Lay of the Land: A series of essays on the spirit of Montana
On Oct. 23, acclaimed American Indian author Sherman Alexie came to a packed Rocky Mountain College Fortin Center gymnasium and gave what was reported to be a hilariously entertaining speech that had the crowd laughing until their stomachs hurt.
I had written several in-depth articles about the controversy his young-adult book, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” had caused in School District 2 last year at this time.
I also quoted Alexie in the epigraph of a book I edited, “Off the Path, An Anthology of 21st Century Montana American Indian Writers, Vol. 1,” published early in 2014. The quotation, pulled from a New York Times essay Alexie wrote, read: “I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.”
As soon as it was announced last February that Alexie was going to speak this fall at RMC, I excitedly told others that they’d better attend, and I kept annoyingly reminding them in the following months.
For an aspiring fiction writer like myself, I figured it would be a good time to meet Alexie, shake his hand, and perhaps show him where I quoted him in the book. I also wanted to tell him what an inspiration he had been to me and the other authors involved in the “Off the Path” project. He’s personable and easy to approach, so it’d be natural opportunity, right?
Only I didn’t go. Earlier on the day of Alexie’s speech, I found out that a good Alaska Native friend of mine out in Lockwood hanged himself. He’d grown severely depressed over legal trouble, and I’d been checking on him periodically, trying to cheer him up when I was in the neighborhood. But you can’t stop a train from going off broken tracks when it’s going too fast. You can only hope to slow it down a bit.
While others laughed and enjoyed their evening with Alexie, I sat alone in sober solitude as my brain tried to process the surreal realization of knowing a dude I frequently went on spontaneous road trips with, had late-night jam sessions with, and swapped fiction, song and poetry with, had just hanged himself. Already an introvert, I simply couldn’t imagine being around other people right then.
Another good friend of mine who also worried about our friend had a strong, intuitive hunch she needed to suddenly check on him. She found him still barely alive and twitching, and tried unsuccessfully to hold him up before help arrived.
And so I write about it.
After exactly one tumultuous week in which my broken heart and mind were so erratic that the personal demons I tried to suppress with alcohol finally escaped as I stupidly pushed away and even lashed out at loved ones who perhaps wanted only to hug me, I guiltily write about it.
People might say I shouldn’t write about such negative things while mentioning an event full of fond memories for everyone in attendance, as well as an entire local Native American community who reveled in the fact that a hero was here. But I write about it because Alexie himself would tell me to do so. He “remembers what it felt like to bleed,” after all.
People from all over the world have long been fascinated by this part of Montana, and while tourists get to see the beauty of our Native American culture and land via things like powwows, museums and tourist sites, they—and even many locals—rarely get to know us as real, modern people who live, breath, love and feel. We’re always relegated to some historical caricature, or seen as part of some depressing statistic, as my deceased friend now is.
In Alexie’s “Absolute True Diary,” the young narrator said he had already been to 42 funerals. Coincidentally, it was recently reported that there had been 42 unsolved murders on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation since the 1970s. My little brother, who was a year younger than me, was murdered down there several years ago. His and a lot of other deaths are simply pleaded down to manslaughter charges so the FBI, which investigates major crimes on Indian reservations, can keep its nearly immaculate conviction rate intact, with minimal time committed to an investigation.
So I wrote about such things under the guise of fiction, where I had a narrator ask, “What did some FBI agent who hated being marooned on a rez in the first place care about the local populace?” In another “Off the Path” story about a young woman contemplating suicide—by hanging, of all things—I even wrote, “Hopefully she’d have a clean neck break if she jumped high enough. Prolonged strangulation wouldn’t be fun otherwise.”
That’s messed up, considering my current contemplative circumstances, right? But as Oscar Wilde wrote, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”
I’m always asked, not only of my writing, but of all the stories in the “Off the Path,” “Why are the stories so dark?” You would have to ask the individual authors why they wrote what they did. Although I’ve personally heard their reasoning and could report on where their stories stem from, it would take awhile, so I’ll mostly focus on my personal motives.
