Why NDNs Write

Volume 21, No. 2 - Winter 2009
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"My enemies are the teachers who taught me to hate me.

We begin class examining a photo of my son wearing a pink Mohawk, Aviator sunglasses, dime-sized earlobe gauges, a lip ring, and a naturally red Van Dyke beard.

“Who is this guy?” I ask. “What is he trying to tell us?” My students, familiar with this classroom ritual, start asking questions and writing.

Sinte Gleska University students are all ages. This class has an even mix of genders, and there are also non-Indians with various experiences and backgrounds. But we have one thing in common. We are eking out a living in the second poorest county in the nation. We are, as my son quips, “on the outskirts of nowhere – a place where you have to drive an hour just to get to someplace where there is nothing to do.”

Responding to the photo, students mention drugs, rebellion, teen angst, artists, and musicians. They disagree about who and what but agree on why. He’s saying, “I’m different. I’m not accepting the status quo; I intend to set the record straight. Pay attention because I have new ideas.”

Next, we read Tim Giago’s “Was Columbus so Stupid He Thought he Landed in Hindustan?” In groups, we explore whether Giago, an Oglala Lakota columnist, is following my format for making an argument. We also discuss their preferred term for themselves, which they decide is NDN or Native.

In Giago’s 2004 column from Indian Country Today, he argues for the validity of Native oral accounts, reminding readers that written historical documents are often corrected after time. Regarding Columbus, Giago contends that India did not exist at the time of his travels. He makes the case that the Spaniards called the Indigenous people “Ninos in Dios,” which became shortened to – well, you can figure that out.

After many such discussions the students have concluded that NDNs have cultural motivations to write. For 500 years, words and images (maliciously or in ignorance) either erred gravely or didn’t quite get it right. Indians did not die out in the 1800s. They are vibrant, culturally varied, and living in the current world. They write to see themselves in the picture.

Giago’s central argument – Native writers must set the story straight – recurs in Indian writing. In Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak (University of Nebraska Press, 1990), Laura Coltelli asks prominent Indian authors why they write. Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna/Sioux Lebanese), N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa/Cherokee), Simon Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo), and Gerald Visenor (Chippewa) all correct inaccurate images that the media, Hollywood, and historians/anthropologists perpetrate.

These Native authors write to set the record straight, to change the images that have stereotyped Indians for centuries. As early as 1933, in My People the Sioux, Luther Standing Bear examined the injustice of misrepresentation, stating: “I protest against calling my people savages. How can the Indian, sharing all the virtues of the white man, be justly called a savage?” (p.VII)

Sicangu narrators Delphine Red Shirt and Joseph Marshall III demand the right to speak one’s own language and practice one’s own spiritual beliefs. In her memoir Bead on an Anthill: A Lakota Childhood (University of Nebraska Press, 1998), Red Shirt states, “I was not sure… how effective it would be to use my Native tongue to capture the essence of what my culture means… what I wanted to convey about it…. I know now that my writing was richer for its use.” (xii)


MENTOR WITH ADMIRERS. Author Louise Erdrich met with students from Mary Henson’s Literature by Native American Authors class, who travelled four hours to Sioux Falls, SD, for the South Dakota Festival of Books. From left are Bianca McCloskey, Louise Erdrich, Maxine Bordeaux, Delores Barron, and Mikayla Poor Bear.

In “Lakota Words,” Red Shirt compares the time “before the old ways disappeared completely” to dew on grass. With “time-lapse photography, I could have watched [the dew] dry molecule by molecule, the way I now watch the old ways disappear.” (91)

In his Lakota histories, Joseph Marshall sets the record straight using oral narrative. He interviews elders on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations about legendary events. Refusing to consult noted historians, he wants the story from the Lakota viewpoint untainted by the oppressors. Rather, they present first-hand accounts from their parents and grandparents. “Their stories… always were preceded by the Lakota word ske, meaning, ‘It was said.’” (xix)

For the Lakota, the word “story” does not have the connotation of “exaggeration, fib, white lie, or tall tale.” Story – an oral account – is History. Therefore “it is said” (ske) means, “It happened this way.”

In our next class, I write: “My enemies are the teachers who taught me to hate me,” my son’s new tattoo, which comes from the lyrics to a song by Rage Against the Machine. “Meaning what?” I ask. My students journal, some humming the theme from the movie The Matrix.

They tell me some teachers are so interested in turning out a certain kind of student they end up damaging the self-esteem of those who don’t fit the mold. They ask, “Why can’t they get Indian-shaped cookie cutters? At least that would be closer than trying to make us all Pilgrims. And why are they always pounding on us?”

I give them the lyrics to “Know Your Enemy” by Zach de la Rocha from the eponymous album. We find the website (www.RATM.com) where a long list of books follows a certain theme: “I’m different. I’m not accepting the status quo; I intend to set the record straight. Pay attention, because I have new ideas.”

Mary Henson began teaching at Sinte Gleska University in 2003, the same year she graduated with a Master’s of Arts Degree in Creative Writing from Iowa State University. She also has a Master’s in Liberal Science from Lake Forest College and a bachelor of arts from Loyola University in Chicago. She taught writing as a faculty adjunct at William Penn College for Working Adults and Des Moines Area Community College. While working on her degree at Iowa State, she taught writing in the diversity program. For a list of the other books she uses in her classes, contact her at Mary.Henson@ sintegleska.edu.

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