Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when publishedstop writing about Indians she told me again only louder as if I was hard of hearing you have to allow authors their subjects, she said stop writing about what isn’t in the text which is just our entire history

This bit of poetry, part of the poem Graduate School First Semester is from the book Mother/Land by Cheryl Savageau. It was recommended to me when I tweeted out a request for something to replace some lines from Sherman Alexie’s poem, How to Write the Great American Indian Novel. He concludes his poem with:

Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when publishedIn the Great American Indian novel, when it is finally written, all of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts.

I wanted something that conveyed the same sentiment, Indigenous erasure and replacement with white people, but without needing to quote a man who used patriarchy to legitimize the sexual exploitation of women within his sphere. A man who used his influence to gatekeep, elevating some while blocking others. And yet the phrase remains perfect and pithy so I when I do use it I just cite S. Alexie instead of his whole name as if that makes any kind of difference at all.

Cheryl’s poem does carry the same kind of image and struggle. Throughout the poem she responds to her teacher’s assignments by writing about the Indians who are not present in the painting or the story. The Indians whose stories have been replaced or papered over.  She reaches back to insist on our presence despite the myth of our vanishing, Alexie looks forward to a time when we really will be vanished.

We are that invisible presence in Steinbeck’s book, Grapes of Wrath, ermerging from the mists only as something that Grandpa killed like Pa killed snakes. When I read the book, like Savageau I can see our presence despite Steinbeck’s erasure. I discern soft indentations left by moccasins in the dust that swirls around the Joads. I see the silent faces filled with reproach, the ones who knew what would inevitably happen when the deep rooted prairie grasses were replaced with shallow, thristy crops just as we whose ancestry roots us deeply in these places were replaced by greedy settlers who wore out land on their way to somewhere else.

But we aren’t obviously there other than something to be eradicated for the safety of white homesteaders. We show up briefly in a passage where the men representing the bankers are telling the farmers, men who are described as squatting in a physical posture. Squatting before these representatives, squatting on the land that is theirs but not really. It’s our land they cry, we lived on it and died on it, Grandpa killed Indians for it, Pa killed snakes. The representatives are unmoved, helpless before the grinding needs of the bankers. A monster, they say, who must be fed. A monster who wants to dry out the land by growing cotton before selling it to settlers who will put up houses made of ticky tacky that all look just the same.

So we’re there, but only in the sense that we have vanished beneath Grandpa’s gun, Pa’s boot.  The parallel with snakes, and I hope I’m using the word correctly but, it feels a little ironic, don’t you think? Because while you may know the Oceti Sakowin as the Sioux, that’s actually from an French version of an Ojibwe word that means little snakes. I don’t know if Steinbeck was aware of this when he talked about Grandpa killing Indians and Pa killing snakes but I winced a little at that. It made me think about what might have been possible had we known enough about what was coming to have formed alliances with each other against the settlers instead of with the settlers against each other, setting them against people we thought of as snakes because we didn’t understand that to the newcomers we were all snakes and that these relationships were just convenient and not relationships at all.

The book takes place just one generation after the allotment process dissolved the reservations in Oklahoma and surrounding areas. Everyone was given land, first the native people whose ownership was tied to perceptions of blood. Half bloods got control of their land, full bloods had to wait for the civilizing influence of 25 years to pass. Americans reach the age of majority at 21 but Indians had to wait 25. White people got the rest of it, and more because if you got control of an Indian child you controlled their land too. Swindles abounded, false claims to being Cherokee or Creek or any of the others. False claims that may have been heard by children who grew up to think that they were Cherokee and just couldn’t prove it.

We don’t appear again, I think there are passing references to characters who looked Indian or might have been Indian but they don’t have any significant impact to the narrative. It’s the story of white people made homeless by the faceless corporations that had given them a home in the first place after evicting native people. In fact there’s a strong argument to be made that pioneers were just cannon fodder, expendable labour and expendable bodies who cleared the plains of Indians and deep rooted grasses. People who did the heavy lifting and took the greatest risks for the elusive promise of land and a future while the bankers and second wave of settlers reaped the benefits.

After leaving the farm, the family lives briefly in a Hooverville, one of many tent cities that emerged around larger cities for the migrant workers. They move into company housing to pick peaches and after leaving the exploitation of corporate agriculture they find themselves alone in a boxcar, then an abandoned farm where they are invisible. This is painfully close to how Indigenous people vanished: outside cities, into reservations, then the invisiblity of allotment and dispersal. We vanish, they vanish. America rolls on.

But what about Alexie’s prophecy of a future in which we are ghosts?  Early in my podcasting career (is it really a career when you don’t get paid for it?) we spoke with Daniel Heath Justice about Indigenous futurisms, something we would also visit with Lee Francis of Red Planet Books and Indigenous Comic Con, as well as many other guests. And they asked us to look for Indigenous people in the future. Where are we? Did we survive? Did the apocalypse happen because we didn’t?

This started me looking for Indigenous people in the books I read and when I couldn’t find us in the future posited in Omar El Akkad’s book American War I tweeted at him, and he responded thoughtfully.  While I don’t take any credit for it, his second book What Strange Paradise is a Peter Pan story and there are Indians in Peter Pan, there is Indigenous presence in a story about a refugee child on an unnamed island in the Mediterranean Sea.  It is an extraordinary book and I wrote about it earlier, but be warned there’s spoilers in that essay.

Narratives matter. Injustice requires a narrative that will make it seem like justice, or maybe inevitability tinged with just enough tragedy that allows us to feel bad without requiring anything from us. The things we feel, our emotions, grow from the stories we are told. Stories tell us how to feel in different circumstances, stories tell us what is fair and what is not and who is here and who is not and why things are the way that they are. And our stories have ethical consequences we need to think about.

So in whatever narrative you find yourself, fiction or not, poetry or news media, sermons or lectures or any of the places you hear story. Listen for us. And start thinking about what isn’t in the text, which is just our entire history.

This land is your land

but it was our land