Indigenous Imaginations: Native American Writers on Their Communities
In this episode of the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast, playwright Rhiana Yazzie and novelist Brandon Hobson discuss Native literature with hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell. In the wake of viral images showing Covington Catholic students disrespecting Native activist Nathan Phillips in Washington, D.C., this episode turns the focus away from the MAGA hats, and back to the Indigenous Peoples March and indigenous writing.
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Readings for this episode
New Native Theatre, Queen Cleopatra and Princess Pocahontas by Rhiana Yazzie · Where the Dead Sit Talking, Desolation of Avenues Untold, and Deep Ellum by Brandon Hobson · Mekko and Barking Water by Sterlin Harjo · Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann · Stewart O’Nan · Louise Erdrich · The Indigenous Peoples March was about a Lot More than the Kids in MAGA Hats, by Tekendra Parmar
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I was reading over your work—and I should say, some of Rhiana’s plays were accessible in my university library—I was reading over some of the older ones and it was really interesting to see the ways in which history and politics appear. I wonder how that is manifesting itself in your work now, or how it has presented over the past ten years at New Native Theatre, what role politics has played or hasn’t played—is there a commonality between that list that I recited and things that you’ve been following here in Minneapolis?
Rhiana Yazzie: Well, I always defer to what the zeitgeist in the community is, what people want to want to write about, what they want to talk about. And yeah, Minneapolis is an extremely political Native community. I’ve lived in three significant Native communities in my life: in New Mexico, in Los Angeles, and here in Minneapolis, Twin Cities, and by far I feel like the Native community in Minneapolis is just extremely, extremely political for very, very good reasons. They have a different history with the colonial state and also, the American Indian movement was founded here. The stakes were different. Language loss and culture loss—things like that were being threatened at an even higher rate than say, for instance, the community that I was born and raised in. My tribe’s Navajo and for the most part, you know, we have language speakers and we have our ceremonies.
And I have my grandmother. She’s 95. When you take a look at the plays that we produce and especially taking a look at our ten-minute play festival, it’s a real opportunity to see what are Native people thinking in the moment right now. This year, violence against women was a really big topic.
Quite a few writers chose that as a subject and we produced three plays that dealt heavily with that subject. We’re currently in production–
Whitney Terrell: Wait—this is so perfect because what we’re trying to do is surface some of these things that we feel like got obscured.
WT: What that march was really about. So could you tell us those plays? So if listeners want to go look them up or find out about them, they can?
RY: So the work that New Native Theatre does is we do conventional play development, right, by Native authors, whether it’s new play development or plays in the canon. We also do devised work. So in the spring we did a devised work play called Native Woman The Musical. And in that show we had women telling their own personal stories with a musical twist about what happened in their lives, how music touched them in a moment of healing, and so many of these stories had to do with sexual assault or physical abuse or overcoming addictions. There was a woman who was incarcerated at Shakopee women’s prison and she wanted to participate in the play and the only way we could get her to participate was over the phone. So she told her story and she sang a song talking about what seems to be this vulnerable factor about Native Women.
And of course, we know that there’s extremely unfairly high rates of Native women who go missing every year and Native women who are murdered. It’s a really difficult fact that I think the rest of the world can pretty much ignore. But if you are living in a Native community, you’re going to encounter people who’ve had these experiences. Two of the women in that play talked about experiences of being sex trafficked. And that is just not something I’ve ever heard—ever encountered anybody in any other part of the theater that I’ve ever worked in—bring up. It’s just not a part of anyone else’s experience, it seems, you know, but ours. They say that three out of five Native women have had some form of sexual assault, and here we had 12 women telling a story. And the wonderful thing about it though, is here you can tell these stories like that in the form of theater.
Here at New Native Theater, our audiences are ready.
But at the end it, it’s ultimately extremely celebratory because, you know, when I look at the process of theater, it really is about the process. When I think about Native community, it’s not ever about the end product. So, because I’m focusing on process—and I direct the majority of new Native Theatre’s pieces—I just have this sort of learned and intuitive sense of how do you caretake for these stories. How do you keep them in context. How do you allow the person who’s telling the story their full humanity while they’re telling something that’s tragic. And then how do you show that that is not all that defines them.
