Unifying the College and the Community through Literature

Volume 22, No. 3 - Spring 2011
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DRUMMING UP READERS. Author Gordon Henry performed for the book group on his hand drum. Photo by D. Kakkak/CMN

In the fall of 2008, faculty members at the Humanities Department of the College of Menominee Nation (CMN, Keshena, WI) were seeking a way to encourage excitement about reading and writing both within and outside of our classrooms. Like many faculty members who strive to create an atmosphere that fosters lifelong learning, we envisioned creating a campus-wide book club including students, faculty, administration, and members of the community. We thought that by choosing one book per semester and tying it to our classes, we could initiate a conversation about reading and writing across the curriculum that was both accessible and inclusionary.

In the spring of 2009, I submitted a Humanities Initiatives grant proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund a project titled “The Campus Literary Discussion Series: Unifying the College through Literature.” We sought funding for the project for the first two academic years and planned to employ four texts of our choosing, one per semester. Texts would be distributed on a first-come, firstserved basis at both our Keshena and Green Bay campuses. Then I would host three discussions per site per text. The project would culminate each semester when authors of the chosen texts visited CMN and led open discussions of their work. In June of 2009, we received word that the grant was approved.

In her essay, “Native American Theatre and the Theatre That Will Come,” Cherokee writer Diane Glancy wrote that “America was once called a Melting Pot, but [American Indians] are taking out of the pot what didn’t melt: our voices, culture, styles, and ways of storytelling.” Along those same lines, our plan at CMN was to employ voices and stories of culture across our core humanities curriculum—and start classroom conversations that might lead to campus-wide discussions of the shared challenges of preserving American Indian identity in a society of cultural assimilation.

In the fall of 2009, we read our first selection, The Light People by Gordon Henry (White Earth Chippewa). The book is multi-genre novel that includes a series of stories about a tribal community in northern Minnesota, and it raises issues of culture preservation, language loss, boarding school abuse, Chippewa creation stories, and the tribe’s battle to have an elder’s severed leg removed from a museum’s display.

We began the discussions by introducing the author, his/her tribe, a history of the author’s educational and artistic résumés. We also addressed any questions the audience had about the author. We then used a list of 10 questions to spark discussion and extract feedback. By starting in small groups, we allowed everyone a voice and then met as a whole to share what we discussed. About 80% of the audience members were students; the remainder included a roughly equal number of CMN employees and community members. The majority of attendees were American Indian.

The response to Henry’s text and campus visit was extremely positive. Our discussion groups focused on both The Light People plot and its subtext, and Henry praised our efforts. He not only answered our questions, but performed for the crowds on his hand drum. Henry also visited a creative writing class and led a discussion on writing and a brainstorming activity.

The Humanities Department also used Henry’s text to inspire students to write about everything from the text’s plot to Henry’s presentation methodology. We even held a contest challenging students to write Haiku poems inspired by a character in the book, The Prisoner of Haiku.

The best of the poems were published in our campus’s online literary journal, Feather Chronicles. Similarly, a student, Joe Rainey, performed some “49” songs from the text as a part of Henry’s campus visits.

In the spring of 2010, we read the poetry collection, Exploding Chippewas, by Mark Turcotte (Turtle Mountain Chippewa). Within three sections of poems, Turcotte explores his continuing struggle with identity.

The response to Turcotte’s work was strong and far-reaching —and not only on CMN’s campus. Community members and even a local book club read Turcotte’s text and participated in the discussions. For many members of this latter group, their visit to hear Turcotte speak was their first visit to CMN and their first experience with the mission of tribal colleges.

Turcotte also helped further the goal of the program by leading a discussion on the role of American Indian writers and by honestly answering questions about his father, his late son, and his return to college after years of working various jobs throughout the United States. Similarly, Turcotte’s work inspired many students to write poetry mimicking “Back When I Used to be Indian” section of Turcotte’s poems and also exploring their own ideas about identity.

In the fall of 2010, CMN read Extra Indians by Eric Gansworth (Onondaga). The novel follows Tommy Jack McMorsey, a Vietnam veteran turned truck driver, whose attempt to help a misguided Japanese tourist leads to national media attention and inquires about his past. The potent story is framed by media references that explore “the ways images, stereotypes, and depictions of identity intersect with reality and lived experience,” Gansworth says.

The response to Gansworth’s text was strong. In addition to students and community members, the Menominee Indian School District’s Alternative Learning Center asked if its students could participate. Faculty members from two state colleges contacted CMN about bringing students to campus to hear Gansworth speak.

In the spring of 2011, we plan to bring poet Kimberly Blaeser to CMN to discuss her book, Absentee Indians and Other Poems, and we are eager to be a part of the conversations and community engagement her work inspires. After all, the one message reaffirmed time and time again is that American Indian identity is never stagnant.

Throughout the course of the project, we have encountered many obstacles ranging from participants’ lack of time to overlooked announcements in the local papers. Sometimes participants simply forget to read the books or attend the events. But we have worked hard to show that we are an inclusionary group that simply wants people to talk and write about the impressions the texts have on them.

Diné poet Sherwin Bitsui has stated he wants his texts to be a meeting place for conversations—and CMN’s Literary Discussion Series is striving to do just that.

Ryan Winn is the Humanities Department chair at the College of Menominee Nation where he teaches English, Theatre, and Communication courses.


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