In November 2020 a friend asked about book recommendations. He wanted to include more Indigenous authors and thought I would be able to recommend a couple of books. I looked at my bookcase struggling beneath the weight of books that I buy almost compulsively. There’s a joke that goes around the internet periodically: Buy five books. Read one. See eight that look interesting, buy them. Repeat until the house explodes. That’s my house. So when he asked if I could recommend a couple of books . . .
I knew where to begin. I suggested that he start in January with Daniel Heath Justice’s book Why Indigenous Literatures Matter. In a CBC interview Daniel said that Indigenous literatures matter because Indigenous people matter. Through the course of his book, he provides a broad overview of Indigenous literatures by way of considering four key questions: What does it mean to be human? How do we behave as good relatives? How do we become good ancestors? How do we learn to live together?
Through Daniel’s book we visit these questions in fiction and nonfiction, poetry and speculative or futurist writing—something Daniel calls wonderworks. Throughout his book is a thread of kindness that I have come to associate with Daniel, a thread that challenges our assumptions while also drawing us into relationship.
From there I moved through the year providing several recommendations for each month based around themes that made sense to me and built toward ideas of Indigenous sovereignty. See us as people who matter, understand us in our complexities, see the inequities, and build a future that includes us in relationship rather than one that works only to enclose us in your vision. I basically live on Twitter (@gindaanis), and so, of course, this became a thread. And as people responded to it I asked if they would be interested in a book club, a book club in which we would read different books and then put those books in conversation with each other, thinking through the different ideas and perspectives that the authors brought to the topic. Now, every month I put together panels made up of authors and participants who talk through the themes of the books.
Black and Indigenous Histories
stop writing about Indians
she told me again
only louder as if
I was hard of hearing
you have to allow authors
their subjects, she said
stop writing about
what isn’t in the text
which is just our entire history
—Cheryl Savageau1“graduate school first semester: so here I am writing about Indians again.”
In February we considered history, and Tiya Miles, a Black academic and author of many books, including Crossing Waters, Crossing Worlds: The African Diaspora in Indian Country, made a comment that has stayed with me. She said that there are gaps in our stories, in the way that we talk about and teach our histories. In Black studies there are gaps where Native people should be. In Native studies there are gaps where Black people should be. Cheryl’s poem captures the way that we are missing from white studies, and Tiya pointed out the way that we are missing from each other’s studies, the way that whiteness is a constant structuring presence that gives shape to our ideas about each other.
Our History Is the Future, as Lakota historian, journalist, and academic Nick Estes’s book is titled. Estes reflects on the events at Standing Rock in the context of US history, in the context of everything that came before and the path that lies in front of us. Because our history does contain the seeds of our future. And it is important that we fill in those gaps, those places where we belong in each other’s histories so that we can be part of each other’s futures. To answer one of Daniel’s questions, filling in these gaps is how we behave as good relatives.
This conversation about gaps revealed some gaps in my bookshelf, as well as in the books I was recommending. Where were the Black authors? I have many books written by Black authors, but in fitting them into the categories I had devised for this book club I realized that I had huge gaps. The authors I had only told a limited story. There were easily half a dozen memoirs by Indigenous authors on my bookshelf, but none by Black writers. Reflections on other-than-human relatives were similarly unbalanced. There were gaps in my bookshelf where Black authors should be. And that combined with an earlier realization that in using “Indigenous” to refer only to people who were Indigenous to the Americas I was erasing a lot of people. I was using it as an identity, and in the words of Sámi academic Troy Storfjell, Indigeneity is not an identity. It is an analytic.
On January 20, 2021 Troy (@storfjta) wrote:
Indigeneity is an analytic, not an identity. Sámi is an identity. Kanaka Maoli is an identity. Lakota and Anishnaabe and Puyallup are identities. Indigeneity describes a certain set of relationships to colonialism, anticolonialism and specific lands and places.
The tweet exploded, clearly hitting a nerve. We spoke with Troy on the podcast I cohost with self-described Afro-mystic Kerry Goring, Medicine for the Resistance, and Troy explained that Indigeneity describes a set of relationships between groups of people and colonialism, and although as an Anishnaabe person I am Indigenous to this place, there are others who are Indigenous to other places, including those who live in the Black Atlantic diaspora who carry that relationship in their bodies if not their geography. Besides, being Black and Native aren’t even discrete categories. Many people are both. So it was with this realization that I quickly made some adjustments to my recommended reading and to who would be on the monthly panels. A year of Indigenous reading would explore this analytic, this relationship that certain groups of people have to the global forces of colonization and in that way work to fill the gaps that we have in our stories.
The Power of Memoir
Memoirs are personal history, and they are a response to Daniel’s third question: How do we become good ancestors? In reflecting on their lives, we too think about becoming ancestors. Although the books written by Miles and Estes and the poems of Savageau are also personal in many ways, there is something intimate about memoirs. In March I invited Ernestine Hayes, author of Blonde Indian and Tao of Raven; Kaitlin Curtice, author of Native and Glory Happening; and Demita Frazier, interviewed by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor for How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, to come talk about their books. As we talked about memoir, what came forward was how these things exist as snapshots of our lives, of something in motion, and that the person we were may not be the person we are now.
I’m working on a book right now and wrestling with how much has already changed since I began writing. By the time it goes to print, there will certainly be things I would like to change and won’t be able to. Jenessa, who is Métis, with light hair and blue eyes, described taking a self-portrait for a photography class and her decision to wear braids and feather earrings. Her teacher said that she “could really see the Indian. You look like Pocahontas.” In addition to reflecting on her own decision to present herself in this way, she said that the experience made her think about the photographs that she takes and how she documents people’s lives with her camera. And so the discussion left us with more questions than answers, thinking about how we shape ourselves when we put ourselves into memoir, how others see us, and our responsibility when we share each other’s stories. We were left thinking about the kind of ancestors we wished to become.
The Conversation Continues
As I write this I am looking forward to the April conversation. When I first put together the list I was thinking about the time of year, and in April things are, in the northeast anyway, thawing out. Animals are coming out of hibernation, some green shoots are poking through the earth, and of course the books that came to mind were Braiding Sweetgrass and Gathering Moss, both by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is practically the patron saint of our relationship with plants. To this I added Badger by Daniel Heath Justice and recommended that people preorder his book Raccoon. Somebody online also mentioned Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and that went into the list too. Then Chanda Prescod-Weinstein posted about her book that was scheduled for release, The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred. And that’s how I not only added a book about physics to the reading list, but also wound up reading it.
When we think about other-than-human relatives (Daniel’s phrase, one that I much prefer to the human-centric and mechanical sounding “non-human”) we often forget to look up, or to look within. So in a month when we were considering the relatives that surround us, it seemed appropriate to remember the stars and the stardust we are made of—the quirks and quarks that bind us together in a dance that we can only very briefly glimpse and remember that we are part of. Toward the end of her book, Chanda reflects on her own journey from her childhood in East LA to a university position in New Hampshire, and she thinks about her mother driving her to Joshua Tree National Park, a journey of about two and a half or three hours, so that Chanda could look at the night sky. Then Chanda asks this question: What are the conditions that our communities need to see the Milky Way?
What did Chanda need so that her single mother could make that five-to-six-hour round trip, plus time there, just so Chanda could see the Milky Way? She reflects on all the things that her mother did to make those times possible, to make her dreams possible, and all those for whom dreams are deferred. This made me wonder, as I looked at the other books that we will be discussing on April 21, what are the conditions that our communities need:
To notice badgers?
To gather moss?
To braid sweetgrass?
To be undrowned.
What do our communities need?