"Why do you insist on calling yourselves Indian?" asks a white woman in a nice hat… "Listen" I say. "The word belongs to us now. We are Indians. That has nothing to do with Indians from India. We are not American Indians. We are Indians, pronounced In-din. It belongs to us. We own it and we're not going to give it back"… So much has been taken from us that we hold on to the smallest things left with all the strength we have. –Sherman Alexie, "The Unauthorised Biography Of Me" – Sovereign Bones 2007
Why do you write? Me, I write because I don't feel whole unless I get my fix every day. I'm sure the same goes for everybody who feels the urge to paint, sing, dance, yodel, build, photograph, chip stone, melt steel, carve wood, and recreate something they've heard, seen, imagined, visualized, conceptualized, or dreamed. Each day we get up and put fingers to keyboard, piano keys, guitar strings, paintbrushes, modeling clay, microphones, hammers, pencils, charcoal, and paint and take a stab at godhood by attempting creation.
As a short story writer, you start to write but are brought to a quick halt when you realize you're writing in a foreign language. An Englishman or North American writes in English because that's the language of her people. French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Celtic, Zulu, Swahili, Mongolian, and Russian alike can all write in the language that their ancestors have spoken a variation of for generations.
Your grandparents had their names stolen from their tongues and your parents have the vocabulary of infants, while you are illiterate and mute in the language of your people. The voice you once thought so alive, now sounds dead in your ears as it tells your stories, the stories of your people, in words that have no bearing on the subject matter, and that don't believe in the same things you do.
Sovereign Bones, published by Nation Books and distributed in Canada by Publisher Group Canada, is a collection of writings by contemporary Native American artists about what it's like to be an artist when your culture hasn't been yours for more than a century. It can't be "Indian" if it doesn't have braids, feathers, and buckskins riding a horse with mournful dignity into the sunset because today is a good day to die.
Anyone who does any creative work at all knows just how difficult it can be without any additional demands being made upon your already taxed brain. Can you imagine what it would be like to put your heart and soul into a painting, and be told that there is no such thing as contemporary art from your people? Artistically you only exist in the past as artefacts picked over by those who know that modern Indians have nothing to say; nothing to say that matches everybody's conception of what an Indian is anyway. Why doesn't your stuff look like other great Indian artists, like you know, Edward Curtis?
Actors, writers, poets, painters, sculptors, photographers, film makers, fashion designers, and musicians alike have run into the "it's not Indian enough to be Indian" wall, no matter how Indian they are. Indian men are noble stoic warriors or drunks who talk in short clipped sentences that are filled with meaning. Indian women are either meek and docile, exploited by their lazy husbands over the centuries, or beautiful Princesses waiting for the just the right European they can fall in love with for a little bit of that star-crossed lover stuff that can end tragically for all parties involved, leaving everybody older and wiser. (The moral of that story being: It's okay to have your bit of fun with the pretty Indian girl, but don't bring her home to mother.)
Yet in spite of this, or maybe if they're contrary enough, (it's no coincidence that in many traditions the creator is also a trickster who works in opposition to what makes sense), because of this, it hasn't stopped people from all nations from doing just what they are meant to do: Creating works of art that are about them and people in the world around them, just like the rest of the world's artists.
Perhaps like Wayne Eagleboy's painting "We The People" near the beginning of this review they will make social political commentary. Perhaps like Shelly Niro's installation at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, (pictured to the right), of "Skywoman", they will tell their traditional tales. But she hasn't used any feathers or buckskin, and what's with the turtle — where's the buffalo?
Buffalo never played any role in the life of the Haudenosaunee, people of the long house, or Iroquois Confederacy, in the woodlands north and south of the St. Lawrence River in what are now New York State, and the provinces of Ontario and Quebec in Canada. Nor did men wear the full headdress of feathers, at least not until the 1950s when they wanted people to pay attention to them as Indians.
No one is surprised when they find out that German and French people have a history of different styles of dress, music, art, literature, and architecture, even though they share a common border. Yet these same people refuse to understand two distinct nations that live over a thousand miles apart can be just as different. From the food eaten, to the clothes they wore, the only thing the Lakota, or any of the other people from what is now North and South Dakota, Montana, and Minnesota have in common with the Six Nations (who are the Haudenosaunee), is that they were conquered by Europeans.
Sovereign Bones is by turns heartbreaking, life-affirming, inspiring, and most of all, real. Each artist, no matter what their medium, relate what it is they are trying to do as artists, and what it's like to be an Indian artist today. The burden of recovering what is so close to be being lost forever has been placed squarely on their collective shoulders. To each of them falls the task of keeping alive the collective unconscious of their people in a world that doesn't recognize that differences between their people exist.
Maybe I can think of something that would be as difficult to cope with as an artist, but not right off the top of my head. It's hard enough as it is getting published without having to fight against other people's expectations of what my work should be like for it to be my work.
"Sherman," says the critic, "How does the oral tradition apply to your work?"… "Well", I say, as I hold my latest book close to me, "It doesn't apply at all because I typed this. And when I'm typing, I'm really, really quiet." –Sherman Alexie "The Unauthorized Autobiography Of Me" Sovereign Voices 2007