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Krupat: Important and empowering writing in 'Sovereign Bones'

Sovereign Bones: New Native American Writing,'' edited by Eric Gansworth, with a foreword by Oren Lyons, presents itself as ''the companion volume to 'Genocide of the Mind,''' also subtitled ''New Native American Writing,'' edited by MariJo Moore and published in 2003. (Its foreword was by the late Vine Deloria Jr.) There is some overlap in the contributors to both volumes. Moore has essays in both books, as do Simon J. Ortiz, Steve Elm, Diane Fraher and Maurice Kenny. James Stevens appears as James Arionhatas Stevens in Moore's volume, and James Thomas Stevens in Gansworth's. Gansworth has an essay in the earlier volume and in this one. Most of the new writing in Gansworth's book does indeed seem to be new, although six of the pieces have been published before, including Sherman Alexie's ''Unauthorized Autobiography of Me.'' Gansworth notes in his introduction the fact that no anthology, no matter how wide-ranging, can include everyone. This is certainly true, although I confess to missing, for example, work by Linda Hogan, W.S. Penn, Patricia Penn Hilden, Shari Huhndorf, and Sean and Chris Teuton, among others.

After three opening essays, the book is organized into four parts: ''Repatriating Ourselves,'' ''Speaking through Our Nations' Teeth,'' ''Snagging the Eye from Curtis'' and ''Rolling Those Sovereign Bones.'' Each of these opens with a poem, none of which carries the name of its author. My guess is that these poems are by Gansworth, although if that is indeed the case, not even his introduction alerts the reader to that fact.

It's not always clear why any particular essay is in one section or another. Steve Elm's fine and witty ''Head Shots'' is in the ''Snagging the Eye'' section, perhaps because of its title, although it is mostly about combating Indian stereotypes while trying to earn a living as an actor. Diane Glancy's essay, ''The Bones of the Sky,'' powerfully confronts her painfully tangential relation to Native communities and acknowledges - a surprise to me, although it shouldn't have been - the importance to her of Gerald Vizenor's work. But it hasn't anything to do with photography (the Curtis referenced is, of course, Edward Curtis, famous or infamous photographer of the ''vanishing'' Indian). Nor does Alexie's ''Unauthorized Autobiography of Me'' have a visual dimension.

It's important to note work other than that by the ''stars,'' and I'll try to do that. But I do want to say a brief word about Alexie's piece. It has a familiar mix of witty and wise-ass commentary, along with several important insights, however exaggerated for effect. It offers a very generous ''Incomplete List of People I Wish Were Indian'' that includes Patsy Cline, Jimmy Carter, Bruce Springsteen and Walt Whitman, among many others. It reproduces the formula ''Poetry = Anger x Imagination,'' first introduced in Alexie's groundbreaking collection of short stories, ''The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven'' (1993), and it also includes the observation that:

''I made a very conscious decision to marry an / Indian woman, who made a very conscious / decision to marry me. / Our hope: to give birth to and raise Indian / children who love themselves. / That is the most / revolutionary act.''

Something like this sentiment is at the heart of Alexie's 1995 novel, ''Reservation Blues.'' This is moving. And yet one might pause at the racialist implications of this ''most revolutionary act.''

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A good many of the essays in the book are in what might be called the autobiographical-affirmative mode. They are, that is to say, modest parables of empowerment: this is how I managed to overcome so much, and to become who I am today - and so, too, can you! Given the difficult material situation for young Native people today, whether on the reservations or in the cities, such writing is important. Inevitably, however, some pieces are stronger than others.

''Speaking through Our Nations' Teeth,'' section two, focusing predominantly on issues of language, has two essays that I would single out for attention - Simon J. Ortiz's ''Indigenous Language Consciousness: Being, Place, and Sovereignty,'' and Louise Erdrich's ''Writers on Writing: Two Languages in Mind, but Just One in the Heart.'' To take the second of these first, Erdrich offers a passionate yet nuanced account of the importance to her of the Ojibwe language, a language in which, for all her ongoing efforts, she cannot write except at the level ''of a dreamy four-year-old child.'' It's English, ''the language stuffed into my mother's ancestors' mouths,'' that is her first language, and a language in which she writes brilliantly. Speaking of her attempts, as a grown woman, to learn Ojibwe, she notes that ''as awful as [her] own Ojibwe must sound to a fluent speaker, [she has] never, ever, been greeted with a moment of impatience or laughter.'' These words, first published in The New York Times in 2000, might well have been taken into account by the young Ojibwe critic who recently (2006) mocked Erdrich's attempt to include Native words in her novels.

Ortiz's first language was the Keresan language spoken at Acoma Pueblo. He told me once of the first time he tried to use a pay phone (you will recall those residual artifacts of a pre-cell phone age) and wondered whether it would require him to speak English. Now and for long, however, he knows that ''the way to state [his] case as a human cultural being'' is to be able to say Dzah dze-guwaah ee'shkah haitih hanu nuuday-sk'uuna: ''I am the Eagle People,'' ''I am the people of Acoma.'' Because Ortiz can say these things in his people's language, he has also been able, elsewhere, to talk about the way in which English itself has become an Indian language. But this observation, true though it may be, is not necessarily helpful in ongoing efforts to sustaining Native languages. Ortiz can comfortably use English as a second ''Indian'' language, but for Erdrich (and many others) it is a first language, one that, however ''Indianized'' among some speakers and writers, nonetheless confers upon her Ojibwe language an inevitable ''secondariness.''

I'll close with a brief look at Scott Richard Lyons' essay for this volume. ''In Vine Veritas'' is a warm and witty recollection of an encounter with Vine Deloria Jr. and a subsequent relation carried out, for the most part, via e-mail. Lyons points to two issues in his relationship with Deloria that are worth noting. First, the fact that Deloria seemed to ''know exactly where the line was drawn'' between ''community-building gossip and community-destroying backbiting.'' There is always such a line in small communities, and it's important to be aware of it. Second, and at least as important, is Lyons' belief that ''what motivated [Deloria] to give ... his time and attention was ... [that] ... he knew from experience that younger scholars could use some affirmation and support, so he gave it.''

As this book abundantly shows, it's not only younger Native scholars, but indigenous literary, visual and performance artists as well who need ongoing affirmation and support. There are many essays in this volume that undertake this task.

Arnold Krupat teaches literature in the Global Studies Faculty Group of Sarah Lawrence College in New York. His most recent books are ''The Turn to the Native'' (1996) and ''Red Matters'' (2002). ''All that Remains: Native Studies'' is forthcoming.