In 2010, I met one of my greatest friends, Rebecca W. I had just enrolled into the history masters program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Rebecca was a new Ph.D. student in the program. Although we had talked briefly at the new student orientation, I only really got to talk to her after our first Women in the West class. It was apparent that during our first day in class that Rebecca had a wealth of knowledge about Native culture.
Intrigued, I semi-stalked her after class to ask her a few questions that I was hoping she could answer. This talk not only began a fantastic friendship, but I soon began to learn about a culture that I knew very little about. Rebecca’s insight and knowledge about the culture and my Women in the West class opened me to even more exploration. For my final paper I wrote an analysis paper entitled, “Savage Beast, Christian Love, Native Heart: The Portrayal of Native Americans in Historical Romance Novels.” I ended up choosing three novels to read and examined their portrayal of Native Americans.
Each portrayed the culture differently and never accurately. I remember a distinct scene in the harlequin romance where the tribe attacks a group of settlers. The male protagonist rapes one of the settlers as showing his “claim” over her. Disturbed, I asked Rebecca about the authenticity of the attack. Rebecca did a flip through of the book and then immediately started explaining what was wrong with the scene. She then pointed me towards some resources that would support her argument. I immediately realized how authors can and still are perpetrating false representation about a culture. This in turn leads to people making inaccurate assumptions about a group of people. It also can desensitize the public into believing that it is OK to disrespect the culture, as these North Dakota students did.
If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth
Lewis Blake is the only Native American in his class. Sure there are other kids from the Tuscarora Indian reservation in the school, but Lewis is the only one in the “bright” class. Used to not having any friends at school, Lewis becomes surprised when George, a military kid, befriends him and they bond over music.
There are so many great things about this book. I loved that Gansworth tackles multiple subjects. He places in the book in the 19070s, deals with a single-parent household, racism, and the dire situation of Lewis’s house on the reservation. And these are just a snippet of what he writes about.
I did have some issues with the book. There were times that that plot seemed disjointed. It flowed kind of funky at times and it would lose my attention. I also had a hard time placing the timeline. One minutes the boys are in one grade and next moment it is two years later.
The book really does excel in certain aspects, but the book itself is ripe with discussion points.
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich is a well-known author, especially in Native American literature. I read two books out of her Birchback House series, and I thought they were OK. However, The Round House demanded my attention.
On a summer day in 1988, Joe’s mother is brutally attacked. Joe and his family now struggle with the aftermath of this crime.
Similar to If I Ever Get Out of Here, The Round House also presents the struggles and difficulties of reservation life, but in a more intense tone. Rape is a common occurrence on reservations. It is reported that 1 in 3 Native American are raped in her lifetime. This could potentially be much higher, as many women do not report the crime when it happens. Erdrich addresses this issue head-on in The Round House. Her characters and the plot revolve around this element, but Erdrich masterfully shows how life continues, despite terrible crimes.
Pairing this book with If I Ever Get Out of Here will open readers to a colorful discussion about injustice.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Junior is bright kid. However, his reservation school is still using books from his mother’s era. Feud up with his education, Junior decides to attend the all white-school, where the mascot is an Indian. If you have not read this book yet, your reading soul is missing a component. Do yourself a favor and go pick this one up.
Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War II by Joseph Bruchac
Ned Begay has been told his whole life that his native language, Navajo, is useless. However, with the start of World War II, Ned soon finds himself assisting the military with top-secret messages using his native tongue. Code Talker raises questions of how our governmental system doles out injustice to a group, only to request their assistance in a time of need.
Anton Treuer offers readers an insight into Native American culture by addressing over 120 questions about Native history, culture, politics, and religion.