West indian literature

What is “urban Indian literature” anyway?

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Urban Indian Literature: If you don’t know what this is, you’re missing out. If you do, here’s some basic information for you (and some recommendations, too).

What is that?

Simply put, urban Indian literature is the literature of Native American writers that takes place in an urban setting. In other words, it is the literature of Native American writers who is not put on a reservation.

Important note, the label “urban Indian literature” is a critical term derived from Native American literary studies. However, the word “Indian” itself as a descriptor of Native Americans of the North is steeped in violent and racist stories. Thus, although it is an essential term used to describe a large body of literature, the word “Indian” remains a word which, in general, should really only be used by indigenous peoples.

Why does it exist?

It may seem like an odd distinction to make. For example, there is not really a corresponding body of literature called “Asian American urban literature” or “urban black literature”. So why does this distinction exist when it comes to Native American literature?

Because: stereotypes.

As many Indigenous writers and scholars have pointed out, there is a pervasive idea of ​​what American Indians look like in the national imagination. It’s a frozen image in time that usually involves buckskins and feathers and some sort of weapon (males) or sexual readiness (females). Several years ago, the native comedy sketch group The 1491s used satire to critique this insidious image (and the question of cultural appropriation that goes with it) in their comedy music video “I’m an Indian too. “

An important book that delves into the historical (mis) uses of stereotypical images of Native Americans is that of Philip J. Deloria. playing indian. Deloria examines how white Americans have used their own concept of Native Americans in the further development of American national identity. It tackles everything from the Boston Tea Party to the Cold War, examining the ways in which white American national identity was constructed through and against its own perception of Native American identity.

With a greater emphasis on contemporary life, in The truth about the stories Thomas King shares his personal experiences trying to adapt to the slightly more updated version of the stereotype (involving braided hair and bone necklaces). It was a painful learning experience for him, and one that forced him to negotiate his own identity as a Cherokee and Greek man.

Likewise, in Everything you know about Indians is wrong, curator associated with the National Museum of the American Indians in Washington, DC, Paul Chaat Smith confronts the platitude of popular American Indian imagery in art and film. In the process, he also shares some of the hard-hitting work of contemporary Native American artists.

Why should I read it?

The simple answer to this question is that there is a lot of excellent work being written that falls under the broad category of “urban Indian literature”. But, of course, there is also a more complicated answer to this question.

Laura Furlan scholarly monograph Indigenous Cities: Urban Indian Fictions and Stories of Offshoring advances the perspective that representations of Native Americans and the urban experience are crucial to understanding Indigenous peoples in the United States today. She highlights the issues with the reservation as the dominant space in the definition of Native Americans in literature (and beyond), especially since the majority of Native peoples in the United States do not live on reservations. It also traces the history of major metropolitan spaces in the United States, reminding readers that these spaces are both located on historically Indigenous lands and also originated from existing Indigenous shopping and cultural centers.

With these ideas in mind, urban Indian literature is a significant body of work that updates images of Indigenous peoples in the popular imagination while redefining urban experiences in terms of resistance.

Some “urban Indian literature” to get you started

The phrase by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich is prolific. Where to start Well I might as well start with its most recent version, The phrase. It’s set in Minneapolis – in an independent bookstore, of all locations! The store is haunted by its most annoying customer, Flora. It takes place over a year as Tookie, a bookseller recently released after years of incarceration, tries to figure out the cause of Flora’s haunting. Like all of Erdrich’s work, it’s a beautifully written novel that raises some interesting questions.

Over there book cover by Tommy Orange

There there by Tommy Orange

Hailed as one of the few books reporting a “new” Native American literary renaissance (based on the ideas of a Native American Renaissance in the 1970s and 1980s), There there is a fast-paced novel set today in Oakland, California. It follows a large number of characters in the days leading up to the Big Oakland Powwow. They run the gamut in terms of age and how they engage with their own indigeneity. The intro on its own is sort of a statement on urban indigeneity, and the rest of the book is a compelling story that will leave you thinking deeply about what you’ve just read.

The Removed by Brandon Hobson book cover

The Deleted by Brandon Hobson

It is an interesting book to reflect on urban Indian literature as it takes place in both urban and rural spaces. The Echota family was shattered when 15-year-old Ray-Ray was shot dead by police. They get together as a family every year for a bonfire that celebrates Cherokee National Day and marks the murder of Ray-Ray. The novel follows each member of the family in the weeks leading up to this important annual event as each of them rocks their own precipice – memory loss, drug use, or damaging relationships. It’s a dark and thoughtful exploration of contemporary indigeneity.

Suggested further reading

If you want more Native American literature that breaks with tired tropes, check out this article on “Contemporary Native Literature: Looking Beyond the” Indian of the Day. ” Another way to look beyond the ordinary might be to read some of the suggestions on the “9 Best Books of Native Alaskans and Hawaiians” list. Whatever you decide to read, consider supporting Indigenous booksellers. You can support a local business if there is one near you, or order from one of the businesses featured in the article Native-Owned Bookstores You Must Visit.


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