Book reviews — Earthworks: Native American Writing

Published in Indian Country Today in 2007. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

The power of storytelling permeates Earthworks, a two-year-old paperback book series featuring Native American writers from Salt Publishing, in Cambridge, Great Britain. The recent arrival in bookstores of the 2006 offerings brings the number of published volumes to 13, with more to come in the years ahead, according to series editor Janet McAdams, Alabama Creek, a poet and a faculty member at Kenyon College.

On the cover of one of the books — Carter Revard’s How the Songs Come Down — an endorsement from revered Acoma Pueblo poet Simon Ortiz emphasizes the importance of the telling of tales and their function as lifelines from the past to the present. Ortiz describes Revard’s work as “fine, fine poetry, of course, but they’re stories too [that] sustain us and our land, culture and community.” 

In Revard’s poems, the past may be a truly ancient one. With a conversational tone that makes his erudition seem effortless, Revard ranges over vast territory and time. A geode sliced in two, polished and used to support books on a shelf inspires verses that circle from the moment of the rock’s creation through geologic eons to the present day and thence back to Creation. The birth of an individual being and the universe conflate: “… the Word, made slowly//slowly, in-//to Stone.”

In The Fork-in-the-Road Indian Poetry Store, by Phillip Carroll Morgan, Choctaw/Chickasaw, the crops he grows on his farm are the repository of life-saving narratives. Morgan writes: “… yes they and the vine beans//and the squash the pumpkins//and the corn//tell me these stories//which they remember//and cannot forget// …”. By describing the plants that the indigenous people of this hemisphere have bred for millennia as a source of both physical and cultural sustenance, Morgan expresses a belief held by many Native communities.

The books inevitably examine violence and loss. In Walking with Ghosts: Poems, Qwo-Li Driskill considers an event that occurred some five centuries in the poem, “The Leading Causes of Death Among American Indians.” Driskill writes: “The first is heart disease,//followed by accidental death.//The original accident was Columbus//bumping into this place,//… I am tired of all these accidents.//I am drunk on anger,//driving head on into a wall called America//praying one day//the leading cause of death among American Indians//will be that we are old.”

Readers will find more intersections of the historical and the personal in Rooms: New and Selected Poems, by Diane Glancy, Cherokee; The Zen of La Llorona, by Deborah A. Miranda, Esselen/Chumash; Apprenticed to Justice, by Kimberly Blaeser, White Earth Anishnaabe; A Bridge Dead in the Water, by James Thomas Stevens, Mohawk; and Almost Ashore: Selected Poems, by Gerald Vizenor, White Earth Anishnaabe. About the last, Glancy has written: “These poems go down like butter, but there are barbs in the smoothness of Vizenor’s writing.”

Though Earthworks is primarily a poetry collection, several offerings include prose as well. One volume, Red Earth: A Vietnam Warrior’s Journey, by Philip H. Red Eagle, Dakota, is made up of two novellas. “Rigid genre divisions tend not to be important to Native writers,” said McAdams, “They usually don’t identify themselves as strictly a poet or a fiction writer, for example, and many are accomplished in different forms.”

Some Earthworks contributors are also visual artists. Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, Cherokee/Huron, supplied the photograph on the cover of her book, Blood Run: Free Verse Play; a quilt by Cheryl Savageau, Abenaki, was used for her work, Mother/Land.

According to McAdams, the series is selling well, and individual books have garnered awards in the United States, the Great Britain and Australia. “Universities want to teach this material,” she said. She added that nevertheless American academia has a long way to go in understanding its significance: “It’s shocking that you can earn a degree in American Studies without ever studying the culture of the people whose land this is. Works by white writers make up the default canon, while indigenous writers are seen as ornamentation.”

            Contributors to Earthworks have reported to McAdams that the books are also selling in their own communities. “So we have a mixed Native and non-Native, academic and non-academic readership,” McAdams said.

Eventually, Earthworks will include textbooks using Native material to teach creative writing, as well as themed sets with works by several authors from one community. The series will also embrace indigenous writing from elsewhere in the world, such as the circumpolar or Pacific regions. “We’re in an activist moment, with indigenous people around the globe making connections,” McAdams explained. “Right now, I’m educating myself about other literatures, and there will be a time when it feels right to include them. Meanwhile, so many great Native American manuscripts keep turning up. I wish there were more hours in the day.”

The Native literary establishment has been supportive of the Earthworks project. Widely known American Indian authors, such as Ortiz and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and scholar Scott Momaday, Kiowa, provided endorsements. About The Mother’s Tongue, by Heid E. Erdrich, Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibway, one blurb declared: “Buy this book now.”

Text and photographs c. Stephanie Woodard; the photos were taken on or near Indian reservations, but did not figure in the books. 

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