by Billy J. Stratton
The stories, poems, oratory, art and images contained within this special collaborative project between FIVES: A Companion to Denver Quarterly and Westerly, based out of the University of Western Australia, is representative of the rich diversity of native and indigenous cultural experience and their unique conceptions of storytelling and world-building. Evocative of the efficacy of language and the power of words, in this context the ubiquitous literary phrase of ‘world-building’ takes on a deeper, renewed resonance. It’s an idea that powerfully reflects on the dynamic capacity of diverse native and indigenous storytelling practices, to not only offer new ways of understanding the past and present, but also to alter and remake, in affirmative and constructive ways, the very trajectory of the world and the future. A future that we would do well to remind ourselves in which we all share responsibility for in the infinitely complex interconnections that bind us together and have an ability to influence and shape. In this spirit of interconnectedness, the words, images and art collected here emphasize the urgency of our overarching themes in which the legacies of colonialism intersect, and often collide, with native/indigenous conceptions of the land and its bearing on native and indigenous futurity.
William Walks Along’s stirringly profound words delivered at the Sand Creek National Historic site provides an especially compelling and powerful perspective on the meaning of a present and future that are in many ways inextricably tied to the colonial knowledge, violence, oppression and genocide that continues to haunt the past. Walks Along returns to that traumatic past through the invocation of personal and collective memories and stories. Yet, the reflections that arise do not become mired in the inertia of victimry and tragedy. Instead they speak to Cheyenne cultural survivance through his continued presence and connection to a land sanctified by brutality and violence–a land remade and always in the flux of remaking through the energy of the memories, stories and prayers of Cheyenne people. The vivid scenes conjured into being by Arapaho artist Brent Learned similarly speak to much of this shared history through images, color, shape and form in paintings that reveal, at once, the trauma of Sand Creek in all its horror and enduring effects, while celebrating contemporary Arapaho life in a way that eschews any sense of defeat or nihility. Such perspectives represent in deeply affective ways a celebration of Cheyenne and Arapaho life that doesn’t merely endure in the wake of the colonial wastelands of violence and erasure but in ways of life and connectedness to the world that continue to thrive and grow.
The fictions contributed by Gerald Vizenor and Theodore Van Alst Jr., speak to the imaginative potentials of native storiers to uncover hidden or alternative pasts, and divergent presences to make new possibilities known through the trickster tease of irony, chaos and humor. In Vizenor’s “Fugitive Puppets,” we are treated to chapter from his current novel-in-progress, Theatre of Chance–the latest volume following the rambunctious adventures of the irreverent puppeteer, Dummy Trout, along with a cast of other fictional and historical characters, across Europe and North America starting in the opening decades of the 20th century–in a hilarious and deeply serious skewering of the manifest manners of colonial society and the devastating effects of two world wars. In Van Alst’s own native take on the classic monster story, we encounter, Hector and Blair, two young and bumbling “shithead halfbreeds” who range through the traditional Cherokee territory of the Smokey Mountain region of East Tennessee in pursuit of a mysterious Werebender creature, a “half-human, half-salamander abomination.” In the circuitous hunt that takes center stage in the story, Van Alst utilizes the speculative possibilities of an indigenized monster theory as an effective means to lambast and tease at popular conceptions of romanticized, essentialized and colonized configurations of native culture, history and native-ness. All in a riveting and highly entertaining narrative that underscores the paucity of figurations of binary thought and simple modes of identification.
Luci Tapahonso, Kimberly Blaeser, Diane Glancy and Samia Goudie round out this wonderous FIVES selection with a series of keenly affective and original poetic and imagistic interventions that serve in their own unique ways to orientate readers to the multiplicity of territories, lives and experiences that are shaped through native and indigenous memory, image and song. These include Luci Tapahonso’s heartfelt reflections on the materiality of Diné life in the high desert of the four corner region and Kimberly Blaeser’s meditations on the melding of Anishinaabe womanhood and the life-giving force of the earth. From here we encounter Diane Glancy’s generous, gentle and exuberant insights on spirituality and popular culture, along with the sublime descriptions offered by Samia Goudie on the cultural significance of surfing and the connection to the ocean it consecrates for Indigenous Australian people. Despite the distinctions of voice, perspective and experience that emerge in these works, however, we are presented with conceptions of native and indigenous cultural life, subjectivity and traditions that, while anchored in the past, have nonetheless continued to adapt, change and evolve in and with the pace of the modern world. Arresting poetic expressions all that in their effervescent recording and celebration of the insights and possibilities inherent to the intimate connections native and indigenous women maintain and nurture with the land and water that make up our world–those life-giving forces on which all that lives relies–celebrate a sense of responsibility and interconnectedness that has much to teach us about how we might better treat the world and each other.
Paired with the powerful expressions of Indigenous Australian storytelling assembled for Westerly, the combined works speak in unison to vital points of spiritual and philosophic correspondence, while at the same time highlighting cultural and geographic distinctions that eschew facile categorizations and reductionist thinking. For each writer, poet, storyteller, artist and orator included in this collaborative project, labor within complex sets of relationships and connections that both define and remake their unique places in the web of existence, while being generative of fresh permutations and visionary insights that can carry us all more tenderly and safely into the future rapt in the twirling, swirling and circling systems of time, space and the mysteries of being.
Billy J. Stratton holds a PhD in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona—one of the first 30 people worldwide to earn a doctorate degree in the field. Dr. Stratton teaches contemporary Native American/American literature, film and critical theory in the Department of English and Literary Arts at the University of Denver. His writings have appeared in numerous books, journals, and news outlets. Recent critical and historical analysis has been published by Oxford University Press, Routledge and Wiley, as well as The Hill, TIME, US News and World Report, Indian Country Today, Salon, Arizona Quarterly, Rhizomes, Wíčazo Ša Review, American Indian Culture and Research Journal and Transmotion, with creative works in River and South Review, Big Muddy and Cream City Review among others. He is the author of Buried in Shades of Night: Contested Voices, Indian Captivity, and the Legacy of King Philip’s War and contributing editor of The Fictions of Stephen Graham Jones: a Critical Companion, while just recently starting his latest book on the theme of captivity, warfare and horror. For the last decade at DU he has worked tirelessly to promote greater understanding of the Sand Creek massacre and John Evans’ role in that genocidal act. Over this time he has had the distinct honor of working as a trusted partner and consultant to Cheyenne and Arapaho Sand Creek descendent representatives and since the release of the John Evans report, in which he was a primary researcher and author, he has been instrumental in efforts relating to the development of numerous Native American initiatives, program development and recruitment and student support efforts.