A Chickasaw writer returns to her heartland

DENVER – For Native people, tribal homelands beckon. We are the places of our origins.

For acclaimed Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan, returning to her Oklahoma roots was a discovery of connectedness that defies years lived in other places.

She is the author of “People of the Whale,” a recently released novel chronicling conflicted lives and the complexity of indigenous heritage, and herself was called a writer of “unparalleled gifts for truth and magic” by Barbara Kingsolver.

Hogan, a poet, novelist and essayist, was recently named to the Chickasaw Hall of Fame. She has also been a writer-in-residence for the states of Colorado and Oklahoma and professor at the University of Minnesota and University of Colorado. She has served on the National Endowment for the Arts and has received awards from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas, National Book Critics Circle Award, Before Columbus Foundation, Lannan Award, Colorado Book Award and more, including a Guggenheim grant. Her novel, “Mean Spirit,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 1990.

Among many other works, she has written “The Book of Medicines: Poems,” “Woman Who Watches Over the World: A Native Memoir,” “Power,”“Solar Storms: A Novel” and “Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World.”

At the University of Colorado – Boulder Oct. 2 for a reading for the Center of the American West and Western Literature Association, she mentioned in an interview a book of essays in progress, “Moving Country,” that addresses the emotional core of her move back to Oklahoma.

She was asked about her recent relocation into the heart of the Chickasaw Nation, a tribe originally in Mississippi and Tennessee but now centered in Ada, Okla., where she is tribal writer-in-residence.

Indian Country Today: What has the move back to Oklahoma meant to you?

Linda Hogan: I live in Tishomingo, our Chickasaw Nation capital, and I think about our story – I still live it. My grandfather, grandmother and great-grandparents signed the terrible Dawes Act and I think it was signed here by these original enrollees.

Being in Oklahoma, the land is so familiar – it’s like earth I’m always a part of. Once I was lost on Seven Sisters Road, and it was named after my grandmother and her sisters. I have a cousin who lives on my grandfather’s original allotment east of Gene Autry.

ICT: You spent a lot of years in the Denver area as well.

Hogan: Yes. Because my dad was in the military, we moved around all the time; and I lived in Colorado for many years, and in Germany. But I always thought of Oklahoma as a stable place – I visited my grandparents there and I always considered it home – even though I didn’t go to school there.

Now I want to go to our real home, Mississippi and Tennessee, to see what it’s like there. It’s really the place of our history. Those who have returned say they feel it, that it is special to them, and I think the land remembers them.

ICT: What are some of the good and less-good things about going home?

Hogan: Well, I enjoy the wildlife. Walking along the Blue River with its seven waterfalls. Fireflies. Picking Chickasaw corn. Even though town is just a minute away, I just want to sit outside and look at things. I like the natural world – I’m more interested in the plants and animals and insect life – I’m interested in a different part of the world than most people are.

Culturally, though, it’s like living in another country. Businesses sometimes close on Saturday, and people don’t really work in their businesses in rural areas in the ways they do in towns. I thought I would miss some of the conveniences of town, but I don’t. Here, in town, there’s everything – anything I want to get, I could, but I don’t miss it – I’ve adjusted.

ICT: So that’s not a real negative.

Hogan: No. But I like discovering what a sassafras tree is like and then going out and looking for them because they’re now so scarce, since the U.S. began exporting them to other countries, like China, because it’s a medicinal plant.

The problem for me is another kind of issue. There’s much clearing of trees and natural areas, which breaks my Native heart, and then people put pesticides on the pastures where they raise cattle. Then people eat the cattle. Also, there’s a certain amount of heartlessness – there are still cockfights and pit bull fighting, and it’s a similar kind of Euro-American thinking that animals and plants aren’t sentient creatures – just things. When people start thinking of the world as a thing, not a being, they start to lose respect for plant and animal life.

It’s part of the region. It’s a lack of education – education and health care are the problems here. We [Chickasaws] have great health care, but for non-Indians health care is not very good and we have an abundance of rural poverty in the area. Groceries are expensive; so is gas.

But a lot of the people are very supportive of each other. We get along and it’s an amazing thing. I get along with people I might not have friendships with in other circumstances. For the most part, I feel a great happiness in being home.

ICT: And being Chickasaw right there is different ... is the tribe supportive?

Hogan: In the Chickasaw Nation, the governor [Bill Anoatubby] really cares about the people. When you’re there, he really wants to bring us into the world as good people, to become better in every way, and for our children to have all the opportunities in the world, to continue to reconnect with our indigenous ways and knowledge.

I teach writing classes as part of my job. I see that as a way to keep the knowledge of sacred sites and of our people alive. I guess I came home again partly because of the need for people of like minds and like hearts. We may not always have like minds, but we do have like hearts.

ICT: What about the Chickasaws and the common perception of assimilation?

Hogan: Our blood remembers our history and our homelands. We seem to be an assimilated people, but there are those who are still traditional and it is a double bind for Indians living within the surrounding nation of America to balance these two ways of being. It is in how we learn to view the world.

As [Cherokee/Quapaw/Chickasaw scholar and novelist] Geary Hobson said, “The Trail of Tears and our removals turned every drop of white blood in the Chickasaws red.”

I’m also working on researching the people who profited from the Trail of Tears – the governor of Arkansas at that time; all kinds of contractors; and Andrew Jackson, of course. And on learning the language.