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Whetting the Literary Appetite: Books to Jump-Start Your Reading Year

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A new year has begun, and with it comes a crop of intriguing new books. From the first indigenous science fiction anthology, to studies of American Indian history, to a memoir or two, here is a sampling of what’s in store for the first few months of 2012.

Readers interested in the law awoke to a new find on January 1: erstwhile attorney and Turtle Talk blogger Matthew L.M. Fletcher’s The Eagle Returns: The Legal History of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians (Michigan State University Press). It may sound a tad scholarly for a post-holiday-torpor read, but the book itself covers beginnings, as it recounts the struggle of a group bound by kinship, geography and language to become self-governing again. It’s a handy reference for people who need to know more about how the Grand Traverse Band held its own to preserve its culture, language and other existential corner­stones in the face of legal and other intangible attempts to eradicate same.

At the end of this month, we will see that Martín Prechtel has seen it all: He grew up on a Pueblo Indian reservation, was apprenticed to a Guatemalan medicine man and settled in the United States after fleeing the Guatemalan civil war. The Unlikely Peace at Cuchumaquic: The Parallel Lives of People as Plants: Keeping the Seeds Alive (North Atlantic Books) relates the preservation of seeds and plant life to the similar seeds of spirituality in human life as he chronicles his own life journey.

In early February we’re treated to Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life (Atlantic Monthly Press), a memoir by the novelist David Treuer on what it was like to grow up on a reservation. The publisher’s write-up promises a “complex and subtle examination of Native American reservation life, past and present.”

The writing of this Ojibwe of northern Minnesota is informed by the combination of a childhood spent growing up on the Leech Lake Reservation and an education taking place in so-called mainstream America. From this vantage point, Treuer explores crime, poverty, the casino phenomenon and the issues surrounding language and cultural preservation.

Soon afterward, Penguin will bring out Holding Our World Together: Ojibwe Women and the Survival of the Community, by Brenda J. Child, part of the Penguin Library of American Indian History series. It explores the under­reported role of American Indian women in guiding their nations, detailing the ways that women such as Madeleine Cadotte, a mediator between her people and the European fur traders, have shaped Native life since contact.

Another title that captured our interest is due out later in February. Iroquois Art, Power and History by Neal B. Keating (University of Oklahoma Press) is an exhibition and study of more than 5,000 years of Iroquois visual expression into the present.

Also in February from the University of Oklahoma Press is Telling Stories in the Face of Danger: Language Renewal in Native American Communities, edited by Paul V. Kroskrity. It’s a collection of essays by linguists and linguistic anthropologists that explores American Indian storytelling and its role in preserving language.

March brings an exciting-­sounding proposition from the University of Arizona Press: Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction, edited by Grace L. Dillon. This first indigenous science fiction anthology brings together fantastic tales from American Indian, Canadian First Nations, aboriginal Australian and New Zealand Maori authors into one volume.

Also in March, the inimitable Gerald Vizenor arrives with another novel: Chair of Tears (University of Nebraska Press/Bison Books), a book that is “funny, fierce, ironic and deadly serious, a sendup of sacred poses, cultural pretensions and familiar places from reservations to universities,” the press release states. As the prolific, award-winning Vizenor is not one to disappoint, we are inclined to believe the hype.

April will see the release of Cell Traffic: New and Selected Poems (University of Arizona Press), by Heid E. Erdrich. Erdrich is, of course, one of the owners of the famed bookstore Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, along with her sister Louise, who has penned a few titles herself. This presentation of new poems, uncollected prose poetry and a few oldies but goodies from previous collections reflects Erdrich’s “continuing concerns with the tensions between science and tradition, between spirit and body,” the publisher says. “She finds surprising common ground while exploring indigenous experience in multifaceted ways: personal, familial, biological and cultural.”

Another distinctive title due out in April is The Only One Living to Tell: The Autobiography of a Yavapai Indian by Mike Burns, edited by Gregory McNamee(University of Arizona Press). This is a firsthand account, only now seeing the light of day, by one of the orphaned survivors of the Skeleton Cave Massacre of 1872. Adopted by a U.S. Army captain after the murder of his family, the boy Hoomothya became Mike Burns and went on to serve as a scout in the army himself. Burns wrote about the massacre, fighting in the Indian Wars during the 1880s and his life among the Kwevkepaya and Tolkepaya Yavapai from his uniquely Native perspective. But only now, 68 years after his death in 1934, has his work has found its way to publication.

This list is by no means complete, but we offer it as a useful introduction to some of the more notable early entries of the year.