How do you show that it is just this beautiful building block of who they are. And it just shows how deeply resilient our community is. And ultimately at the end of the show, you’re just full of this celebration of life. Over my career as a playwright, I can’t even tell you the number of artistic directors—mostly I think of white men—I’d pitch an idea or something and it would be like, “I don’t know that our audiences are ready for that.” Whereas here at New Native Theater, our audiences are ready.
VVG: We asked a question about “why theater,” and everything you’re describing is so collaborative. And also is according importance to different roles—including the audience. And you know, on this podcast we’ve talked a fair amount to different writers about the pressures that they feel or don’t feel about audience, the way in which they go on book tour and get questioned about who are they writing for, and here it’s actually so clear. And there’s a physical space for it.
WT: Also, talking about collaboration—I found this quote from S.A. Lawrence-Welch, the social media coordinator for the Indigenous People’s Movement and she had this quote I read in some of the news coverage of it, of the event itself. She said, “We have no tokenized leadership. It’s all of us.” That was her talking about that movement and it struck me as such a different way of thinking about leadership than say, having a president or a Speaker of the House who’s supposed to talk for everybody.
RY: Right. It is that a sense of consensus. It’s that sense that you can’t really make a decision without the rest of the community being affected by it and telling you. How I feel about it. I feel like that’s sort of normal in Native community. You’re just not encouraged to speak for other people. It really is about finding and giving voice to all of these different individuals. It’s just deeply embedded indigenous value—that democracy.
WT: You have to be patient in order to do that. You told us you just got back from like a three- or four-hour community meeting, didn’t you?
RY: [laughter] Yes. Yes, actually. Yes. Yeah. Um, yeah. And that was the thing. Everybody has a turn to speak. Everybody needs to voice their concerns. And then you need those moments of silence and reflection on what people have said.
VVG: Well, Rhiana, it would be great to hear you read from some of your work.
RY: As you guys had mentioned, I’ve written a play, Queen Cleopatra and Princess Pocahontas, for the Public Theatre and Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I ended up finding out that Pocahontas has a sister named Cleopatra, and so I am telling the alternate story, the Pocahontas story, with her older sister is the lead character who was a real person. So she was called Cleopatra by the English, but her real name was Matachanna. And so this is after the prologue takes place in 1642, and we are in Massachusetts and the main character is an indentured servant, and we will soon find out later in the play that she is actually the sister of Pocahontas, and was actually, in my opinion, a much more pivotal woman who was lost to history.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: So, Brandon, your novel, Where the Dead Sit Talking, came out almost exactly a year ago. And your most recent book before that, Desolation of Avenues Untold, is set in Texas and centers on some missing and possibly mythical porn tapes of Charlie Chaplin. Deep Ellum, which came out in 2014 from Calamari Press, has been connected in reviews to Catcher in the Rye—a favorite of mine. So was Where the Dead Sit Talking your first fiction that addressed your Cherokee heritage?
Brandon Hobson: It is. Those other books, the earlier ones, are more experimental I think. So there’s nothing necessarily Oklahoma-related and certainly not Native American-related at all, but Desolation of Avenues Untold was my dissertation and I wanted to do something more experimental. I also wanted to write different books that have different aesthetics in them so that, you know, not every book follows the same sort of style prose-wise, and has a wide aesthetic to it.
WT: Not everybody does that, you know.
BH: I know, I know.
WT: I was going to ask you—Stewart O’Nan blurbs Where the Dead Sit Talking and I think you guys also studied together. And he’s somebody who has a really wide range of style ability.
BH: Yeah. He was a teacher of mine for a little while when I was younger and of course he was young at the time and starting out, and I remember having conversations about different types of writing styles and people being lumped into one realist, one minimalist, or maximalist, you know. So I’ve always wanted to be someone who isn’t lumped into one school. I think it’s a challenge, but it’s fun.
I just wanted to have a different sort of angle to it and talk about, here’s a Native American, a teenage boy who’s placed in with a non-Native family.