I see writing as an addictive exercise that has long carried me through emotionally tough times via artistic expression. Also, I’ve always had fun doing it while garnering a sense of satisfaction from knowing I’d created something unique in this world and left it with something new. Ever since I was a child and read books with fascination, I knew when I grew up I’d someday make books, too.
And because of the recent controversy over Alexie’s “Absolutely True Diary,” he actually opened the doors wider for us Native writers, in that an average reading audience would be more receptive to reading “Off the Path” now.
However, a few people have been shocked by our realistic portrayals of fictional locals as told by Montanans who lived and grew up around here and based their writing on the old adage of writing what they know. I actually overheard one tribal college teacher saying he couldn’t support the book because it depicted Natives in such a depressing light. A few others have uttered similar sentiments, wishing we’d focus our talents on celebrating the goodness of our Native communities rather than perpetuating the negativity.
A legitimate critique is fine, and to each his own, since a lot of R-rated content in “Off the Path” really isn’t for the faint of hear. Certain Natives and even well-meaning people opposed to our literary portrayals may feel they’re simply trying to protect tribal peoples from what they see as more discouragement.
Some Natives may say, after reading certain parts of “Off the Path,” “Oh, wow, that’s exactly how it happens!” But others, in reaction to passages that deal with but fail to condemn violence, alcohol and drug use involving Natives, might say, “Why are you writing to make us all look so bad?!”
But go figure. No one is going to tell white authors who write about death, suicide or alcoholism, or the inner turmoil that results from such realistic experiences, that they’re “making their people look bad,” or claim they’re reinforcing stereotypes against them. However, that’s something Native authors have to be aware of because when one is in a tribe, one is representing that tribe. It’s a lot more tight-knit lineally, and everyone knows everyone else, at least at one remove.
On top of that, all Natives realize they’re generally viewed as a singular conglomerate, and continual condescension is something we’ve dealt with since the first Europeans came into contact with us.
There’s enough negative press as is, so why pile it on from our own people? And to an extent, one can understand that point of view, if one dismisses the merits behind the themes. But as Blackfeet writer and “Off the Path” contributor Sterling HolyWhiteMountain always says, “Art isn’t here to meet your latest social demands.”
You cannot create your own writing voice by continually drowning it out with the voices of what others may or may not think.
Although we’re a different generation of writers from people like Alexie, Louise Erdrich and James Welch—who is also quoted respectfully in the preface to “Off the Path”—we simply wanted to create literature as we saw fit from our modern Montana Plains Indian point of view.
At one time or another, all of us “Off the Path” writers have had instances where people came up to us to thank us profusely for writing what we did, because we fearlessly and genuinely spoke right at their hearts from our own.
When I wrote about a real-life murdered brother who bled to death on a cold and lonely Indian reservation prairie after he was shot, and then described the screaming, anguished cries of a bereaved mother while the noises still echoed in my head, it might technically have been fiction, but others definitely know it’s real because some of them have been there too.
They might come up to me teary-eyed after a reading to shake my hand or even hug me and say, “Thank you for not holding back, because now I know I’m not alone.” That’s exactly how they felt when their close friend or relative died as the whole world moved on and seemingly didn’t care or understand.
The story understood, however, and that’s why I wrote it.
Adrian L. Jawort is a freelance journalist and fiction writer who grew up in Lockwood. A Northern Cheyenne, he’s lived on various Indian reservations and is the founder of Off the Pass Press LLC, which “aims to find true beauty in literature off the beaten path.” He curated “Off the Path Vol. 1,” an anthology featuring Montana American Indian writers. “Off the Path Vol. 2,” featuring up-and-coming indigenous writers from across the United States and reaching out to New Zealand, will be released in December 2014, as will his debut novel, “Moonrise Falling.”