Writing Native America

As preparation for a presentation at the Eastern Oregon Word Roundup at Pendleton in late October, I am writing a series of essays about “Writing Native America” dealing with indigenousness, identity, and literary authenticity, the latter from the perspective of a publisher.

As those who have followed my earlier essays may know, my personal approach is strongly informed my the idea of “Creolism” as put forward by the Martinique philosopher, Edouard Glissant, as well as my own metis identity. I am hoping these articles will become a source of information for authors, especially those who might consider submitting works to our press. This first article consists of a slightly revised version on an essay I wrote several years ago, entitled “On Becoming Indigenous.”

The essay follows:

On Becoming Indigenous

Indigenous — autochthonal: originating where it is found; Living or occurring naturally in a specific area or environment; native; the native people of a place

Indigenousness is a relative concept. Among mobile humans, it is especially so. Cultures, from the beginning of human history have replaced other cultures, often violently, but more often through a slow process of assimilation or displacement.

One group of my ancestors, the Cherokees, are often said to be the indigenous people of the Smokey Mountains. The Mississippian culture that existed there before them might dispute that claim, if it still existed. But even the Mississippian culture did not “originate where it is (was) found.” Only Africans can claim that.

Still, in the broader sense of native, it is fair to say that the Native Americans in general are the indigenous people of the Americas, just as we are all an indigenous species of Planet Earth.

This is not to denigrate the idea of the indigenous. European, African, and Asian peoples are newcomers to this hemisphere, and it is essential that we recognize the importance of the displaced natives, because they are the ones whose roots go deepest in the soil.

My point is that in ten thousand years, if our species survives that long, our current mixture of native and invasive cultures will all be blurred together in history, and our commonalities will be considered the indigenous culture of the ancient past.

We are all becoming indigenous in that historical sense. We are becoming of this place and this history and this road forward together.

With the arrival of the first European invaders, Native Americans were violently uprooted from their past, cut off from their traditions, and their language, and their sacred places. African slaves, also, were pulled up like a crop from its soil, and replanted in a strange land. Others have fled imperialism, war, persecution, and impoverishment to arrive here. In the wake of this disruption, all of us, Native, African, Asian, and European, have constructed a new identity for ourselves. An American identity. Here I am talking about all of the Americas, not just this nation we call “America”.

As individuals, we have the capacity of making choices. We can take the best our ancestors have to offer us, combine that wisdom with our own knowledge and experience, and take that path forward. Or not. But our combined wisdom is what we have to offer the future. So, take it or leave it to die in the dustbin of history. Our choice.

Among the many Native American stereotypes is the wise elder who respects the earth and honors the ancestors. Like the noble savage, this stereotype is a romanticization, displacing the reality of a people in cultural decay, faced with poverty, alcoholism, unemployment, and lost heritage. Somewhere in there is a truth, but we must take the whole package. Wisdom requires knowing what we want and what we don’t want. We must understand what we have lost, in order to avoid losing it again.

The history and culture of all of our ancestors, red, black, white, or brown, contains wisdom and truth. It also contains folly. In this ever-changing sea of cultural fluidity and displacement, we have a choice. We each, individually and collectively, create together the culture and ethos of our time.



Critical Look: the Reaction to the DOJ Antitrust Suit

Just a few months ago, it seems, progressive small publishers were gnashing their teeth at the Big Six monopoly and the near-impossibility of lesser-known authors getting space on shelves increasingly taken over by big blockbusters. Does anyone else remember those days?

It seems not.

Today the grousing is about something entirely different–there is nearly unanimous agreement among the publishing industry (big and small) and professional authors’ organizations that the DOJ antitrust action is being unfair and that Big Government’s misguided suit against the industry giants will mean doom for the book.

This armegeddon of the literary world is supposedly going to come about because Amazon can now sell best seller ebooks for 9.99, instead of the 14.99 or so that the big publishers want to charge. The book industry, of course, will still receive their wholesale price for their books — Amazon will take the loss on their margins. So what’s the issue here, you ask?

The issue, which isn’t always clear amidst all the noise, is that publishers fear that selling ebooks for substantially less money than dead tree books will destroy their profits by nudging readers to purchase ebooks, instead. The profit margins of the Big Six are generated by the dead tree versions.

Now, there are a few problems with this argument. The first is the assumption that switching to an ereader is primarily an economic decision. This is not necessarily so.

I will disclose at this point that I am a Kindle owner, and almost all of my book purchases over the past year have been electronic books. On the other hand, most of my friends–including my wife, who also owns a Kindle–prefer books made of paper which they can hold and smell and stuff into overcrowded bookshelves. Not so, me.

In the first place, my shelves are full, and I have books sitting around in boxes, which may or may not ever find a vacancy on a shelf. I don’t want to carry all of these books around next time I move. I have vowed to lighten my load as I grow older.

Then, all of those books are made from dead trees, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times already, and they are processed in environmentally dirty pulp and paper mills. Most use toxic processes. They are then printed with toxic inks, because, of course, everything has to be “archive” quality. Yeah, I know your objection: Kindles or Nooks or whatever are also created with less-than-pristine processes. But one little Kindle vs. a library of hundreds of books? I think the Kindle wins out.

Of course, I would be remiss in ignoring the issue of Amazon, itself, consolidating near monopoly power over ebooks.

So, what are small publishers to do? I can think of a few things.

  • Start producing more ebooks, if that’s what the readers want. Learn how to market them.
  • Find a way around Amazon and other big internet retailers by developing book selling cooperatives for both our ebooks and our print books.
  • Start experimenting with other new models of business.

I hope that dead tree books will be around for some time yet, and I occasionally still purchase one, but they are the past. You see, the world is changing. Technology is changing. And I know it’s hard to make our lives and our business models change along with it, but change we must.

I believe that we can have a more democratic economy, one where the little press and independent author can win out over both the Big Six and the Apples, Amazons, and Googles. And pardon me if I have no sympathy for any of these monsters battling it out in courts.