“Oh Uncle Adrian, I am in the reservation of my mind,” is a passage from Adrian C. Louis’s literary work, Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile. It is the same one line written by a different author and in a different context which affirms a biography of oppression in living on an Indian reservation; and the intellectual and emotional understanding that fuses together the immense communicative power of language. For Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, who grew up destitute where literary dreams were more than beyond reach, Louis’ passage opened his eyes to the potential of writing. Alexie soon went on to write several novels, for example: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, War Dance, First Indian on the Moon, Indian Killer; and and Smoke Signals (1998), a critically acclaimed movie based on one of Alexie’s short stories and for which he co-wrote the screenplay Smoke Signals (1998), a critically acclaimed movie based on one of Alexie’s short stories. Sherman Alexie’s writing has cleared a mental, emotional and spiritual path for others wanting to ‘fancy dance’ a new Indian reality though writing.
For some however, moving beyond reservation borders is more difficult — a place where poverty, despair and alcoholism have often shaped the lives of many Native Americans living on reservations. But what about Indians who grew up off reservations with desires of wanting to write a different experience?
In a series of e-mails Alexei Auld, Pamunkey-Tauxenant, Graduate, Columbia School of Law, and a Sundance Native Writing alum whose work has been featured in E! True Hollywood Story, Fondo Del Sol, and numerous curated festivals and publications has recently penned a must-read book titled Tonto Canto Pocahontas to answer my inquiry.
Auld asserts, “It is difficult, but as human beings, we cope in different ways. It was easier for me to move beyond the 'reservation mind' because I never grew up on one. And I'm not making a judgment, it's just my reality.” He continues, “I have always participated in the culture. My grandmother was in an arranged marriage with my grandfather to 'keep the blood strong'. My cousin, who was the Chief's brother, married my wife and I. I was a member of a Lumbee Indian church in Baltimore (they were originally from North Carolina, so they were experiencing the whole off-Rez urban experience as well). I worked the powwow circuit with my parents until I left for law school in NYC. Served as president of Columbia Law's Native American Law Students Association. Organized the first unity pow wow between Columbia's undergraduate and graduate Native American student organizations.”
Auld will tell you his book is a celebration of indigenous diversity. “More indigenous people live off-Rez than on the Rez. Large numbers of us have done so for generations. Especially on the East Coast, since we were on the front lines of the invasion (very Sci-Fi sounding, but that’s what it was). I tried to be true to my experiences. Some people are healers, others warriors; and others balance both. There is a shared past, but we are individuals. Not a hive mind: culture is not stagnant, it never was,” Auld says.
As time passed, Indian people multiplied and walked in four different directions on this Great Turtle Island, speaking different languages, living in different ways, dressing differently. They even differed in their explanation of Creation. Yet certain facts did not differ, and that is our respect for Mother Earth and an awareness and respect for all living things because we are all relatives. He continues, “Just because Europeans encountered us at a specific time in history doesn't mean we have to be bound to that particular time. No other group on the planet is expected to. Why should we be different?”
Experiencing life through an urban lens, Auld tells the story of a Native American bachelor Crispy Calusa, who is ordered to find and get engaged to an indigenous woman in thirty days or be kicked out of the tribe. Crispy had big dreams when he left home for New York City, but it's a whole different world off the Rez. In his pursuit of an education he's pissed off the indigenous people of NYC; and as for women on the singles circuit he's turned on grannies in heat. The last thing he wants to do is give up on his plans, but his mother won't stop telling him to bag it up and come on home.
Auld adds, “Julie, your experiences are incredibly inspiring! Writing for an indigenous publication that has a tremendous online presence. And an indigenous woman traveling the world to teach English is amazing and, as you mentioned, historically amusing.” What I said to Alexie was: “I never thought as an American Indian I would be teaching the conquers’ language.” We both laughed. He continued the thought, “But our ancestors weren't static. They adapted. They survived.”
The book Tonto Canto Pocahontas is available in print and ebook and can be purchased at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes. Links are also available at AlexeiAuld.com.
Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.