has been quite a bit of buzz recently about Native American writers,
particularly with the landmark production of Native writer Louise
Erdrich's Master Butchers Singing Club at the Guthrie Theater. In
fact, the Native writing scene here in the Twin Cities has been
going strong for quite some time due to a tight, supportive network
of artists who encourage and support each other, combined with a
number of institutions that have been fostering Native voices.
this month Louise Erdrich's sister, Heid, who writes in a number
of different genres including poetry and plays, is having her play
produced by Pangea World Theater at Intermedia Arts as part of the
Indigenous Voices series. Heid wrote the play in 2005 and has been
workshopping it for five years. The piece uses historical documents
to create the dialogue about an Anishinabe man who went to Europe
in the 1840s.
said that there are both formal and informal aspects to the Native
writing community locally. There are organized writing groups, such
as the TGI Frybread writing group sponsored by The Loft, while at
the same time there are personal relationships that Native writers
build with each other. There are "literary friendships that
support each other's work and have for many years," she said.
great thing about the Twin Cities, she said, is that there are a
number institutions-publication houses and theaters, for example-that
are particularly supportive of Native writers. For example, Milkweed
Editions has a new book out by Eric Gansworth called Extra Indians.
Holy Cow Press and Coffee House Press also have typically supported
Native writers, as have some local periodicals, such as the specifically
Native Yellow Medicine Review and Loon Feather Press.
Books, a bookstore owned by Louise Erdrich, gives special emphasis
to Native voices. Located in Minneapolis's Kenwood neighborhood,
the bookstore is one of the few bookstores in the country that are
as devoted to authentic and traditional Native American writers,
according to store manager Susan White. "We try to be purist
about it," she said. According to White, "If you are a
Native writer and you are in the United States remotely near the
Midwest, you come here and do an event."
is also Birchbark House Nonprofit, the mission of which is to print
material in Native languages. The organization publishes Anishinabe,
Dakota, and other Native language books and promotes Native language
publishing house, Wigwassi Press, has three books currently in distribution:
one by Jim Clark, which contains stories in English and Anishinabe;
one by Anton Treuer, which is written entirely in the Anishinabe
language; and most recently they have published Awesiinyensag, a
book of stories by various Anishinabe authors.
the bookstore, Native American writing groups provide an opportunity
for Native writers to get together and support each other's work.
Ardie Medina, associate development director at The Loft Literary
Center, has run TGI Frybread, the Native writers' group at the loft
since February of 2008. The idea for the group came about at a gala
called Moonlit Bridge, which celebrated the end of the executive
directorship of Linda Myers and welcomed Jocelyn Hale to the position.
At one of the tables at the gala, a number of people involved in
the Loft's Native American Inroads program were gathered, and they
had so much fun together that they decided to get together on a
regular bases. The group currently has a mailing list of about 25-30,
with about seven who meet regularly. The group workshops poems and
stories, and sometimes engages in crafts as well.
said that having a specifically Native American writing group is
helpful because she gets to workshop ideas with an audience that
understands where she is coming from. "There is no need to
explain," she said, "because they have had the same experiences
that I have."
for those Native Americans living outside the Twin Cities, Minneapolis
and St. Paul act as a pulse for the Native writing community. Linda
LeGarde Grover, who lives in Duluth and whose novel The Dance Boots
recently was awarded the Flannery O'Connor award, said that "even
though we don't have a Native writers group up here, I feel a lot
of support from the metro area." The Erdrich sisters, Marcie
Rendon, and others have supported each other tremendously, even
if they don't all see each other very often. "Their hearts
and spirits are supporting me," she said.
