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Native and Aboriginal Books in Literary Spotlight

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Sherman Alexie’s young adult novel about a bullied teen, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown & Co., 2007), won the 2007 National Book Award for young people’s literature. Now it has truly arrived.

The American Library Association has named The Absolutely True Diary number two on its list of books challenged in their communities for its language, racism and sexual content, the Associated Press reported.

At a rather different point on the attention spectrum, Dallas Morning News reporter S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (Scribner, 2010), was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in general nonfiction. And in Canada, two titles with aboriginal themes vied for the 2011 Donner Prize for public-policy journalism.

One way or another, books by Native authors or on Native themes are receiving a spate of literary attention this year.

Alexie joked to the AP that one aspect of his fame is disappointing—namely, placing only second on the “challenged” list, behind And Tango Makes Three (Simon & Schuster, 2005), the picture book by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell that depicts two male penguins raising a baby penguin from a donated egg, for which the authors continue to incur anti-homosexual wrath.

“It almost makes me happy to hear books still have that kind of power,” Alexie said. “And there’s nothing in my book that even compares to what kids can find on the Internet.”

Veteran journalist Gwynne, who spent years at Time and Texas Monthly before joining The Dallas Morning News in 2010, hangs Empire of the Summer Moon, his study of the Comanche people, on two main characters. The first is Quanah Parker, who navigated effortlessly between his Native culture and that of late 19th century European colonialism. The second is his mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, who was kidnapped at the age of 9 but eventually chose to stay with the Comanches.

Gwynne chronicles the tribe’s evolution from hunter-gatherers to horsemen to military powerhouses and beyond to create “a memorable examination of the longest and most brutal of all the wars between European settlers and a single Indian tribe,” the Pulitzer Board said on its website.

Land rights and the 1990 Oka Crisis form the backbone of two finalists for Canada’s prestigious Donner Prize.

InOka: A Political Crisis and Its Legacy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2010), former deputy minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Harry Swain examines what can be learned from a notable land dispute between Mohawk people in the community of Kanesatake in Quebec and the nearby town of Oka. The Mohawks, whose land claim had been rejected by the Canadian government in 1986, fought the town’s attempts to build a golf course and residential development on the sacred land, which consisted of pine woods and a tombstoned burial ground.

In a conflict lasting from July 11, 1990 through September 26, 1990, the Mohawks set up barricades, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were brought in, tear gas was lobbed and shots were fired. One person died. It became a standoff, one of many violent incidents that would follow over the next several years between First Nations and the Canadian government over land use.

The other Native-related work among the five Donner finalists is Beyond the Indian Act: Restoring Aboriginal Property Rights(McGill-Queens University Press, 2010), in which co-authors Tom Flanagan, Christopher Alcantara and André Le Dressay look at property rights created by the Indian Act of 1876 and suggest rewriting the rules.

“While land claims made by Canada’s aboriginal peoples continue to attract attention and controversy, there has been almost no discussion of the ways in which First Nations lands are managed and the property rights that have been in place since the Indian Act of 1876,” said the publisher’s website. “Challenging current laws and management, this illuminating work proposes the creation of a new system that would allow First Nations to choose to have full ownership of property, both individually and collectively.”