In the February 2022 issue of The Writer, Yi Shun Lai takes a look at the state of Native American literature, starting with her own misconceptions about where and how this canon of work should present itself.
She admits, “I have a lot to learn about Native American literature – I have also just chosen to recognize the awful fact that the book on which I based a lot of my, err, experience around this population’s work was written by a white guy…”
That book was Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, written in 1960, fourteen years before Lai’s birth. It was the lens through which she built most of her pictures about who Native Americans were and how they lived until later on in life when she met writers like Elissa Washuta and Michaelsun Knapp.
One of the biggest misconceptions her article addresses is the idea of the single pan-Indian story. There is no such thing. And as such, literature from Native Americans is diverse in its nuances and origins.
Lai writes; “What it takes to understand Native American work is stepping away from what we think we know about one population or another. And further, it involves letting Native populations define their own traditions.”
An accompanying article in the magazine is an interview with Washuta, a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, and author of White Magic.
In a third article in the series, by Brooke Blanchard, of the Saut Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, lists her five must-read books by American Indians. She writes that it was a challenging assignment, “There are just so many good books by Native Americans out now.”
Here is her selection:
- Future Home of the Living God, Louise Eldrich (Harper, 2017)
- The Marrow Thieves, Cherie Dimaline (DCB, 2017)
- The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, David Treuer (Riverhead, 2019)
- Firekeeper’s Daughter, Angeline Boulley (Henry Holt, 2021)
- Winter Counts, David Heska Wanbli Welden (Ecco, 2020)
Yi Shun Lai Photo: Pomo Image from Lai’s website. Image by Michael Negrete.