The irresistible young Native heroine in a new novel for young readers will provide a model for students who are facing the challenges of leaving home to attend college far from the comfort zone of family and friends in reservation communities.
Shades of Aye: Authenticity Will Be Tested is Michael Woestehoff’s first novel, and it is written for junior readers in middle school and up—a sparsely populated category when it comes to Native American literature.
“You know, as I was looking around, I didn't see much for Native young lit,” Woestehoff, Navajo, told Indian Country Today Media Network. “We have illustrated children's books, history books, language books, and adult novels. There is a gap for students in the fifth to eighth grades who are looking for books on their level. This is when they start finding their identity, thinking about college, and I hope this book starts a conversation about what it is to be a modern Native person, a student, and one who interacts in multiple worlds and how those worlds can work best for them.”
Shades of Aye introduces Julienna Yellowhair, a beautiful, smart young Navajo woman in the last semester of her senior year at college in Flagstaff, Arizona, a border town of the Navajo Nation’s vast territory. Eager to graduate and return to her hometown of Ganado, Arizona, to work as a physical therapist, Julienna is part of a circle of Indian girlfriends who shop together, try on glam clothes together, go out to bars together and, most importantly, talk and laugh a lot. Their talk is punctuated by collective calls of “Aye!” whenever anyone says something funny—which is often. The friends, the humor and frequent trips home to Ganado have sustained Julienna so far and helped her almost fulfill her goal of completing college. But just as that goal is tantalizingly within reach, a major distraction enters Julienna’s life: Noble Yazzie, a smooth-talking, world-famous Navajo jewelry broker who has taken authentic pieces of Navajo jewelry and draped them on celebrities and the world’s elites. The book’s subtitle—Authenticity Will Be Challenged—plays out in the rest of the novel.
Woestehoff said he wanted to capture Native humor in a familiar setting from a modern Navajo perspective.
“Not only is it a culture shock leaving our communities to attend college, but also we are expected to succeed in a world completely foreign to us,” Woestehoff said.
Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter, right, and others on the scene at the 2013 Karl May Festival.
Native students don’t have problems academically; it’s the interactions that make college difficult, he said.
“These are the new engagements we have with non-Native students, the reduction of family interactions, the spiritual connections we take with us to college, and dating without parental guidance!” Woestehoff said. “College can be scary, and I hope this book informs the reader about what may lie ahead in an exaggerated but humorous way.”
The self-published book is written largely from the female perspective, but it didn’t start out that way, Woestehoff said.
“When I started the book, it was from a young man's perspective, but I changed it because the characters he was interacting with were strong dynamic young women, based off of real women in my life: my sister, mother, aunt, cousins, friends, fellow students,” he said. “So I changed it to a female perspective because of how dynamic these female characters were becoming in the first drafts.”
Woestehoff has been writing for some time. He is the director of communications and media for the National Indian Gaming Association and founder of The Washington Lobbyist, a website that began as a literal homage to hotel lobbies and their respective interior design, then morphed into a site based on the hospitality and travel industry and what he calls “relate-able” charity and social events. Shades of Aye is his first novel.
“This is my first large writing piece. I think necessity is the mother of all invention, and this was certainly something that I thought could fill the gap in Native youth literature,” Woestehoff said. “But it is a book for anybody who wants to read about being a Native student, and the troubles that may lay ahead in school and in relationships. All in the context of Native humor and maybe real life experiences.”
And Woestehoff has a message for those many, if not all, readers who find Julienna an intriguing character: She’ll be back.
“I am currently drafting out parts two and three, to let people know that her journey is not over,” he said.