WT: So the book’s main character, Sequoyah, inhabits this kind of liminal state. His Native American friends often think of him as white, the white characters think of him as Native American. Was this an intentional move on your part? Why did you choose to put him in that position?
BH: What I was interested in with Sequoyah was writing about identity and so part of that means him exploring his frustrations with people and seeing himself as, am I Native or am I white? Also, you know, there are questions of his gender. That question I was interested in exploring had to do with identity and maybe metamorphosis, which might be part of what goes through most characters. Because people do that, right? And certainly teenagers go through this.
WT: Oh, yeah, I have a 13-year-old right now.
BH: Teenagers go through this idea of, you know, “who am I?” What group do I fall into? Is it okay if I dress like this or if I look like this? And yeah, those are really the teenage questions. Those are the ones I was most interested in exploring.
VVG: So, Sequoyah also spends most of the book after his mother goes to jail as a foster child to a white couple and I was really interested in the portrayal of the foster care system and Sequoyah’s experience. Did you always know that you wanted to address that system and portray it, or is that something you discovered as you were writing?
BH: I always wanted to from the very beginning because I wanted to write about abuse. I wanted to write about underrepresented communities. I wanted to write about specifically foster kids. And that comes out of my interest in social work and I actually was a social worker for seven years. I worked with deprived kids, some of whom were locked up and were on probation. Others who were in foster placement. So I did that from 1999 to 2006.
I did seven years. Every single day was dealing with these kinds of things. And so it really came out of that and I wanted to write about that world. I’d say a lot of indigenous books might be set more on the reservation and having to deal with that sort of reservation life and, or leaving the reservation, and so I just wanted to have a different sort of angle to it and talk about, here’s a Native American, a teenage boy who’s placed in with a non-Native family.
Which happens. Occasionally, you know, the Department of Human Services can have contracts with certain tribes, where they are able to take in Native kids. And that’s okay with the tribe, through a contract. So, that does happen. It was just really on my mind a lot. I was thinking about it a lot. So I wanted to write about it.
WT: Was that in Oklahoma when you were working with that?
WT: Because we, you know, are very nearby in Kansas. The foster care system is a total disaster, in shambles, and they were losing kids because it had been so grossly underfunded by the governor, Brownback, who’d cut so many social programs during his time there. What was the condition of the foster care and shelter system in Oklahoma when you were working in it?
BH: It’s incredibly sad and it’s really difficult to work in. I don’t think that it’s appreciated, the workers. Social work in itself is not appreciated. I can only speak about Oklahoma, but I guess it’s probably like this around the country, but especially in Oklahoma. Being underpaid—social workers, they’re extremely under underpaid, as teachers are. And, youth shelters and foster families, good ones are hard to find. They don’t pay shelter workers very well. Sometimes the conditions are not all that great and that being said, the people that you find working in social work are mostly really, really amazing people that care a great deal about wanting to help people.
WT: Yeah. Liz seems like a nice character.
BH: She is, and Liz is like a lot of young caseworkers. They’re trying to help a kid get a better life.
VVG: So you mentioned that Sequoyah explores his gender identity, and I think this is something that’s rising to the forefront of American discourse right now, especially with the president’s push to ban transgender soldiers from the army. But I wonder how much this has appeared in literature dealing with Native American characters. Has that been something that’s been part of the storytelling tradition or is this something you were trying to disrupt?
BH: It’s something that I’m trying to do because I don’t feel like it’s been talked about enough. I think it is starting to get talked about more and I’ve seen articles, certainly around Oklahoma, examining transgender Native community, and there are a lot of transgender Natives, at least here. Everyone has a story. Why aren’t their stories being told? And so absolutely, that was a big part. I mean, again, that goes back to the earlier question of identity. I think a big part of Sequoyah’s identity, other than seeing himself as a Native, a full Native, is also the idea of what is his gender, right? And I think all that also falls under the umbrella of “what is home?” And that’s a question that I’m always interested in—what is home for Sequoyah because he’s shuffled from shelter to shelter and from foster placement to foster placement.
This transcript has been edited and condensed by FnF. Transcription by Zachary Kilgas.