NEA Big Read Celebrates Indigenous Literary Arts and Culture

March 2, 2021

ASU Piper Center kicked off a series of events with a discussion on “The Round House” by Louise Erdrich

It has been almost a decade since Louise Erdrich’s novel “The Round House” first told the story of Joe Coutts, a 13-year-old boy living on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota who takes it upon himself to seek justice. for his mother’s attack. . But the themes he explores – for better or for worse – are still relevant today, and the way Erdrich weaves them into his story makes it accessible to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

“This is (Erdrich’s) gift,” said Amanda Tachine, assistant professor at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College who identifies as Having dinnerNavajo. “She’s able to talk about all these issues, like … blood quantumThe blood quantum was initially a system that the federal government placed on tribes in an attempt to limit their citizenship based on the amount of “Indian blood” an individual possessed., jurisdiction, coming of age … community, sovereignty and friendship …

Tachine’s comment came during a discussion she moderated on February 27, which was hosted by the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing to launch the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read: Phoenix. Inspired by Erdrich’s novel, NEA Big Read: Phoenix offers more than 25 lectures, workshops, book clubs, performances, art exhibitions and other virtual events celebrating Indigenous literary arts and culture across the valley in spring 2021.

The next event, “Get Lit: Colonization,” will take place on Thursday, March 4, and will also be led by Tachine as she guides attendees through a conversation about the history of colonization.

In an introduction to the launch discussion, Piper Center director and poet Alberto Ríos cited Arizona’s large Native American population – including 22 federally recognized tribal nations, the third largest of all U.S. states – as making Erdrich’s “The Round House” an obvious choice. for this year’s NEA Big Read.

Poet Jake Skeets also spoke briefly, welcoming attendees from as close as Mesa, Arizona, and all the way to Canada before introducing the evening’s star guests, poets Luci Tapahonso and Laura Tohe, from whom he served. explained that they would explore topics such as Diné femininity, the power of storytelling, and how Indigenous stories can guide the path to Indigenous reconciliation, healing and nation-building.

“Language is the reason we’re meeting tonight,” Skeets said. “Language is a tool of beauty, and storytelling is the practice of language. Indigenous peoples have thrived for decades through storytelling.

Tachin began their discussion by asking the poets what they had done during their quarantine. While grateful for the time they had to rediscover lost hobbies like gardening and weaving, Tapahonso and Tohe also expressed their gratitude for receiving their second doses of the COVID-19 vaccination and for the safety of their families. families at this point, recognizing the damaging impact the pandemic has had on indigenous populations.

“It just makes me want to cry because we have lost so many (of people), and I think about the loss of language that is going to occur because the old people take with them the language, the culture and the teachings of philosophy.” »Said Tohé. “I think about our health as an Aboriginal because a long time ago… we could do things like grow our own food, and that fed us, that was our food sovereignty. We exercised more. We walked, we rode horses, we tended sheep. All of this that we have left behind, and I think we need to think about how we can give back strength to our bodies, how we can keep our languages ​​and nourish our culture. … So I really hope that we learn from this pandemic and that we can become a stronger people and a stronger nation. “

The strength of Indigenous women in particular was a topic that dominated much of the evening’s discussion, just a day before March 1 heralded the start of National Women’s Month.

“We really have a strong matriarchal tradition,” Tapahonso said. She and Tohe remembered the time they spent in their childhood with not only their mother, but also their aunts and grandmothers, who not only took care of household chores and raised children but also livestock, and worked. full time on top of that.

“They would cook, plan, strategize and be leaders (at the same time),” Tapahonso said. “I just learned so many precious lessons from them while I was there, running to help them.”

In “The Round House”, the attack on the main character’s mother reflects the all too real epidemic of violence against indigenous women, who are murdered at a rate 10 times higher than other ethnicities. Her son’s attempt to bring his attacker to justice reflects another unfortunate truth for Indigenous people.

“In a way, he has to sacrifice himself,” Tohe said. “And he’s only 13, and as I was reading this I was thinking how much (of) a burden (that is) for such a young boy to have to do what he did. for his mother because of the failure or limitations of western forms of justice.… I think the novel really brings out the juxtaposition of what justice is and how it is defined by western society and how it is defined by the indigenous people. And… there is a conflict there.

One of the other dominant themes in the book is the power of community, something according to Tohe and Tapahonso that plays a big role in the lives of indigenous peoples.

“Our sense of community is fundamental as an indigenous people,” said Tohe, noting that at the start of the evening’s discussion, all of the speakers introduced themselves by their original clan or family. She and Tapahonso credit their communities and their strong storytelling tradition for inspiring them to become writers.

“Much of my writing is based on stories that have been told to me,” Tapahonso said. “We always fall for storytelling. … One of the things I love about ‘The Round House’ is that it is told in a way that is both contemporary and traditional. This is why we recognize ourselves (in her).

“For me, storytelling is part of this belief in what my mom said, that without stories you don’t have much inside of you,” Tohe added. “She said you have to know the stories because they guide you in life. It is something that you can pass on.

Top photo courtesy of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing

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