What began as a midwifery operation in New York City more than a generation ago has morphed, decades later, into a small publisher of Native American and other titles, based in southwestern Tennessee.
The unlikely story of Native Voices Books, a division of Book Publishing Company of Summertown, Tennessee, begins in the 1970s, when residents of a now-famous local commune called The Farm traveled up north to work on health-care issues in the South Bronx. That section of New York City was notorious for being not only crime-ridden, but also the poorest congressional district in the United States.
“We had a long history of working with Native people studying in the South Bronx,” said John Schweri, a spokesman for Native Voices, whose parent company is one of several enterprises that The Farm established. “We had a lot of people from our community down here in Summertown, where the press is located, who were working in the South Bronx in medical care, doing midwifery stuff.”
At the same time, “the Native community was also doing midwifery,” Schweri said. “And we found this out working out of the South Bronx in the 1970s.”
Thus it was that Book Publishing Company was born with the release of an early text on home birth, Spiritual Midwifery, by Ina May Gaskin, in 1975. Three years later, the American Indian connection inspired the press’s founders to publish its first Native title, A Basic Call to Consciousness by Akwesasne Notes, which examined the 1977 conference on Discrimination Against the Indigenous Populations of the Americas, held in Geneva by the Non-Governmental Organizations of the United Nations. The book consists of three position papers delivered at that conference by representatives of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, with supporting essays written by Oren Lyons, John Mohawk and José Barreiro.
“These papers were the first authentic analysis of the modern world ever committed to writing by an official body of Native people,” reads the publisher's description. “They called for fundamental changes in the policies of developed nations and an end to the destruction of the natural world.” The book has since had numerous printings.
Native Voices Books aims to introduce young readers to their heritage; Native Writers: Voices of Power features the best-known contemporary American Indian wordsmiths.
Decades later, Schweri reflected on the formative importance of those early years. “I think developing the relationships with the Native midwives and wanting to help publish the stories and the papers of the Geneva, Switzerland convention, and helping the Haudenosaunee present their papers in print to the rest of the world [is] what started us,” he said.
Today, Book Publishing Company has a variety of imprints, including ones for vegetarian and vegan cookbooks, natural-health guides, and healthy-living publications. Another of its imprints, Books Alive, publishes guides to defeating various illnesses through nutrition. Altogether, the parent company boasts 325 titles.
Native Voices alone has about 85 titles; its offerings include the Pathfinders and Native Trailblazers series, for adolescents in middle and high school, respectively. Native Voices also publishes books aimed at the college level. Its adult titles include Sisters in Spirit: Iroquois Influence on Early Feminists (2001). Edited by Sally Roesch Wagner, the volume draws links between early women’s rights activists and theorists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Native women with whom they formed friendships “that enabled them to understand a world view far different, and in many ways superior, to the patriarchal one that existed at that time,” as the official description says.
Another Native Voices offering, Keeping Heart on Pine Ridge (2004), by Vic Glover, is an award-winning chronicle of life on the reservation. More than an entry in the Native Voices catalogue, the volume reflects the imprint’s direct relationship with the Oglala Sioux, down to its involvement with the life of the reservation. In teams of 10 to 15 people, Schweri said, “We have gone up to Pine Ridge—members of this community, and members of the Native Voices community have stayed up there and worked on projects in homes, irrigation.”
Native Voices’ other 70 titles, in addition to the Pathfinders and Trail Blazers series, range from books on Native plants and healing, to arts and crafts, pow wows and other topics.
Native Voices titles have won numerous accolades, most recently the American Indian Library Association Youth Literature Award in 2012. The volumes are used as teaching materials in many schools, including those in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which recently ordered 650 copies. In addition, Mac in Educational Resources has added Native Voices titles to the fall lineup, with Native writers such as Sherman Alexie.
“That was a sign that we were starting to slowly but surely get on the map,” Schweri said.
In the end, what started as a midwifery project has delivered much more than babies.