I was exposed to some wonderful Native American literature in my undergrad literature courses. Louise Erdrich is a favorite (I own all of her novels) and I have enjoyed Sherman Alexie (the film Smoke Signals was based on one of his short stories), Leslie Marmon Silko and others whose names escape me at the moment (this is a blog, not a research paper!). So the short story collection Song of the Turtle was a shoe-in as soon as I laid eyes on it (at the Gresham library). The fact that it was edited by Paula Gunn Allen meant that I was sure to notice it.
I heard Ms. Allen speak at UAA in 1999 or 2000. I was taking Feminist Theory (a fabulous class, again taught by Genie) and immersed in the critical theory coming from the feminist movement. Allen was brought to UAA as a part of Women’s History Month by the Women’s Studies Program (I believe) and I may have gotten class credit for attending – but if I had known how her talk was going to affect me, I would have paid admission. At the time, we were reading some of Catherine Mackinnon’s work in class, and it focused on a lot of negative things – powerful stuff, but not exactly uplifting. Allen was a completely different kettle of fish. She had a way of describing the world that turned my personal worldview on its head. This was a well-respected, professional woman who believed in magic and spoke of it like sewing or cooking – a regular part of life that could be practiced by those willing to put in the effort. And that was exactly what I needed to hear. There are many different paradigms for understanding the world – and Mackinnon’s is no more or less valid than Allen’s. And both had something to offer me.
I think it is that different world view that draws me to the stories like those in Song of the Turtle. The basic assumptions conveyed are not those of the mainstream American culture I find myself living in – and I agree with much of what’s being assumed. Gratitude for life in all its forms. A responsibility to others as well as to ourselves. A quiet appreciation for the ironies of life. It reminds me to be grateful for all that I have, and to laugh along with the universe at the ridiculous events in my life.
This collection is the cream of the crop of American Indian Literature for the last quarter of the twentieth century, so there’s not a dud in the bunch. The settings vary from – historical to modern, rural to urban, and some that have no ‘indians’ in them at all – but all are told with that certain flavor that keeps many of us coming back for more. Some stand-out stories are: Pilgrims by Roxy Gordon, Siobhan La Rue in Color by D. Renville, Compatriots by Emma Lee Warrior and Christianity Comes to the Sioux by Susan Power.