Duluth, LeGarde said there are less formal Native American writing
groups. "I have preferred more one-on-one communications with
other Anishinabe writers," she said. LeGarde teaches American
Indian Studies at UMD, and she is truly touched when she gets the
opportunity to view a young person's work. "Our role, for those
of us who are not beginning writers, is to encourage writing for
those who are interested," she said.
also likes to integrate what she does as a writer with what she
does to help the community. For example, she recently read an excerpt
of her novel at a gala fundraiser for domestic abuse interventions
programs, some of which specifically focused on Native American
LeGarde, her Anishinabe culture has a strong tradition of storytelling,
entertainment, and spiritual traditions. Anishinabe people, she
said, have a strong oral tradition, so many Anishinabe writers ground
their work in those roots.
is also an avenue where Native voices can be heard. Navajo Playwright
Rhiana Yazzie has received a lot of recognition in the few years
from theater companies such as Mixed Blood, Teatro del Pueblo, and
the Playwrights' Center, where she is currently a Jerome Fellow.
Yazzie decided that she wanted to start a specifically Native American
theater company to foster and support Native voices, and New Native
Theater was founded in January of this year. The theater company
has conducted several readings celebrating Native authors and also
comedy events. The company plans to produce its first full production
at the end of this year. The company aims to nurture Native artists,
connect to the community, and "heal the wounds in the colonial
narrative and in Native America's personal stories through theatre,"
according to its website.
first production by NNT, for which they received funding from the
Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, will be a
community-created piece premiering in December. The creation of
the play involves workshops with community members and professional
actors. The process will use the Cornerstone Theater model, which
aims to bring theater to people who have never experienced it, Yazzie
play in December will be about dreams. Yazzie said that a few years
ago, a friend of hers told her about a dream in which shewas pushed
out of her home. Yazzie said she thought it was weird because she
had often had a similar dream. The play therefore will be "an
investigation into what our Native community is dreaming,"
Yazzie said. She hopes that holding workshops and connecting with
the community will be a way "put another angle on our experience,"
she said, "an angle that no one ever thinks about."
said that she doesn't just want to do theater the same old way.
"I don't want to just have the same old nonprofit machine and
paint it red," she said. "That won't work in our community.
Our community has specific needs and experiences." Therefore
NNT's artists will be more engaged in the community involve the
community in our artwork, according to Yazzie.
playwright, Marcie Rendon, who is enrolled in the White Earth reservation,
has lived in the Twin Cities since 1978. She said the Twin Cities
was great for Native writers both because of the Native American
writing community but also because of the great writing community
in general. Rendon said she's friends with a lot of Native writers,
but she isn't attached to a particular group or organization. In
the past she belonged to a writing group run by Juanita Espinoza,
from the Native Arts Circle, which she found very supportive.
has written for Child's Play Theater (now Stages Theatre Company,
in Hopkins), Patrick's Cabaret, various Fringe Festival shows, and
Eye of the Storm. One challenge, she said, as a Native playwright,
is that "there is some thinking about what an Indian play is
or what Indian theater is. Either people want us to write mythological
kinds of pieces, or a tokenized view point."
weekend, Rendon will perform in True Ghost Stories, presented by
Spirit in the House, at the Black Forest Inn. One of the writers
she will be performing with is Bobby Wilson, a young man with many
talents including street art, painting, graphic art, comedy, and
said that as a young Native man, his heritage is "kind of the
root of all the work that I do."
said that the number of Native American spoken word artists here
in the twin cities is smaller than in other parts of the country,
particularly the southwestern United States, where places like Arizona
have a strong presence by Native American spoken word artists.
said that what makes Native American spoken word artists unique
is their content, which-as with much spoken word-remains largely
based in hip hop and African-American rhythms. In all the art that
he creates, Wilson's greatest mentors have been African-American
or Hmong. There's a tendency to gravitate toward African American
styles, he said, because both communities are rooted in a voice
of struggle. "In such a black and white society," he said,
"one feels like they have to choose they have to act like."
also sees connections between Native literature and the stories
of other communities. She feels particularly honored to receive
the Flannery O'Connor award, she said, because just as O'Connor
told "the big story" of the American South, LeGarde writes
of the "big story" of the Anishinabe people. "The
people in my stories are part of a collective story."