Saturday, January 09, 2016

The Truth About Native American Literature Will Blow Your Mind


Today's guest is Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel the Medicine Woman of the Mohegan Indian Tribe in Uncasville, Connecticut and a young-adult novelist. Her latest book, Wabanaki Blues, is a mystical murder mystery, released this year. It is the first book in the Wabanaki Trilogy. Her non-fiction writings include Medicine Trail: The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon (University of Arizona: 2000).

Best-selling Native American literature goes WAY back. I come from Mohegan Indian territory in Connecticut, birthplace of The Reverend Samson Occom. He penned the weirdly-popular A sermon at the execution of Moses Paul, an Indian, published in New London in 1772. Occom was not the first Native American to circulate a religious treatise. Popul Vuh, commonly referred to as "The Mayan Bible," is over two thousand years old. To learn more about ancient American writing, I recommend you check out Queequeg’s Coffin by Birgit Brander Rasmussen. It’s full of mind-bending accounts of Peru’s quipu knot texts, Mexican agave bark scripts and more. Those scripts are akin to old Wabanaki and Ojibwe bark writings in what is now the United States. Award-winning Ojibwe author Louise Erdrich describes the bark and rock writings of her people in Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country, saying "The rock paintings are alive."
Am I saying American word forms are animate? Yes, indeed. Because I come from the east coast, I offer painted ash splint basket and woven/carved quahog clam shell writing as examples. In A Key into the Language of Woodsplint Basket Designs, edited by Ann McMullen and Russell G. Handsman, Mohegans Jayne Fawcett and Gladys Tantaquidgeon describe the animacy of tribal painted basket symbols as "… a spiritual force that flows through all things, and if these symbols are true representations of that force, this spirit should be expressed in the designs." Tuscarora wampum expert Rick Hill suggests something similar when he refers to the "inherent intelligence of wampum" as noted in scholar Marge Bruchac’s insightful blog
So what happened in the Northeast when colonial English pen and paper literature muscled in on this colorful, lively, three dimensional, Native American literary tradition?" In The Common Pot, author Lisa Brooks claims that "Birchbark messages became letters and petitions, wampum records became treaties, and journey pictographs became written journals." Native space focused on a network of social relations that included a wide range of living beings (including land/sky forms, as well as flora, fauna and fungi). She argues that such broadly engaged space demanded a broadly engaged narrative. In Red Ink, Drew Lopenzina describes this clash between colonial and Native concepts of story-keeping. "If colonial paradigms were generally geared toward the containment of space and knowledge, Native epistemologies seemed to favor a kind of engagement with the experiential world." Thus, I invite you to look deeper into The Story of America by experiencing Native American Literature, old and new.

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