Great Short Stories by Contemporary Native American Writers
Edited by Bob Blaisdell
Publisher: Dover Publications
144 pages, paperback
Published 18th June 2014
“A Red Girl’s Reasoning”, by Pauline Johnson (1893)
“The Soft-Hearted Sioux”, by Zitkala-Sa (1901)
“The Singing Bird”, by John M. Oskison (1925)
“Train Time”, by D’Arcy McNickle (1936)
“The Man to Send Rain Clouds”, by Leslie Marmon Silko (1969)
“Turtle Meat”, by Joseph Bruchac III (1983)
“Only Approved Indians Can Play Made in USA”, by Jack D. Forbes (1983)
“Snatched Away”, by Mary TallMountain (1988)
“Crow’s Sun”, by Duane Niatum (1991)
“Borders”, by Thomas King (1993)
“The Dog Pit”, by Eli Funaro (1994)
“Beading Lesson”, by Beth H. Piatote (2004)
“War Dances”, by Sherman Alexie (2009)
Coming across this superb collection I had only ever heard of Leslie Marmon Silko (for her well-known novel Ceremony) and Sherman Alexie (who is the only one here I’ve previously read. I am a fan of Alexie’s work, not because he is a Native American or because that is what he writes about, but simply because of his relevance, strong voice, and enjoyable stories. Yet, when ‘contemporary Native American writer’ comes to mind, it is him I think of. He, and his work, become defined in my mind as some kind of representative context.
When I saw this title available on NetGalley I immediately considered it a possibility to discover other Native American writers with viewpoints and voices distinct from Alexie’s. His “War Dances”, included here, I had previously read and enjoyed, and reading it again in the context of these companion stories was particularly enlightening.
The first stories included stretch the definition of ‘contemporary’ in terms of their date of composition. Reading them, however, shows that the themes addressed therein have remained relevant today. From the start the stories in this collection address the question of cultural and personal identity. “A Red Girl’s Reasoning” for instance addresses the difficulties inherent in cross-cultural marriage, a mixture here of physical race and of tradition, including those religious. Pauline Johnson’s poignant tale of a determined, proud woman is a fantastic start for the collection, showing that the issues raised through these stories regarding identity and societal classifications is not only inherent to Native Americans, but to those of other minority status or those trying to exist in mixed, sometimes clashing cultures. The thread of these issues continues throughout the stories (and time) here, bookended with Alexie’s “War Dances” where confusion over identity and shared characteristics between different minority groups is given voice in difficulty distinguishing Native American from Hispanic.
The voices and points of view vary throughout the collection – and even include the question of Native American identity through the eyes of a white narrator in McNickle’s “Train Time”. Forbes story stuck out to me as the most similar to Alexie’s voice with a mixture of depressing honesty and joyous laughter at the absurd. I’m reminded that I really need to read more of Silko’s work (Ceremony is also discussed in detail in a fascinating work on Race in Science Fiction that I’ve just read). And several of the authors here I’ll have to look up to try to find more from them if possible, particularly Piatote and Bruchac, whose stories stuck in my mind with their quiet power.
That idea of ‘quiet power’ is present throughout the collection, there is a rage and frustration building beneath the characters in the stories as they struggle to define their identity and place, to keep a part of themselves in a world that holds them either in disdain or disregard. “Borders”, describing the attempts of an elderly Native American woman to cross between the United States and Canada while still holding onto self-declaration as a citizen of a tribe and people rather than either of these modern nations, takes this issue and makes it literal.
In one aspect the collection was a surprise to me. I started it thinking that it would contain stories about Native American culture, that I would learn more about particular tribes and their traditions. Instead, the stories here are about Native American culture in existence within the European – in relation to something else, rather than the identity they have unto their own. I imagine that such are the struggles of being Native American and what is going to be present in any honest contemporary Native American writer’s work. I can never fully understand being Native American because that’s just not what I am. But I find it a horrible and lamentable reality that perhaps even Native Americans can’t really achieve it, for does that identity even still exist? It makes me feel a bit rage-filled, and perhaps that is the point and an indication of how effective and truly great these short stories are.
GREAT SHORT STORIES BY CONTEMPORARY NATIVE AMERICAN WRITERS is an outstanding collection, and at such an affordable price as this thrift edition offers, it is something that anyone interested in short fiction or in aspects of cultural identity should pick up.
Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from Dover Publications via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.