Cranes and a Lit Festival
“This ground seems unsure of itself for its own reasons and we do not gauge enough of our lives by changes in temperature.”
— from “Another Attempt at Rescue,” M.L. Smoker
Last week I attended the first-ever James Welch Native Lit Festival—a literary gathering led and presented entirely by Native writers—and being there reminded me of all the stories that largely don’t make it into mainstream discourse. Of Nick Estes’s Our History Is the Future and Rianne Eisler’s Nurturing Our Humanity and so many other books and thinkers and people chipping away at foundational narratives of what society thinks is possible, or what dominant society thinks matters. Hands down it was the best literary event I have ever attended and there was a period of time some years ago when I attended a lot of them. I have never heard from so many authors so committed both to their craft and to compassion for humanity, so unwilling to cede any more ground to the stories and beliefs and actions that corrupted the core of this country and its self-narratives before it even existed.
Many (all?) of the festival’s talks were live-streamed on Facebook, where you can still view them, which I highly recommend. There were countless powerful moments for me, among them Debra Earling’s story (about half an hour into this one but don’t skip the powerful preceding presentation by Lois Welch) about the time James Welch stood up for her at an awards ceremony, and asked an award committee member for accountability: “Another voice rose up inside of me: James Welch is standing up for you. I never forgot the power of that moment. Stand up for others. Stand up for Native writers.”
I recently finished reading Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century, by Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman, a book essentially assigned to me by my father. It’s an in-depth analysis of what the authors call dictatorships that wield power by “spin” rather than terror. While countries like Russia and Hungary provide several case studies, other places, like Peru and specifically Singapore, pointedly demonstrate the kind of thought and sophistication that go into building dictatorships of spin.
The final chapter is one of those “what can we do to counter this threat?” sections that publishers often require of authors writing grim books, though in this case it might be more the authors’ pleas to those in positions of power, as well as pleas to still-empowered citizens of representative democracies. There are a number of specific suggestions, and what was most interesting to me was the number of them that pertained to curtailing the power of wealth: eliminating tax havens as well as certain kinds of corporate subsidies, for example.
It made me think of a question that plagued me since early in reading The Dawn of Everything, which is: How can a society, no matter how large or small, prevent wealth accumulation from translating into power over others?
It was a question I kept wishing The Dawn of Everything authors would answer, but I was left with a number of questions like that along with the (I think) understanding that answering these conundrums wasn’t the purpose of that book. Its purpose was to help dismantle accepted narratives about the structures and evolutions of human societies. It was about showing that we can choose a different kind of society than the one we currently have.
Spin Dictators offers pathways for some of that restructuring. Unfortunately, the question that gnawed me after finishing that book was that their suggestions require in the first place leaders who value democracy above many other considerations and who are uncorrupted by desire to increase their own wealth + power; and in the second, large majorities of voting people who require the same both of their leaders and themselves.
It reminded me of the end of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger, where the only person in position of power that he could muster to counter narratives of popularist hate and nationalism was the current Catholic pope. We are saddled, all these authors seem to be saying, with leaders who are incapable of making choices that threaten their own positions, much less their potential for material gain.
After the literary festival, we went up to my stepdad’s cabin, which he’d built in the mid-1970s with his wife at the time. It’s a place miles from the electric line, no cell phone service, crafted from surrounding lodgepole pines, and in need of some serious foundation work due to a spring that keeps trying to carry it off downhill to the creek. We did some work and visited the creek several times and stared at the Milky Way in the middle of the night because there’s no light pollution there, and in the mornings and evenings listened for the song of the sandhill crane pair that spent their days in a neighboring field. I finally recorded a few seconds of their call (below) as they flew by the final morning we were there. The pair is in the picture up top, if you can spot them among the field grasses.
“I learned from James Welch how to ask the right questions,” Earling ended her talk. When I think on the best lessons I’ve been given, whether from my family or my schoolteachers, from books or from travels, they all come down to that. Find the right questions; find better questions. Be curious about everything, but maybe our own assumptions most of all.
I have finally enabled payments! This will be about the last free “walking composition” post, as those will be for paid subscribers only, but remember you can, if needed, email me the code word “tribble” to enable a paid subscription, no questions asked.
I will be away again this weekend unexpectedly—I got off the waitlist for a volunteer trail crew in the Great Bear Wilderness for the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation, which I’m excited about because I’ve wanted to do that for years and my kids are finally old enough for me to leave, even if it’s only one overnight working on the most lightweight project they offer—so won’t immediately be available for troubleshooting subscriptions, but will get on that when I return.
Instead of the usual podcast/video and essay/article list, I’d like to recommend just a few of the authors who spoke at the Native Lit Festival. People will probably have heard of Louise Erdrich, David Treuer (who were both truly amazing), and Tommy Orange (I had to leave before his panel), and of course Chris La Tray (whose guided open mic about James Welch and mentorship was masterful in both laughter and pathos), but how about:
DAVID HESKA WANBLI WEIDEN: Author of the thriller novel Winter Counts. Weiden spoke a lot about his work as a lawyer and how his novel was inspired by the federal government’s failure to prosecute crimes perpetrated on Native American reservations.
REBECCA ROANHORSE: I read and enjoyed Roanhorse’s epic fantasy Black Sun a couple years ago, and am looking forward to its sequel Fevered Star. Turns out she also has a background in Native Law and worked as a lawyer for a long time. It was super cool to hear her talk about the kind of research she put into things like Mayan shipbuilding practices as background for her fantasy.
STERLING HOLYWHITEMOUNTAIN: Pivotal in bringing the James Welch Native Lit Festival to life, HolyWhiteMountain is also an incredible essayist, fiction writer, and speaker. Read his story “Featherweight” in The New Yorker, but also this interview about the festival with Culture Study’s Anne Helen Petersen.
SUSAN DEVAN HARNESS: Author of the memoir Bitterroot about being adopted by a white family (Harness is Salish); she spoke quite a bit about transracial adoption and has done extensive academic research into it, informed by her own experience.
SASHA LAPOINTE: LaPointe’s debut book Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk has been widely acclaimed. It’s been sitting on my TBR pile for a while now, but after hearing her speak I’m even more excited to read it.
DEBRA MAGPIE EARLING: Author of the novel Perma Red, which is one of those books I reread on a regular basis. It’s being reissued by Milkweed, and Earling has another project coming out about Sacajawea. Perma Red is, I think, among the best novels in the English language.
I haven't been checking newsletters much the last month so there's a few to catch up with here, but as soon as I get a deadline out of the way I'm excited to check out the full-length overview for your upcoming book - that earlier description sounded awesome! In the meantime, passive person that I am, I was dutifully waiting for some kind of automatic notification that you had initiated paid subscription option. But now I see it's been up top for awhile. Oh well.
"Find the right questions; find better questions. Be curious about everything, but maybe our own assumptions most of all." While I continue searching for the right question, I will borrow this nifty answer of yours if that's OK.
So many great links, as usual! I've ordered the Debra Magpie Earling novel and look forward to reading it! I hope as I type this that you're enjoying your getaway and the volunteer trail crew work. I hope you'll write about it when you get back!