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Urban Indian literature: if you don’t know what it is, you’re missing out. If you do, here’s some information for you (and some recommendations, too).
What is that?
Simply, Urban Indian Literature is the literature of Native American writers set in an urban setting. In other words, it is the literature of Native American writers who is not fixed on a reservation.
Important note, the label “urban Indian literature” is a critical term that originated in Native American literary studies. However, the word “Indian” alone as a descriptor of North American Indians is steeped in violent and racist histories. So, despite being a critical term used to describe a large body of literature, the word “Indian” is still one that, generally speaking, should really only be used by indigenous peoples.
Why does it exist?
This may seem like an odd distinction to make. For example, there isn’t really a corresponding body of literature called “urban Asian American literature” or “urban black literature”. So why does this distinction exist when it comes to Native American literature?
As many Native writers and scholars have discussed, there is a pervasive idea of what Native Americans look like in the national imagination. It’s a frozen-in-time image that usually involves buckskins and feathers and some sort of weapon (men) or sexual availability (women). Several years ago, Indigenous sketch comedy group The 1491s used satire to critique this insidious image (and the resulting issue of cultural appropriation) in their comedy music video “I’m an Indian, Too.”
Philip J. Deloria’s Playing Indian is an important book that delves into the (mis)historical uses of stereotypical images of Native Americans. Deloria examines how white Americans used their own concept of Native Americans in the further development of American national identity. He touches on everything from the Boston Tea Party to the Cold War, examining how white American national identity was constructed through and against his own perception of Native American identity.
With a greater focus on contemporary life, in The Truth About Stories, Thomas King shares his personal experiences trying to fit the slightly more updated version of the stereotype (involving braided hair and bone necklaces ). It was a painful learning experience for him, and one that forced him to negotiate his own identity as a Cherokee and Greek man.
Similarly, in Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong, associate curator at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., Paul Chaat Smith tackles the flatness of popular images of American Indians in art and film. . In the process, he also shares some of the impactful work of contemporary Native American artists.
Why should I read it?
The simple answer to this question is that there are many excellent works being written that fall into the broad category of “Urban Indian Literature”. But, of course, there is also a more complicated answer to this question.
Laura Furlan’s scholarly monograph, Indigenous Cities: Urban Indian Fictions and the Histories of Relocation, advances the perspective that representations of Native Americans and urban experience are central to understanding Indigenous peoples in the United States today. She highlights the problems of the reservation as a dominant space in defining Native Americans in literature (and beyond), especially since the majority of Indigenous peoples in the United States do not live on reservations. It also traces the history of major metropolitan spaces in the United States, reminding readers that these spaces are both located on historically Indigenous lands and also grew out of existing centers of Indigenous commerce and culture.
With these ideas in mind, urban Indian literature is an important body of work that updates images of indigenous peoples in the popular imagination while redefining urban experiences in terms of resistance.
Some “urban Indian literature” to start
The Sentence of Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich is prolific. Where to start? Well, might as well start with its latest version, The phrase. It takes place in Minneapolis – at an independent bookstore, of all places! The store is haunted by its most annoying customer, Flora. It takes place over a year as Tookie, a bookseller recently released after years of incarceration, tries to figure out the cause of Flora’s haunting. Like all of Erdrich’s work, it’s a beautifully written novel that raises some interesting questions.
Over There by Tommy Orange
Hailed as one of the few books reporting a “new” Native American literary revival (building on ideas of a Native American revival in the 1970s and 1980s), there there is a fast-paced novel set in what is now Oakland, California. It follows a slew of characters in the days leading up to the Big Oakland Powwow. They run the gamut in terms of age and how they engage with their own indigeneity. The intro alone is something of a statement about urban indigenity, and the rest of the book is a gripping story that will leave you thinking deeply about what you’ve just read.
The Removed by Brandon Hobson
This is an interesting book to reflect on urban Indian literature as it is set in both urban and rural spaces. The Echota family was shattered when 15-year-old Ray-Ray was shot and killed by police. They gathered as a family every year for a bonfire that celebrates Cherokee National Day and marks the killing of Ray-Ray. The novel follows each member of the family in the weeks leading up to this important annual event as each of them teeters over their own precipice – of memory loss, drug abuse or damaging relationships. It is a dark and thoughtful exploration of contemporary indigenity.
Suggested further reading
If you want more Native American literature that breaks away from tired tropes, check out this article on “Contemporary Native Literature: Looking Beyond the ‘Indian du Jour’.” Another way to look beyond the ordinary might be to read some of the suggestions on the “9 of the Best Alaskan and Hawaiian Native Books” list. Whatever you decide to read, consider supporting Indigenous booksellers. You can support a local business if there’s one near you, or order from one of the businesses featured in the Indigenous-Owned Bookstores You Must Visit post.