"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Indian Voices: Listening to Native Americans Book Review

I recently reviewed the new book Indian Voices: Listening to Native Americans by Alison Owings.

Read my review from the Bismarck Tribune below:

Native Americans tell their stories in book

Title: “Indian Voices: Listening to Native Americans”
Author: Alison Owings

While driving along an unremarkable two-lane country road, Alison Owings passed a simple road sign that caused her to stop. It read “You are Entering the Navajo Nation.”

As a best-selling author from New Jersey, Owings thought she knew America, but her short jaunt through rural Arizona made her realize just how much she did not.

Shocked and compelled by her own ignorance about Indian Country, Owings set out to write the book her exhaustive library search proved did not yet exist.

“Indian Voices: Listening to Native Americans” unfolds as a series of chapter length interviews with tribal members from across the United States. In these candid discussions, Native Americans of all backgrounds reflect on what it means to be Native in America today.

From the Passamaquoddy blueberry harvester to the Yup'ik educator to the Lakota woman's activist, Owings travels far and wide to converse with her subjects. Stories of hardship and survival, humor and celebration, tradition and modernity are told by the likes of an incarcerated Yurok artist, female Osage lawyer, and Lakota/Navajo urban activist.

Even the most hot-button issues are not off limits; Indian mascots, repatriation of remains, tribal corruption, and spousal abuse all make appearances.

Owings' writing can be summed up in one word: enthralling.

Her vivid prose and penchant for lengthy block quotes bring the scenes and stories to life in vivid detail.

“Indian Voices” has the feel of a documentary film with the camera fixed squarely on the subject.

Owings' musings as the wide-eyed outsider, however, can awkwardly break up the narrative. Indeed, at one point, I found myself wondering if a better subtitle for the book would have been “Listening to Alison Owings Listen to Native Americans.”

Overall though, Owings succeeds in recreating the sense of intimacy she herself must have felt during these long interviews.

The best part about “Indian Voices” is the sheer range of thoughts, feelings and opinions elicited from her subjects; a true reflection of Native America if there ever was one. Even among families, differences exist.

Take the case of Emma George, Lemhi Shoshone and closest known blood-relative of famed Lewis and Clark guide Sakakawea. Emma was always reluctant to acknowledge her famous kin unlike her two sisters who enthusiastically took part in bicentennial activities.

While this book only scratches the surface of America's varied Indigenous communities, it is a welcome addition to the very scant literature on Indian people today.

In addition, while her writing is clearly aimed at a non-Native audience, I feel “Indian Voices” would be a compelling read for both Native and non-Native readers alike. Universal themes of pain, hope, and humor abound.

Having now heard so many truly unique and original voices, I can honestly say I will never look at Native people and culture the same way again. Such is the power of giving one community the opportunity to speak so candidly with the world.

For readers of Drawing on Indians, Owings' subjects make numerous references to challenging Native stereotypes and confronting America's often awkward relationship with Native America.

These individuals provide just the perspective most people lack when dealing with issues of Native cultural appropriation- the Native perspective!

Look!  Smiling and laughing Indians!

You can read some excerpts from the book on Indian Country Today:



1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the post. This is a great article of native Americans culture!