LeAnne Howe is an enrolled citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. She writes fiction, poetry, screenplays, creative non-fiction, plays and scholarship that primarily deal with American Indian and Native American experiences. Art Managing Editor, Jessica Burkhalter, spoke with her via email in January 2011.
Jessica Burkhalter: I was first introduced to your writing in a class on Native American women writers. Miko Kings immediately amazed me. My family has deep baseball roots and the novel introduced me to a history I never knew existed. I went on to write a paper on how the novel reconciles past events through how they are spoken of in the future. This idea of reconciliation and its relationship to time seems to be a major theme in your writing. How do you define "reconciliation" and have you ever thought of it in the context of your writing?
LeAnne Howe: I don't think I am reconciling the past in my novels. To reconcile means that we American Indians, or more specifically, Choctaws, would be on friendly terms with the past. I think that would be a misunderstanding. Or as Ojibwe literary critic Gerald Vizenor says, "a pleasurable mis-reading."
Rather, I am writing a story that is absent from the historical record, unknown, as you noted. 1) Baseball, a native game that evolves over time; 2) Choctaws working on questions of quantum physics, long before the discipline existed; 3) the story of Indian Territory and how it became Oklahoma, through land theft. These things are not reconciled in the novel: rather they are brought to life through the stories of the characters in the novel.
JB: This idea of reconciliation as "a pleasurable mis-reading" addresses a key problem with reconciliation and the lenses through which history is so often viewed. This reminds me of Chimamanda Adichie's Ted talk, "The Danger of a Single Story" in which Adichie cautions us about reducing our experience and understanding of the world to a single narrative. History is mostly told from the perspective of the colonizers and non-indigenous peoples and this works to gloss over and eliminate parts of the past. In your essay "The Story of America: A Tribalography" you write, "All histories are stories that are written down. The story you get depends on the point of view of the writer." As you write your stories and bring to life a forgotten or erased past, do you see yourself as rewriting history and reconciling the story that should be told as compared to the "single story" the majority hear? Or is reconciliation, by definition, always a pleasurable misreading?
LH: When I'm beginning to think about a new writing project, whether a short story, novel, poem, I live with the idea for a long time, sometimes a year, before beginning to write. In the interim, I try and discover why a particular story wants to be told. In the case of Shell Shaker, it's about Choctaw history as told through a family of women. Miko Kings is about an Indian baseball team in Indian Territory, but the theme of race relations is also a big part of the story. So, I don't think I am necessarily reconciling history, but I am adding Native stories, Native voices that should be, must be part of America's story.
JB: There seems to be much debate about what it means to be an American Indian. People often desire to see Native Americans in a romanticized state (as depicted in most Hollywood films). In Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong, Paul Chaat Smith challenges this view and asks, "Are Indian people allowed to change? Are we allowed to invent completely new ways of being Indian that have no connection to previous ways we have lived?" In terms of your identity as a Choctaw woman, how is your identity expanded/changed as you live in places like Jordan and travel all over the world? How do you reconcile traditional Choctaw customs and traditions with modern times?
LH: When I was young, I was very ignorant of what it meant to be "Indian." Everyone in my family was "Indian," both my adopted Cherokee family, and my Choctaw birth family. I didn't know that we were any different from other families. We were just people doing what people do. My relatives were barbers, soldiers, sheriff's deputies, bakers, cleaning ladies, farmers, bronco riders, teachers, local feed mill workers, and Avon ladies. Two of my great aunts worked in an airplane factory in California during WW2. All these people were Indians. Does any of this sound particularly "Indian?"
