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Young adult literature as a recognized genre didn’t exist when I was a teenager in the 1950s. Then again, neither did Indians. It was hard to find anything with Native characters aside from the romantic novels of James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851).
People of Native descent had been writing books in European languages for over five centuries—starting with La Florida del Inca (1605), by Garcilaso de la Vega (Inca). But the idea of Native Americans as a vital part of twentieth-century life seemed nonexistent in literature. When Natives did appear, it was in books by non-Native authors portraying Indians in broad, inaccurate strokes. Throughout popular culture, certain memes predominated. Noble savage. Vanishing race. Murdering redskin. Sidekicks at best.
A few books by Native authors that accurately portrayed young indigenous people did exist before my teenage years—though I was unaware of them. American Indian Stories (1921), by Zitkala-Sa/Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Yankton Dakota), is a memorable collection of short fiction, essays, and an account of her painful years in government boarding school. The Surrounded (1936), by D’arcy McNickle (Salish), portrayed a talented young Salish man on the Flathead Reservation in Montana tragically caught in a clash of cultures.
Today, things are different—for YA literature and writing by and about Native Americans. My favorite reading these days—at the age of 74—is YA. True, there are not enough books truly reflecting indigenous reality. Racial prejudice and cultural stereotyping remain alive and well in the disunited states of America. I’m still asked by students what it was like “when Indians were alive.” But the vitality and variety of YA writing is more exciting than ever before.
When it comes to books with Native American characters, my favorites are by Native writers themselves. It’s not that only Indians can write about Indians. It’s that I expect authors to know what they’re talking about—in depth. Even after half a millennium of contact with the indigenous peoples of this hemisphere, most non-Native writers still just don’t get it.
One thing they don’t get is Native American humor. They may sympathize with the plight of the Indian but not realize how humor has helped us survive. It’s built into our cultures and languages. In the Abenaki language, the word for a human is aln8ba (8 is a sound like “unh.”) The al can be translated as “right” or “proper” or “humorous.” The 8ba is a person. A real human being has the ability to be humorous, often in a way that teaches.
Three of my favorite YA writers are Tim Tingle (Choctaw), Eric Gansworth (Onondaga), and Sherman Alexie (Spokane–Coeur d’Alene). Their powerful, accessible YA novels are House of Purple Cedar (2014), If I Ever Get Out of Here (2013), and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), respectively. While those books explore serious topics, there are laugh-out-loud moments in each and a deep-rooted sense of what it is to be Native in America today—or in the recent past. Humor is a mirror, not a diversion.
In my own YA work, I’ve been exploring fantasy and science fiction—areas where few Indians were found. Like my friend and mentor, the late Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, who wrote his novel Things Fall Apart (1958) in response to a degrading portrayal of his Igbo people in the novel Mr. Johnson (1939), by Joyce Cary, I was troubled by the Mormonistic Twilight series with its skewed version of modern Native American life. So I did a different take on the genre in my novel Wolf Mark (2011). Luke King is a contemporary teenager who doesn’t know about his lycanthropic heritage, or that being a shape-shifter from a Native tradition in which wolves are revered is a very different proposition.
My postapocalyptic series, Killer of Enemies, imagines a future in which world corporations and the superhuman superwealthy have been decimated by the loss of electricity. My main character, a Chiricahua Apache teenager named Lozen—named after a female Native resistance fighter of the nineteenth century—has the unenviable job of taking on genetically modified monsters loosed upon the world. Though my main aim was to write an engaging series with a tough female protagonist who reflects the power of women that Native American cultures celebrate, I also wanted to get across a message that the Standing Rock Lakota people opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline are sending to the world.
Native people are still here—and will be here in the future. Real human beings in YA lit, and in the world.
Joseph Bruchac is the author of more than 120 books and is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas.
Joseph Bruchac’s Honor Roll
If I Ever Get Out of Here, by Eric Gansworth (2013)
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