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.
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
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 In-
dians can write about Indians. It’s that I expect authors to know
what they’re talking about—in depth.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie (2007)
American Indian Stories, by Zitkala-Sa (1921)
If I Ever Get Out of Here, by Eric Gansworth (2013)
The Lesser Blessed, by Richard Van Camp (1996)
The Surrounded, by D’arcy McNickle (1936)
Here are five books
as influences and
Real Human Beings
Throughout 2017, we’re inviting star authors to contribute
essays about YA, in whatever forms the authors choose, along
with a list of five books that influenced or inspired them.
BY JOSEPH BRUCHAC
From the cover of Wolf Mark.