As I was growing up in the 1960s, the world seemed very chaotic: the Vietnam war, the struggle for civil rights, the police beating up American Indians in Oklahoma City every Friday night, these were reoccurring events, juxtaposed against regular family gatherings in Ada, and other towns in southeastern Oklahoma. My great uncles and aunts went to stomp dance, and would also host family reunions. Relatives would come home each summer from California, Arizona, New Mexico and even Texas. There were all night sings at Stonewall with a great aunt playing the piano, my grandfather playing the fiddle, elders feeding the spirits, and me, eating crackers and squirrel dumplings listening, watching all these goings-on until I would fell asleep on family quilt. My relatives would sing church hymns and popular songs, and I can remember my Cherokee grandmother singing Mockin'Bird Hill, a song written by Vaughn Horton, 1951. I still know the refrain. Does any of this sound particularly "Indian?"
Tribal people in Oklahoma would say "yes," but mainstream Americans would say, "no" because they expect Indians to look like the "Hollywood Sioux," riding horses and making statements like, "Today is a good day to die." (I don't mean to be disrespectful to the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota peoples, I'm merely suggesting that because of Hollywood, everyone thinks we look like the Indians in a John Ford or Kevin Costner film.)
I also want to say that as a teenager, I rebelled against my home training just like every other young American in the 1960s. At some point, probably while I was attending college at OSU, I wanted to be a Hollywood Indian. I had read about Indian wars, the allotment era, the "termination era," and what struggles Choctaws and other southeastern tribes faced to try and hang on to their homelands. There was a period in my life when I was angry about what had happened to tribal peoples in America. [Still am]. Maybe that's the reason I became a writer. I made a lot of mistakes in understanding myself, and my community. For example some of my earliest short stories are about hanging out at Indian bars in downtown Oklahoma City, watching bar fights, thinking that these stories somehow made us all more "traditional." It didn't and eventually I realized that it's the everyday lives we lead that makes us who we are. We, American Indians, indigenous peoples, have always been curious to travel and gain knowledge about the world around us. Certainly my relatives traveled widely, after all we're human beings not mascots for sports teams. We are not stuck in the past, but we try and honor our past, there's a difference.
In Shell Shaker, for example, I wrote about three women who have professional careers, one is an artist, one is a businesswoman, the other, a historian. In the novel, two of them return to Durant when their uncle calls them due to a crisis. This is my way of saying that we're Choctaws, and no matter where we are, or what kind of "professional" lives we lead, we all come home. While the women in Shell Shaker are not me, I have returned to Oklahoma, remodeled my grandmother's home in Ada, so that I can live there each summer. In this way, I too, return from my yearly journeys, just like a migrating bird.
JB: Your metaphor of the migrating bird is really beautiful. Home has a way of anchoring us to our identity, and I love that your identity is still strongly tied to home even though you are hopping all over the world. I also liked the list of professions you listed out, especially the "Avon ladies" part. Who doesn't love a good lipstick color?
To add to your response, I am really curious about how "home" feels about you writing stories as opposed to participating in the oral tradition. The written word has been used to take advantage of Native Americans throughout history, especially to steal the land from the people. Are any of your Choctaw traditions or religious practices off limits when it comes to writing?
LH: Well, I don't write about ceremony, per se, although I did write about bone picking in Shell Shaker. But it was something that was no longer done so I felt that I could write about it, since it has passed out of use, etc. But I would not write about something like a reburial or repatriation, or anything like that.
JB: Do you have to be mindful of "home" and how the people will respond when you begin writing a story as compared to telling it orally?
LH: No more than any other writer.
JB: In your opinion, is some of the power of the story lost when it is written down?
LH: No. I don't think so. It's like saying when people pick up a new tool, does that negate the old ones. Not necessarily.
JB: Is there anything else you would like to add?
LH: Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to talk about my work. This has been a lot of fun!
Jessica Burkhalter is a junior from Douglas, Georgia. She is majoring in English (with an emphasis in multicultural American literature) and a certificate in Native American Studies. In her spare time, she enjoys watching Criminal Minds, eating frozen yogurt, and writing. Her life motto: "Forget love, I'd rather fall in chocolate." Check out her blog, Diaries of Lorraine.