them, laughing with me, us laughing together. I wanted to write about us, you and me, being Indigenous together, and how literature could better serve us as readers who sometimes just want to be entertained by a book while we’re riding in an airplane or lying on the beach. (A side effect, I hoped, would be that this essay would remind non-Native people that we, too, fly on airplanes and lie on the beach.)

But before I could finish that first version, two Native boys touring Colorado State University in their heavy metal t-shirts were questioned by the police after the white mother of some other touring students called 911 to report that the young men looked and acted strangely…that is, they were wearing black t-shirts with unintelligible writing on them and acting quiet and uncomfortable, which also describes me on my own first day of college back in the 90s. This “incident” shows the problem with Native people only being portrayed in popular culture as mascots, romantically doomed historical figures, or tragic victims who don’t fit in the modern world: It can cause non-Native people to find us threatening and call the police.

But I didn’t want this essay to be about non-Native people and their need to see Native people portrayed in diverse and realistic ways. I’m tired of explaining myself, and I have no desire to entertain or inspire other people with my “culture.”

Way back in 1999 when I really needed to hear it, my hero, Mvskoke scholar Craig S. Womack, described in his book Red on Red: American Literary Separatism the need for diverse, tribal-specific literature written not just by Indigenous people but for Indigenous people. He called for Indigenous writers to question Western-created genres, to write in all genres, to make those genres ours, not the other way around. One effect would be that we could entertain each other, because that’s part of who we are and what we do. It’s part of what writers in every nation do. And we are nations.

Stijaati Thlakko is one of several funny personas who speaks throughout Red on Red. At one point, Stijaati says to a fictionalized Alexander Posey (a Mvskoke humorist of the 19th century),

“Ever once in a great while, a feller gets to go somewheres where they’s all Indians listening to an Indian talking…One thing about that audience — Indians is starved for images of Indians, most important, images that come from themselves, from their own people, instead of from outsiders. They is something that happens in such a setting that will just make you think its purt near supernatural. They’s a level that everyone starts hearing all at onced, laughing at the same moment at some little ole Indian trait, or expression, or mannerism, or way of walking that ever body there recognizes. The recognition is borned out of shared experience that outsiders cain’t know. I think that’s what your writing presents, this recognition where Indian people experience the joy of seeing themselves. And even though we’re being made fun of, we’re being made fun of by one of our own who understands and who likes us.”

In other words, we don’t always need to have tears in our eyes or furrowed brows to experience the relief of understanding, belonging, and encountering truth that great (and even good) literature provides. Laughing together and being entertained can be an important component of the creative sovereignty of our nations. For Indigenous writers and readers, that means making room for literature that doesn’t appear on survey course syllabi — and that hasn’t really happened.

Indigenous literature of the sort that does appear on syllabi is going strong, and its very existence is a subversive feat of survivance. Of course we need literary fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. But it’s not always what we want to read when it’s been a hard week and we want to relax on the back porch with a book whose sole purpose is to entertain us. We need the option to see ourselves, our humor, our lifestyles, and yes, our culture, reflected in the romance or chick lit or horror or fantasy book that we choose. We don’t need these books written to “share our culture with other people.” We need them written for us to read. For us to laugh or cry about. For us to hide in the freezer because they are too scary.

So often, the only people who write “Indigenous novels” are those of us who go to MFA (or in my case, Ph.D.) programs, which turn out primarily poets and literary fiction and nonfiction writers. But what does your uncle read when he’s at IHS recovering from surgery? Mine read Westerns. What do your cousins read when they’re at the lake? Mine read romance, fantasy, horror. Being in the hospital or at the lake is not the time for a “bittersweet novel of triumph” about someone “rediscovering” a culture via a tragic set of events. There is a time for that, but there is also a time to laugh and a time to turn the pages quickly to see what happens next. And Native people have those times, despite what it looks like in movies, in books, and on the news.

We need entertaining novels about people like us, who do things we do: Go to work. Neglect our housework. Procrastinate. Make dinner. Tour colleges. Fall in love with guys or girls who don’t wear buckskin barely covering their heaving chests. We aren’t always poor or alcoholic or out of touch with our culture. We aren’t always wise, and our spiritual awakenings don’t always involve wolves. Sometimes we make stupid decisions or take wild chances that set into motion hilarious adventures rather than tragic consequences. For ourselves and for the world (and for our vacations), more of our literature needs to reflect that.